Operation Battle of the Argenta Gap

The 'Battle of the Argenta Gap' was fought between British and German forces within the British 'Buckland' offensive of the spring of 1945 during the closing stages of the Italian campaign (10/19 April 1945).

The battle took place in northern Italy between troops of the British V Corps commanded by Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley and German units of the LXXVI Panzerkorps commanded by General Gerhard Graf von Schwerin.

The Allied 'Avalanche' invasion of the Italian mainland occurred during September 1943. There were several strategic and operational reasons for this, not the least important of which was that support for the war in Italy had been declining rapidly and steadily, and that it was thought that an invasion would hasten the efforts of the new government that had deposed Benito Mussolini, and which was now seeking peace. Furthermore, the weakening of Axis control of the Mediterranean supply routes eased the pressure on Allied forces operating in the Middle and Far East, as well as on the efforts to deliver supplies to the USSR.

'Husky' (i), the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, had been a success, albeit a success gained more slowly than had been anticipated, and served as a springboard for the invasion of the mainland. In September, the first Allied troops to land in Italy were of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army in 'Baytown'. Further landings on 9 September 1943 saw the main attack force, Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army, landing in Avalanche' despite the Italian surrender to the Allied forces during the previous day. After securing its beach-heads, the 5th Army began its advance to the north.

By the winter of 1944/45 the Allied armies had penetrated the main defences of the 'Gustav-Linie' and 'Gotisch-Linie', but had failed to break out into the Po river valley. 'Grapeshot' was planned as new major offensive (US 'Craftsman' in the west and British 'Buckland' in the east) for the spring of 1945, when improving weather would allow the Allies to take advantage of their superior air power and their armoured and motorised ground forces.

Under the command of Clark’s 15th Army Group, the order of battle for the forthcoming 'Battle of the Argenta Gap' comprised elements of Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British 8th Army in the form of Keightley’s V Corps using Major General J. Y. Whitfield’s 56th Division (24th Guards Brigade, 167th Brigade and 169th Brigade) with the 2nd Commando Brigade and 9th Armoured Brigade under command, and Major General R. K. Arbuthnott’s 78th Division (11th Brigade, 36th Brigade and 38th Brigade) with the 2ndd Armoured Brigade under command.

Under the command of Generaloberst Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe 'C', the opposition in the 'Battle of the Argenta Gap' was provided by elements of General Traugott Herr’s 10th Army in the form of von Schwerin’s LXXVI Panzerkorps with Generalleutnant Ralph von Heygendorff’s 162nd (turk.) Division, Generalleutnant Walter Jost’s 42nd Jägerdivision and Generalmajor Alois Weber’s 362nd Division. In army reserve was Generalleutnant Fritz Polack’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision.

As a preliminary to the main operation, 'Roast' was undertaken as a commando assault across Lake Comacchio on 1 April to secure the 8th Army’s right flank for the coming battle to seize 'the Spit', the narrow isthmus between the eastern shore of Lake Comacchio and the Adriatic Sea. As well as securing the 8th Army’s flank, this also allowed an operational trial of the practicality of using newly arrived LVT tracked landing craft for subsequent larger operations in the muddy and difficult conditions of Lake Comacchio. The operation was successful, although the LVTs failed dismally, becoming completely bogged down if soft mud.Two nights later, further actions by the Special Boat Service supported by Italian partisans of the 28th Garibaldi Brigade captured islands in the middle of the lake.

The 56th Division also made a preliminary attack on 5/6 April to secure its starting line for the Argenta gap operation. By 8 April, after meeting stiff resistance, it had completed its task in clearing 'the Wedge', an area from the southern tip of Lake Comacchio where it meets the Reno river to the Fossa di Navigazione.

The main 8th Army offensive across the Senio river got under way on 9 April, and by 12 April the assault units had advanced to consolidate across the Santerno river and allow the 78th Division to pass through towards the Reno river and the Argenta gap. This latter was a well defended strip of land some 2 miles (3.2 km) wide and 8 miles (13 km) deep between Lake Comacchio and the Lombardy marshes, in the area to the south of the town of Ferrara.

On the night of 10/11 April, the V Corps launched 'Impact Plain' to widen and deepen its bridgehead in 'the Wedge': the 40th (Royal Marine) Commando advanced along the raised causeway bordering the lake while, from 56th Division, Brigadier W. H. Stratton’s 69th Brigade advanced on the commando’s left across the flooded margins of the lake with two battalions in LVTs. Brigadier J. Scott-Elliott’s 167th Brigade of the same division advanced from 'the Wedge' along the Reno river’s flood banks. The commando column met stiff resistance at the bridge to the north-east of Menate, and suffered heavy losses but was able to take the objective with the assistance of air support. The 42nd Jägerdivision seems to have been taken in total surprise by its opponents' amphibious capacity and seemed somewhat unnerved by the LVTs emerging from the water, so that by the arrival of daylight on 12 April all three columns had advanced some 4 miles (6.4 km), linking in the area of Menate and Longastrino. The 169th Brigade then pushed forward on the road toward Filo and the 167th Brigade continued up the Reno river, rolling up the German defences as far as the confluence with the Santerno river to link with Generale di Brigata Clemente Primieri’s Gruppo di combattimento 'Cremona', which had advanced from the south.

Reacting to the Allied attack, von Vietinghoff-Scheel ordered the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision south to reinforce the German forces in the Argenta gap. This division’s 15th Panzergrenadierregiment arrived to reinforce the 42nd Jägerdivision on 12 April, but the rest of the division had been north of the Po river and, delayed by air damage and fuel shortages, did not arrive until two days later.

Early on 13 April Brigadier T. P. D. Scott’s 38th Brigade, of the 78th Division, attacked to the north from the bridgehead of Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division across the Santerno river with the task of seizing a bridgehead across the Reno river at Bastia, in the mouth of the Argenta gap. Meanwhile, to the brigade’s right, Whitfield’s 56th Division launched the second phase of its operation, 'Impact Royal'. This involved No. 9 Commando of Brigadier R. Tod’s 2nd Commando Brigade and Brigadier M. D. Erskine’s 24th Guards Brigade advancing up the flooded margins of Lake Comacchio in LVTs to concentrate near Chiesa del Bando, 6 miles (9.7 km) to the north-west of Menate and then to develop a threat to Argenta, which lay some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the south-west of this objective. A foothold was established on the Fossa Marina, a canal running roughly east/west from Argenta to the lake and 1 mile (1.6 km) short of the objective, but then the newly arrived 15th Panzergrenadierregiment blocked further progress and an attempt to take the bridge across the Fossa on 14 April was beaten back.

During the morning of 14 April, forward elements of Brigadier J. D. Musson’s 38th Brigade had crossed the bridge over the Reno river at Bastia but had been forced back by an armoured counterattack. It was decided to confine immediate activity to mopping up in the area to the south of the Reno river and await the approach of Scott-Elliott’s 167th Brigade which, advancing on both banks of the Reno river, would shortly threaten the flank of the defenders to the north of the river in Bastia and oblige them to retire. Rather than wait for the clearance of the bridge at Bastia, Keightley ordered Brigadier G. E. Thubron’s 11th Brigade of the 78th Division to use the 56th Division’s bridges over the Reno river in order to get forward towards Argenta without delay.

On 15/16 April, the 56th Division renewed its attack on the Fossa Marina but again failed. However, the cumulative effect of heavy air attacks since 13 April were taking their toll and on the night of 16 April the 24th Guards Brigade was able to cross the canal with relatively little trouble, although its advance was once again halted by resistance about 880 yards (805 m) to the north of the canal. On the western side of the Argenta gap, the 11th Brigade was able to get across the Fossa Marina to the east of Argenta. The 2/Lancashire Fusiliers were able to hold on to a small bridgehead under heavy fire and counterattack while engineers positioned ARK armoured mobile bridges to allow supporting tanks to cross the canal.

On 17 April, the 38th Brigade arrived from newly cleared Bastia and passed through the 11th Brigade’s bridgehead in order to widen the bridgehead and thereby provide space to allow an armoured break-out. By dark the brigade had advanced 1,000 yards (915 m) against determined resistance, working around the rear of Argenta. Meanwhile, the 11th Brigade advanced into the town to clear it with the support of Crocodile armoured flamethrowers. An armoured counterattack early on 18 April was forced back toward the 38th Brigade. Meanwhile, on the town’s western outskirts the bridges over the Reno river had been attacked and captured by the 2nd Commando Brigade, which had been advancing up the line of the river from Bastia. Attempted counterattacks on the bridges were broken up by the supporting artillery. Also on 17 April, the 56th Division’s 169th Brigade was passed through the 11th Brigade’s bridgehead across the Fossa Marina in order to drive eastward to clear the northern bank of the canal and link with the 24th Guards Brigade.

On 18 April, the 78th Division brought forward Musson’s 36th Brigade from reserve to pass through the 38th Brigade and undertake a series of right hooks to the north of Argenta. By dawn the brigade had reached Consandolo some 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north-west of Argenta, where German resistance stubbornly held until well into the afternoon. Meanwhile, a mobile force under the command of the headquarters of Brigadier J. F. B. Combe’s 2nd Armoured Brigade, comprising one infantry battalion, one tank regiment, one regiment of armoured personnel carriers and supporting self-propelled guns and assault engineers (the so-called 'Kangaroo Army') was brought forward and, bypassing Consonaldo, secured a bridgehead over the Fossa Benvignante 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north of the town. Advanced elements then pushed forward and before dark overran the artillery of the 42nd Jägerdivision.

The 78th Division’s advance created flank pressure on the German units facing the 56th Division so that at 12.00 on 18 April the 169th Brigade detected a reduction in the resistance in front of it. Pushing forward, the brigade advanced to the Fossa Benvignante and captured an intact bridge. To the brigade’s right, the 24th Guards Brigade were finally able to clear Chiesa del Bando and advance toward the Fossa Benvignante.

With 56th Division and 78th Division now clear of the northern end of the Argenta gap, Major General H. Murray’s British 6th Armoured Division, from 8th Army reserve, was released through the left wing of the advancing 78th Division to swing left and race to the north-west along the line of the Reno river to Bondeno and a junction with the US 5th Army’s formations and units advancing to the north from the area to the west of Bologna and to complete the encirclement of the German armies defending Bologna. Effective Allied bombing of the crossings of the Po river and shortage of fuel left much of the strength of Heeresgruppe 'C', as well as almost all its heavy equipment and armament, stranded to the south of the river, so sealing its fate. On 29 April an instrument of surrender was signed by German emissaries at the Allied headquarters and hostilities formally ended on 2 May.