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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Crossing the Po and the Adige

Crossing the Po and the Adige

South of the River Po the countryside was littered with abandoned equipment and transport, and many horses, left behind by the Germans when they retreated across the river, roamed through the gun positions. Bondeno itself, a clean little provincial town, was largely deserted.

In a variety of boats, rafts and amphibious transport 6 Brigade crossed the Po silently in the night 24-25 April and 5 Brigade crossed under a hastily arranged artillery programme—the last NZA programme of the war. This was simplicity itself. Just before midnight42 Artillery Headquarters ordered four stonks to be prepared. The 142nd Field (SP) was to prepare Fox, the 1st RHA Wolf, the 5th Field Lion and the 6th Field Tiger. The four reference points were spaced along the northern bank of the river between the villages of Stienta and Gaiba north-west of Ferrara. From H-20 (20 minutes before H-hour) to H-16 they were to fire on the stonk line, from H-16 to H-12 100 yards beyond it, from H-12 to H-8 200 yards beyond, from H-8 to H-4 300 yards, and then from H-4 to H-hour they would fire back on the stonk line. From H to H + 5 they would fire 400 yards beyond.

This was reminiscent of the ‘dragnet’ barrages forming the gun attacks which started the Senio offensive. H-hour was to be 1 a.m. on the 25th, which meant starting at 12·40 a.m. and left very little time indeed. But at 12.10 a.m. Artillery Head- page 722 quarters signalled that H-hour was changed to 1.30 a.m. At the same time a further series of 200-yard lifts was added as follows:

H+5 to H+15 up 600 yards
H+15 to H+20 up 800 yards
H+20 to H+30 up 1000 yards

Six DF tasks in support of 5 Brigade were also announced and in due course several of them were fired, with modifications ordered by FOOs. The 34th Battery fired 300 rounds per troop across the river.

The dragnet barrage, the four-lift creeping barrage (if it could be called that) and the subsequent tasks—totalling about 75 r.p.g.—worked like charms and the infantry struck very little trouble. The gunners then had only two things to worry about: getting across the river and obtaining maps of the ground northwards to the Adige and beyond. The maps arrived at noon; but the gunners spent the rest of Anzac Day anxiously awaiting word to cross the river. Reconnaissance parties crossed the pontoon bridge in the evening, the 5th Field followed and recorded zero lines by 10.15 p.m. in positions near the large village of Ficarolo, the 6th Field crossed at midnight, and the 4th Field had to wait until the late afternoon of 26 April.

The crossing of the Po seemed highly symbolic, and as the pontoon bridge bobbed up and down under the weight of their vehicles gunners tingled with excitement. Two 17-pounders of 33 Battery crossed by pontoon raft. The 34th Battery used the bridge and ‘Fantail’ ferries, and A Sub-battery deployed in positions halfway to the Adige in the late evening of Anzac Day. The chase had begun and only the M10 crews were left out. They had to wait for a stronger bridge and could not cross until the end of the month.

Ammunition could not easily be replaced until the P0 was adequately bridged, and there was a strong possibility that the crossing of the Adige would require a fire programme. Shirley Nicholson was therefore in a quandary when his FOOs reported enemy in large numbers in and around Badia Polesine and near the river. ‘With my fingers crossed I gave orders for heavy concentrations to be put down among them’, he wrote later. ‘Joyfully the OPs went to work while I fearfully tallied the rounds expended.’ The enemy was soon demoralised and began to surrender in hundreds.

By the end of the 26th all three NZA field regiments were deployed near Badia Polesine to cover a crossing of the Adige, page 723 a fairly wide and very fast-flowing river. OPs had orders to be as aggressive as possible, and 48 Battery did several shoots with Air OPs, scoring hits on vehicles and starting several fires. Captain Smythe,43 the commander of E Troop, 30 Battery, had reached the area with the leading company of 25 Battalion. When the company met opposition he occupied an exposed OP and, heedless of fire directed at him, brought down accurate shellfire on the enemy and ended resistance south of the river. He at once directed fire across the river and effectively covered infantry and sappers as they reconnoitred crossing places. Smythe was with the leading infantry when they crossed.

An LO from medium and heavy artillery—4.5s and 155s—reported to the headquarters of 6 Brigade and explained that the guns were south of the P0 and had no prospects of crossing for some time. They had plenty of ammunition and wanted to get some shooting in before the enemy passed out of range. Nicholson found out that these guns could reach 5000 yards beyond the Adige. Good OPs were by this time established in Badia Polesine and were calling for fire. The 6th Field had closed down and were moving forward, and Nicholson therefore gladly relayed the fire orders back to the mediums and heavies. For three hours the gunners south of the P0 laboured happily and their shells did much to shatter the already waning morale of the enemy across the River Adige.

Bombardier Hampson44 of 28 Battery of the 5th Field was also among the leading infantry—in his case 21 Battalion—when they crossed the Adige. He was OPA to Captain Christie,45 and as Christie says, ‘he was always keen to do a little more than his position required’. The infantry were almost inundated with prisoners and had to provide guards and escorts for them. While these were away an infantry sergeant reported enemy in a nearby house. Hampson and the sergeant then rushed the house and Hampson killed two Germans. After clearing the house, Hampson continued to advance with a reserve platoon which came forward and helped to mop up several other pockets of resistance. For this he earned an MM.

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Next afternoon Smythe and his OP party, including his OPA, Lance-Sergeant Walsh,46 joined a patrol of 25 Battalion to find out the condition of bridges beyond the Adige. The patrol removed the detonators from charges attached to one bridge and then, after further investigation, the patrol leader was killed and Smythe assumed command. He found that fire was coming in from all sides and several more men had been hit. Walsh volunteered to make his way through to infantry half a mile away to get help and, with great difficulty, he got through, crawling part of the way along ditches or hedges and coming under fire several times. Meanwhile Smythe himself calmly reported back by radio and then skilfully extricated the survivors of the patrol and the 19 prisoners they had taken and brought them back to the battalion without further loss. Smythe was awarded an immediate MC and Walsh the US Bronze Star.

42 The 5th Field were advised at 11.50 p.m. on the 24th.

43 Capt E. R. Smythe, MC; Invercargill; born Christchurch, 21 Aug 1916; warehouseman.

44 Bdr G. J. Hampson, MM; born NZ 8 Jul 1922; student; died Christchurch, 18 Nov 1947.

45 Capt M. Christie; Brighton, Otago; born Hawarden, 25 Dec 1911; clerk.

46 S-Sgt R. T. Walsh, Bronze Star (US); born Wellington, 20 Jan 1922; insurance clerk.