Operation Craftsman

This was the US major and final stage, together with the smaller ‘Grapefruit’, of the ‘Grapeshot’ offensive in northern Italy by Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s 5th Army of General Mark W. Clark’s Allied 15th Army Group in the southern part of the Po river plain against the formations of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ (14 April/2 May 1945).

‘Craftsman’ was the US counterpart of the British ‘Buckland’.

The critical phase of the Allied offensive at this time was to be made to the east of the 5th Army, where the initial assault would be made by Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British 8th Army astride Highway 16 through the so-called ‘Argenta gap’, where a corridor of relatively high ground carried the highway through a flooded, swampy region between the Reno river and Lake Comacchio. A breakthrough here would unhinge the entire German line, and would place the Allies in a position to cut off much of von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s army group from its final defence line along the Adige river covering the approaches to the Alpine passes opening into southern Austria.

The significance of this sector was clearly as evident to the Germans as to the Allies, and hard fighting was therefore inevitable. To confuse the Germans, several diversionary operations were planned: an attack up the western coast toward La Spezia, the 'Roast' commando attack on the Comacchio ‘spit’ (the narrow strip of land between Lake Comacchio and the Adriatic Sea), and a naval demonstration to simulate a large-scale amphibious assault against the east coast of Italy to the north of the mouth of the Po river at the head of the Adriatic Sea.

As finally approved, the overall Allied plan comprising the paired ‘Buckland’ and ‘Craftsman’ offensives was based on an initial attack by the three divisions of Lieutenant General C. Keightley’s British V Corps along the axis of Highway 16 and by the two reinforced divisions of the Generał dywizji Władysław Anders’s Polish II Corps to the north-west in the direction of Bologna. The 5th Army would attack later, putting all its strength into an offensive aimed generally to the west of Bologna. Each army, in turn, would receive the priority for Allied air support, including strong forces of heavy bombers, as its respective offensive opened.

The naval demonstration persuaded the Germans to detach one Panzer division to the north, but not for a long enough period to have much effect on the coming offensive. On 2/4 April British commandos, supported by Major General J. Y. Whitfield’s British 56th Division, cleared the Comacchio ‘spit’. Three days later, Major General Edward M. Almond’s US 92nd Division (two of its organic Afro-American regiments replaced by the 442nd Infantry of Japanese-Americans and the 473rd Infantry of converted anti-aircraft gunners) attacked along the west coast toward La Spezia through extremely rugged country.

In the early afternoon of 9 April, a massive air and artillery bombardment was put down along the front of the British V Corps and the Polish II Corps. The infantry attack, supported by flamethrower tanks, started at 19.00. The Germans fought stubbornly from their well-prepared positions, but by 14 April the British V Corps, aided by the 'Impact' amphibious envelopment across Lake Comacchio by elements of its 56th Division, had forced its way into the Argenta ‘gap’ while the Poles, with support from Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s British XIII Corps, seized Imola.

To the west, the 14th Army now comprised only General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s (from 17 April General Otto Hartmann’s) XIV Panzerkorps and General Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s LI Gebirgskorps 1.

Truscott launched Major General Willis D. Crittenberger’s US IV Corps on the left of the 5th Army’s sector under cover of the heaviest air bombardment yet made in the Italian campaign. Truscott had massed virtually his entire army on a 25-mile (40-km) front to the south-west of Bologna, leaving only two detached regiments of the 92nd Division holding the mountainous interval between the 5th Army’s main concentration and the rest of the 92nd Division on the west coast of Italy between the mouth of the Serchio river and La Spezia. Truscott could now call, for the first time in the Italian campaign, on the skills of a specialised mountain warfare formation, in the form of Major General George P. Hays’s 10th Mountain Division, and this swiftly revealed its capabilities with a rapid advance through the difficult mountain region to the west of Bologna.

On 15 April Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s II Corps joined the offensive on the right of the 5th Army’s offensive, but this formation was checked after making only slight advances. However, by 17 April the 10th Mountain Division was emerging from the mountains toward the main road and railway lines connecting Parma with Rimini via Modena and Bologna, so threatening to split the 14th Army, and Truscott took advantage of this situation by shifting Major General Vernon E. Prichard’s 1st Armored Division from a north-easterly to a north-westerly axis and also brought Major General John B. Coulter’s 85th Division up on its right.

On 20 April the 5th Army broke out into the open country of the Po river valley, the 10th Mountain Division reaching and taking Ponte Samoggia by the end of the day and thereby effectively severing the German east/west lines of communication to the north-west of Bologna.

Meanwhile, to the east of the 5th Army, the 8th Army had added muscle to its right flank by inserting the British XIII Corps between the Polish II Corps and British V Corps, and had cleared the all-important Argenta ‘gap’. All along its front, the 8th Army had now reached the plain, and although von Vietinghoff-Scheel had committed his last reserves, it was all in vain and, with his mountain defences ruptured all along his front, he could only attempt to extricate as many as his troops as possible across the Po river to hold the prepared defences on its northern bank. This was a daunting task as it demanded a withdrawal across flat, open country that offered few good delaying positions, under the constant scourge of Allied air power. Also, the Po river valley possessed the finest road network in Italy, enabling the more mobile Allied forces to shift and concentrate rapidly in any direction. To cap von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s problem, the Po river was unfordable, Allied aircraft had destroyed all the bridges across it, and the Germans had very little bridging equipment.

German opposition in front of the IV Corps had practically collapsed on 19 April, and the German forces opposing the II Corps withdrew in good order when the IV Corps’ advance threatened their right flank. US and Polish columns converged on Bologna during 21 April, but the Germans made no effort to hold that city. The pursuing Allies now raced for the Po river, which the 10th Mountain Division reached on the night of 22 April and forced on the following day. Roads jammed with wrecked German vehicles and a die-hard rearguard checked the II Corps near Finale long enough to enable elements of several German divisions to escape the closing Allied trap at Bondeno. Using pontoon bridges, ferries and boats of all kinds, the Germans strove desperately to cross the Po river, but could do so only by abandoning most of their heavy equipment. The Allies took large numbers of prisoners, many of them caught unaware of the sudden speed of the Allied advance. Around Ferrara, however, the Germans fought desperately to protect their withdrawal, since an Allied breakthrough here would be especially disastrous.

Meanwhile, the German position was further compromised by a major eruption of Italian partisan bands throughout their rear area. Many of these groups had been organised and trained by Allied officers who had been dropped by parachute or put ashore by small craft behind the German lines, and arms and supplies had been air-dropped to them in considerable quantities. On 1 April, Allied headquarters estimated (possibly optimistically) that there were 50,000 active, organised partisans in northern Italy. Now, with the Germans in retreat, opportunists of all types joined the partisan formations. These guerrillas were extremely valuable as guides and sources of information, but they represented a wide spectrum of clashing political beliefs, and were frequently difficult to control.

By 23 April the Allies had reached a line just to the south of the Po river, and against all odds von Vietinghoff-Scheel had succeeded in saving most of his men, but it would be too much to say he had saved his army group. Units were scattered, ammunition was low, and most heavy weapons, tanks and vehicles had been lost in the areas to the south of the Po river. He could not hope to re-establish a coherent front unless the Allies paused to reorganise and replenish their supplies before attempting to cross the Po river.

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The former comprised Generalleutnant Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division, Generalleutnant Bernhard Steinmetz’s 94th Division, Generalmajor Friedrich von Schellwitz’s 305th Division and Generalleutnant Paul Schricker’s 8th Gebirgsdivision, and the latter comprised Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico’s 148th Division and Generalleutnant Carl Becker’s 253rd Division.