11 Brigade had borne the main weight of the fighting north of the Reno and had done well: the infantry were tired. 38 Brigade, with its two battalions had been committed, had fought on, had gained a further thousand yards and was also tired. This was no time to try levering the gap open with chisels, which were already blunted with the contact; new sharp instruments were required and two were at hand.
By the arrival of the Commando Brigade, 36 Brigade had been freed of all its commitments south of the Reno and was ready to fight again as soon as it was needed. 2 Armoured Brigade’s ‘Kangaroo’ force, too, was ready to take the field again.
The Divisional Commander decided on series of rapid punches, each to follow the other in quick succession, from the right of the town, by passing the enemy, who were still holding on near San Antonio.
At 0215 hours, 6 RWK passed through the lines of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and struck straight across country for the village of Boccaleone, lying on the main road through the gap and some three thousand yards past Argenta. No sooner were the infantry through the Irish Brigade’s lines than a confusion of fighting began. It was difficult in the dark to know exactly where the rest of the Irishmen were and even more difficult to keep direction, whilst moving across the cultivated country, everywhere intersected with ditches, fences, wire and minefields. Some enemy tanks were about and, further south, the Northamptons were being counter attacked in the town.
After one and a half hours had passed and, with the fog of war particularly dense that morning, the Argylls launched out in the wake of 6 RWK and set their course for Consandolo, the next village beyond Boccaleone. This was the second thrust of the round.
If our picture was somewhat obscure at that time, one can only imagine what the enemy’s maps must have shown. At dusk on the 17th, he had been holding the whole of Route 16 down to the outskirts of Argenta and, around the town, his line had curved north west towards the railway. The situation had looked sticky for him, but not stuck. Now, at four o’clock in the morning, when he was concentrating on a counter attack to regain the town and keep control of the main road, he suddenly found two spearheads in his side, driving in from the east and directed on his main road in the back areas. There must have been discomfort in the caravans of the 29 Panzer Grenadier Division’s Headquarters at that drab hour in the morning.
Above all this confusion, the sun began to rise on the 18th morning and dawn revealed remarkable achievements. 6 RWK were entering Boccaleone from the east. 8 A&SH were well on their way to Consandolo, a mile or more beyond and the enemy was in confusion; 40 or so prisoners had been brought in and many more were on their way.
Not all the enemy was fleeing, however. In addition to isolated men in scattered houses, who decided to fight it out, there was a solid pocket of enemy still firmly ensconced in San Antonio. With the river to the west of them, and their enemies on the other three sides, their chances looked dim but they fought on.
In order to clear this blockage from Route 16, which was to be the main line of communication for the whole Corps later on, 56 Recce Regiment was placed under command 36 Brigade and ordered to pass through Argenta and clear from San Antonio, which was now on the brigade’s left flank. Unfortunately, the move proved hopeless and the regiment was unable to make any progress astride the road by reason of demolitions and impossible going for vehicles.
By half past nine in the morning, 6 RWK had done much mopping up in and around Boccaleone, having taken 38 more prisoners and a self propelled gun complete. The Argylls, however, were running into rougher water; having initially turned in towards Route 16 too early, thus nearly clashing with their neighbours, they had been redirected northwards and soon met the fiercest resistance they had so far encountered in the offensive. Four of their supporting tanks were knocked out in quick succession. The enemy infantry were daring to come to close quarters and bayonets were used. The whole battalion area was subjected to heavy fire from artillery and mortars. Due to the closeness of the fighting, it was impossible for our own guns to bring any weight of fire to bear on the enemy without danger to our own troops.
36 Brigade was not, however, alone in its own offensive that morning. Following in the wake of the Argylls, the ‘Kangaroo’ Force of 2 Armoured Brigade had set out at dawn. By 1000 hours, this fantastic private army was out in the open engaging enemy tanks and SP guns beyond the Irish Fusiliers and on the right of the Argylls.
By 1100 hours, the whole front was ablaze with activity. The Armoured Brigade, aiming at the twin canals Fossa di Porto and Scolo Bologonese, was forcing its way out into the open with the railway on the right and an unprotected flank on the left. Further west, the Argylls were held up just short of Cosandolo by determined enemy in strong points and, to the left again, was an open flank down Route 16, until 6 RWK were met in Boccaleone, mopping up some difficult enemy pockets. Further south, the RAF, at the request of 36 Brigade, was attacking San Antonio and, shortly afterwards, 56 Recce Regiment made a little progress up Route 16 towards this troublesome block.
Soon after midday, the Argylls, still stuck short of Consandolo, called for assistance from the air and this was laid on in a big way. Most of the village was razed to the ground and, beneath the piles of dust and rubbish, many bodies of Germans soldiers and Italian citizens were buried. Still, however, Consandolo held out; the Brigade Commander ordered a halt ad a planned assault. A quick barrage was laid down and carried the infantry in astride the road; at 1600 hours, Consandolo was almost ours.
As evening came, it was possible to sum up the day’s achievements. Boccaleone and the ruined Consandolo were in our hands, although there was still some clearing up to be done. These two small villages on Route 16, well up the neck of the gap, were prizes well worth having and formed the substance of the day’s achievement; the capture of Consandolo had, particular, been a fine performance. To the right, the ground had been invested up as far as the Fossa Benvignante and, on the left, all the area of Argenta had been cleared except for the San Antonio pocket.
The evening’s work, then, fell into two parts: first, the exploitation of the advance beyond the Benvignante canal; second, the clearance of the pocket, which still remained on Route 16.
At about 1530 hours, 2 Armoured Brigade had reported finding the railway bridge over the Benvignante canal and due north of Consandolo intact, but very heavy anti tank fire had been met in the area from self propelled guns of all calibres and little real progress had been made for two hours. As darkness drew near, however, a break out was achieved past enemy guns firing over open sights and through a maze of canals and ditches. By the light of numerous burning houses and, with a sense of complete victory, the Lancers and the London Irish fanned out to cover Coltra and Palazzo, taking intact three bridges over the next canal. Te enemy, having hung on in an attempt to stop the rot was now in a state of utter confusion; an officers’ mess, a battery of 88 mm guns, numbers of individual pieces of all calibres and over 200 prisoners, were taken that evening by the ‘Kangaroo’ Army.
During this day, remarkable captures of prisoners were made by the Divisional Artillery. The reconnaissance parties of 17 Field Regiment arrived in an area very well forward, some 1,500 yards to the north east of Consandolo during the night and, at dawn, had to clear the area of some 70 Germans; 132 Field Regiment going into action a little further east a couple of hours later took 5 officers and 53 other ranks prisoners; all these turned out to be from the artillery of the 42nd Jager Division; an unusual form of counter battery achievement.
On the left, the time had come for final clearance of the enemy from Route 16. It was imperative that this road should be cleared for the following day, so that the 6th Armoured Division could be passed right through our left flank, to strike directly at Ferrara.
The task of coordinating the clearance of the enemy from a pocket south of Boccaleone was given to the Irish Brigade and involved much detailed consideration. Almost everyone in the neighbourhood was involved – 5 Northamptons of 11 Brigade, 6 RWK from 36 Brigade, the Inniskillings, 56 Recce Regiment with 36 Brigade and 2 Commando Brigade on the far side of the river – a thorough hotch potch.
No matter how, an attack was planned and begun at midnight. The Commando Brigade went in from the south under a heavy barrage and was followed an hour and half later by 2 Innisks. In vicious fighting which lasted until dawn, the houses and floodbank were cleared and, by the arrival a little later of 6 RWK from the north, the operations were eventually completed. This was a vital step achieved and a surprisingly difficult one it had proved.
At the same time in 36 Brigade’s sector, another plot was afoot. 5 Buffs, having followed up behind the Argylls as far as Consandolo, were launched out just after dark and began a memorable night’s march to the north west. They met only slight resistance and, by dawn, had pressed on a distance of 8 miles to the village of Benvignante, away and beyond the leading elements of the armoured forces. This substantial advance, the longest on foot that was done by any battalion of the brigade in the entire operation, brought the division right out into the open and decisively through the gap.
In the space of approximately 60 hours, by operations involving every battalion and armoured regiment of the division, on ground of the enemy’s own choosing and, with the invaluable support of the air forces throughout, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, together with elements from four other enemy divisions (the 26th Panzer, the 42nd Jager, the 98th Infantry and the 362nd Infantry), had been driven from their positions and thrown back into the plain before the Po.
The 78th Division was out in the open and the 6th Armoured Division was about to strike out to the west; the Argenta Gap was broken and the enemy lay, straggled out along the southern bank of the Po, vulnerable at a hundred points.
From the London Irish Rifles.
“At first light on the 18th, the force moved forward into battle. This was an unforgettable move. Through the orchards north of Argenta, in the narrow gap between lake and canal, moved a mass of armour, all passing over one bridge that had been constructed over the main water obstacle. Wrecked vehicles, equipment and enemy dead strewed the route, whilst machine gun fire from a position in Argenta, already surrounded, cracked away on the left flank.
The usual difficulty was experienced in breaking through our own FDLs but, by 1000 hrs, we were in the open and the tanks were engaging SPs and Mk IVs. A ‘Kangaroo’ was hit by an AP shot and some trouble was experienced from Boccaleone and Consandolo on the left, neither of which had been captured but the weight of armour and mobile Infantry was beginning to make itself felt and the advance continued with prisoners streaming in.
At about 1700 hrs, the tanks, which had been trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle of finding a way across the maze of ditches, discovered an intact crossing of the Fossa Benvignante and very soon they and the infantry were over and investing the area which lay between this and the next obstacle.
As it was now late in the evening, this took the enemy completely by surprise and an Officers Mess, a battery of 15 cm guns, a battery of 88 mm guns and numerous smaller AA and A/Tk pieces together with approximately 200 prisoners were overrun. This, all in spite of the enemy’s attempts to hold us by close range firing over open sights. By the light of numerous burning houses and, with a sense of complete victory, the battalion moved to its final area for the night in the vicinity of Palazzo and Coltra, having already three intact bridges over the next canal in its hands.”
From 6 Innisks’ account.
“In the early afternoon, the CO decided to attack the floodbank and capture a house 400 yards forward of ‘D’ Company’s FDLs. This attack was to be done by ‘B’ Company.
At 1700 hrs, ‘B’ Company, supported by flamethrowers, attacked the flood bank west of Route 16. The Company carried its objective and it was then discovered that the bank was not the actual Reno floodbank but another artificial bank running parallel with Route 16, whilst the Reno floodbank swung west with the line of the river and was actually 300 yards west of this bank. The house, which was the Company’s final objective was attacked under cover of the smoke from the flamethrowers and taken at the cost to the enemy of 16 wounded. The flamethrowers were withdrawn and 12 Platoon were left to mop up the area. When the smoke cleared, it became obvious that the enemy were on the Reno floodbank in great strength and 12 Platoon found themselves being heavily attacked by 300 enemy and a Tiger Tank.
It later transpired that this force had formed up for a counter attack on Argenta. Overwhelming superiority in numbers plus the difficulty in obtaining adequate artillery support close behind the floodbank, forced this Platoon to withdraw to the bank nearest the road, where they were in a far better position to hit back at the enemy coming across the open ground between the two banks. 11 Platoon hastily went to their assistance, only to find themselves heavily engaged from their right by an enemy Company and two Tanks. 10 Platoon was sent to join the 12 Platoon on the bank, which was to be held at all costs.
The Battle, by this time, had become hectic and, as 12 Platoon reached the bank safely, a heavy artillery concentration was put down on the enemy force advancing across the open ground, inflicting many casualties. ‘B’ Company had now so many targets to engage that ammunition very soon ran short. 11 Platoon had inflicted so many casualties on their particular enemy force that the Tanks hoisted a Red Cross flag, picked up their casualties and the force withdrew. This left 10 and 12 Platoons resorting to firing off Verey lights and 2” Mortar smoke at the enemy trapped in the artillery barrage falling in front of them. Carriers with ammunition were rushed up and by 2000 hours the enemy had withdrawn.
Meanwhile, an attack by the Commando Brigade from the south west was being planned. Their attack was preceded by a heavy artillery barrage. At 2130 hrs, this barrage commenced. Two troops were firing out of line and their round fell on ‘D’ Company. Repeated requests to the artillery to correct this met with answer that there were far too many guns engaged to locate the offenders and the programme must continue. ‘D’ Company had to “grin and near it”. Fortunately, the casualties were slight. The great thing was, however, that the Commando attack was successful. At 2300 hours, an LO from this Brigade reported to the Battalion Headquarters that the west bank of the Reno was clear of enemy. The Argenta Gap was now fully opened and the armour could pass through.
The Battle of the Argenta Gap proved to be the turning point of the whole campaign. If the Inniskillings had failed to achieve all they did, it might have altered the whole course of the big operation of destroying the German Army south of the Po.”