This was the Allied final offensive in Italy by Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s 5th Army and Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British 8th Army of General Mark W. Clark’s Allied 15th Army Group as the immediate successor to ‘Grapeshot’ (20 April/2 May 1945).
As ‘Grapeshot’ became ‘Grapefruit’ (ii) on 20 April, the efforts of Truscott’s US 5th Army and McCreery’s British 8th Army were now focused on the destruction of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’, or rather of this German army group’s last fighting capability. As the formations of the two Allied armies debouched from the to the northern end of the Apennine mountains and the lowlands to their to the east onto the Lombardy plain, the Germans began to withdraw in keeping with the concept of ‘Herbstnebel’ (ii). Here the single terrain feature which dominated the strategic. operational and tactical thinking of each side was the Po river, the mightiest waterway of Italy. Allied commanders still hoped to trap sizeable portions of the German forces to the to the south of the river, while if the Germans were to survive as a fighting force in to the northern Italy, they had somehow to get their heavy equipment, artillery and transport, as well as their surviving troops, beyond the river.
From the small spring from which it rises in the Cottian Alps in north-western Italy, the Po meanders for about 400 miles (645 km) in a series of great bends dotted with numerous islands and sand bars to enter the Adriatic Sea through a large delta 20 miles (32 km) to the north-east of the large lagoon known as Lake Comacchio. Half way along its eastward course to the sea, the river increases in width from 335 yards (305 m) upstream of Ferrara to 1,350 yards (1235 m) at a point to the north of Parma, 60 miles (100 km) to the west. Although to both the east and the west of that stretch the width was considerably less, it was still too wide to be spanned by field-type military bridges. Moreover, both the German and the Allies had to make consideration in their thinking for the fact that while the river in its basic form was a formidable barrier, in the flat Po valley the river was prone to major flooding. For more than half of its length, in the eastern part of the river valley, the river was the centre of a major dike system, rising 15 to 25 ft (4.6 to 7.6 m) above the level of the surrounding countryside and in places containing the river’s waters at a level higher than the valley floor. This meant, in military terms, that if the level of the river water was high, breaching of the dikes could cause widespread flooding and make the Po river a still more formidable barrier.
Traversing generally flat terrain, the best main roads in Italy crossed the Po river valley, and most secondary roads were gravelled and well drained, affording alternate routes to almost every point. Other than fighting delaying actions along watercourses crossing the Allies’ axes of advance, the retreating Germans could do little to block the progress of their pursuers. German difficulties were further compounded by the Allies’ total air superiority: every day on which flying was possible, Allied warplanes swept almost all of river’s length to locate and attack both crossing sites and the troops and equipment streaming back to the north in the direction of the Po river.
Before the start of the ‘Grapeshot’ spring offensive in its ‘Craftsman’ western form, the engineers of Truscott’s US 5th Army had made thorough aerial and map reconnaissances of that part of the Po crossing the axis of the army’s advance to the north, and from these had determined that the best crossing sites within the army’s zone lay along a 20-mile (32-km) stretch of the river between Borgoforte on Highway 62 (the road linking Parma and Mantua) and Ostiglia on Highway 12. Half-way between those two points lay the optimum crossing point at San Benedetto. The western half, between San Benedetto and Borgoforte, appeared to be more suitable than the eastern half, where a large marshy area near Ostiglia would be a hindrance to all types of military operation.
The engineers had selected 12 places suitable for assault crossings, an equal number of sites for the establishment of ferry crossings, and nine sites for the construction of floating bridges. Most importantly, nearly all of these sites were suitable for all three types of river-crossing operations. Expecting that Lieutenant General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps would reach the Po river before Major General Willis D. Crittenberger’s US IV Corps, Truscott had placed the 39th Engineer Group of the II Corps in charge of preparing the river crossings, but when late on 22 April it appeared likely that the IV Corps would in fact reach the Po first, Truscott shifted most of the engineers to the IV Corps.
Fully cognisant of the host of tactical problems attendant on a withdrawal across a broad river while under attack from the air and on the ground, the Germans had started months before on their preparations to fall back across the Po. Their engineers had selected several favourable crossing sites, which for obvious reasons were the same as those later selected by the Allied engineers. At each site they had located all the required matériel, including both large and small ferry boats suitable for use with any of three possible water levels, for during early spring and summer the Po in this area was unpredictable. As had so often been the case in the Italian campaign, however, nature would intervene to upset the Germans best-laid plans and preparations.
Despite the heavy snows of the winter of 1944/45, the spring of 1945 found the water of the Po at its lowest level in some 50 years. This removed the danger of flooding, but also left the water too shallow for the larger ferries which the Germans had readied for the transport of their heavy equipment and vehicles. Often running aground, these ferries thus became easy targets for Allied fighter-bombers, leaving the Germans no choice but to use smaller but shallower-draft ferries with greatly reduced carrying capacity. That inevitably meant abandoning much heavy equipment to the south of the river.
The German plans for a withdrawal behind the line of the Po river were further jeopardised when many pioneer units, originally detailed to operate the crossing points, were committed as combat troops to reinforce rearguard operations. Deprived of engineer assistance, unit commanders frequently had no choice but to improvise on the spot.
Moreover, by 21 April it already seemed too late for many German formations and units to reach the Po, let alone to cross it. One such unit was Generalleutnant Bernhard Steinmetz’s 94th Division, already hit very hard in ‘Craftsman’. During the night of 21/22 April Steinmetz received orders from General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps, of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army, to assemble his division’s survivors near Mirandola on Highway 12 about half-way between Modena and the Po river crossing point at Ostiglia. Here the division was to prepare a delaying position, but even as Steinmetz was reporting to corps headquarters to receive the order, Major General Paul W. Kendall’s US 88th Division of the II Corps entered Mirandola. The 94th Division’s survivors, generally in small detachments, then made their way to the Po as best they could. Meanwhile, the division’s operations officer was wounded and captured while making reconnaissance for crossing the river, and Steinmetz himself was cut off from his troops. Lacking the signal equipment needed to control his corps’ divisions, von Senger und Etterlin saw no alternative but to dissolve his headquarters staff with orders to reassemble at Legnano on the Adige river some 10 miles (16 km) to the north. Thus it was that early on 23 April the corps commander and his staff joined the precipitate flight across the Po.
That a German collapse was imminent was abundantly clear to the headquarters of the 5th Army, and Truscott now planned to drive almost the whole of his army into the gap caused by the disintegration of the XIV Panzerkorps. Crittenberger’s IV Corps on the left was to seize crossing points along a 20-mile (32-km) stretch of the Po river between Borgoforte on Highway 62, just 7 miles (11.25 km) to the south of Mantua, eastward to Ostiglia on Highway 12, some 27 miles (43.5 km) to the south of Verona, and Keyes’s II Corps on the right was to capture additional points on a narrower sector extending from Ostiglia to Sermide, 10 miles (16 km) farther to the east.
The IV Corps continued to lead the US advance. In the centre, Major General George P. Hays’s 10th Mountain Division advanced speedily throughout 21 April in the face of scattered resistance. To take advantage of the situation, Hays formed a tank/infantry task force composed of a battalion each of the 85th and 86th Mountain Infantry, the 91st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, an engineer company, a light tank company, and a tank destroyer platoon under the command of the assistant division commander, Brigadier General Robinson E. Duff. The task force reached the Bomporto bridge on the Panaro river at dusk and, though the Germans had prepared the bridge for demolition, captured it intact. In the sector of Major General John B. Coulter’s 85th Division, the leading regiment also seized intact the bridge over the Panaro river at Camposanto.
The two American corps swept almost without let or hindrance across the broad Po river valley. If the corps could maintain their rate of advance for the next 24 hours, Crittenberger and Keyes assured Truscott, both would have reached the southern bank of the Po river by 23 April.
Advancing as a covering force along the left flank of the IV Corps, however, Major General Vernon Prichard’s 1st Armored Division met considerable resistance as General Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s LI Gebirgskorps began to swing back toward the north-west, which, after the collapse of the XIV Panzerkorps’ front, was the only course available to Lemelsen’s 14th Army. To the 1st Armored Division’s right rear, Major General João Baptista Mascarenhas de Morais’s Brazilian 1st Division followed the German withdrawal, while Major General Charles L. Bolte’s US 34th Division was temporarily halted as the garrison of Bologna.
At dawn on 22 April, after having crossed the Panaro river at Bomporto on the previous day, Task Force ‘Duff’, with its armour in the lead, resumed the US drive to the north. What followed was a typical German minor but, in this case particularly, effective delaying action. As his task force had encountered little resistance in the previous 24 hours, Duff relaxed flank security in order to accelerate the dash for the crossing point at Ostiglia, some 30 miles (48 km) distant. The task force was thus an easy mark for a German ambush just beyond Bomporto. After allowing half of the US column to pass, the Germans opened fire on the tanks and tank destroyers in the middle of the column with Panzerfaust rocket-launchers, destroying and damaging several vehicles. Following in trucks, the US infantry dismounted and deployed, and although the German detachment had been dispersed within 60 minutes, this gave the Germans another hour to escape across the Po river.
Determined to reach the Po river by the fall of night, Duff spurred his men and vehicles through occasional small arms fire from isolated German rearguards. About an hour before Task Force ‘Duff’ reached San Benedetto, the main crossing point in the 10th Mountain Division’s sector, an anti-tank mine exploded near Duff’s Jeep, seriously wounding him. Hays then came forward to take command of the spearhead, which be 18.00 had reached and occupied San Benedetto. The rest of the 10th Mountain Division arrived during the night and deployed along the southern bank of the Po as it readied itself to cross on the following day.
While the 10th Mountain Division reached the Po river, the 1st Armored Division, with two combat commands forward, advanced throughout 22 April along the 10th Mountain Division’s left flank, but at a somewhat slower pace. That afternoon Combat Command A on the right bypassed Modena, 23 miles (37 km) to the north-west of Bologna, and crossed the Secchia river just beyond the city. With its tank battalion leading the way throughout the night, CC A reached the Po river during the morning of 23 April at the town of Guastalla. Throughout 22 April CC B, moving up on the left of CCA, met resistance which delayed its arrival on the southern bank of the Po river by several hours.
In the II Corps sector, Kendall’s 88th Division led the drive to the Po river, primarily because other units constituting the right wing of the corps encountered relatively strong delaying positions manned by units of Generalleutnant Hellmuth Böhlke’s I Fallschirmkorps. Elements of Generalmajor Karl-Lothar Schulz’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision and Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision made a notably determined stand along the Panaro river cutting diagonally across the US zone of advance, thus delaying Major General W. H. E. Poole’s South African 6th Armoured Division and Major General William G. Livesay’s US 91st Division. The 88th Division reached the Po river late on 23 April at a point where thousands of Germans were assembling in hope of crossing to the northern bank. During the next two days the 88th Division took 11,000 prisoners, including Generalmajor Friedrich von Schellwitz, commander of the 362nd Division and the first German divisional commander captured during the campaign.
Farther to the east, on the 8th Army’s sector of the front, breakthrough and pursuit were also the orders of the day. In this sector, however, the general alignment of the British drive to the north-west meant that McCreery could not use his entire force as the main effort by Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley’s British V Corps from Argenta toward Ferrara and a junction with the US II Corps meant that Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s British XIII Corps and Generał dywizji Władisław Anders’s Polish II Corps were soon pinched out of the line.
While the main objective was still to reach the Po river, it was almost as important, as far as the British were concerned, to trap the I Fallschirmkorps. This was a task allocated primarily to Major General H. Murray’s British 6th Armoured Division of the British V Corps. On 21 April this formation had driven forward to Passo Segni, 9 miles (14.5 km) to the south of Ferrara, and established a bridgehead over a lateral canal between the Reno and an arm of the Po river flowing to the south-east. After defeating a number of small but smartly delivered counterattacks, the 6th Armoured Division punched out of its bridgehead to speed forward another 7 miles (11.25 km) to Poggio Renatico, 8 miles (13 km) to the south-west of Ferrara and thus close the last escape route available to the remnants of Generalleutnant Harry Hoppe’s 278th Volksgrenadierdivision (up to 3 April the 278th Division) which, until then had served as the left-flank pivot for withdrawal of the I Fallschirmkorps. This forced the paratroopers to continue their withdrawal to the north-west and thus ensured a complete break between the I Fallschirmkorps and General Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk’s (from 25 April Generalleutnant Karl von Graffen’s) LXXVI Panzerkorps.
Even the possibility of retreat to the north-west was soon denied to the Germans, for on 22 April the British 6th Armoured Division pushed through to Bondeno, only a few miles short of the Po river’s southern bank, and on the following day both reached the river and met the South African 6th Armoured Division of the US II Corps at the village of Finale. While the cordon created by the two Allied armoured divisions was incomplete and therefore allowed some parts of the I Fallschirmkorps to escape, largely by swimming across the river after abandoning even their own personal weapons, it nonetheless trapped many thousands of German troops.
On 23 April Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division also reached the Po river, in this instance at a point 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north of Ferrara. By 12.00 all organised German resistance on the 8th Army’s front to the west of that point had come to an end, but farther to the east the LXXVI Panzerkorps was still to the south of the river, where the remnants of Generalleutnant Viktor Linnarz’s 26th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Dr Fritz Pollack’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision were still something of a problem for the British infantry despite the fact that the elements of LXXVI Panzerkorps were now for all practical purposes trapped to the south of the Po river between strong British formations to their west and the coast of the Adriatic Sea to their east. The only way on which these Germans could escape was to abandon all their equipment and weapons and seek to swim the river.
By 22 April the IV Corps’ engineers had already delivered some 50 12-man assault boats for an early morning crossing by the 1/87th Mountain Infantry. Just before the scheduled time for the crossing, by men with no training in this particular military skill, German 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns and 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon opened fire from the northern bank, causing some US casualties and delaying the crossing, but supporting US artillery quickly located and engaged the German guns, which were then withdrawn. Thus when the engineers drove the assault boats across the river there were no further casualties.
On the northern bank the assault troops found little but abandoned weapon positions, and within 60 minutes the 1/87th Mountain Infantry had secured the bridgehead and reported it ready to receive the regiment’s other battalions. After the fall of night, as the engineers worked to build a pontoon bridge, the rest of the 10th Mountain Division crossed the river, and be dawn on 24 April the division was deployed to the north of the Po river with all but its heavy equipment.
At about the time the 10th Mountain Division began to cross the river, a regiment of the 85th Division reached the Po river on the IV Corps’ right flank, while the 1st Armored Division continued to cover the to the west flank.
Truscott now prepared to capitalise on his army’s success by bringing the 34th Division from garrison duties at Bologna to free part of his armoured strength to exploit the crossing of the Po river. CC A then moved to the east where, at San Benedetto, it joined the 10th Mountain Division and 85th Division in a dash to the Adige river and Verona, whose capture would still further restrict the avenues of escape still left to the German forces in the western half of Italy. Meanwhile CC B and the 81st Reconnaissance Squadron assembled near Reggio, half-way between Modena and Parma, to aid the Brazilian 1st Division in completing the isolation and reduction of whatever was left of the LI Gebirgskorps trapped between the Apennine mountains and the Po river.
The fact that large numbers of Germans were now eager to surrender and vast quantities of German matériel littered all the routes leading to the Po river combined with the 10th Mountain Division’s easy crossing of this waterway served to convince Truscott that there was no longer for any formal set-piece assault across the Po river, and the 5th Army commander therefore ordered all his divisions to cross the waterway on their own and as quickly as possible.
Close alongside the 10th Mountain Division, the 85th Division began crossing on 24 April, and by 12.00 on the following day the IV Corps had a treadway bridge in operation, followed at 16.00 by a pontoon bridge. With almost all of its engineers, assault boats and bridging equipment reallocated to the IV Corps, the II Corps’ formations had to improvise. One regiment of the 88th Division led the way on 24 April by passing a detail of men and then an entire battalion across the ruins of a railway bridge, and others followed in captured rubber assault boats. Another regiment shuttled men across the river in a few DUKW amphibious trucks and LVT-4 Alligator amphibious tractors. On 25 April the 91st Division and the South African 6th Armoured Division each crossed in DUKWs and on makeshift rafts and barges. Nowhere did the Germans offer anything more than a token resistance.
On the 8th Army’s front, as the British V Corps reached the Po river after pinching out others of the army’s formations, McCreery moved to readjust his formations to bring other corps headquarters back into action. A first step was to transfer the British 6th Armoured Division from the left wing of the V Corps to the XIII Corps to afford at least a limited frontage along the Po river for a second corps. Like Truscott, McCreery had believed that a set-piece attack would be required to cross the river, and had created a Special Po Task Force within Lieutenant General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s British X Corps, but the speed and extent of the German disintegration combined with the fact that Hawkesworth was suddenly taken very ill (he suffered a major heart attack and died on his way back to the UK by sea) led McCreery to change his thinking. Splitting the task force between the V and XIII Corps, McCreery told both to cross the river straight from the march.
Meanwhile von Schwerin-Krosigk still had in his LXXVI Panzerkorps a formation whose elements still maintained a degree of cohesion and organisation in what was now, in effect, a German bridgehead on the southern bank of the Po river. At this juncture, von Schwerin-Krosigk decided that nothing could save his command. As long ago as the preceding summer in Normandy and then in September along Germany’s western frontier, von Schwerin-Krosigk had expressed his lack of faith in the German war effort and also his conviction that the continuation of the war merely worsened the misery attendant on the closing stages of of Germany’s now-inevitable defeat, and escaped the effects of Adolf Hitler’s anger only because he was a respected member of the old German nobility. von Schwerin-Krosigk now ordered all the men left to him to abandon their armoured fighting vehicles, artillery and other heavy equipment and make for the river to try to swim to safety. von Schwerin-Krosigk himself surrendered to the British during the morning of 25 April.
Elements of the V and XIII Corps crossed the Po river on 24 April against no opposition, and thus there now developed a race for the Adige river, which was the next line on which the Germans might try to delay the Allied advance, but the reality was that Heeresgruppe ‘C’ and its subordinate armies, corps and divisions had nothing with which to make a stand on the Adige river or elsewhere.
The 5th Army’s immediate objective to the north of the Po river, at a distance of 27 miles (43.5 km), was Verona on the Adige river and also on the main road to Trento, the Alps and the Brenner Pass. In Verona the Adige is 100 to 165 yards (90 to 150 m) wide, and with its fast-flowing waters a barrier which was potentially formidable. Even so, Allied commanders were not unduly worried about the possibility of a German defence here or elsewhere as the final German collapse was clearly imminent.
As the 10th Mountain Division led the IV Corps and the 5th Army across the Po river on 23 April, Truscott was already looking farther to the north and assigned Keyes and Crittenberger missions that aimed at reaching the Alps and clearing the last German forces from northern Italy. After crossing the Po river at Ostiglia, Keyes’s II Corps was to drive to the north as the 5th Army’s right-hand formation along the axis of Highway 12 to occupy the southern bank of the Adige river between Verona and Legnano, 20 miles (32 km) to the south-east. Crittenberger’s IV Corps was allocated a more complex undertaking. The corps was to send three divisions to the north along the axis from San Benedetto to Verona via Mantua, with Verona and its airfield in the suburb of Villafranca, 10 miles (16 km) to the south-west, as its initial objectives; at the same time the corps was to locate, isolate and destroy or capture the German (and surviving Italian Fascist) forces in north-western Italy. Crittenberger was to complete the second element of his task by the despatch of combined armour and infantry forces to the northern edge of the Po river valley below the foothills of the Alps, and thence to the north-west to block the exits from the Po valley into the Italian lakes region and the Swiss frontier.
Crittenberger was also to send the Brazilian 1st Division and the 34th Division to the north-west on each side of Highway 9 along the southern reaches of the valley to cut off the three divisions of the LI Gebirgskorps in the northern part of the Apennine mountains. In this part of the IV Corps’ task, the Brazilian 1st Division and 34th Division were to be aided by Major General Edward M. Almond’s US 92nd Division on the 5th Army’s western flank as this formation had, by 23 April, passed through the last of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences along the Ligurian coast and sent columns to the north-west and north-east. One of these columns, with two infantry regiments, advanced at high speed along the coastal highway toward the port of Genoa, some 35 miles (56 km) distant, while the other, with one regiment, moved along Highways 62 and 63 in pursuit of Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico’s 148th Division and Generale di Divisione Mario Carloni’s 1st Divisione Bersaglieri ‘Italia’ as these latter pulled back from the mountains toward Highway 9, and thus trap them against the advancing Brazilian 1st Division and the 34th Division.
The IV Corps’ advance to the Adige river was led by the 10th Mountain Division. Screened on its left by the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron, this formation was to bypass Mantua and cut the highway connecting Verona with Lake Garda. On the right Coulter’s 85th Division was to strike straight at Verona. Armoured support was provided by the 1st Armored Division’s CC A, which was to cross the Po at San Benedetto, while the rest of the armoured division turned to the north-west to support the thrust toward Milan and other cities of the upper parts of the Po river valley.
As before, Hays decided to employ a mobile task force to spearhead his division’s advance, and by chance was able to provide it with a new commander to succeed the wounded Duff. Colonel William O. Darby, who earlier had commanded a Ranger unit in Italy but had since been reassigned to a staff job in Washington, appeared at Hays’s headquarters in the middle of April as a part of the escort officer for several War Department dignitaries, and Hays persuaded Truscott and General Mark W. Clark, commander-in-chief of the 15th Army Group, to request the assignment of Darby as assistant division commander. The War Department agreed, and Task Force ‘Duff’ became Task Force ‘Darby’. The task force comprised the 86th Mountain Infantry, the 13th Tank Battalion from the 1st Armored Division’s CC A, single companies of light tanks and tank destroyers, three battalions of field artillery, and small engineer and medical units. The tank battalion was to spearhead the column, while light tanks and tank destroyers were dispersed along the column’s length to provide protection or to fall out along the way to establish roadblocks on the flanks. Hays motorised his own command post to bring up the rear of the task force, followed in turn by the 85th and 87th Mountain Infantry to mop up bypassed German units.
The time at which the task force could start its advance depended on getting across the Po river a bridge sufficiently strong to allow tanks, tank destroyers and artillery to cross, and a bridge of the required load-carrying capability would not become available until the afternoon of 25 April. Before this, on 24 April, the 85th Mountain Infantry started to probe out of the northern perimeter of the divisional bridgehead, but made no contact with the Germans. Deciding that the Germans must have pulled back, Hays not not wait for the availability of Task Force ‘Darby’ and launched the 85th Mountain Infantry in pursuit.
The 1/85th Mountain Infantry started to move early on 25 April for the airfield at Villafranca, which was 20 miles (32 km) distant. Large numbers of mines had first to be lifted from roads, culverts and bridges, so it took the head of the column an hour to cover the first 5 miles (8 km), but thereafter the speed of the US column increased. At about 09.00 the column entered Mantua, found Italian partisans already in control, and passed swiftly through toward the airfield. In the absence of further mines, the column advanced the 15 miles (23 km) in less than one hour. Quickly driving away a small German rearguard, the battalion set up a defensive perimeter and waited for the arrival of the armour and artillery of Task Force ‘Darby’.
On the 10th Mountain Division’s right, Coulter’s 85th Division crossed the Po river early on 24 April and also directed its advance toward Verona at about the same time. Proceeding warily, two forward regiments reached the vicinity of the Villafranca airfield at about dusk, and halted for the night. At the break of day the division continued to advance cautiously in column of regiments for Verona, where the men of the 85th Division found that units of the 88th Division were already in control of the city.
Unlike the 85th Division and its cautious approach, the 88th Division had plunged ahead in a headlong pursuit. Major General John E. Sloan, the divisional commander, had ordered his units not to wait for heavy equipment to cross the Po river, but to strike boldly for the city. Early on 25 April the 351st Infantry, with its 2nd Battalion in the lead along Highway 12, left the Po river bridgehead at Ostiglia. Using any transport they could obtain, the men of the 88th Division raced, regardless of mines and rearguards, 30 miles (48 km) toward Verona. Late in the afternoon of the same day five light tanks and seven tank destroyers, the first armoured fighting vehicles across a newly completed pontoon bridge, caught up with the forward troops to form a small armour and infantry assault force to lead the way into Verona. Although resistance was spotty, some minor units were caught in the occasion firefight until the Germans’ delaying detachments surrendered.
The worst setback came, by the type of error typical of fast-moving warfare, not from the Germans but from Allied warplanes. As the column paused on the edge of Verona, two Allied aircraft attacked it, apparently in the belief that a small force so distant from other Allied units had to be German. Despite identification panels prominently displayed and frantic efforts by a radio operator to reach air-ground control, the aircraft strafed the column repeatedly with cannon and machine guns. Before the aircraft finally departed, they had killed five men of a radio crew and destroyed several Jeeps.
The 2/351st Infantry’s little task force entered Verona at 22.10, 16 hours after leaving the Po river bridgehead. Within the hour the remainder of the regiment arrived to help clear the city. Only at the railway station was there any real fighting as elements of the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision made their final stand.
As the 88th Division cleared Verona, Task Force ‘Darby’ came forward after crossing the Po river, passed to the west of the city, and turned toward Lake Garda to begin an advance along its eastern shore toward Trento and the Brenner Pass. At the same time, Crittenberger detached the 1st Armored Division’s CC A from the task force and sent it to the north-west in the direction of Brescia, Bergamo and Como to close along its path the remaining escape routes from the Lombardy plain to the Swiss frontier. At the same time the 85th Division passed through Verona to clear the low hills to the north of the Adige river before continuing toward the foothills of the Alps. To the east the 88th and 91st Divisions of the II Corps, with the South African 6th Armoured Division as their screen on the right, closed up to the Adige river between Verona and Legnano, and crossed the waterway during the afternoon of the same day without meeting the slightest opposition. Beyond the river, a brigade of the South African division screened their flank while the rest of the armour remained to the south of the river until the bridgehead could be expanded.
Elsewhere the 34th Division, the Brazilian 1st Division and the 1st Armored Division’s CC B, all under IV Corps control, rounded up the Germans still to the south of the Po river in north-western Italy. The 34th Division, with the Brazilian 1st Division on its left, continued along the axis of Highway 9. The 371st and 365th Infantry of the 92nd Division, now attached to corps and army respectively, had other tasks: the first advanced to the north in the direction of Modena along the axis of Highway 12, and the second guarded the swelling numbers of prisoners streaming to the rear.
On the Ligurian coastal flank, the attached 473rd Infantry led the 92nd Division’s continued thrust along the coastal highway toward Genoa. Encountering only scattered opposition, the regiment entered the city early on 27 April. There was no resistance as Genoa’s 4,000-man garrison had surrendered to partisans on the previous day. Only a small detachment of German marine infantry, dug in on a hill top overlooking the harbour, held out until the US arrival and only then surrendered. By 09.30 on 27 April Genoa was in US hands.
Like that of most of the 5th Army’s formations and units to the Adige river, the advance of the 8th Army was more akin to an exercise than a combat operation. The army was moving into the gap between the I Fallschirmkorps and LXXVI Panzerkorps, and the fact that von Schwerin-Krosigk had surrendered and effectively ordered his surviving men to try to save themselves as best they could meant that was no real fighting to the north of the Po river.
After crossing this river without opposition during the night of 24 April, two divisions of the XIII Corps on the 8th Army’s left pushed somewhat cautiously toward the Adige river, 10 miles (16 km) away. Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division reached the river late in the afternoon of 26 April, followed shortly by the British 6th Armoured Division. Some 250 Italian volunteers were dropped by parachute in small groups throughout the 8th Army’s zone in an effort to add to German confusion.
After crossing the Po river without opposition during the night of 24 April, the Indian 8th Division of the V Corps also headed toward the Adige river, assisted by Major General J. Y. Whitfield’s 56th Division, after brushing aside a brief flurry of resistance in crossing shortly before 12.00 on 25 April. By the early evening of 26 April both divisions had reached the Adige river. During the preceding night, Generale di Divisione Clemente Primieri’s co-belligerent Italian Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Cremona’ had crossed the Po river on the 8th Army’s right and, with the aid of local partisan forces, had cleared the country near the coast of the Adriatic Sea.
On 27 April formations of the V and XIII Corps crossed the Adige river without opposition, and the last significant river barrier in the zones of the 5th and 8th Armies in northern Italy now lay behind these major Allied formations. All that remained to them, the Allied commanders believed, was to accept the surrender of a defeated foe, but they were wrong. The fighting which now had to be faced could not, and in fact did not, affect the outcome of the Italian campaign, but was nonetheless costly and, just as tragically, sustained when the end of the campaign was only days distant.
To the east of Lake Garda, the Germans had only two escape routes available to them: opposite the 8th Army, one led to the north-east in the direction of south-eastern Austria and Yugoslavia; and opposite the 5th Army, the other led to the north along the shore of Lake Garda and the axis of Highway 12 toward the Brenner and Reschen passes into south-western Austria. After the surrender of von Schwerin-Krosigk’s LXXVI Panzerkorps, the I Fallschirmkorps, now all that was left of General Traugott Herr’s 10th Army, tried to retreat along the first route, which was threatened on its south-eastern flank by the advance of Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslav forces, and von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps, now all which was left of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army to the east of Lake Garda, tried to withdraw along the second toward the rugged terrain of the Austrian Arlberg, which was the objective of Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army and Général d’Armée Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s French 1st Army of General Jacob L. Devers’s US 6th Army Group driving to the south-east through the Schwabian highlands of southern Germany.
The best construction which could be placed on the German situation was therefore that it was desperate in the extreme. Yet to von Vietinghoff-Scheel and his army group headquarters there remained one very difficult choice to be made: whether to fall back with the 10th Army or the 14th Army. von Vietinghoff-Scheel opted for the latter, and more specifically the area of the XIV Panzerkorps, for only in that formation was there even to remotest chance of maintaining, if only for a few more days, at least the figment of a continued German resistance. Moreover, the US and French formations advancing against the north-western segment of that escape route were somewhat more predictable adversaries than the Yugoslav and Soviet formations advancing against the former escape route. Thus the last week of April saw the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ moving spasmodically to the north along the axis of Highway 12.
On 24 April von Senger und Etterlin and the staff of his XIV Panzerkorps staff had set out in search of the the headquarters of the 14th Army to ask for orders. Finding Lemelsen at Ala, some 23 miles (37 km) to the north of Verona, von Senger und Etterlin discovered that Lemelsen wished the XIV Panzerkorps to hold the sector between Lake Garda and Highway 12, and on the following day von Senger und Etterlin established his own headquarters at Ala after Lemelsen had departed farther to the north.
During the next two days small groups of men, including elements of a signals battalion with critically needed communications equipment and wire, straggled into von Senger und Etterlin’s headquarters, and by the evening of 26 April the headquarters of the XIV Panzerkorps was once more operational, even though it had under command no more than 2,000 men of three Kampfgruppen, which comprised the consolidated remnants of four divisions. With these three groups von Senger und Etterlin was required to hold a 20-mile (32-km) sector extending from the Pasubio pass, to the south-east of Ala on Highway 46, westward to Lake Garda. As the Austro-Hungarian/Italian frontier of the pre-World War I period had run approximately along that line, some of its now decidedly elderly border fortifications could be pressed into service once more. Assigning the Kampfgruppe ‘Klotz’ to the right, Kampfgruppe ‘Steinmetz’ to the centre and Kampfgruppe ‘Schricker’ to the left, von Senger und Etterlin prepared for the last battle. As von Vietinghoff-Scheel had outlined it, the objective was to gain time so that Heeresgruppe ‘C’’s surrender could be made to coincide as closely as possible with that of General Friedrich Schulz’s Heeresgruppe ‘G’ to the north of the Alps and Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe ‘E’ withdrawing through Croatia toward the Julian Alps.
While the operational plan was that of von Vietinghoff-Scheel, the strategy had been decided by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the former Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südost’ and commander-in-chief of Heeresgruppe ‘C’, who since 27 April had been commander-in-chief of all the German forces in south-western Europe, including Heeresgruppe ‘C’, Heeresgruppe ‘E’ and Heeresgruppe ‘G’. Kesselring intended that all three of these army groups should fall back to the Alpine massif, there to hold out long enough to allow the army groups retreating before the Soviets to reach the Western Allied armies and therefore be in the position to surrender to the Western Allies and not to the Soviets.
As the surviving German forces retreated toward the Alps, Allied headquarters issued a call for a general uprising throughout northern Italy where, in most towns and cities of Lombardy, the authority of the revived Italian Fascist state had effectively ceased to exist. Many cities and towns therefore fell under partisan control, often days before the arrival of the Allied forces.
On 28 April the 88th Division entered Vicenza, to the north-east of Verona, and found that city to be held by partisans. Passing quickly through the city, the US formation continued its progress toward the valleys of the Brenta and Piave rivers, which flow to the south from the Alps to enter the Adriatic Sea near Venice. On 30 April Truscott shifted the 85th Division from the IV Corps to the II Corps, in which it deployed alongside the 88th Division, which was to advance up the Brenta while the 85th moved up the Piave river to an eventual junction on 4 May with the US 7th Army.
To the right of those two divisions, in the centre of the II Corps, the 91st Division advanced along the line of Highway 53 to cross the Brenta river on 29 April and on the following day race 25 miles (40 km) to the east in the direction of Treviso, just to the north of Venice. The South African 6th Armoured Division remained basically abreast of the 91st Division but to its east on the II Corps’ right flank. On 30 April both divisions had reached the limits of their assigned zones. While the 91st Division rounded up scattered German units, the South African 6th Armoured Division grouped to the south-west of Treviso in preparation for a westward move to become the garrison of the great city of Milan.
In south of the Po river valley, elements of the IV Corps continued their task of capturing cut-off German units. In taking cities such as Parma, Fidenza and Piacenza, Bolte’s 34th Division severed the line of retreat to the north-east of a major part of Guzzoni’s 97th Army (otherwise the Armee ‘Ligurien’), of which only Generalleutnant Eccard Freiherr von Gablenz’s 232nd Division managed to escape. Assembling in a bend of the Po river to the south of Cremona, this formation defended its bridgehead long enough to allow some troops to cross the river, but most opted for surrender.
Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani, the Italian Fascist state’s minister of defence, took refuge in an SS-held strongpoint near Cernobbio on Lake Como, some 27 miles (43.5 km) to the north of Milan, while his headquarters personnel, under the command of the Armee ‘Ligurien’’s German chief-of-staff, Generalleutnant Max-Josef Pemsel, fought through converging partisan units to reach Lecco on Lake Como’s south-eastern arm. Surrounded there by partisans but unwilling to surrender to irregulars, Pemsel held out until 28 April, when the 1st Armored Division’s CC A reached the area.
On the following day tanks of the 1st Armored Division entered Milan, which was already in the control of partisans. Anxious to be clear of the turbulent city, Prichard rapidly pushed his units through the city to positions to the to the north and the east, thus blocking all the routes to the Alpine frontier. On the same day, Truscott shifted the 34th Division and Generale di Divizione Umberto Utili’s Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Legnano’ to the north in the direction of Brescia, half-way between Milan and Verona, to strengthen control of the to the northern exits from the Po river valley. Meanwhile, to the to the west, the 442nd Infantry, operating under the command of the 92nd Division, streamed some 40 miles (65 km) across the Lombardy plain to take Alessandria and capture its 3,000-man garrison. Two days later the regiment took Turin, 50 miles (80 km) farther to the west.
The 473rd Infantry advanced along the coastal highway for 20 miles (32 km) beyond Genoa and made contact with elements of Général de Brigade Pierre François Marie Joseph Garbay’s French 1st Division de Marche d’Infanterie, part of General de Corps d’Armée Paul André Doyen’s Détachement de l’Armée des Alpes, at Savona more than 60 miles (100 km) to the east of the Franco/Italian frontier at Monaco. That penetration by French troops was matched 65 miles (105 km) to the to the north-west when, on 1 May, troops of Général de Brigade Marie Eugène Aimé Molle’s French 27th Division des Alpes made contact with the 442nd Infantry at Turin. At that point Devers, the commander of the 6th Army Group, under whose command the French divisions operated, ordered the French to cease all offensive operations in north-western Italy.
With the Po river valley’s northern exits closed, the German forces to the west of Lake Garda had no alternative but surrender, which they did from 29 April. This was also the case in north-eastern Italy, but not of the narrow front to the east of Lake Garda where Task Force ‘Darby’ progressed along the lake’s eastern shore toward final the defensive positions of the XIV Panzerkorps. As there had been little combat in the 5th Army’s zone since 18 April, the men of the 10th Mountain Division had set off on their last task on 28 April in the belief that the Germans would merely continue to withdraw or surrender. The Americans did not know, however, of the XIV Panzerkorps’ three Kampfgruppen and the defensive line they had created between Highway 46 in the east across Highway 12 to a western end at Riva del Garda at the northern end of Lake Garda.
Hays anticipated that as a delaying tactic the German might try to block the road along the lake’s eastern shore, where it passed through several tunnels. He therefore arranged for several companies of DUKW amphibious trucks to cruise on the lake slightly to the rear of his infantry, ready to transport infantry in attempts which might prove necessary to outflank and bypass German roadblocks. It was a wise precaution, for during the afternoon of 29 April the 86th Mountain Infantry, leading Task Force ‘Darby’, encountered heavy automatic weapons fire at the first of a series of tunnels about 5 miles (8 km) to the south of Torbole.
With fire support from accompanying tanks, the leading US battalion worked its way cautiously toward the tunnel, but as the US troops approached, the Germans set off demolition charges and collapsed the entrance to the tunnel, effectively blocking the road. A continued assault along the road was now impossible, so one infantry company boarded DUKWs and moved out onto the lake, which was being swept by a strong wind. From the far shore German guns opened fire, killing two men aboard the craft and wounding several others as the DUKWs made all possible speed along the shore to outflank the demolished tunnel, suffering no more losses.
As Hays had expected, the outflanking manoeuvre forced the Germans to pull back, but as they did so they demolished bridges and blocked other tunnels. By the middle of the afternoon the 2/86th Mountain Infantry had bypassed four tunnels and was about to attack a fifth when a demolition charge exploded prematurely, killing about 15 men of the German detachment defending the tunnel. Taking advantage of the resulting confusion, the US troops rushed and took the position. As each of the tunnels was outflanked and captured, engineers cleared them of debris to open the road to vehicle traffic.
As the 86th Mountain Infantry advanced along the eastern shore, Hays despatched the 85th Mountain Infantry across the lake in DUKWs to occupy the town of Gargnano in which, it had been reported, a number of high-ranking Italian officials had taken shelter. Finding neither Italian officials nor German soldiers, the regiment continued along the to the western side of the lake toward Riva del Garda and eventually linked with Task Force ‘Darby’. Hays meanwhile sent his third regiment, the 87th Mountain Infantry, over a narrow mountain road 5 miles (8 km) to the east of the lake in order to outflank the main German positions from the east.
Early on 29 April, as the 86th Mountain Infantry at the head of Task Force ‘Darby’ neared the last of the tunnels and the anchor of the German defences at the northern end of the lake, it ran into stiffer resistance. Just as the US infantry started to pass through the tunnel, German guns began firing from the vicinity of Riva del Garda: one shell exploded just inside the northern end of the tunnel, killing four Americans and wounding 50. The regiment quickly took to the DUKWs and bypassed the tunnel, and soon after 12.00 patrols entered Torbole. This town, Riva del Garda at the northern end of the lake and the nearby town of Nago were the primary strongpoints of the Germans’ last defensive position.
Evidence of the German determination to hold out became increasingly evident as German tanks and self-propelled artillery, located to the north-east of Torbole, forced the 86th Mountain Infantry to pull its forward battalions out of that town, and Darby had no option but to wait for the arrival of supporting artillery before attempting to retake it. When the artillery arrived two hours later, the 3/86th Mountain Infantry pushed back into the town and by 24.00 reported it cleared of Germans.
Yet the Germans refused to yield the town, and soon after 24.00 counterattacked with the support of a small number of tanks. Seeing no need to take heavy losses with the end of the war only days away, Hays once again ordered his men to withdraw. Only after the regimental and battalion commanders assured him that their men could hold without appreciable risk did he rescind the order.
Having bypassed Torbole on the right, the 1/87th Mountain Infantry, after 14 hours of precarious progress over rain-swept shale slopes, up cliffs and through narrow ravines, had arrived at a position only 1 mile (1.6 km) from Nago. Because the assault that would now be launched had to pass through a narrow ravine whose northern exit was commanded by German artillery, the battalion commander delayed the assault until after the fall of night. At dusk, passing in single file through the ravine, the men of the assault company had moved to within 200 yards (185 m) of Nago without attracting German fire when they came under attack came from the air: one aeroplane, whose nationality was never determined, dropped eight anti-personnel bombs, killing nine men and wounding several more. The company commander withdrew his men into the hills to spend the rest of the night on a cold, wet and wind-swept ridge overlooking their objective.
In fact the Americans did not have to fight for Nago for, with their ammunition virtually exhausted, the German garrison fell back to the north during the night of 29 April. On the next morning, when the assault company returned cautiously to the narrow ravine, its patrols reported that the town had been abandoned. In the afternoon of the same day the 86th Mountain Infantry’s reserve battalion occupied Riva del Garda without a fight. The Germans had abandoned their entire defensive line.
After sending patrols to determine how far the German had pulled back, Darby kept his task force immobile for the rest of the day. During the afternoon, as Darby and Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Cook, who had recently assumed command of the 86th Mountain Infantry, walked along a lakeside promenade to discuss plans for resuming the pursuit the next day, a German shell burst in the air above them: Cook and another officer were wounded, an enlisted man was killed, and Darby was mortally wounded.
The last-ditch German defence of Torbole and Nago were the Germans’ last efforts, and by the fall of night on 30 April all that was left of the German forces in the area was fleeing toward Trento, Bolzano and the Alpine frontier.
On the front’s other flank, its long lines of communication and shortage of transport meant that the 8th Army could maintain no more than two divisions beyond the Adige river, but that was sufficient for the task in hand. As the 56th Division of the V Corps and the New Zealand 2nd Division of the XIII Corps crossed the river they encountered almost no resistance. One of the divisions set out for Venice, some 35 miles (56.5 km) to the north-east, and the other for Mestre, Venice’s mainland neighbour, and thence toward the port city of Trieste at the head of the Adriatic Sea. The two formations encountered only small groups of German troops, who appeared only too willing to surrender. On 29 April the 56th Division entered Venice and the New Zealand 2nd Division entered Padua.
Clark had originally decided that the 8th Army alone would occupy all of north-eastern Italy, but this army’s logistical difficulties and the need for a large occupation force in the event of friction with the Yugoslavs in the disputed territory of Trieste and Venezia Giulia forced a change in this decision. To make room for an additional division in the 8th Army’s zone, Clark moved the inter-army boundary farther to the west, and on 1 May altered his long-standing practice of not placing US forces under British command. Attaching the US 91st Division to the 8th Army, while leaving responsibility for the support of the division with the 5th Army, Clark strengthened the sector without exacerbating the 8th Army’s logistic burden.
On 1 May the New Zealand 2nd Division moved swiftly along the coast road to Trieste, and made contact during the afternoon with Yugoslav partisans 17 miles (27.5 km) to the north-west of the city. Pausing for the night, the New Zealanders entered Trieste during the afternoon of 2 May to accept the surrender of a German garrison which had refused earlier Yugoslav demands for capitulation. Meanwhile, with the port facilities of Venice now available, McCreery felt free to commit additional forces, and despatched the British 6th Armoured Division into the foothills of the Dolomite mountains, one column heading for Udine and another for Belluno.
Since the beginning of the ‘Grapeshot’ spring offensive, the US 5th and British 8th Armies had taken 145,000 prisoners of the 10th Army and 14th Army, and the scattered groups of German survivors were now either surrendering or withdrawing as small units toward the only exits still open to the German forces in Italy, the Brenner and Reschen passes. The Italo-German Armee ‘Ligurien’ had surrendered to Crittenberger’s IV Corps.
Only in the to the western Alps, in the Aosta and Susa valleys, and along the Gulf of Genoa there were still threatening signs on 1 May: to the west, the French by their thrust into Italian territory suggested that they had territorial designs on the Italian riviera, and to the east, at Trieste in the Venezia Giulia region, the Yugoslavs clearly had a similar purpose.
On 2 May company-strength patrols of the 86th Mountain Infantry moved 5 miles (8 km) along the road linking Riva del Garda and Trento, and in the middle of the morning occupied the town of Arco before pressing ahead to occupy a succession of villages a few miles closer to Trento by 12.00. No Germans were seen. Meanwhile, patrols from the 85th Mountain Infantry spread out to search for German stragglers in hills overlooking Riva del Garda from the west. Only a few such stragglers were located, all of them eager to surrender to regular military units rather than Italian partisans.
Late in the afternoon of the same day, many of the radio equipments in the Allied formations in Italy picked up a signal from the British Broadcasting Corporation announcing the unconditional surrender of the German armies in Italy.
The campaign on the Italian mainland in fact ended as it had begun, early in September 1943, with a lengthy period of intrigue and secret negotiations. Known only to a small group of senior commanders and staff officers on each side, covert contacts to bring about a separate surrender of the German forces in Italy had been under way since February in an undertaking known to the Allies as ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Crossword’.