Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
I: From the Idice to the Reno River
I: From the Idice to the Reno River
THE last stage of the campaign in Italy might have taken a different course if General von Vietinghoff had had his way— yet nothing he could have done would have averted the defeat of Army Group C. In his appreciation to the German High Command as early as 14 April he showed that he was fully alive to the situation, but the answer he received to his request for permission to withdraw was typical of Hitler's uncompromising attitude and total disregard for the facts of the situation. Hitler replied on the 17th through Colonel General Jodl, Chief of the Operational Staff:
‘All commanders of troops and staff officers will be instructed in the following Fuehrer orders: All further proposals for a change in the present war strategy will be discontinued. I wish to point out particularly that under no circumstances must troops or commanders be allowed to waver or to adopt a defeatist attitude as a result of such ideas apparently held in your headquarters. Where any such danger is likely, the sharpest counter-measures must be employed. The Fuehrer expects now as before the utmost steadfastness in the fulfilment of your present mission, to defend every inch of the north Italian areas entrusted to your command. I desire to point out the serious consequences for all those higher commanders, unit commanders or staff officers who do not carry out the Fuehrer's orders to the last word.page 492
On 20 April, when it was too late, Vietinghoff sent a message which revealed his intention to act on his own initiative:
Resolved by my unshakeable will to hold the Italian front under all circumstances and to carry out your orders to the last, I report to you, my Fuehrer, that as a result of heavy battle losses our forces in the Italian theatre are strained to such an extent that, if we persist in our policy of static defence, an enemy breakthrough at Lake Comacchio, Bologna and La Spezia can in all probability not be prevented despite the heroic resistance and determination of our officers and men. All available forces have been concentrated in the focal point of the battle, and other sectors of the front, not under direct heavy attack, have consequently been denuded to provide reinforcements. Mobile reserves are no longer available. Thus, the enemy threatens to achieve his object, i.e., to split and subsequently to crush the German front. In a mobile strategy, however, I will still see a possibility of preventing this threat from being carried out and of continuing our resistance with a chance of success. Difficult as it is for me, I consider it my duty, my Fuehrer, to send you this report at this hour and to await your orders….’1
By committing his last reserves against the right wing of Eighth Army, Vietinghoff had denuded the centre, where Fourteenth Army could not muster sufficient forces to prevent Fifth Army breaking through 14 Panzer Corps and fanning out into the Po valley; and Tenth Army's efforts to conduct an orderly withdrawal with 1 Parachute Corps were nullified by the collapse of 14 Corps on one flank coinciding with the failure of 76 Panzer Corps to close the Argenta Gap on the other.
1 Ibid., p. 34. This message, although not confirmed by documents, was repeated to Allied authorities after the campaign by a high ranking German staff officer who memorised its contents.
General Keightley decided that 8 Indian Division should take over the drive on Ferrara and thus release 6 Armoured Division to throw its full weight westwards. This decision was amply rewarded. By the evening of 22 April two brigades of the Indian division were in the outskirts of Ferrara, and next morning one of them reached the River Po at Pontelagoscuro. A column from 6 Armoured Division arrived at Bondeno on the evening of the 22nd and also reached the Po next day; another armoured group, continuing westward, made contact with 6 South African Armoured Division, of Fifth Army, on 23 April.
These ‘lightning advances’ by 6 Armoured Division ‘drove deep into the enemy lines of communication, cutting off the escape of his fighting troops, taking base troops by surprise, and throwing the German forces into a high state of confusion.’1 The threat of encirclement compelled the remnants of 1 Parachute Corps to retire hurriedly to the north-west; many parachutists were captured, but a number escaped and were next heard of on the Adige River, north of the Po. German resistance on Eighth Army's front west of Ferrara was at an end by midday on 23 April, and east of the town 76 Panzer Corps was making its final desperate stand south of the Po.
Ferrara fell to Eighth Army, Modena (on Route 9 north-west of Bologna) and Spezia (on the west coast) to the Fifth. After an advance of 75 miles in eight and a half days, 10 United States Mountain Division crossed the Po in rubber assault boats just north of San Benedetto at midday on the 23rd and secured the first Allied bridgehead.
General Freyberg told an orders group conference in the morning of 21 April that 5 and 6 Brigades were to continue the advance to the north-west. Led by the armoured cars of 12 Lancers, the Division was going to ‘do a movement like we used to do in the desert except that it will be done on two roads.’2 Two brigade groups were to progress by bounds, with Divisional Headquarters close behind them, followed by the gun group. Communication would have to be by wireless because it would be impossible to keep in touch by line except during the halt at night.
2 GOC's papers.
It soon became apparent that the German rearguards had not dropped back very far from the Idice. Probing forward on the ‘red’ route on the right, C Squadron of the Lancers could not go much farther than a mile and a half from the river without coming under fire from self-propelled guns and nebelwerfers in the vicinity of Cazzano, a small village from which roads radiated and which appeared to be the hinge of a line the enemy was holding along the Scolo la Zena. On the left, however, D Squadron was able to go twice as far along the ‘blue’ route before meeting opposition on this line, about three miles from the Idice.
After A and B Squadrons of 18 Regiment had ‘married up’ with 23 and 28 Battalions between the Idice and the Scolo Fiumicello, 5 Brigade resumed the advance in mid-morning. ‘At first it looked like being another country jaunt. Part of the time the infantry rode on the tanks, at other times the tanks were out in front. There was even a bridge or two left intact over some of the canals. For a mile there was only the odd German or two waiting to be picked up, plus a few Italians raising a thin cheer.
‘Then a sudden fight flared up at Cazzano…. Here Jerry had planted a little rearguard—as it turned out later, one Tiger tank, one Panther and one self-propelled gun…. Nos. 7 and 8 Troops [of B Squadron with the Maori Battalion on the right flank] ran head-on into this ambush, carefully camouflaged in the farms round Cazzano. Suddenly the joyride turned to tragedy.’1 Four Sherman tanks were knocked out, one of them in flames. British self-propelled guns2 and the mediums ‘smothered the farm buildings with shellbursts, while a “shufti” [air observation post] plane hovering overhead reported targets back to the guns….
‘B Squadron, straight out in front of the enemy in the open, could not do much after losing so many tanks, particularly as its right flank was wide open and more trouble could have come from there at any time. A little later it lost a fifth Sherman when our own artillery landed a “stonk” on top of it—the kind of accident that always resulted in much bitterness.’3 A Squadron also lost a tank to the German self-propelled gun, but being farther to the left had more freedom of movement. A 17-pounder tank hit and set fire to the self-propelled gun, which was hidden in a hedge with a tree attached to its turret.
3 18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, p. 631.
4 Ibid., p. 632
After nightfall, however, 5 Brigade advanced without opposition. While 21 Battalion took up defensive positions on the right, 23 and 28 Battalions crossed the Scolo la Zena about midnight, and saw many signs of the enemy having left in a hurry. At least two bridges were still intact.
The Division had captured 150-odd prisoners during the day, which brought its total since the start of the offensive to nearly 3000. The German force which had been encountered on the Idice River had withdrawn in approximately the same order as it had adopted there: the prisoners had been taken from 4 Parachute Division on the right, 305 Infantry Division in the centre, and 1 Parachute Division on the left.
Next day, 22 April, the Division turned to the north. Still in the lead, the armoured cars of 12 Lancers reported on the state of the bridges, demolitions, and the enemy whenever he was encountered. They entered Castel Maggiore, about four miles north of Bologna, made contact with 91 United States Division of Fifth Army near the Reno River, and cleared pockets of resistance in the vicinity of Minerbio (near Route 64, the Bologna-Ferrara highway).
The 23rd Battalion also crossed the Savena and Canale Navile, and rested south of a lateral road which linked Bentivoglio with San Giorgio di Piano, farther west. Both 28 and 23 Battalions resumed the northward advance in the late afternoon. The GOC directed 5 Brigade to get across the Reno River if possible. By this time 6 British Armoured Division had gone so far westward along the north bank of the river that a crossing on the New Zealand Division's present axis of advance would lead into territory already captured by Eighth Army. On the Division's left the South Africans of Fifth Army had entered Cento, just across the river.
Although the air observation post advised that there was no sign of the enemy for the next four miles, Lieutenant-Colonel Awatere insisted that 28 Battalion advance on foot and search every building on the way. About 20 enemy fled from a house before the Maoris could close with them. Elsewhere a Wasp flame-thrower assisted the partisans who were fighting ‘a pitched battle’2 with some Germans. By midnight 28 Battalion had reached the Fosso Riolo, about seven miles beyond Bentivoglio and only one mile from the Reno.
After their long march the Maoris ‘were wet to the skin through wading so many canals, and because of the mud in their socks were wearing their boots slung over their shoulders. The danger of meeting any opposition now appeared remote and the men were told to climb aboard tanks, portées, and other unit vehicles. This strange mixture of vehicles, with the tanks leading, swept down to the Reno, where the forward companies dug in on the side of the river. Awatere was anxious to throw a company over so he waded across and examined the empty trenches. Then he yelled in Maori, “There's no one here. Come over B Company.”’3 B Company crossed, and later was joined by the other companies. Fifth Brigade instructed 28 Battalion, to stand fast until further orders.
2 Ibid., p. 475.
4 23 Battalion, p. 461.
Before dawn on 23 April 5 Brigade was holding a bridgehead over the Reno a little more than a mile wide and nearly a mile deep, with the four companies of 28 Battalion astride the railway between the river and the village of Poggio Renatico, two companies of 23 Battalion on the left of the Maoris, and the other two companies of the 23rd still on the southern bank. Both battalions were fired on by mistake by troops of 6 British Armoured Division, and a man in B Company of the 28th was killed by a patrol from this division. Still in reserve, 21 Battalion was two or three miles south of the river.
1 Quoted in 23 Battalion, p. 462.
3 24 Battalion, pp. 330–1.
Sixth Brigade was held up in the afternoon two miles north of San Giorgio, where A and B Companies of 24 Battalion and A Squadron of 20 Regiment were halted by mortar and machine-gun fire. C Company of 26 Battalion and tanks of C Squadron, which followed 24 Battalion, encountered a strong rearguard on the left flank, where a spirited attempt by a platoon failed to drive the enemy from his well prepared positions. Brigadier Parkinson ordered 26 Battalion to brush the opposition aside and continue the advance, but agreed to a postponement when Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother advised him that the enemy was firmly in position and there was no sign yet of 9 Brigade, which was reported to be coming up on 6 Brigade's left.
The 26th Battalion was deployed in positions covering the left flank, and 25 Battalion, when it reached San Giorgio,2 was similarly placed. After nightfall D Company of 24 Battalion went to within about a mile of San Pietro in Casale without opposition, and B Company of the 25th sent a patrol to the Scolo Riolo north-west of San Giorgio without making contact.
Next day (the 23rd) 6 Brigade resumed the advance. The 24th Battalion paused south of San Pietro while the 26th passed through to take the lead, and then followed to Sant' Alberto. With A and B Companies riding on the tanks and C and D following in trucks, 26 Battalion advanced six miles without a check to reach the Scolo Riolo in mid-morning. After a reconnaissance the leading companies waded across the Reno River, which was only about a foot deep in that part, and deployed about a quarter of a mile beyond the north bank. Contact was made with troops of 6 British Armoured Division. Still protecting the left flank, 25 Battalion3 took up positions between Sant' Alberto and the river.
In the evening B Squadron encountered the enemy at the Fosso Quadra, a watercourse about two miles north-west of San Giorgio di Piano, and suffered a few casualties from mortar and small-arms fire. That night, also, enemy aircraft (perhaps only one) strafed a mess queue in 22 Battalion, apparently with no worse effect than to induce ‘four or five hundred men [to try] simultaneously to dive under trucks or into shelter of any kind…. and whole containers of food were upset amid shouts of “Put out those lights! You fools!” It was all over within a minute, and a badly shaken battalion queued up again for what was left of the food.’1 Divisional Cavalry Battalion was less fortunate: several casualties were caused by butterfly bombs dropped by this or another aircraft.
Ninth Brigade's sector was very quiet after midnight. The advance was resumed at dawn on 23 April and, meeting little or no opposition, the leading tanks and Kangaroos reached the Fosso Riolo, in the bend of the Reno, about midday.
1 22 Battalion, p. 432.