This was the British offensive by Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s 8th Army against General Traugott Herr’s 10th Army, the eastern component of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’, to the north of the line linking Bologna and Lake Comacchio in northern Italy (9/19 April 1945).
The ‘Grapeshot’ grand offensive of the spring of 1945 in northern Italy was an Allied undertaking by Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 5th Army and McCreery’s British 8th Army to advance onto the Lombardy plain. The entire operation began on 6 April and ended on 2 May with the surrender of German forces in Italy.
The Allies had launched their previous major offensive in Italy, against the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences, during August 1944 with the 8th Army attacking to the north along the coastal plain of the Adriatic Sea and the 5th Army attacking through the central part of the Apennine mountains. Although they managed to breach the formidable ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences, the Allies just failed to break out into the Lombardy plain before the arrival of winter and the effective end of major operations. The Allied forward formations spent the rest of the winter in highly inhospitable conditions as preparations were made to renew the campaign when better conditions returned in the spring.
When Field Marshal Sir John Dill, the head of the British Mission in Washington, died on 5 November 1944, Field Marshal Sir Maitland Wilson was appointed his replacement. Field Marshal the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander succeeded Wilson as Allied Supreme Commander Mediterranean on 12 December, and Lieutenant General (General from 3 March 1945) Mark W. Clark succeeded Alexander as commander of the Allied Armies in Italy command, which was renamed the Allied 15th Army Group on the same day. Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott, who had commanded the US VI Corps from its time in the ‘Shingle’ bridgehead at Anzio and the capture of Rome to its current location in Alsace, having landed in the south of France during ‘Dragoon’, now returned to Italy to take command of the 5th Army.
There were also command changes on the German side before the start of the spring campaign. On 10 March Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring was appointed the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ in succession to Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, and therefore left Italy. von Vietinghoff-Scheel returned from the Baltic front, where he had commanded Heeresgruppe ‘Kurland’ since January, to assume command from Kesselring, while Herr was elevated from command of the LXXVI Panzerkorps to its parent formation, the 10th Army, General Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk taking command of the LXXVI Panzerkorps, and General Joachim Lemelsen, who had been in temporary command of the 10th Army, returned to command of the 14th Army facing the Americans.
In their planning for the spring offensive, one of the Allies’ primary concerns was manpower as a considerable proportion of their strength in the autumn had been redeployed to other theatres. During October Major General A. W. W. Holworthy’s Indian 4th Division had been sent to Greece and Major General A. D. Ward’s British 4th Division had followed it in November together with part of Major General J. L. I Hawkesworth’s British 46th Division, the rest following in December along with Syntagmatarches Thrasyvoulos Tsakalotos’s 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade. At the end of January 1945, Lieutenant General C. Foulke’s Canadian I Corps and Major General R. A. Hull’s British 5th Division were ordered to North-West Europe, these redeployments reducing the 8th Army to just seven divisions. The situation was better for the 5th Army, however, for it had been strengthened between September and November 1944 by the arrival of fresh troops for Major General João Batista Mascarenhas de Morais’s Brazilian Expeditionary Force, which comprised largely Major General Euclides Zenóbio da Costa’s 1st Division and air units, and in January 1945 of Major General George P. Hays’s specially trained and equipped 10th Mountain Division. The Allied strength therefore amounted to 17 divisions and eight independent brigades (including four Italian groups of volunteers from the Italian Co-Belligerent Army, equipped and trained by the British), a total equivalent of just under 20 divisions. The 15th Army Group’s total manpower was 1.334 million men, of which the 8th Army’s effective fighting strength was 632,980 men and the 5th Army 266,883 men.
Against these were ranged 25 much weaker divisions (21 German and four Italian of Benito Mussolini’s Repubblica Sociale Italiana revived Fascist state, or Salò Republic). Three of the Italian divisions were allocated to Generale d’Armata Alfredo Guzzoni’s Armeegruppe ‘Ligurien’ guarding the western flank facing France, and the fourth to the 14th Army in the sector thought least likely to be attacked. At this time the fighting strength of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ was in the order of 394,000 men.
The Allied forces devoted the first three months of 1945 to a comprehensive programme of planning and training as they were reorganised and retrained, and also undertook only limited operations to win the start lines suitable for the large-scale offensives scheduled for the spring. The front was held by the smallest possible number of men as divisions were rested and cycled through a programme of retraining. The two Allied armies also sought to bring their formations up to the greatest possible strength by calling in troops from other parts of the Mediterranean theatre and also by trimming the excess from rear headquarters and administrative echelons to provide more manpower. As well as those mentioned above, the reinforcements included Brigadier Ernest Benjamin’s Jewish Brigade from the Middle East, two new Polish brigades formed in the theatre, the restoration of Whitfield’s British 56th Division from two to three brigades, and five Italian combat groups established to help hold the quiet sectors of the front. Further strength was added by the commitment of several Italian partisan bands to a more formal role: the 28th Garibaldi Brigade came into the line south of Lake Comacchio and the 36th Garibaldi Brigade helped hold part of the XIII Corps’ sector in the mountains. Thus the 15th Army Group’s loss of the Canadian I Corps was offset in numerical terms, and at the same time much new and improved equipment was introduced, this latter including Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers, Buffalo DD (Duplex Drive) amphibious tanks and Fantail LVTs. To provide greater breakthrough capability, armoured regiments were re-equipped with flamethrower tanks, upgunned Sherman and Churchill tanks, and tanks fitted with dozer blades; in many cases, tanks were fitted with widened tracks for a lowered ground pressure and thus an enhanced capability to maintain movement on the soft ground of the Romagna region. New armoured engineer equipment was also produced locally to ensure rapid bridging of ditches, canals and rivers.
Clark set out his campaign plan on 18 March, stating that its task was ‘to destroy the maximum number of enemy forces south of the Po, force crossings of the Po and capture Verona’. In the first phase the 8th Army would cross the Senio and Santerno rivers in ‘Buckland’ and then make a two-part thrust, one to the north-west in the direction of Budrio parallel with the Bologna road (Highway 9, or the Via Emilia) and the other to the north along Highway 16 (the Via Adriatica) in the direction of Bastia and the Argenta ‘gap’, a narrow strip of dry terrain through the flooded land to the west of Lake Comacchio. The ‘Impact’ amphibious operation across the lake and parachute drop would bring pressure to bear on the flank and help to break the Argenta position. Depending on the relative success of these actions a decision would then be made on whether the 8th Army’s primary objective would be Ferrara, on the Via Adriatica, or remain Budrio. Meanwhile, it was intended that the 5th Army to launch the 15th Army Group’s ‘Craftsman’ main effort at 24-hour notice from two days after the 8th Army’s attack and break into the lower part of the Po valley. The capture of Bologna itself was a secondary task for the 5th Army.
In the second phase of the offensive, the 8th Army was to drive to the north-west for the capture of Ferrara and Bondeno, blocking routes of potential German retreat across the Po. The 5th Army was to push its way past Bologna to the north and link with the 8th Army in the area of Bondeno and thereby complete the encirclement of the German forces to the south of the Po. The 5th Army was also to make a secondary thrust farther to the west towards Ostiglia, the crossing point on the Po of the main route to Verona. The operation’s third phase involved the establishment of bridgeheads across the Po and an exploitation to the north.
The 8th Army’s ‘Buckland’ had to deal with the difficult initial task of getting across the Senio river, which was characterised by raised artificial banks varying between 20 and 40 ft (6.1 and 12.2 m) in height, honeycombed with defensive tunnels and bunkers both front and rear. Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley’s V Corps were ordered to make an attack on the salient formed by the river into the Allied line at Cotignola. On the right of the river’s salient was Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division, which was to repeat its role in the crossing the Rapido river in the the 4th Battle of Monte Cassino during ‘Diadem’. To the left of the Indian 8th Division, on the left of the salient, Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division was to attack across the river to form a pincer. To the left of the V Corps, on Highway 9, the Polish II Corps under the temporary command of Major General Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko, was to widen the front farther by attacking across the Senio toward Bologna. The Polish corps had been radically under strength in the autumn of 1944, but had received 11,000 reinforcements during the early months of 1945, drawn primarily from Polish conscripts in the German army taken prisoner in the Normandy campaign.
Once they had crossed the Senio river, the 8th Army’s leading divisions were to advance to and then cross the Santerno river. Once the Santerno had been crossed, Major General R. K. Arbuthnott’s British 78th Division was also to repeat its Cassino role and pass through the bridgehead established by the Indians and New Zealanders and then drive toward Bastia and the Argenta ‘gap’, 14 miles (23 km) behind the Senio, where the dry land narrowed to width of just 3 miles (4.8 km), bounded on the right by Lake Comacchio, a huge lagoon running to the Adriatic coast, and on the left by marshland. At the same time Major General J. Y. Whitfield’s 56th Division was to launch the amphibious flank attack along Lake Comacchio. On the V Corps’ left flank the New Zealand 2nd Division was to advance to the left of the marshy land on the western side of Argenta while the Indian 8th Division passed into army reserve.
The 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ envisaged an initial thrust by Lieutenant General Willis D. Crittenberger’s IV Corps along Highway 64 to straighten the army front and to draw German reserves away from Highway 65. Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s II Corps was then to attack along Highway 65 toward Bologna. The weight of the US army’s attack was then to be switched toward the north-west again to break into the Po valley after skirting Bologna.
Undertaken in conjunction with ‘Craftsman’, therefore, ‘Buckland’ involved (from left to right) Lieutenant General Sir John Harding’s XIII Corps, Hawkesworth’s X Corps, Lieutenant General Władysław Anders’s Polish II Corps and Keightley’s V Corps. On the 8th Army’s front, the offensive drove back Generalleutnant Hellmuth Böhlke’s I Fallschirmkorps and von Schwerin-Krosigk’s LXXVI Panzerkorps of the 10th Army to a line, just to the south of the Po river, extending from Bondeno in the west to Codigoro in the east.
At the start of 1945, Kesselring was able to resist pressure from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht for the movement of divisions from the Italian theatre for service on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Despite the fact that the 5th and 8th Armies had currently gone over to the defensive, Kesselring was able to point out the physical difficulties of pulling out divisions at a time when the Allies had total air superiority from bases now located well toward the front and therefore providing the warplanes operating from them with greater loiter time as well as the ability to strike at the passes over the Alps. Despite the sterling efforts of the Germans’ repair services in their efforts to keep open the few lines of communications with Austria, during February 1945 the main route via the Brenner Pass was open for a mere five days and the north-easterly routes for just 10 days. The relocation of German divisions from Italy was thus a process which was slow and fraught with peril: ordered to the Eastern Front, for example, Oberst von Saldern’s 356th Division needed 15 days just to reach Austria. Between January and March Heeresgruppe ‘C’ was nonetheless stripped of four divisions although only one of these, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Otto Baum’s 16th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Reichsführer-SS’, was a mobile formation of high quality. At the end of March, the strength of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ amounted to 21 German divisions (five of them mobile formation) and four Italian divisions basically similar in capability to the Italian combat groups raised by the Allies. Thus the 15th Army Group’s loss of the Canadian I Corps was in fact more than offset by redeployments from the strength of Heeresgruppe ‘C’.
In overall terms, the strategic position faced by Kesselring was not dissimilar from that of the previous winter for, like that along the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences, the German forces’ present front had held the Allies’ autumn assaults but would probably not be able to check another Allied offensive using rested, retrained and re-equipped forces attacking with all the advantages of dry weather in the spring, especially as the front held by the Germans at the beginning of 1945 lacked the combination of natural and engineered strength which had characterised the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. This resulted largely from the fact that the current front was not a defensive line which the Germans had been able to prepare and then occupy, but rather the line along which the Germans had been holding when the Allies ended their offensive for the winter. Another fact which Kesselring had to bear in mind was that while the Allied forces had used the winter months to rest, retrain and re-equip, the German forces had spent the same months labouring to strengthen their positions in the hope that the front’s depth would compensate for its lack of artfully boosted natural defensive strength.
The Germans’ attempts to increase their defence in depth, based on the alignment of the rivers of the Romagna in the east and the hill lines in the west, also led to the design and construction of delaying positions such as the ‘Irmgard-Linie’ on the Senio river, the ‘Laura-Linie’ on the Santerno river, the ‘Paula-Linie’ on the Sillaro river and the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’ covering Bologna. Behind these lines was the ‘Reno-Linie’ along the river of the same year, and similar to the ‘Hitler-Riegel’ through which the Allies had penetrated during the previous year. It ran from Lake Comacchio toward the north-west, parallel with Highway 9, and was thought to provide an ideal definitive fall-back position from which any Allied penetration of the current positions could be stemmed. Behind the Reno river came the Po river, which was seen as the northern counterpart of the ‘Cäsar-Linie’ south of Rome but was in actuality too long for protracted defence. Thus most of the Po river defences were created to aid the retreating Germans to cross this water barrier in good order, and not to halt the subsequent Allied attempts to cross. The northern counterpart of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ was the ‘Venezia-Linie’ on the Adige river, which the German high command saw as the most important line shielding the approaches to the ‘Voralpenstellung’ (forward Alpine fortress). The ‘Venezia-Linie’ extended from Lake Garda to the east along the Alpine foothills to the middle reaches of the Adige river, which it then followed to the coast of the Adriatic Sea between Venice and Lake Comacchio. The line of the Alpine foothills extending to the north-east on the inland side of the Venetian plain was designated, with more bombast than reality, the ‘Voralpenstellung’ of the suggested national redoubt in which the German leadership was finally to hole up. The ‘Venezia-Linie’ and the ‘Voralpenstellung’ were being built under the supervision of the so-called Voralpen command, the defences themselves being constructed by some 5,000 German fortification specialists and many thousands of Italian workers impressed for service in the Organisation ‘Todt’ labour corps.
All but the most immediately essential of major administrative elements and supply dumps required by Heeresgruppe ‘C’ were relocated to areas lying to the north of the Adige, and the ‘Herbstnebel’ (ii) withdrawal scheme, which Kesselring had wanted to implement in October 1944, was revised and improved to take into account the latest developments. No senior German commander of the Italian theatre felt that the Allies could be halted to the south of the Po river, so the task now facing them was the delay of the Allies as the German forces fought a slow and skilful retirement to the positions covering the Adige river. In this task the single most significant factor was whether or not Adolf Hitler would authorise ‘Herbstnebel’ (ii) in time to allow the German forces to retire across the Po without being destroyed by the combination of Allied land power and Allied air power. In concert with their development of improved defences in northern Italy, the Germans planned and instituted a number of deployment and command changes, the former generally reflecting the fact that Kesselring was concerned, as he was right through the Italian campaign, about the security of his flanks given the Allies’ amphibious capability and the opportunity this offered for landing in the Germans’ rear.
To a large extent Kesselring’s fears were groundless as the Allies now in fact possessed little amphibious lift capability in the Mediterranean, had no reasonable objectives on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, and could not seriously consider a landing in the Adriatic Sea to the north of the Po river estuary in the east as a result of the water’s lack of depth and the prevalence of false beaches. Nonetheless Kesselring feared another ‘Shingle’ type of landing, and therefore opted to hold the Adriatic coast more strongly.
So Kesselring moved the boundary between the 10th Army and 14th Army to a point east of Bologna. On the western side of this boundary the 14th Army was tasked with opposing the 5th Army with General Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s LI Gebirgskorps and General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps, which exchanged places so that the experienced and capable Panzer corps covered Bologna and its vital communications hub. The 10th Army was to check the 8th Army in the Romagna and cover the Adriatic coast to the north of the Po river’s estuary.
The front was too long and the available resources too scanty for Kesselring to be able to pull back all of his mobile formations into reserve, so Generalmajor Karl-Lothar Schulz’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision and Generalmajor Alfred Kuhnert’s (from 19 April Generalleutnant Viktor Linnarz’s) 26th Panzerdivision were kept in the line, while Generalmajor Fritz Polack’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalmajor Heinrich Baron von Behr’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision were placed in reserve for movement to either flank as and when required.
As noted above, late in March Hitler replaced von Rundstedt with Kesselring as the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, Kesselring’s position in Italy being assumed by von Vietinghoff-Scheel, returning from the command he had held, only since January, of the German forces in the Kurland peninsula of Latvia. von Vietinghoff-Scheel felt that Heeresgruppe ‘C’ was the best fighting command left to Germany, with divisions that were moderately well rested and up to strength in personnel, well-held forward lines and rear lines that were being steadily developed, and a reserve of two Panzergrenadier divisions. Thus von Vietinghoff-Scheel has the same mobile reserve as Kesselring had on the altogether larger Western Front, and the number of serviceable armoured vehicles available to him was the same as that which Kesselring had on the Western Front. The 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision and 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision were arguably the best combat formations still available to Germany, and the other formations on the Italian front were properly constituted divisions rather than extemporised battle groups allocated divisional designations, as was the case on the Eastern and Western Fronts. The logistic situation was also as good as could have been expected in the circumstances, with the temporary bridges and ferries over the Po river working well. And in one sense the Allied air interdiction programme was in many ways working to the advantage of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ and it prevented the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht from withdrawing divisions for service on the two other fronts. Ammunition, equipment and food supplies were adequate, but the one major limitation was shortage of fuel, which severely limited mobility.
Fuel was no problem on the other side of the front line, where Alexander planned the destruction of the German forces south of the Po river on the plain of Lombardy. The key factor which the Allied planners had to take into consideration was the location and nature of the Reno river, into which all the German defences were tied. This river rises in the Apennine mountains to the south-west of Bologna and flows down the eastern side of Highway 64, skirting the western side of Bologna, to a point some 20 miles (32 km) to the north, where it sweeps in a great turn to the south-east and the Adriatic coast just to the south of Lake Comacchio. This river was the primary natural obstacle faced by the 8th Army. Between the Reno and Po rivers there are only very few natural obstacles, and the network of roads between the two rivers was relatively good. The first of the two primary conclusions of Alexander and his staff was that the 5th Army should concentrate its effort in the area to the west of the Reno, which would keep this army well clear of the Reno and also keep the US axis of advance well west of the Germans’ notably deep German defences around Bologna. The only problem with this concept was the fact that the 5th Army’s main salient, from which its offensive would begin, lay on Highway 65 straight north to Bologna via Pianoro and not on Highway 64 cutting north-east to Bologna via Marzabotta and Sasso Marconi, and this required the launch of preliminary operations to advance the American locations in the west of the salient farther over the Apennine mountains to positions level with those on Highway 65.
The second primary conclusion demanded that the 8th Army’s axis of advance should be switched from the north-west across the Reno’s successive tributaries, each with its German defence line, north across the Reno itself at a point as close as possible to the coast. The best route for this purpose crossed the Reno at Bastia, south-west of Lake Comacchio, and led north-west to the village of Argenta and on to the Ferrara stretch of the Po, where they were several good crossing points. Such an axis of advance would break through the hinge upon which the German armies would have to pivot as they withdrew to the Adige, and it would make it possible for the 8th Army to advance along the Po’s southern bank to Bondeno on the Po’s Panaro river tributary, and so cut off all the German divisions to the south of the Po. The problem with the proposed new axis was that it passed through the very narrow neck of land between Lake Comacchio and the area which had been extensively flooded by the Germans to the south-west of Bastia. This neck had been further reduced by flooding the fields on the southern shore of Lake Comacchio. This neck, soon to be known as the Argenta ‘gap’, was sure to be mined and could easily be blocked if the Germans came to believe that this was to be the 8th Army’s axis of attack.
The 5th Army’s problem was solved by the arrival of the 10th Mountain Division, which was the last US division to enter combat in World War II but a specialist in mountain operations. To provide this fledgling formation with at least some combat experience, an operation was mounted in the middle of February to bring the 5th Army’s front farther to the north in the area astride and west of Highway 64. Supported by the Brazilian 1st Division, the 10th Mountain Division performed excellently, clearing several very high peaks in an operation which included the roping of a whole battalion up the precipitous 3,000-ft (915-m) Riva Ridge. So successful was this small-scale undertaking that the Germans hastily moved in the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision to stabilise this sector of the front. By the time this had been achieved, however, the 5th Army had the start-line it required for its main offensive to the west of Bologna.
The solution to the 8th Army’s problem was more problematical. It was difficult to reach the Argenta ‘gap’ across the Reno river and the flooded areas, and it was also essential not to draw the attention of the German defence to this area. A airborne operation was considered as one possible answer, but the air commanders believed that the German Flak defences round Bastia were so strong that any such operation would suffer intolerable casualties in men and aircraft. The Fantail LVTs were another possible solution, but the vehicles were an unknown quantity in the Italian theatre and their arrival might come too late for the operation. In these circumstances, therefore, the Allied planning staff decided that while a back-up plan to force the Argenta ‘gap’ with a Fantail crossing of Lake Comacchio and the flooded areas should be drafted, a more realistic primary plan should be created. This was posited in the fact that while the Argenta ‘gap’ should become the most important axis of advance, it was too narrow to permit the passage of the entire 8th Army, so at least one other axis would also be needed.
For this there were three possibilities: an advance in the east by the XIII Corps in the Apennines to turn the Romagna river lines from the south, an advance up Highway 9 from Faenza toward Bologna via Imola, and an advance between Highway 9 and the Reno river on a secondary road through Massa Lombarda to Budrio on the Idice river to the north-east of Bologna. The first option was impracticable because there were not enough roads to allow a major formation to operate. The second was obviated by the presence of the highly capable 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision and 26th Panzerdivision, and also by the fact that it was the most obvious and therefore most heavily defended axis. This left the third option, which in fact possessed several benefits: it was relatively lightly held by the Germans, the Senio river’s course curved into the 8th Army’s positions and this provided a salient suitable for a river crossing, and a successful crossing of the Senio river and then the Santerno river would make it possible for the 8th Army either to wheel to the north between the river lines to reach Bastia and the Argenta ‘gap’, or to continue to the north-west in the direction of Budrio, thus emerging in the rear of the defenders of Bologna. The axis which the 8th Army did adopt after crossing the Santerno river, either north to Bastia or north-west to Budrio, would be decided in the light of the situation at the time.
McCreery decided that his plan would consist of an ‘Impact’ amphibious right hook across Lake Comacchio to Argenta and a main assault across the Senio opposite Massa Lombarda. If the right hook went well he could turn his main thrust north to puncture the German defences in the Argenta ‘gap’, but in the event that the Fantails proved a failure or there was any other failure with the right hook, he would direct the 8th Army to the north-west in order to get in behind the defence of Bologna and so aid the 5th Army’s offensive to the west of Bologna. With the main operational details of the joint British and US offensives decided, the next task facing the Allied planners was how best to deceive the Germans at the strategic and tactical levels. The problem was compounded by the fact that it was not decided until a time shortly before their starts which was to be the main thrust: if the 8th Army’s thrust was to be the decisive effort, as the British headquarters assumed, then the 5th Army should attack first and draw the German reserves western side of the front, while the converse was true if it was to be the 5th Army on which the main Allied hopes were pinned. However, the difficulties of the 8th Army’s front, the uncertainties about the amphibious effort on Lake Comacchio, and the problem of implementing an effective deception plan combined to suggest that the first attack should be delivered by the 8th Army, and any deception plan would be based on the threat of an Allied amphibious operation behind the German front. Intimations that a descent was to be made on Genoa on the north-west coast were not strategically realistic, and while greater credibility might be given to the threat of an amphibious assault on Italy’s north-east coast, this would result in the redeployment of German reserves closer to the east coast and thus the Argenta ‘gap’, which was not something that the 8th Army wanted.
Had the 15th Army Group had still been under the command of Alexander rather than that of Clark, the leading role might well have been allocated to the 8th Army. As it was, the primary task was given to the 5th Army, and Alexander then agreed with Clark that the 8th Army’s offensive should be launched about four days before that of the 5th Army to draw the German reserves to the east. The ‘Playmate’ deception plan now adopted was to give the impression that the 8th Army was larger than in fact it was, and to this end a US formation was included in its notional order of battle, and the supposed inclusion of an amphibious landing to the north of the Po river estuary was suggested by a show of landing craft at Ravenna and increased assault shipping at Ancona.
So much for strategic deception, but at the tactical level the problem faced by the 8th Army was how best to conceal its right hook move across Lake Comacchio and also to draw the focus of the Germans away from the Massa Lombarda axis. The right hook was to be concealed by the ‘Roast’ preliminary attack to the north along the ‘Spit’, which is the thin strip of land separating Lake Comacchio from the sea: it was reckoned that an attack here would convince the Germans that the British were trying to reach the Po river along the coast in conjunction with amphibious forces. The Massa Lombarda attack was to be disguised by a feint attack farther to the west, suggesting that the main attack was directed along Highway 9.
On the 5th Army’s front all the fighting, except for the preliminary attack by the 10th Mountain Division, had been astride Highway 65 toward Bologna, and it would therefore be a straightforward matter to suggest that the thrust would be renewed along this axis and, it was hoped, there would be few German reserves left for the Bologna sector when the Americans attacked. The last major difficulty requiring solution was the timing of the Allied offensive. As much local information as possible was analysed to fix the best time for the offensive’s beginning, but all these factors and the views of local people seemed to conflict with each other. At the time when the rivers of the Romagna would probably be low, the Po river would in all probability be in flood as a result of snow melting in the Alps; when the Romagna rivers and the Po were right, river mists would obscure the visibility required for the air forces to deliver tactical support; and so on. In general, May or June appeared to be the best months from the point of view of the ‘going’, and the two key factors were soon seen to be the readiness of the Allied divisions and their equipment, and the timing of the major spring offensives on the Eastern and Western Fronts. The latter were not likely to be mounted before May.
If the Italian front was to have a decisive effect on the course of the war, as Alexander and Clark hoped it would, the Italian offensive would have to be started in April. On the other hand, an attack in April would mean fewer men rested and reorganised, a smaller number of Fantail LVTs, and perhaps worse conditions in the battle area.
After a long debate, Alexander and Clark set 10 April as the target date. The final scheme was for the 8th Army to open the offensive with a series of minor preliminary operations on Lake Comacchio in preparation for its right hook, and then to commit its main attack across the Senio before turning to the north through the Argenta ‘gap’ or continuing to the north-west in order to cut in behind Bologna. Four days later, the 5th Army would attack to the north but well to the west of Bologna. Once the German front had been broken, the Allied armies would co-operate in enveloping as many Germans as possible south of the Po river, while at the same time sending armoured forces north across the river to disrupt the manning of the defences along the Adige. The 8th Army would cross the Po river to the north of Ferrara, aiming for Padua and Istria, and the 5th Army would cross the same river at Ostiglia, aiming for Verona, Lake Garda and the Brenner Pass.
The plan for the 8th Army’s last great offensive was derived from the pattern of its traditional set-piece battle, and thus included a hook round the exposed German flank, but this time a right rather than a left hook. The main attack and right hook were to be undertaken by the V Corps supported by the Polish II Corps. The XIII and X Corps were to cover the long mountain sector on the southern side of the battlefield. In the sector of the V Corps, the right hook was entrusted to the 56th Division with Royal Marine commandos and Brigadier C. H. V. Pritchard’s 2nd Parachute Brigade in support. On 1 April, the commandos of Brigadier R. J. F. Tod’s 2nd Commando Brigade would capture the ‘Spit’ and seek to exploit round the north-eastern side of Lake Comacchio. On 4 April a Royal Marine special boat squadron would seize the islands in the centre of the lake to cover preparations on the south-eastern corner. On 6 April a brigade of the 56th Division, using storm boats, would capture an area on the southern shore called the ‘Wedge’ and gain access to the flooded areas. The Fantails had proved disappointing as the lake’s water was too shallow and its bottom too muddy. However, they proved ideal in the flooded areas where the bottom was firmer. The Fantails were therefore reserved for the main right hook, which was to be launched when the V Corps crossed the Santerno. The right hook was to consist of a drive by a second brigade of the 56th Division across the flooded area in Fantails to attack the Bastia bridge in conjunction with the first brigade advancing from the ‘Wedge’. Two or three days later, a third brigade would make a wider hook across the lake to attack Argenta in conjunction with a parachute landing by the British 2nd Parachute Brigade.
The V Corps’ main attack across the Senio river would begin on a three-division front with Russell’s Indian 8th Division on the northern flank, Arbuthnott’s 78th Division in the centre and Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division on the southern flank. Only the two flank divisions would attack on the first day and would cross the river on either side of the Senio salient. Meanwhile the 78th Division would demonstrate without seeking to force a crossing. On the second day, the Indian 8th and New Zealand 2nd Divisions would advance side by side to the Santerno river and establish a substantial bridgehead over this waterway. The 78th Division would then move forward and, passing through the Indian 8th Division, head north to effect a junction at the Bastia bridge with the 56th Division’s right hook. The Indian 8th and New Zealand 2nd Divisions’ later movements would be dictated by the course of events: on the one hand they might be entrusted with the task of covering the 78th Division’s flank or on the other hand they might push to the west in the direction of Budrio.
The Polish II Corps was to place its two newly raised brigades astride Highway 9 in a holding role and also to attack across the Senio well to the north of Highway 9 with Major General Bronisław Duch’s 3rd (Carpathian) Division alongside the New Zealand 2nd Division. Once across the Senio and Santerno rivers, the Poles would advance toward Bologna on the northern side of Highway 9.
The fire plan for the 8th Army’s offensive was both original and ingenious, and dictated the actual timings of the operation. Four-engined heavy bombers were to arrive early in the afternoon of D-day and drop a ‘carpet’ of some 175,000 20-lb (9.1-kg) fragmentation bombs over the German artillery areas and the locations believed to contain the Germans’ immediate tactical reserves. Then there would arrive some 200 medium bombers, which would precision-bomb individual artillery areas. Next 500 fighter-bombers would attack smaller tactical targets closer to the forward troops. Only then would the 8th Army’s artillery begin to fire. The British artillery programme was to comprise an initial five false-alarm bombardments, each lasting 42 minutes and separated by 10-minute intervals, during which the fighter-bombers would attack the German positions in and around the western flood banks of the Senio river very close to the advanced elements of the attacking divisions. As the fifth barrage ended, the fighter-bombers would swoop down once more, but this time without firing, and this was the signal for the infantry to advance. Supported by flamethrower tanks, assault engineer vehicles to make crossings and their own close support weapons, the infantry formations were to cross the river just as it was getting dark and as the threat of the fighter-bombers kept the Germans under cover. During the night 100 heavy bombers would pound targets on the Santerno river marked by special marker shells fired by the artillery. At the same time 100 light bombers would add to the weight of counter-battery fire put down by the army artillery. The V Corps and the Polish II Corps would be supported by a total of 1,020 field guns with an allotment of just under 2 million rounds of ammunition.
If a breakthrough was thus created, the 8th Army planned to fight two separate battles, namely the destruction of the German forces to the south of the Po river and the pursuit across this waterway to the Adige river. The V Corps was tasked primarily with the battle of annihilation. If the Argenta ‘gap’ was pierced, it would exploit its advance toward Ferrara and turn to the west along the southern bank of the Po river to encircle the German divisions trying to reach the waterway. If it had difficulty in getting through the Argenta ‘gap’, the headquarters of the XIII Corps would arrive to assume command of the divisions advancing on Budrio to attack the rear of the German forces opposing the 5th Army, leaving the V Corps free to concentrate on the Argenta area. The headquarters of the X Corps was to be responsible for the crossing of the Po river, and therefore take command of the Special Po Task Force of engineers with their bridging equipment. The X Corps with the Special Task Force would pass through the Argenta ‘gap’ and come up on the right flank of the V Corps, taking under its command whichever division was detailed to make the Po crossing. Plans were also made to drop small parties of Italian volunteers behind the retreating German columns to increase rear-area confusion and to spread alarm. Large numbers of volunteers came forward from the Italian combat groups, but there was time to train only some 250 of them for this ‘Herring’ operation.
The 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ plan was to advance astride and to the west of Highway 64 and the Reno river with the IV Corps on the left and the II Corps on the right. The IV Corps’ front was still some way behind and to the left of the II Corps’ salient on Highway 65, so it was to attack first with the Brazilian 1st Division on the left, the 10th Mountain Division in the centre and Major General Vernon E. Prichard’s 1st Armored Division on the right. When the IV Corps drew level with the II Corps, both of these formations would continue the attack in concert until they had driven a gap through the German defences to the west of Bologna wide enough for the two armoured formations, namely the 1st Armored Division and Major General W. H. E. Poole’s South African 6th Armoured Division, to pass through and then fan out into the valley of the Po, the US formation heading to the west in the direction of Modena and the South African formation to the east to complete the encirclement of Bologna by linking with the V Corps at Bondeno on the Po. The II Corps would follow, making for the Po at Ostiglia, while the IV Corps wheeled to the west in order to protect the 5th Army’s left flank from the attentions of Guzzoni’s 97th Army ‘Liguria’ (otherwise Armeegruppe ‘Ligurien’) from north-western Italy, the last stronghold of Benito Mussolini’s revived Italian Fascist state.
Like that of the 8th Army, the 5th Army’s plan included complex deception measures. The aim was to suggest to von Vietinghoff-Scheel that the whole Allied effort would be made against the hinge of his line through the 8th Army’s sector. The illusion was to be created by the apparently secret movement of the whole of the II Corps into reserve behind the 8th Army, leaving the IV Corps to cover the whole of the existing 5th Army front. To heighten the illusion, a preliminary attack was to be made up the west coast toward La Spezia to suggest to the Germans that this was the Allies’ diversionary attack to draw their reserves off to the west, and thus away from the 8th Army. This attack was to be carried out about the same time as the 8th Army’s commando component attacked the ‘Spit’. The west-coast operation was allocated to Major General Edward M. Almond’s US 92nd Division, in which two of the three African-American regiments had been replaced by the 442nd Infantry, a Japanese-American unit relocated from France, and the extemporised 473rd Infantry created out of anti-aircraft artillery units disbanded in the absence of any significant German air power.
While the 5th and 8th Armies were making their final preparations, General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Allied armies in North-West Europe were crossing the Rhine river and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front was entering Austria. Thus the Soviet forces were now closer to Vienna than those of Alexander in Italy. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had definitely lost the race which he had, in fact, already conceded when he allowed the Combined Chiefs-of- Staff to forbid Alexander’s proposal for an amphibious assault across the Adriatic Sea into German-occupied northern Yugoslavia. More significantly, from the point of view of events on the Italian Front, were the secret ‘Sunrise’ negotiations which had started as a result of the efforts of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff, the German high command’s ‘ambassador’ to the Salò Republic, via intermediaries in Switzerland for the surrender of Heeresgruppe ‘C’. The covert meetings between the Allied and German representatives proceeded spasmodically through March 1945, but Alexander felt that he could no rely on this avenue to an end of the fighting, and therefore accelerated the last offensive’s preparations.
Facing what were clearly very significant Allied developments, von Vietinghoff-Scheel fully appreciated the precarious position of his Heeresgruppe ‘C’. The army group commander had asked Hitler to authorise a mobile rather than static defence, and Herr, commanding the 10th Army, was in full agreement as he expected a mobile defence to discommode the Allies. Herr felt that the 8th Army would attack on each side of Highway 9, and located his best formations to hold that axis. Herr made the suggestion that as the start of the Allied offensive became imminent, he should pull back his formations under the protection of a heavy artillery barrage, thus compelling the Allies to recast their plans, and thereby buying time for the 10th Army. Herr felt that northern Italy was large enough, and contained sufficient river lines, for his army to make use of the same ploy, with variations, during a period lasting several weeks. von Vietinghoff-Scheel forwarded Herr’s concept to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, which refused its permission in strong terms and thus persuaded von Vietinghoff-Scheel that there was also no hope of receiving authorisation for the revised ‘Herbstnebel’ (ii).
Even before the Allied forces started to launch their preliminary moves and feints, the Germans started to react to their perception of Allied intentions. von Vietinghoff-Scheel and his staff thus came to belief the Allied deception plan suggesting an amphibious attack north of the Po estuary, and at the end of March the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision was taken out of reserve near Bologna and despatched to the north-east in the direction of the Venetian coast. This left only the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision in reserve to the south of the Po near Modena, and worse was to come. The 8th Army’s preliminary ‘Roast’ attack on the ‘Spit’ was completely successful, and Generalleutnant Ralph von Heygendorff’s 162nd (turk.) Division, holding the area, lost 900 prisoners and Generalmajor Walter Jost’s 42nd Jägerdivision lost its reconnaissance battalion. In an effort to help stabilise the position, the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision, still moving in the direction of Venice, sent its own reconnaissance battalion to the south and also lost a number of minor units when the British commandos seized the islands in Lake Comacchio. Moreover, this early combat to the east of the lake confirmed von Vietinghoff-Scheel in his belief that a major assault, by airborne and amphibious forces, was imminent north of the Po estuary, and thus the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision continued its move away from the area in which its deployment could have given the German cause the greatest benefit.
On the west coast the 92nd Division began its diversionary attack on 5 April. The men of Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico’s 148th Division fought well but were compelled to yield the last remaining stretches of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences and fall back, leaving 500 prisoners in US hands. Lemelsen, commander of the 14th Army, felt that the situation on his western flank had to be retrieved and committed a regimental group of the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, and thus there was no complete mobile division available in central reserve when the 8th Army committed its main assault on 9 April.
The Germans were not surprised by the attack, for they had been alerted several times since the last week of March. What did take them by surprise, however, was the severity of the onslaught and its location well to the north of Highway 9 in the sector held by Generalleutnant Alfred Reinhardt’s (from 11 April Generalmajor Otto Schiel’s) 98th Division and Generalmajor Alois Weber’s 362nd Division. Further dislocation of the Germans’ thinking came with the ingenuity and strength of the British attack on the Argenta ‘gap’, in which they appreciated the significance of Bastia bridge area, but had believed that this could be attacked only from the south. The 56th Division’s amphibious effort across Lake Comacchio and through the flooded area took the Germans completely by surprise, and although a rare aerial reconnaissance sortie secured an image of the lake area with a concentration of LVTs, this reached the headquarters of the 10th Army too late for its significance to be appreciated.
The fine weather of 9 April allowed the 8th Army’s air and artillery programme, which started a day earlier than the agreed target date of 10 April, to succeed more than fully. Timings and accuracies were both excellent, even though the pilots of the fighter-bomber aircraft encountered problems in locating their targets in the huge dust clouds which hung in the air from earlier bombings and shellings. Committed under the planned dummy fighter-bomber attack, the infantry assault secured immediate success, and were greatly aided by the efforts of the flamethrower tanks, whose effects on the German positions on the other side of the Senio were great but ghastly. By the following evening the Indian 8th and New Zealand 2nd Divisions were nearing the Santerno, and had taken 1,300 prisoners.
To the west, on each side of Highway 9, the Poles ran into a sterner defence from the higher-grade German divisions holding what Herr had thought would by the 8th Army’s main axis of advance. Although the Poles made slower progress and took heavier losses than the Indians and New Zealanders on their right, they had reached their objectives by nightfall on 10 April. Right from the start of the operation, the intensive combined training carried out between the Allied armies and air forces during the winter had started to pay off. The heavy and medium bombers attacked once more on 10 April and, under the direction of controllers right up with the leading army units, the fighter-bombers proved tactically decisive through their ability to destroy pinpoint targets, no matter how small. By 12 April the V Corps and Polish II Corps had shallow bridgeheads over the Santerno, and during the afternoon of that day the New Zealand 2nd Division overcame increasingly determined resistance to take Massa Lombarda, thereby bringing the first phase of the 8th Army’s offensive to the intended line.
Meanwhile the 56th Division’s right hook had been enjoying a comparable success. The division took the ‘Wedge’, as planned, on 6 April, the 42nd Jägerdivision losing another 700 men taken prisoner. The British engineers now worked with great speed to create the launching points for the LVTs and to bridge gaps in the approach routes, and thus the 56th Division’s second phase was started on schedule as the V Corps reached the Santerno, and again took the Germans by surprise. The LVTs landed the second brigade behind the ‘Reno-Linie’ defences and by 12 April the two brigades of the 56th Division had linked. However, the combination of Brigadier M. D. Erskine’s 24th Guards Brigade and Brigadier W. H. Stratton’s 169th Brigade now faced very strong opposition and was unable to break through to Bastia.
Clark had originally wanted the 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ to begin on 12 April, but adverse flying conditions resulted in a postponement to 14 April. By this time there was no clear indication for the 8th Army to decide between the Argenta or Budrio axes, so McCreery decided to continue to develop his formation’s offensive on both of these axes. For the northern thrust the 78th Division was instructed to pass through the Indian 8th Division and advance toward Bastia, and the 56th Division to despatch its third element, Brigadier J. Scott-Elliott’s 167th Brigade, across the floods toward Argenta. The strength of the German anti-aircraft defences in the area was clearly too great to risk the airborne delivery of Pritchard’s 2nd Parachute Brigade, however, so the commandos were ordered to assist the 56th Division with whatever storm boats and other craft they could muster.
For the westward thrust the XIII Corps was ordered to move, with Major General D. W. Reid’s Indian 10th Division, into the area of the New Zealand 2nd Division, where it would co-ordinate the drive of the New Zealanders and Indians on the northern flank of the Polish II Corps, which was meeting determined resistance from the airborne and Panzer divisions on Highway 9. By this time von Vietinghoff-Scheel had realised that the British in fact planned no amphibious assault on the Adriatic coast north of the Po estuary, and also appreciated the danger posed by the advance of the 56th Division toward Bastia. He therefore instructed the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision to redeploy as quickly as possible to the Argenta ‘gap’. The 78th Division’s development to the north was proceeding to plan, and the formation seized the Bastia bridge on 14 April before the Germans had managed to complete its destruction. Arriving too close to the earlier landing’s location, the 56th Division’s second amphibious hook failed as it encountered the first of the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision’s regimental battle groups to arrive. The 78th Division was similarly checked in front of Bastia, and the V Corps had to call a temporary halt to plan and implement a co-ordinated attack to clear the ever-stiffening German defence of the Argenta ‘gap’. Some fears were expressed at the headquarters of the 8th Army that the Argenta ‘gap’ was now too strongly held, and therefore that an alternative route to the Po would have to be found.
The British V Corps’ attack became three days of bitter fighting. The 362nd Division and 42nd Jägerdivision held, and a second regiment of the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision was also committed. Bastia fell only on 16 April, and it was only after a heavy air attack on Argenta that Herr decided to pull his 10th Army’s divisions back to the northern portion of the Argenta ‘gap’ during the course of 17 April. The V Corps kept up the pressure on 18 April, and by the evening of that day the 78th Division emerged beyond the last of the Germans’ prepared positions. Major General H. Murray’s British 6th Armoured Division came under the command of the V Corps during the day, and then passed through Argenta to come into the line on the western flank of the 78th Division. Despite the fact that the Germans were still resisting strongly, by the evening of 20 April all three divisions of the V Corps were fanning out to the north of the Argenta ‘gap’.
The XIII Corps and Polish II Corps pressed on with their advance to the north-west using artillery and air power to shatter the German resistance on each successive delaying line. The ‘Paula-Linie’ defences along the Sillaro river were penetrated on 15 April, and by 17 April both corps were fighting their way toward the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’ on the Idice river, which was the final water barrier covering the eastern approaches to Bologna.
The two German parachute divisions had now come together and, with the 26th Panzerdivision in reserve behind them, were preparing to check the British in front of Bologna.
More worryingly for von Vietinghoff-Scheel and his subordinate commanders was the fact that the German infantry divisions were beginning to fall apart and the German commander-in-chief was being compelled to rely, as ever, on the unrivalled combat capability of his mobile divisions. Thus the climax of the battle was approaching.
To the west of Bologna, the 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ offensive had started on 14 April and was now gathering the power and speed which would demand a response from the German formations facing the 8th Army.
One aspect of the overall Allied plan which had failed was the attempt to persuade the Germans that the II Corps had been switched into reserve behind the 8th Army, and in fact the only diversion of German strength from the area facing the 5th Army was the movement of part of the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision from the west coast.
The start of the 5th Army’s onslaught on 14 April took advantage of the clearing weather to make maximum use of Allied air power, which was devoted almost exclusively to the support of the US drive. The initial breakthrough was made by the IV Corps, despite the fact that this was weaker than the II Corps on its right, and the decisive formation in this instance was the 10th Mountain Division. At first, the advance of the 5th Army was slow. The IV Corps began its attack before the II Corps, and was faced with a hard fight before gaining its first gains. On 15 April the air forces dropped some 1,500 tons of bombs just ahead of the 5th Army’s front and 800 tons on the Germans’ rear areas. By the end of 15 April the IV Corps was level with the II Corps, which started its offensive during that night. Attacking nearer to the Bologna defences, the II Corps made slower progress than its sister corps to the west, where the IV Corps, spearheaded by the 10th Mountain Division, had already taken the German winter positions on its front and was now pushing through lower hills toward Highway 9 in the Po valley. The 14th Army’s formations fought back with a determination that matched that shown by the 10th Army’s divisions against the 8th Army. But by 16 April the weight of the American attack was starting to tell. The failure of the 8th Gebirgsdivision and 94th Division to check the advance of the IV Corps started to reveal evidence of collapse, and on the following day the 94th Division broke, opening the way for the 10th Mountain Division to speed its progress toward Highway 9. Lemelsen committed his only reserve, the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, to check the movement of the IV Corps, but on the other side of the line Truscott committed the 5th Army’s reserve, Major General J. B. Coulter’s 85th Division, in the sector of the IV Corps rather than setting its to pass through the II Corps as planned.
The 90th Panzergrenadierdivision lost most of its armour in a clash with the 1st Armored Division, and was therefore in no material state to re-establish the German line. During the afternoon of 20 April the 10th Mountain Division broke through into the Lombardy plain and severed Highway 9 halfway between Modena and Bologna. During the evening of the same day Major General Paul W. Kendall’s 88th Division and the South African 6th Armoured Division of the II Corps took Casalecchio, a western suburb of Bologna, and the first, and also the most difficult, part of the 5th Army’s offensive had been completed.
Although his request to be allowed to pull back had been rejected by Hitler on 14 April, by 20 April von Vietinghoff-Scheel appreciated that he now had no alternative but a retirement to the line of the Po, no matter what Hitler said. He knew it was too late, but he was determined to do the best he could to save what he could of Heeresgruppe ‘C’. At the moment when von Vietinghoff-Scheel ordered Herr and Lemelsen to get their 10th and 14th Armies on the move back toward the Po, the tactical situation faced by the German forces in northern Italy was still manageable, and was indeed little worse than some of the other crises which the German armies in Italy had survived. The 10th Army’s front was unbroken, with the LXXVI Panzerkorps containing the V Corps’ effort to break out through the northern edge of the Argenta ‘gap’ and the I Fallschirmkorps firm on the line of the Idice and ready to resist the offensive of the XIII Corps and Polish II Corps. The 14th Army was less well placed. Its LI Gebirgskorps was still intact and not under pressure, but the front of the XIV Panzerkorps had broken, with the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision unable to restore the situation and no other mobile reserves available. Lemelsen tried to pull Generalmajor Friedrich von Schellwitz’s 305th Division from the area to the south-east of Bologna and shift the formation round to help close the gap, but the US advance was too rapid and the gap therefore remained open.
There was, however, still no need to despair. Behind the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’ there were first the defences along the Reno river, and second those along the Po river. Under the ‘ordinary’ circumstances of the Italian campaign a rapid withdrawal to the Reno, behind the usual belts of demolitions and covered by rearguards, should have been sufficient to check the US offensive. The circumstances were not ordinary, however. In the previous German disengagements the front had been narrow and confined between the Apennine mountains and the coast, which compelled the Allied armies to launch their pursuits up restricting valleys with only one good road per corps. In the Po valley the front widened, the number and the extent of roads increased rapidly, and there were also many more bridges over the waterways, the bridges becoming too numerous for the German sappers to destroy with the efficiency they had revealed in Italy in the regions to the south of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences. The more extensive road network worked to the advantage of the Allies, who could deploy more divisions against the Germans, who were conversely compelled to commit more troops, with a detrimental effect on their ability to build a reserve. Moreover, any reserve the Germans did manage to concentrate had to move farther before launching a counterattack, such moves took longer and used more petrol, and they were also vulnerable for a longer time to the attentions of the rampant Allied air forces.
These last were not longer limited to difficult attacks on mountain roads and rocky hillsides, where targets were difficult to find, but could attack all movement on the exposed road network of the Po valley beyond the ‘bomb line’, and also fixed targets in the form of the easily found bridge sites on the wide Po river to keep closed to German traffic. The Allied airmen were also able to decimate the Germans’ telephone and radio communications nets by destroying lines and radio vehicles. Thus the German divisions suffered a level of losses to ground and air attack which was considerably greater than those typical of earlier campaigns, yet there were surprisingly few instances of morale failure in the German formations. The changed operational scenario meant that the Germans needed more rather than less time to plan and implement their withdrawal. Firstly, the defences on the Reno had to be manned, paving the way for the withdrawal, to positions north of the Po, of the formations currently in contact with the Allies, leaving only the rearguards along the Reno. Yet the plan would have been workable only up to 15 April, when the predominance of the 5th Army’s offensive and the 8th Army’s axis through the Argenta ‘gap’ both became clear.
Even if the retreat of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ had been ordered on this date, the LI Gebirgskorps would still have faced a major problem in getting across the Po before the centre of the German line was given to the rear. As it was, 20 April was a date which made the German attempt impossible, and the urgency of the situation meant that Herr and Lemelsen had to improvise rather than plan properly when their 10th and 14th Armies were ordered to fall back. Herr ordered his LXXVI Panzerkorps to hold the area of Argenta for as long it could to prevent the British from falling on the flank of the I Fallschirmkorps as it withdrew to the Reno, and to block the crossings of the Po to the north of Ferrara. The I Fallschirmkorps was to pull back from the Idice to the Reno covered by the 362nd Division and Generalleutnant Harry Hoppe’s 278th Division, which would then fall back through the paratroopers to make their escape over the Po.
To the west, in the 14th Army’s sector, the XIV Panzerkorps was to pull back to the westward extension of the ‘Reno-Linie’ defences based on the Panaro, and then retreat to the area of Mantua. The LI Gebirgskorps would have to retire in a north-westerly direction toward Piacenza, its departure covered by the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision blocking Highway 9 and so checking the Allies as the army’s most westerly divisions escaped. At the same time Guzzoni’s 97th Army ‘Liguria’ (otherwise Armeegruppe ‘Ligurien’) was instructed to fall back toward Milan.
In all this planning, the US breakthrough of the XIV Panzerkorps’ front had been serious but not beyond recovery, but the decisive blow fell on Heeresgruppe ‘C’ elsewhere. The British 6th Armoured Division had been allocated to the V Corps on 18 April, and then emerged from the Argenta ‘gap’ to strike in a north-westerly direction along the northern bank of the Reno toward Bondeno on the Panaro, which was the V Corps’ objective. Now the British formation fell on the flank and rear of the 362nd and 278th Divisions covering the I Fallschirmkorps’ retirement, and broke through across the airborne formation’s line of withdrawal, taking Bondeno late on 22 April. It then continued to the west, and on 23 April, met the advanced guard of the South African 6th Armoured Division, which had penetrated round the western side of Bologna. The British and commonwealth armoured formations lacked the strength to effect a complete rupture of the German lines of retreat, but many men of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision and 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision had to surrender, while others managed to escape only by swimming the Po. The Germans’ centre now lay wide open, and the only cohesive German formations now left in northern Italy were the LXXVI Panzerkorps trying to hold Ferrara, and the LI Gebirgskorps falling back as quickly as it could to the west.
Strangely enough, the extent of the German collapse appears not to have been wholly evident to the Allies, who now planned on the basis of continued hard fighting. The Polish II Corps had entered Bologna from the east and the Americans from the west on 21 April. McCreery now drew the Polish II Corps back into reserve and sent the XIII Corps to the north in pursuit of the I Fallschirmkorps. The XIII Corps took the British 6th Armoured Division under command and closed up to the Po to force a crossing, and the V Corps committed its reserve, the Indian 8th Division, to push on past the western outskirts of Ferrara and reach the Po to the north of the city late on 23 April. The LXXVI Panzerkorps (now including the 26th Panzerdivision and 29th Panzergrenadierdivision), and commanded from 25 April by Generalleutnant Karl von Graffen, was thus trapped between the Po and its delta.
The British ground forces were beginning to become concerned about the continued availability of ammunition, although Allied air power was able to provide the required firepower, and bridging equipment was also becoming scarce: the scale of the requirement is indicated by the fact that on just one day the 8th Army’s engineers built 29 bridges. The Special Po Task Force was still intact and moving up behind the British V Corps. At this time the health of Hawkesworth, commanding the X Corps, broke down, and McCreery opted not to look for an immediate replacement but to divide the Special Task Force between the XIII and V Corps, which were both instructed to cross the Po river as soon as their engineers could establish the required ferries and bridges. The two corps were ordered then to advance on parallel northward axes to pierce the ‘Venezia-Linie’ defences before the Germans could fully man them.
In the bridgehead still held by the LXXVI Panzerkorps, however, the 26th Panzerdivision and 29th Panzergrenadierdivision maintained their resistance. By the evening of 24 April the corps’ commander, von Schwerin-Krosigk, who had succeeded Herr on the latter’s elevation to command of the 10th Army, saw the finality of his formation’s position. On von Schwerin-Krosigk’s order, therefore, the corps’ surviving vehicles (armoured and unarmoured) and artillery were abandoned, and all the men who could swam the river. von Schwerin-Krosigk surrendered himself to the V Corps on the following morning.
Of the four corps with which the German had started the battle on 9 April, three had now been destroyed, and four of the five remaining German mobile divisions had been savaged to cadres without equipment. It was only at this stage that the 8th Army seems to have appreciated fully that the war was virtually over, and the ‘Herring’ operation was launched, the Italian airborne troops causing considerable confusion to that already endemic in the rear of the surviving Germans units.
The two leading British corps crossed the Po on 24 April against no opposition, and by a time three days later had each secured a bridgehead over the Adige and were advancing rapidly in the direction of Venice and Trieste, which they reached on 29 April and 2 May respectively.
At much the same time the 5th Army had been making even more rapid progress. The IV and II Corps had plunged though the opening left by the collapse of the XIV Panzerkorps and then fanned out. The IV Corps had veered three divisions in a north-westerly direction to cut the LI Gebirgskorps’ line of retreat, and had sent the 10th Mountain and 85th Divisions straight to the north in the direction of Verona. The II Corps also headed straight north, and by 25 April the 5th Army had five divisions over the Po on a wide front on each side of Ostiglia. On 26 April the 10th Mountain Division entered Verona, and the II Corps then wheeled to the east to progress, parallel with the 8th Army’s line, across the Adige, which it reached at the same time as the British corps. The IV Corps crossed Lake Garda using LVTs and DD tanks to cut the road leading to the Brenner Pass, and also expanded to the west to clear Milan and the other major cities of north-western Italy.
The Italian Committee of Liberation had ordered a general rising on 25 April, thereby rendering all German attempts to retreat virtually impossible, and by 28 April all the German routes to the Alpine passes had been closed. On the instruction of Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani, the Salò Republic’s minister of defence, Guzzoni surrendered his 97th Army ‘Liguria’ (otherwise Armeegruppe ‘Ligurien’), comprising General Hans Schlemmer’s German LXXV Corps (Generalmajor Hans Steets’s 5th Gebirgsdivision, Generalleutnant Theobald Lieb’s 34th Division, and Generale di Divisione Tito Agosti’s 2nd Divisione Granatieri ‘Littorio’) and Generalleutnant Kurt Jahn’s Axis Corpo ‘Lombardia’ (Generale di Divisione Amilcare Farina’s 3rd Divisione di Marina ‘San Marco’, Generale di Divisione Mario Carloni’s 4th Divisione Alpina ‘Monterosa’ and Oberst Almers’s German 135th Festungsbrigade).
The last surviving German mobile formation, von Behr’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, tried to hold open the escape route for the other divisions in the west, but was forced to surrender after its commander and staff had been captured.
The German surrender delegation reached Alexander’s theatre headquarters at Caserta on 28 April, and a ceasefire was agreed for 12.00 on 2 May, delayed to 18.00 after some final difficulties resulting from the German arrest and subsequent release of von Vietinghoff-Scheel. On 4 May von Senger und Etterlin reached the headquarters of Clark’s 15th Army Group as the liaison officer charged with ensuring the terms of capitulation, and the war in Italy was over.