Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste

I: From the Idice to the Reno River

page 491

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.

‘I request you inform all military formations under your command to this effect and inform the Plenipotentiary General in Italy of this reply.1

1 Operations of British, Indian and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part IV, Sec. G, p. 33.

page 492

On 20 April, when it was too late, Vietinghoff sent a message which revealed his intention to act on his own initiative:

‘My Fuehrer!

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.

After the Poles and Americans entered Bologna the city was placed wholly at Fifth Army's disposal; the Poles were halted in positions which denied its northern exits to the enemy. Meanwhile, north of the Argenta Gap, 5 Corps deployed its forces to develop two thrusts, one against Ferrara and the crossings of the River Po to the north-east of the town, and the other north-westwards to cut off the retreat of 1 Parachute Corps. While 6 British Armoured Division (which had been in Eighth Army reserve until 18 April) swept along the north bank of the Reno River to Poggio Renatico and severed the enemy's line of communication between Bologna and Ferrara, 78 and 56 British Infantry Divisions thrust to the

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.

page 493 Po di Volano, east of Ferrara and only six miles from the main river, and 28 Garibaldi Brigade of partisans pursued the enemy on the coastal flank.

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.

1 Operations of British, Indian and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part IV, Sec. B, p. 62.

2 GOC's papers.

page 494

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.

Despite ‘terrible punishment’4 from fighter-bombers and artillery the rearguard was still at Cazzano at nightfall. It hindered 10 Indian

2 142 Army Fd Regt (SP) was under 5 Brigade's command.

3 18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment, p. 631.

4 Ibid., p. 632

page 495
from the idice to the po, 21–24 april 1945

from the idice to the po, 21–24 april 1945

page 496 Division, which crossed the Idice River unopposed but was obliged to halt in the vicinity of the Scolo Fiumicello and thus leave 5 Brigade with an exposed right flank. On the other flank, the only resistance in 6 Brigade's sector came from isolated spandaus, snipers and mortars, and progress was retarded only by the necessity of conforming with 5 Brigade.

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).

Fifth Brigade's leading tanks and infantry had reached Route 64 by 7.15 a.m. The bridge over the Savena, a deep canalised stream alongside the highway, had been demolished, and while the tanks of B Squadron of 18 Regiment were waiting for an Ark tank and bulldozer to prepare a crossing, the Maoris pushed on towards the village of Bentivoglio, on the Canale Navile. ‘There was no resistance and every house had a white sheet hanging from its windows. Odd parties of Germans were picked up here and there but there was no organisation behind them. Civilians offered hospitality which was regretfully declined, though many a haversack was filled with cold chicken and hard-boiled eggs.’1 The bridge over the Canale Navile at Bentivoglio had been destroyed, but partisans erected a plank footbridge, and the battalion ‘took position beyond the canal, scooping up an enemy RAP and directing batches of prisoners, some under escort and some under their own power, back to the page 497 rear…. The troops waited while the engineers worked on the bridge. Rafters from demolished buildings were carried by the enthusiastic populace and by midday the armour and a number of other vehicles were across.’1

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.

In the late afternoon 23 Battalion, on the left of the 28th, had set off with the leading companies (A and D) mounted on tanks and portées. ‘The speed and distance of the advance [over 20 miles that day] caught the imagination of the men, who knew for certain that the “break-through” proper had begun.’4 D Company, on the left flank, discovered that the small town of San Pietro in

2 Ibid., p. 475.

3 Ibid.

4 23 Battalion, p. 461.

page 498 Casale was still held by the enemy, but Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas ordered the battalion to bypass it and trust to its surrender once its occupants knew they were completely cut off by the Allied forces. This move saved casualties. A and D Companies reached the Reno about midnight, and by the time B and C caught up in RMT trucks, reconnaissance had revealed that an immediate crossing would be unopposed. B and C Companies took the lead to cross. Thomas described an early morning visit to the foremost platoons: ‘The men, of course, were bitterly cold, having been wet through wading waist high, but were making the most of things and were very cheerful and willing. Heavens! But they have done wonders during this show, nothing seems too much to ask of them, yet they often have no sleep for days on end.’1

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.


Sixth Brigade's axis of advance crossed the Canale Navile and the Bologna-Ferrara railway before turning north towards San Giorgio di Piano, about 10 miles from Bologna, and followed a bitumen road. The brigade was unopposed as far as San Giorgio, which could have been a German headquarters, for many of the buildings still displayed swastikas. ‘The town was in an uproar— people crowding the streets, throwing flowers, jumping on vehicles, proffering wine—all the exuberance of liberation,’ wrote Major Boord,2 of 24 Battalion. ‘I had no desire to take my trucks in there and have half my men get drunk, so we stayed put till 26 [Battalion] came up and the advance continued.’3 Apparently the Germans had told the people of San Giorgio ‘that the New Zealanders were starving, and amid scenes of terrific enthusiasm wine and bread (the former reported good, the latter stale) were heaped on the tank crews [of 20 Regiment]…. The partisans were busy and

1 Quoted in 23 Battalion, p. 462.

2 Lt-Col R. Boord, m.i.d.; Hamilton; born NZ 4 Feb 1908; student; CO 24 Bn Jul–Dec 1945; wounded 26 Mar 1943.

3 24 Battalion, pp. 330–1.

page 499 there were sounds of rifle fire coming from the north of the town….’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.

Ninth Brigade, which had been resting in the Medicina area since 20 April, set out to rejoin the Division in mid-morning on the 22nd. The journey through Villa Fontana, over the Gaiana, along the Budrio road and beyond the Idice, was very slow and exceedingly dusty, mostly on secondary roads and tracks and through congested traffic. The brigade advanced along the ‘green’ route, a system of roads west of 6 Brigade's sector and in the bend of the Reno River north of Bologna. A Squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment led on the left with A and D Companies of 22 Battalion in support, and B Squadron on the right with B and C Companies in

2 23 April is St. George's Day, la festa di San Giorgio.

3 The CO 25 Bn (Lt-Col Norman) was wounded when his jeep ran over a mine early in the day, and was succeeded in command by Maj A. W. Barnett.

page 500 support; the infantry was in Kangaroos of C Squadron, 4 Hussars.

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.