Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
I: The Plan
I: The Plan
AT the end of March 1945 Fifteenth Army Group's front ran across the Italian peninsula from just south of Massa on the Ligurian coast to Valli di Comacchio on the Adriatic. On the left Fifth Army (Lieutenant-General Truscott) held a zigzagging line across the northern Apennines to Monte Grande, about 10 miles south-east of Bologna; on the right Eighth Army (Lieutenant- General McCreery) continued the line south-eastwards from Monte Grande over the Sillaro and Santerno rivers and north-eastwards along the southern banks of the Senio River to the southern shore of Lake Comacchio and the Adriatic coast. This was the line on which the Allied winter offensive had been brought to a halt by bad weather, lack of ammunition, exhaustion, and the need for regrouping.
There had been little change on Fifth Army's front since the conclusion of the offensive. The enemy's sudden attack down the Serchio River valley in December had been blocked and the line restored. In February and early March the newly arrived 10 US Mountain Division, together with 1 Brazilian Division, had captured several heights and advanced a few miles to improved positions on each side of Route 64 (the Bologna-Pistoia highway). Thirteenth Corps had passed from Fifth Army to Eighth Army on 18 January, which left 1 Brazilian Infantry Division, 6 South African Armoured Division and 8 Indian Infantry Division as the only non-American formations, other than the Italian Legnano Combat Group, in Fifth Army.
In both Fifth and Eighth Armies the divisions rested, reinforced and replenished. The reorganisation in Eighth Army included the page 392 expansion of the New Zealand Division already described, and of 56 (London) Division and the two Polish divisions each from two to three infantry brigades, and the provision of flame-throwing tanks (Crocodiles), amphibious carrier-tanks (Fantails), infantry-carrying tanks (Kangaroos), and other types of new equipment.
Planning for the spring offensive was well advanced when the decision was taken to withdraw to western Europe 1 Canadian Corps and two groups of the Twelfth US Air Force, as well as three British divisions (1, 5 and 46 Infantry Divisions) from Greece and the Middle East. Eighth Army's loss, however, was compensated by a reduction in German strength to meet the demands of other fronts and by the transfer of 8 Indian Division from Fifth Army.1
On Eighth Army's front it was calculated before the offensive began that the Allied infantry strength was 57,000 (of whom 10,500 were in the Italian and Jewish formations), and the enemy's was 29,600; the Allied forces had 1220 artillery pieces of all kinds and the enemy 665, and in armour (tanks, assault guns and self-propelled anti-tank guns) the enemy was outnumbered by 1327 to 400.
The enemy's position was weakened by his lack of air support, although he had strong anti-aircraft artillery, especially on the eastern flank. Aircraft of 22 Tactical Air Command of the Twelfth US Air Force and the Desert Air Force almost continuously attacked his transport and lines of communication, including railways, roads, bridges and supply dumps, as far north as the Brenner Pass and the north-eastern corridor through the Julian Alps. The bridges over the River Po had been destroyed in the autumn of 1944, and pontoons and alternative methods of crossing were attacked repeatedly. Consequently the enemy became so short of motor vehicles and fuel that he was obliged to rely increasingly on horse and ox-drawn transport and on farm carts and civilian cars. On the other hand the comparative inactivity of the winter months did not make heavy demands on his stocks of ammunition, food and clothing.
3 SS: Schutzstaffel, a Nazi political semi-military élite force.
‘The justifiable anger that was generated by these raids, especially when the situation was critical, and the fact that the perpetrators were not caught, led to reprisals by the German troops. But the guerrillas evaded these counter-measures, which unfortunately fell too often on innocent people, thus producing the opposite effect to that intended. Consequently the Germans were hated by more and more people….
‘The development of the situation had robbed the Fascist- Republican Government of its last support from the Italian people. The government-sponsored Blackshirt Brigades were probably more loathed by the population than were the German occupying troops or the Allied liberators, or the guerrillas of whatever political colour. The compulsory co-operation with the Blackshirts, far from easing the task of the German armed forces, made it more difficult, for it meant that the Germans were put in the same category with the most hated section of the population…’1
In Bologna, says von Senger, ‘there had been serious excesses by the German troops…. little realising that in the end they are piling up trouble for themselves.’ The partisans ‘were the underworld and the gangsters who ruled the town. Before I took over the sector, they had made an armed raid on the leading hotel, firing indiscriminately on the guests in the hall, most of whom were German officers or Italian Republican Party adherents. Our own security service came to the conclusion that it would not be possible to arrest any large number of partisans in the town, since they could always go underground again….
‘In the Bologna area the partisans became especially dangerous through their close contact with the increasing number of German deserters from the colours. These gave the partisans first-hand information on conditions in the Wehrmacht, which was useful to them since they were working as spies for the Allies. We knew about this through occasionally catching some of these spies. Nor could we trust our own spies, who seemed to be moving about much too freely on the enemy's side, and were probably taking money from both sides.’2
2 Ibid., pp. 285–6.
The operations were to be conducted in four phases. In the first Eighth Army was to force a crossing of the Senio River and advance to the Santerno River. In the second it was to cross the Santerno and advance to the Sillaro River, and at the same time launch an amphibious operation on the right flank directed on Argenta, while Fifth Army was to undertake some preliminary operations west of Route 64. In the third phase Eighth Army was to direct its main effort to the capture of Budrio (north-east of Bologna) and at the same time develop a strong secondary thrust towards Argenta (the importance of these two thrusts might be reversed), while Fifth Army was to open its main offensive west of Route 65 (the Florence-Bologna highway) with Bologna as its objective, and was to make a secondary attack through the high ground west of Route 64 (the Pistoia-Bologna-Ferrara highway) to the north-west. In the fourth phase the two armies were to establish the Po valley bridgehead around Bologna and including Ferrara and the River Panaro.
Thus an attack by Eighth Army was to be followed by one by Fifth Army, with the object of securing a large bridgehead in the Po valley as the first stage of an advance into north-eastern and north-western Italy.
When Fifteenth Army Group issued the directive for this plan on 24 January, Eighth Army comprised nine divisions, three Italian combat groups, two independent infantry brigades and six independent armoured brigades. Eighth Army's plan for its part in the offensive was to attack with two corps (six divisions) between Routes 9 and 16 and establish a bridgehead over the Santerno River. A third corps (three divisions) would then mount an amphibious and airborne attack against Argenta across the flooded areas; this thrust was to be supported by advances towards the north and west by the troops in the Santerno bridgehead. No drastic revision of this plan was necessary when General McCreery was told of the decision to withdraw to western Europe the Canadian Corps, the three British divisions from Greece and the Middle East, and 200 American fighter-bombers.
In the original Eighth Army plan the Canadians were to have been responsible for the attack on the northern flank, the amphibious operations across Lake Comacchio, the pursuit and the further page 396 semi-amphibious operation involved in crossing the Po, which would have left 5 Corps and the Polish Corps free to concentrate on the main attack farther inland. Headquarters 13 Corps was responsible for looking after the extended left flank south-east of Bologna, and Headquarters 10 Corps was still in Greece. With the departure of the Canadian Corps, therefore, 5 Corps became responsible for the right flank as well as the right of the main attack in the centre.
To bring the greatest possible weight to bear on the front of the assault General McCreery allotted the larger proportion of his forces to 5 Corps, which then comprised 56 and 78 British, 8 Indian, and 2 New Zealand Divisions, 2 and 9 Armoured Brigades (the latter including the Fantail force and sufficient Kangaroos to carry two infantry battalions), 21 Tank Brigade, 2 Parachute Brigade, 2 Commando Brigade, Cremona Combat Group, and the Jewish Brigade (later transferred to 10 Corps). Fifth Corps' tasks were to establish bridgeheads over the Senio and Santerno rivers, to be prepared to exploit rapidly on the axis of Bastia-Argenta-Ferrara, and to mount an operation with Fantails across Lake Comacchio with a view to seizing the Argenta Gap (not before the bridgehead had been established over the Santerno).
The Polish Corps, comprising 3 Carpathian and 5 Kresowa Divisions, 2 Polish and 7 British Armoured Brigades, 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade, Friuli Combat Group (later transferred to 10 Corps) and 7 Hussars (with Kangaroos to lift one battalion), was to establish bridgeheads across the Senio and Santerno rivers south of and in conjunction with 5 Corps, and was to be prepared to exploit rapidly on two axes, towards Medicina-Budrio and Castel San Pietro. Thirteenth Corps (10 Indian Division and Folgore Combat Group) was to hold Eighth Army's left flank, advance towards Route 9 when the Polish gains gave the opportunity, and eventually go into army reserve. The 6th British Armoured Division was in reserve at the start of the battle.
Eighth Army's plan, therefore, was for a frontal assault by two corps on parallel axes north of Route 9 and towards Massa Lombarda, and an amphibious thrust against Argenta; subsequently the main weight of the army was to be directed northwards through Argenta, while the Poles continued the advance westwards on Budrio and Bologna. General Clark approved of this plan—if the advance through the Argenta Gap was considered feasible— but was of the opinion that it did not provide sufficiently for thrusting westwards; he desired that Eighth Army should be equally prepared to thrust either westwards or northwards after establishing a bridgehead over the Santerno River. He also doubted page 397 whether 13 Corps' sector, which included Monte Grande,1 was held strongly enough. To comply with his wishes, 5 Corps' tasks were revised, 13 Corps' strength was increased by one battalion, and when it became known that Headquarters 10 Corps would be available, it was given a sector (to be held by the Jewish Brigade and Friuli Combat Group) between 13 Corps and the Poles.
Fifteenth Army Group issued directions on 12 February for the conduct of the battle after the fall of Bologna. The capture of a large bridgehead, including Ferrara, in the Po valley would accomplish the immediate object of the initial battle as defined in the directive on 24 January. The army group's intentions then were the ‘development’2 of the Po and Adige river positions with the object of capturing Verona. After Eighth Army had crossed the Adige it was to capture Padua and Venice as quickly as possible. The army group axis of advance was to be from Bologna to Verona, and the capture of the latter town was intended to seal the main escape route and make major operations in north-west Italy unnecessary.
The day was rapidly approaching, General Clark wrote on 7 March, when Fifteenth Army Group ‘must contribute its full share to the final offensive which will crush the German armed forces.’3 He directed that plans be completed, movements made and preliminary operations executed to permit the main attack to be launched on 10 April. Eighth Army was to be prepared to attack from three to five days before the Fifth. The situation was to be reviewed on 1 April, when the opening date would be finally decided.
Sufficient Fantails would be ready by 10 April to carry only one infantry brigade, which meant that an amphibious operation with Argenta as its objective would be beyond the capacity of the forces available. The next most valuable objective would be the bridge over the Reno River at Bastia; if this were secured, it would clear the approaches to Argenta from the south and give 5 Corps freedom to manoeuvre, so that it could be directed either north or west from Massa Lombarda; and it would cut off the line of retreat of the two German divisions opposing the corps' right flank. Parachutists (from 2 Parachute Brigade) might join the amphibious force, but were not to be dropped south of Argenta—to avoid the anti-aircraft defences of the Bastia area.
1 ‘The loss of this most critical feature’, Clark wrote to McCreery, ‘would … abort all our carefully prepared plans for the offensive.’
2 In American military phraseology ‘to develop a position’ means to square up to and make all necessary preparations for assaulting it.
After considering methods of ensuring that 5 Corps should be able to throw into the northerly thrust sufficient weight to break the Argenta Gap and at the same time retain sufficient in the westerly thrust to satisfy the army group's requirements—for which the Polish Corps alone was not thought adequate—General McCreery decided that it might be possible to release 10 Indian Division from its task of holding Monte Grande in 13 Corps' sector in time for it to reinforce the Poles' drive towards Bologna; also, if 5 Corps' progress was slow in exploiting northwards, the New Zealand Division might be required to continue on the Budrio axis in conjunction with the Polish Corps.
Thus the Eighth Army plan was for 5 Corps and the Polish Corps to attack across the Senio River and secure bridgeheads across the Santerno (the codename for this operation was BUCKLAND), and for 5 Corps to exploit northwards towards Bastia and Argenta—with the possibility of the New Zealand Division continuing westwards to Budrio. Fifth Corps also was to undertake preliminary operations on Lake Comacchio, and was to be prepared to mount amphibious operations which might include capturing crossings over the Reno at Bastia or in the vicinity, exploiting the capture of the Spit round the north and east of Lake Comacchio and turning or capturing the Argenta Gap in conjunction with 2 Parachute Brigade.
In Operation BUCKLAND 5 Corps directed 8 Indian Division on the right and the New Zealand Division on the left to attack across the Senio River on the corps' front and converge to meet beyond the town of Lugo; 78 Division, situated between these two divisions, was not to advance until later. The first objective was to be the line of the Canale di Lugo, short of the Scolo Tratturo, the enemy's intermediate prepared position between the Senio and Santerno. On the second day of the offensive the Indian and New Zealand divisions were to advance side by side to the Santerno and secure a large bridgehead. Then 78 Division was to go forward, pass through the Indian division and strike northwards towards Bastia and Argenta with the object of linking up with the amphibious forces. The pocket of enemy cut off south of the Reno River was to be cleared by 8 Indian Division and the Cremona Combat Group. After crossing the Santerno the New Zealand Division's task would be either to protect 78 Division in its drive northwards, or to continue westwards towards Budrio.
The Polish Corps (on the left) decided to attack with 3 Carpathian Division, less the new infantry brigade but reinforced by 6 Lwow Brigade from 5 Kresowa Division, and with 7 Armoured Brigade under command. Because the two new Polish infantry brigades lacked training and experience, they were placed under page 400 an improvised headquarters called ‘Rudforce’ with the task of holding the Route 9 sector, where no assault was to be made.
Although the Polish Corps was about half a mile from the near stopbank of the Senio, and 5 Corps was close up to it, they were to attack at the same time, 7.20 p.m. on 9 April, so that both could get the maximum air and artillery support. The Poles anticipated greater difficulty and therefore delay in crossing the Senio, but as the distance between the Senio and the Santerno was less on their front than on 5 Corps', it was expected that the two corps probably could reach the farther river together.
The plans for the air and artillery support were closely integrated. On the afternoon of 9 April approximately 800 heavy bombers of the Strategic Air Force were to ‘carpet’ with thousands of small fragmentation bombs an area of about two and a quarter square miles in front of the Polish Corps and one of about nine square miles in front of 5 Corps, with the intention of paralysing the enemy's reserves and disrupting his communications without making large craters which might hinder progress later (as the bombing had done at Cassino). About 120 medium bombers of the Tactical Air Force were to attack three gun areas opposite the Poles' front, and 48 medium bombers of the Desert Air Force a gun area opposite 5 Corps' front. About 500 fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force and 200 of 22 Tactical Air Command (which normally supported Fifth Army) were to attack hostile batteries, strongpoints, mortar positions and headquarters on the frontage of the attack and all movement on the roads approaching the battle zone.
During the intervals between the five ‘false alarm’ artillery bombardments preceding 5 Corps' assault crossing of the Senio, fighter-bombers were to bomb and strafe the far bank of the river; later they were to blitz the stopbanks in front of the Polish Corps. A hundred night light bombers were to combine with the artillery in a counter-battery programme, and 100 night heavy bombers were to attack the Santerno defences in front of both corps. In daylight on 10 April the normal fighter-bomber support was to be provided, and the heavy bombers were to saturate with small bombs a strip of country of about 10½ square miles immediately beyond the Santerno.
The allotment of artillery in Eighth Army (excluding anti-aircraft, anti-tank and infantry guns) was 678 pieces for 5 Corps, 339 for the Polish Corps, 96 for 10 Corps, and 160 for 13 Corps, a total of 1273 field, medium and heavy guns. The enemy was believed to have only 187 field and medium guns and 36 nebelwerfers deployed in positions from which they could engage the page 401 assault. The artillery ammunition supply was much better than had been thought possible, and the programme was prepared with the knowledge that reserves were plentiful.
Although the attacks across the Senio and Santerno were expected to destroy a large part of the German forces, it was still necessary to plan for the completion of the enemy's destruction south of the Po and for the rapid crossing of that river to forestall the occupation of the Venetian Line and the delaying positions south of it. The Allied Air Forces could not be expected to completely block the enemy's withdrawal; consequently Eighth Army would have to organise a pursuit.
If 5 Corps failed to penetrate the Argenta Gap quickly, the weight of the westward drive was to be increased by continuing the New Zealand Division's advance towards Budrio and by bringing 10 Indian Division forward to join it, with both divisions commanded by 13 Corps. As General McCreery believed that this contingency was the more likely, he warned the commander of 13 Corps (Lieutenant-General Sir John Harding) to be ready to assume control at short notice.
‘Whenever we attacked the Germans in Italy we took them by surprise,’ claims Field Marshal Alexander. ‘A particularly successful example was the May, 1944, offensive when we managed to persuade them that we were going to make another landing at Civitavecchia, north of the Tiber, to meet which Kesselring dispersed his reserves well away from the real point selected for the attack. We decided that the only cover-plan which was possible in our present circumstances was another version of the same story. The threat this time was to be directed against the Adriatic coast north of the Po. In fact, according to my naval advisers, an assault landing in this area was a physical impossibility but we hoped that the enemy, who was very ignorant in matters of amphibious warfare, would not have the benefit of such expert advice. We took steps to foster the deception by ostentatious activity in the port of Ravenna and hoped that Eighth Army's preliminary operations up the coast would help to confirm it. In the event … our hopes were completely justified.’1
After the prolonged bombardment of the enemy's defences and the flaming of the stopbanks, the infantry move forward for the assault crossing of the Senio
Dazed by the bombardment, the enemy surrenders to New Zealanders who have crossed the Senio River
German guns abandoned among the havoc caused by the Desert Air Force
Italians who had stayed in Barbiano throughout the bombardment greet the New Zealanders as they pass through the village
The enemy's side of the stopbank of the Gaiana River, where the New Zealand Division fought its last set-piece battle
German transport bombed and abandoned south of the Po River
Artillery crossing the New Zealand Engineers' folding-boat equipment bridge on the Po River
The pontoon ferry on the Adige River
Ninth Brigade enters the crowded streets of Monfalcone
1 The Italian Campaign, p. 37.
The enemy1 apparently appreciated that the first blow would be struck by Eighth Army, which would direct its main effort on the axis of Route 9, and that there would be a seaborne and airborne landing farther along the Adriatic coast. Vietinghoff therefore retained 29 Panzer Grenadier Division well north of the River Po. The commander of 76 Panzer Corps, when taken prisoner, confirmed that this division had been held in readiness for an expected landing in the Gulf of Venice, and declared that it was committed too late in the battle for the Argenta Gap.
Because the enemy expected the main offensive to follow the usual pattern of attacks up Route 9, Tenth Army was unprepared for Eighth Army's assault on its left flank which outflanked the river lines, and consequently its three most powerful divisions, astride and south of Route 9, were unable to take an effective part in the battle until it was too late. Similarly, Fourteenth Army was occupied with a diversionary attack on its right flank when Fifth Army began its main offensive in the centre.