Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: Crossing the Adige River
III: Crossing the Adige River
The Allied armies had crossed the River Po and were about to split the German forces in two. On Fifth Army's front a rapid advance brought 88 Division of 2 US Corps to the outskirts of Verona, which was in American hands by daybreak on 26 April; 10 Mountain Division of 4 US Corps pressed on between Verona and Lake Garda to close the roads to the Brenner Pass. The plan for the completion of the offensive was for Eighth Army to cross the Adige River and breach the Venetian Line, capture Padua and advance on the port of Trieste in north-east Italy, and for Fifth Army to assist the Eighth in the capture of Padua if necessary, close the escape routes into Germany by way of the Brenner Pass and Corno (west of Lake Garda), and destroy the enemy remaining in north-west Italy.
General Freyberg announced at a conference in the late afternoon of the 25th that the Division would have to face the fact that crossing the Adige River, the second largest in Italy, would be more or less like crossing the Po. ‘You will have to collect up your equipment…. I think if we don't stop the enemy won't be able to fight again.’2 It was decided next morning that 5 and 6 Brigades were to push on to the line of the Adige and ‘try out the form’.3
2 GOC's papers.
Early on 26 April 12 Lancers again took the lead and covered the whole divisional front, with C Squadron on the right, B in the centre, and A on the left. B Squadron reached the Adige before midday and found that the main bridge, near Badia Polesine, had been wrecked. The enemy appeared to be holding in strength on the far side, where a Tiger tank and many infantry were reported. East and west of Badia groups of Germans had been cut off south of the river. Bypassing Lendinara—where partisans were fighting fascist republican troops—C Squadron headed towards the Adige two or three miles from Badia. The Italian fascists tried to surround the squadron, which killed or captured many of them and also collected much German equipment, including ordnance dumps, medical supplies, and dozens of vehicles in good running order. Meanwhile A Squadron pushed towards the Badia- Legnago railway, parallel with the Adige, and bypassed large pockets of the enemy. At nightfall this squadron had linked up with Fifth Army troops (91 US Division) who had captured Legnago and forced a crossing of the river.
Fifth New Zealand Brigade resumed the advance at daybreak on the 26th with 21 and 23 Battalions still leading and with C Squad ron of 18 Regiment in support. On the right C and B Companies of 21 Battalion crossed the Canale Bianco downstream from the confluence of the Tartaro River and Fossa Maestra and embussed in RMT trucks which carried them to the vicinity of the Adige about two miles north-east of Badia, where they occupied the near stopbank in the afternoon. On the left B and C Companies of 23 Battalion advanced along roads ‘littered with abandoned German equipment; count of guns overrun was lost; the enemy's organised resistance in that part of Italy had ended. On the other hand, it was evident that the men of the 23rd were also feeling the strain…. it was very noticeable that the men were suffering from lack of sleep…’1 Early in the afternoon the battalion reached the stopbank of the Adige north of Badia. B Company was fired on from the far bank, where the enemy appeared to be dug in in some strength, but this did not prevent a patrol from C Company from obtaining information about the approaches to the river. When the patrol was grounded by small-arms fire, Corporal Monaghan2 went on alone until he had learned all he wanted to know.
1 23 Battalion, p.465.
The prisoners1 rounded up since the Division crossed the Po were a very mixed bag; they included stragglers from seven divisions, ferry-boat men, a bridging team with five trucks of equipment, veterinary orderlies and army fire-brigade men. A New Zealand NCO, who had been taken prisoner at the Sillaro River and returned from the Germans on 26 April, had witnessed their retreat at first hand. ‘Petrol was so short that each lorry hauled at least three or four others. Tanks and even horses and oxen were hauling MT. There were horse drawn and oxen drawn carts in great numbers, but few guns…. The enemy … took to the ditches the moment a plane came over.’ The day after his capture the New Zealander was in a column caught in 25-pounder fire on the road west of the Sillaro. ‘The enemy panicked and ran wildly into the fields or fought to get aboard vehicles which were already packed to overflowing. Those on the vehicles fought savagely to keep the others off…. It was plain that all the German troops felt the war was utterly lost….’2
In the afternoon of 26 April a divisional conference discussed the preparations for the crossing of the Adige, which was 100 to 110 yards wide and too deep to wade. Assault boats, storm boats, DUKWs, Fantails and enough folding-boat equipment for a bridge were available. It was decided that 5 and 6 Brigades should launch an assault crossing at 11 p.m. with the support of the artillery already north of the Po. Later, however, when it appeared that the enemy was withdrawing, Brigadiers Bonifant and Parkinson agreed upon an attack without artillery support to start at 10.30 p.m.
Heavy rain during the night added to the work of the engineers preparing approaches to the crossing places. Colonel Hanson told General Freyberg in a telephone conversation at 9.20 p.m. that he thought it would be late next day before the folding-boat bridge would be ready.
The crossing place chosen by 8 Field Company in 6 Brigade's sector, near where the Naviglio Adigetto joins the Adige, was unsuitable for DUKWs because of large shoals, the fast current and the very steep bank on the far side, but two amphibious tanks got across, and the Fantails ferried carriers and jeeps. In 5 Brigade's sector 7 Field Company had trouble in launching the DUKWs because of the mud, and decided against the use of amphibious tanks. Two anti-tank guns and two jeeps were ferried to 23 Battalion before dawn.
The construction of the 400-foot Class 9 folding-boat bridge by 6 Field Company was delayed at the outset when the Polish bridging train which was to deliver the materials lost its way to the New Zealand Division. Search parties located it in 6 Armoured Division's sector. It arrived at the bridge site, less than half a mile downstream from the demolished road bridge between Badia and Masi, at 9 a.m. on the 27th, but 14 trucks were missing until after midday. The bridge was completed early in the afternoon, but was damaged when a bulldozer tried to cross it. It was repaired and opened to traffic about 3 p.m.
The engineers also had trouble with one of their two pontoon rafts. When 8 Field Company had prepared the access to the river in 6 Brigade's sector and unloaded two pontoons, the rain made it impossible to bring up the rest of the materials. The lorries bogged right down. The sappers returned to camp exhausted and wet to the skin, with the raft still not built at dawn. Then 8 Field Company had to abandon this site because the folding-boat bridge was to be built immediately downstream from it. At an alternative site, upstream from the demolished bridge, bulldozers began preparing the approaches early in the afternoon, and with the help of men from 6 Brigade, the sappers completed the raft at 8.30 p.m.
This raft ferried a bulldozer across to construct the landing stage and outlet on the far bank, but when it made its first trip with a tank on board, one of its motors failed and the other three motors page 513 were not powerful enough to prevent the current sweeping it on to the demolished bridge. The sappers freed the raft and got the tank back on shore by 3 a.m., but as the useless motor could not be replaced, the raft was out of action until after daybreak, when a cable was put across the river and a new offloading stage built. With the aid of the cable the raft was finally ready for traffic about midday on 28 April.
Meanwhile, in mid-morning on the 27th, 7 Field Company began work on a similar raft for 5 Brigade about half a mile downstream from the demolished bridge. This raft, which was operated on cables, was completed early in the evening and began ferrying tanks at the rate of four in the hour. The engineers cut and laid corduroy in the boggy approaches to the river and were assisted by two platoons of Maoris with picks and shovels, which undoubtedly saved much time.
General Freyberg told an orders group conference on the morning of 27 April that the armoured cars of 12 Lancers were to have first priority over the folding-boat bridge when it was completed and were to ‘push out on a very wide front and carry on right up to the VENETIAN LINE. I don't suppose we will be able to gatecrash it…. this delay with the bridge may allow the Hun to get troops into the line.’1
The 43rd Gurkha Brigade and 9 Brigade were to take over from 5 and 6 Brigades on the north bank of the Adige and continue the advance. Brigadier Gentry reported that 9 Brigade was completely over the River Po, but Brigadier Barker said the Gurkhas had ‘got hardly anything across the PO except for my Bde HQ. The rain messed up the approaches to the Class 9 [folding-boat] bridge.’2 Ninth Brigade, therefore, was to precede the 43rd over the Adige.
Fifth Brigade held its positions on the north bank of the Adige all day without tank support. Because snipers were giving trouble on 21 Battalion's open right flank, Major Swanson,3 of B Company, took a patrol of three Wasp flame-throwers and two carriers in the direction of Piacenza d'Adige early in the afternoon and drove the enemy from several strongpoints in houses and drains.
1 GOC's papers.
A 6 Brigade ‘flying column’, consisting of the anti-tank officer (Lieutenant Hampton1) and nine infantrymen from 25 Battalion, a forward observation officer (Captain Smythe2) and an NCO from 6 Field Regiment, a six-pounder towed by a jeep, and the two amphibious tanks which had crossed the Adige, was given the tasks of reconnoitring bridges and reporting on the state of the roads to the north and—if the bridges were intact—seeing how far it could go. A bridge over the Scolo Manteo near Minotte, about three miles from the Adige, was still intact but had been prepared for demolition. The patrol removed the detonators and continued a mile or so farther along the road to a house which it captured, together with 13 prisoners, at the cost of one man killed. The patrol next took five prisoners at a road junction a few hundred yards ahead and, coming under scattered small-arms fire, occupied a position alongside the road. It was joined about 6 p.m. by four armoured cars from 12 Lancers, which by that time had three squadrons over the river.
Thus reinforced, the patrol was divided into two groups, one under Smythe of one tank, two armoured cars and three jeeps, and the other under Hampton of one tank, two armoured cars and one jeep. Smythe's party had not gone far when the tank was bogged and had to be hauled out while an armoured car gave covering fire against German infantry. Hampton's party turned down a side road to investigate a house, and the jeep, which was reconnoitring ahead, was ambushed by Germans: ‘There seemed to be about 150 of them’3 Corporal Rentoul4 eluded the enemy and made his way back to 25 Battalion; two wounded men were later collected by the Lancers; four, including Hampton, were killed or died of their wounds. The rest of the patrol was recalled.
Meanwhile, in the afternoon of the 27th, 9 Brigade followed the Lancers over the folding-boat bridge and passed through 6 Brigade on the ‘blue’ route. The 27th and Divisional Cavalry Battalions reached the Fiume Fratta (short of the Scolo Manteo), and by midnight the whole of the brigade was north of the Adige. The leading battalion of 43 Brigade passed through 5 Brigade's bridgehead and followed the more easterly ‘red’ route to the Fiume Fratta.
3 25 Batalion, p. 614.
1 GOCs diary.