At first light on the morning of the 17th, the Surreys were ordered to move one company to protect the left flank of the Lancashire Fusiliers bridgehead. After some determined resistance had been overcome this company succeeded in establishing itself in the north east outskirts of Argenta.
5 Northamptons, meanwhile, was holding a line on the edge of the town and acting as a pivot for the main weight of the division’s attack on the right.
The enemy’s position was beginning to look poor. He had failed to hold us on ground on his own choosing and he had every reason to believe that the main weight of the thrust was still to come. His forces consisted of elements of the battered 42nd Jaeger and 362nd Infantry Divisions, bolstered up at the last moment by the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, which had been rushed down from the north. The arrival of this formation was greeted by our own intelligence staff as a good omen. Evidently, the enemy was feeling the draught in a big way. Not only at Argenta, nor merely in the eastern sector of the front, were things beginning to crumble away but, in the whole Italian theatre, the entire floor of the German military machine, cracks were beginning to appear, which could not be plugged up. The 29th Panzer Grenadier Division was the last major field formation in the Army Group reserve.
At Argenta then, as had been expected, the enemy was going to make a desperate stand. The crust of his defence had been cracked by the Lancashire Fusiliers and now, on the morning of April 17th, no time was to be lost in pressing the advantage, which that crack had given us.
The subsequent operations were of the highest consequence.
Firstly, the Irish Brigade was passed through. With 1 RIrF leading and 2 Innisks following, they passed into the bridgehead of 11 Brigade shortly before dawn and pressed determinedly on throughout the day gaining, by nightfall, about 1,000 yards to the north and west respectively. In the area of Scolo Arenare, the Irish Fusiliers met exceptionally strong resistance and this was not finally cleared until later. Towards evening, 11 Brigade began to set about clearing the town of Argenta itself. For this purpose, 5 Northamptons were employed, with the assistance of ‘Crocodile’ flamethrowers of 51 Royal Tanks. The operation was successfully completed by 2030 hours, at which time it was reported that the town was clear.
From Brigadier Pat Scott’s Narrative:
The plan was for us to pass through the Lancashire Fusiliers, as soon as they had secured their bridgehead over the Fossa Marina. These obstacles were the largest canal that ran from Argenta in a north westerly direction across our front. It was the main obstacle in the area. The Faughs were to go first and advance in a north westerly direction; the Skins were to follow them and swing west.
Zero hour was to be first light on the 17th. Each battalion had its squadron of tanks and normal supporting arms. The whole move was designed to outflank the town of Argenta on the east and then cut Route 16 north of it. The plan, if successful, would seal off the town and open a way through the gap.
The Argenta Gap was no ordinary problem. It was flanked on the left by the river Reno and on the right by flooded low lying country and the Comacchio lake. The enemy was determined to prevent all attempts to break through this Gap of a little over 4,000 yards wide. Another gap in the floods about 1,000 yards wide existed further east by the Strada dell Pioppi and, in that area, 56th Division were smashing their way through against stubborn resistance.
The country, itself, was cut up by irrigation ditches and cultivation until it suddenly became very open beyond the Fossa Marina.
Most elaborate minefield had been laid to the south of the Fossa Marina. 11 Brigade had the ‘Flails’ to assist them in their advance up to the Fossa Marina. In the later stages, they tried to use them in the dark and the chains got hung up in trees. There was a great dearth of chains – why we should have run out of this rather obvious and inexpensive item of this rather expensive piece of equipment was difficult to understand. More were alleged to be on their way out from England by air.
The results at issue in this battle would be far reaching. If we were successful, all the enemy’s river defence lines up to the River Reno would be turned, his rear and left flanks would be exposed and the way to the Po would be open for us. It was not surprising, therefore, that a hard battle lay ahead; perhaps the most important battle of the campaign. The Germans were rushing their reserve 29th Panzer Grenadier Division down from the north to back up what was left of the now battered 42nd Jaeger Division and 362nd Infantry Division.
The original plan, which catered for the Lancashire Fusiliers crossing the Fossa Marina during the night in order to give us a flying start at first light, was found to be so difficult that they were unable to carry it out during that night. Our start, therefore, had to be delayed for several hours while the bridgehead was formed and an ‘Ark’ put into position. Our forming up was considerably complicated by the fact that it had to be done in the middle of a German minefield. Fortunately, we had a trace of these minefields and their markings of its boundaries were still mostly in position. The usual bridge trouble was very much in evidence ad so we were very slow in getting things across.
After the Faughs had got two companies across and had started off on their axis, I gave the Skins permission to start their crossing in order to get the attack going on a two battalion front. It was no place to hang about waiting for people. Even so, it was about midday before the leading companies of the Skins were across. Both battalions were very soon involved in hard fighting and were engaged by tanks, both large and medium and Self Propelled guns. The open nature of the country in place rather played into the enemy’s hands and it was unavoidable that we incurred a certain number of both tank and infantry casualties. By 3 o’clock, the Skins had reported forty two prisoners and one Tiger knocked out.
Our artillery was first class in all these contacts. The FOOs were excellent in their immediate response to stonks, which were called for. Throughout these battles, we were using the air photographs with the ‘Uncle’ targets marked on them, which had always proved so invaluable in the past.
By the evening, our advance did not represent much more than 1,000 yards all round, but we were beginning to achieve our object. The Skins were getting round beyond Argenta and were firmly established astride the railway and the Faughs were practically established up to the Scolo Cantonacci. In the afternoon, Brigade Headquarters moved up to Olmo, 2,000 yards east of Argenta. So far, we had captured twenty Officers and one hundred and forty Other Ranks. Our advance did not look much on the map but it was one of the toughest day’s fighting we had had and probably one of the most important. A gap had been opened to the right of Argenta and 36 Brigade passed through that gap during the night. Some of them had started to move up before it got dark and I remember David Shay calling us up on the blower and asking how anyone could expect him to fight his battle when all sorts of other people were swarming past between his Headquarters and his troops. I endeavoured to assure him that it was a “good thing”. He said no doubt it was but he would rather have his own battlefield to himself.
It was a “good thing” too. The Division was taking a big chance pushing its nose right out like that before the Argenta battle had settled. But more was to follow.
At dawn, the ‘Kangaroo Army’ passed through.
From 2 Innisks’ Account:
Zero hour was to be first light on 17 April. Each Battalion had its Squadron of Tanks (Queen’s Bays) and normal supporting arms. The whole move was designed to outflank the town of Argenta on the east and then cut Route 16 north of it. The plan, if successful, would seal off the town and open a way through the gap.
The CO issued his orders. The Battalion would advance on a two company front, C and D Companies forward. A Company following C, and B Company following D. Each Company had its own troop of tanks and the leading Companies each had an Artillery FOO.
Due to difficulty experienced by the Lancashire Fusiliers in crossing the Fossa Marine, our advance was postponed until 1200 hours at which time a firm bridgehead across the obstacle had been formed. Our 7 hours in the assembly area had been enlivened by a grandstand view of the MAAF bombing of the town of Argenta only 1,000 yards away on our left front.
Punctually, at 1200 hrs, C and D Companies moved forward.
D Company’s first objective was a group of houses on the right flank, which was being held by the enemy as strong points. These houses were taken by 17 Platoon without loss to themselves in spite of considerable MG fire and sniping from the left. Immediately after this, a very heavy mortar ‘stonk’ was put down by the enemy, which completely pinned the remainder of the Company to the ground. D Company’s own description of this is given below:
“The Platoon Commander led one section into a ditch, the section crowded and the Section Leader, sensing an approach of a slight panic, climbed out of the ditch with his Caubeen at a rakish angle., lit a cigarette, glared down at his men and, with supreme contempt in his voice, said, ‘You Bloody fool, for Jesus sake, learn how to behave.’ The shells did not seem to worry him at all, nor his men after that.”
In the advance to Route 16, north of San Antonio, a total bag of two Officers and 18 OR were taken prisoner. In some farm buildings just short of Route 16, the enemy had his main force, together with a Tiger Tank. Our guns gave excellent close support but, in spite of scoring several direct hits on the buildings, the Tiger continued to pump round after round into the Company position.
To return to D Company’s account:
“The two leading Sections were making great progress and had managed to get within about 100 yards of the house without being spotted. When they were, the enemy fired everything he had at them and the right hand section was completely pinned down and any movement attracted fire. A shell landed right amongst the left hand section wounding every one of them. A smoke screen was put down and the platoon was withdrawn, having suffered 1 killed a 15 wounded.”
From the left rear, the houses in Argenta continued to give trouble and the Company Commander decided to consolidate and set out a patrol to contact 5 Northamptons. The Company consolidated in the area of the railway line. The patrol found the Northamptons in Argenta but without Tanks and they reported enemy Tanks in the town.
C Company, meanwhile had continued their advance without very much incident. At 1445 hours, however, A Company, who were following C, were subjected to a very heavy concentration of shells from A/Tk and SP Guns.
A Company’s account of this states:
“Our leading tank was knocked out and, 5 minutes later, the No 2 Tank was set ablaze by A/Tk Gun fire. Things were looking very bad indeed but it never put us off the job we had to do. In simple words, it made us want to get to grips with the Boche himself. 7 Platoon was moved up the road leading to the level crossing. A Tiger Tank commenced firing AP Shells at the Platoon causing 25 casualties.
C Company was ordered to attack these Guns from the North West. They were eventually dealt with and the advance continued. C Company Commander reported that Route 16 was under observation by his leading troops but they would not get on to the floodbank immediately west of the road because of heavy enemy small arms fire. They had met considerable resistance from Tanks and SP guns and the close of the day’s fighting found two enemy tanks destroyed and two 15 cm SP guns abandoned.
During the night, patrols from both C and D Companies discovered the enemy were holding the floodbank in great strength, but it was considered by both Company Commanders that a full scale attack under a barrage would carry the objective.
All night long, a vigilant watch was kept by All Ranks: the enemy occupied the houses in Argenta to our left rear as well as being in strength to our immediate front.