This was the Allied overall plan for the first half of the final spring offensive in northern Italy by General Mark W. Clark’s Allied 15th Army Group, comprising Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 5th Army and Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British 8th Army, against Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ comprising, from west to east, Generale d’Armata Alfredo Guzzoni’s Italian-German 97th Army ‘Liguria’ (to the Germans the Armee ‘Ligurien’), General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army and General Traugott Herr’s 10th Army (9/20 April 1945).
The two primary sub-plans within ‘Grapeshot’, which led to the Battle of the Argenta Gap, were the British ‘Buckland’ in the east and the US ‘Craftsman’ in the west, and ‘Grapeshot’ was immediately followed by ‘Grapefruit’ (ii) to end the war in Italy. von Vietinghoff-Scheel expected such an offensive as soon as the onset of spring had dried the ground of northern Italy sufficiently for major operations by the Allied armoured formations and wished to undertake a campaign of delaying actions along all the available water barriers of the area, but Adolf Hitler ordered that Heeresgruppe ‘C’ should hold its ground and fight the Allies wherever they attacked.
Except for the minor blow they had dealt to Major General Edward M. Almond’s US 92nd Division at the extreme western end of the Italian front in ‘Wintergewitter’ (ii), the Germans could take little comfort from the winter of 1944/45 in northern Italy except for the fact that their front was still intact. At first glance, the overall military situation of the Germans in the west, including Italy, did not appear hopeless. Despite the fact that there had been a threatening Allied penetration of the Western Front in the area of Aachen in the Rhineland, elsewhere the Germans were still holding the Allies from the North Sea to Switzerland. In northern Italy, except for the newly won positions of Major General Willis D. Crittenberger’s US IV Corps on the high ground to the west of the upper reaches of the Reno river, Heeresgruppe ‘C’ still had an intact defensive line from the Romagna plain westward to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Closer examination revealed that Germany’s military position was rapidly worsening. Late in August 1944 Romania had capitulated to the Soviets and changed sides, and early in September of the same year Bulgaria had followed the same course. Only German arms prevented a third ally, the increasingly reluctant Hungary, from collapsing before the Soviets.
By the middle of January 1945 the time had passed when divisions from the Italian front could be used to influence decisively the course of the war on other fronts. Although in January and February Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südwest’, had moved four divisions out of Italy to other fronts, by March the railways out of the Italian peninsula had been so severely savaged by Allied air attacks that it would have taken months to move additional divisions, even if they had been available. For the Germans the time had long since passed for a strategic withdrawal from Italy.
On 8 March Hitler summoned Kesselring to Berlin to tell him that he was to leave Italy to become the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ and in that capacity assume command of the Western Front where, following the failure of the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ offensive in the Ardennes of December 1944/January 1945, the Allied armies under General Dwight D. Eisenhower were pressing the Germans back into the Reich itself. When asked whom he would recommend as his successor in Italy, Kesselring named von Vietinghoff-Scheel. When Hitler readily agreed, von Vietinghoff-Scheel, since January the commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Kurland’ on the Baltic front, returned to Italy as the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südwest’ and and took command of Heeresgruppe ‘C’.
Kesselring was less successful in obtaining Hitler’s agreement to giving von Vietinghoff-Scheel greater operational flexibility in the conduct of operations when the Allies resumed their offensive in the spring. This inhibition on local flexibility had long embittered relations between Heeresgruppe ‘C’ and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, and was a major constraint on the army group headquarters as von Vietinghoff-Scheel prepared plans for the defence which, her hoped, would prove effective when the Allied armies returned to the offensive in the spring.
Early in February the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht had informed Kesselring that under no circumstances was he to abandon major portions of his front voluntarily. Kesselring responded that while he had no such intention, he needed the operational freedom to pull back in certain sectors, even in advance of an Allied attack, when an offensive appeared imminent, for he lacked the manpower to hold every sector of the front in its present location against heavy Allied pressure. Kesselring observed that had he been given that kind of freedom before the recent ‘Encore’ attack of Major General George P. Hays’s US 10th Mountain Division at Monte Belvedere, he might have been spared the need to commit Generalleutnant Dr Fritz Pollack’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision from army group reserve. Yet the most the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht offered was permission to fall back only in those sectors against which a large-scale Allied operation was already under way.
That concession afforded Kesselring and von Vietinghoff-Scheel little in the way of operational or strategic flexibility. If the Allied spring offensive forced Kesselring to abandon his positions in the Apennine mountains, he saw no alternative but to fight a series of delaying actions along each of the many east/west river lines of northern Italy as he withdrew his forces into the foothills of the Alps.
Although the German high command at first frowned on the plan, Kesselring remained convinced that as long as he was commander-in-chief in Italy, he could (as he had frequently done in the past) obtain approval directly from Hitler to disengage before the situation became catastrophic. While Kesselring had no intention of ordering an immediate and major withdrawal, neither did he intend to fight the decisive battle for northern Italy along the river lines to the south of the Reno river as that would place the future of the entire campaign on the outcome of one major event, and therefore no realistic opportunity to save his armies from destruction. Regardless of the Oberkommando der Wehmacht’s views, Kesselring believed his only choice to be the plan he had developed: withdrawal under pressure of an Allied offensive while fighting delaying actions along a succession of favourable defensive positions based on those river lines. That defensive strategy had worked well in the past and could, Kesselring believed, make the last offensive very costly for the Allies.
On 22 February, however, a directive from Hitler dashed Kesselring’s hopes for even this degree of freedom in action. Hitler acknowledged that although the overall strength of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ was essentially inadequate, the solution to the German problem in this theatre lay not in Kesselring’s plan but rather in deployment in greater depth in the sector facing the greatest threat. While Hitler would raise no objection to planned withdrawals to stronger positions in the face of a large-scale Allied offensive, he would never consent to voluntary withdrawals by means of a series of delaying actions as that, Hitler believed, would destroy the morale of the troops. On the eve of the Allied offensive Hitler was destined to reiterate his antipathy to voluntary withdrawals when he refused Heeresgruppe ‘C’ permission to implement ‘Herbstnebel’ (ii), a well established plan for a major withdrawal to prepared defensive positions along the line of the Ticino and Po rivers.
These and other differences failed to dampen the optimism of either Kesselring or von Vietinghoff-Scheel, or their obvious loyalty to Hitler. Yet there were senior officers of the German command structure in northern Italy who took a quite different view of Germany’s military situation, and agreed with Generalmajor Wolf Rüdiger Hauser, the chief-of-staff of Lemelsen’s 14th Army, that Hitler’s decision spelled the end of German chances in northern Italy. As exchanges between the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and Heeresgruppe ‘C’ about strategic, operational and tactical plans to check the anticipated Allied offensive gradually assumed an air of unreality, several senior SS officers in Italy took advantage of their unique position within Germany’s political-military hierarchy to establish covert contacts with Allied agents. On 21 February, the day before Hitler’s directive binding the German armies in Italy to an essentially negative strategy was received at Kesselring’s headquarters, an Italian businessman, Barone Luigi Parrilli, an intimate of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Karl Wolff, the senior SS officer in command of the security forces in Italy, arrived in Zürich to establish contact with US intelligence agents in ‘Sunrise’ (otherwise ‘Crossword’).
Within the German forces in northern Italy, it was probably the SS police and security forces who had the best information about military and civilian morale, so it was natural that they had a more pessimistic and yet more realistic picture of the overall situation than many of their army counterparts, who were focused more specifically on the battle front. Yet in the weeks to come what amounted to their incipient treason would have no influence on the course of battle. Most commanders and the rank and file of the German armies in Italy would remain steadfastly at their posts until ordered to withdraw or until the tide of battle overwhelmed them.
The German armies in Italy faced a more immediate problem in the rapid disintegration of the transport system on which the continuation of their operations was wholly reliant. A general shortage of vehicles of all types and the almost total lack of motor fuel, complicated by a comprehensive Allied programme for the air interdiction of road and rail traffic, was largely responsible. To keep essential military traffic moving, the Germans had commandeered hundreds of civilian vehicles, and for several months even oxen had been employed to move heavy equipment, including artillery. In many motor convoys every third truck was employed to tow two others. Substitute fuels such as methane gas, fairly abundant in many areas of the Po river valley, were inadequate for combat vehicles, but were widely used to power administrative and logistical vehicles. Fuels such as alcohol and benzol were mixed with gasoline and Diesel oil on a 1/3 ratio in order to stretch limited fuel supplies. A few small oil wells in northern Italy, some producing as little as 1,000 US gal (455 litres) per day, contributed comparatively minuscule quantities of fuel.
Even the winter months failed to give the Germans the respite from Allied aerial harassment they needed so desperately. Although snow secured the flank of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ in the western part of the Alps and hampered Allied military operations in the Apennine mountains, it failed to halt the air onslaught on the German lines of communications. In December alone there were 900 major breaks in those lines, only 50 of which were still unrepaired by the beginning of 1945. Even so, it required very careful organisation of motor transport and the tight husbanding of dwindling resources for the Germans in Italy to keep their logistical system from collapsing before the end of 1944.
Up to the end of 1944, 50,000 tons of supplies (mostly coal) per month reached northern Italy from Germany, but after January 1945 all coal shipments came to a halt. This was the final spur to the German effort to make their forces completely self-sufficient in northern Italy. This effort in turn placed the economy of the region under severe inflationary pressures and caused increased unrest among the population, among which food shortages and widespread unemployment inflicted considerable hardship.
The almost complete absence of reconnaissance aircraft had long made it difficult for the Germans to obtain intelligence on Allied intentions. For almost a year the Germans had been unable to undertake anything near adequate aerial reconnaissance, which contributed to making it difficult to see through Allied deception plans.
At a time late in March Allied intelligence learned through ‘Ultra’ decrypts of German signals traffic that those plans were apparently succeeding, for it seemed that the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision had been moved from the Bologna sector, where it had been in army group reserve, toward the Adriatic coast in the area to the north-east of Venice. Aware that the Germans were acutely short of fuel, the Allies believed that this could only have been prompted by a very strong conviction in the German command that a real threat existed on the Adriatic flank. So far as the Germans were concerned, there seemed to be considerable grounds for giving credence to numerous indications of a forthcoming Allied amphibious operation to the north of the estuary of the Po river. By a time early in April Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslav forces had reached Senj, a mere 30 miles (48 km) to the south-east of Fiume, a major Italian port on the north-eastern corner of the Istrian peninsula. To the Germans it seemed logical that the Allies would seek to take advantage of this development with a landing somewhere to the west of the peninsula and then drive overland to effect a junction with the Yugoslavs for a joint advance toward Vienna via Ljubljana. The increasing threat of the Soviet advance on Vienna seemed to enhance this possibility into a strong probability.
In an effort to counter the threat, early in April the long eastern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ was extended to the north to include the Austrian provinces of Vorarlberg, Tyrol and Salzburg, as well as the western half of Styria and Carinthia. This added responsibility meant that the eastern boundary of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ was withdrawn to the west by about 20 miles (32 km) from the pre-war Italo/Yugoslav frontier to the line of the Isonzo river, which flows to the south through the easternmost Italian province of Gorizia to debouch into the Gulf of Trieste some 12 miles (18.5 km) to the west of that city. Since Tito’s Yugoslav forces had long claimed the Isonzo river as the legitimate post-war frontier between the countries, on the grounds that it had been the pre-World War I boundary between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Italy, the German action had, perhaps deliberately, sowed a measure of discord into Allied thinking. As a result of the boundary shift between von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ and Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe ‘F’ (from 25 March Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe ‘E’, control of General Ludwig Kübler’s XCVII Corps zbV (two divisions) passed from Heeresgruppe ‘C’ to its eastern neighbour.
On the eve of the Allied spring offensive in northern Italy, Heeresgruppe ‘C’ comprised 26 divisions of all types, of which 21 were German and five Italian: 16 of these formations were deployed across the front from the Adriatic Sea in the east to the Ligurian Sea in the west, and the remaining 10 were either in reserve or allocated to coastal defence or rear-area security.
Herr’s 10th Army continued to hold the army group’s left wing with two corps: General Friedrich Kirchner’s LXXVI Panzerkorps and General Eugen Meindl’s I Fallschirmkorps, each of four divisions. Two of the I Fallschirmkorps’s best formations, Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision and Generalleutnant Viktor Linnarz’s 26th Panzerdivision, were located astride Highway 9, which the Germans still considered the most probable Allied axis of advance to Bologna from the south-east. The sector in the foothills of the Apennine mountains was held by Generalmajor Karl-Lothar Schulz’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision opposite Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s British XIII Corps in the Monte Grande sector, and Generalleutnant Harry Hoppe’s 278th Division opposite Lieutenant General J. L. I Hawkesworth’s British X Corps. Defending the 10 Army’s front, which would eventually bear the brunt of ‘Buckland’ offensive of McCreery’s British 8th Army, General Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk’s (from 25 April Generalleutnant Karl von Graffen’s) LXXVI Panzerkorps had Generalleutnant Walter Jost’s 42nd Jägerdivision, Generalmajor Alois Weber’s 362nd Division and Generalmajor Otto Schiel’s 98th Division. Since these formations occupied positions which they had created since January, they were comparatively well protected from all but direct hits by artillery fire and bombs. All these formations had incurred heavy losses during the fighting of the previous autumn and winter in the mountains, however, and were still considerably understrength, as, indeed, were all German combat divisions in the last months of the war. A fourth division, Generalleutnant Ralph von Heygendorff’s 162nd Division (turk.), was deployed along the Lake Comacchio’s north-eastern edge and on the spit of land separating this lagoon from the sea.
The front opposite Truscott’s US 5th Army was held by Lemelsen’s 14th Army, which had two corps deployed across a front extending some 50 miles (80 km) to the south-west from the Idice river valley to the south-east of Bologna to the Serchio river valley. General Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s LI Gebirgskorps held the western half with Generalleutnant Eccard Freiherr von Gablenz’s 232nd Division comprising largely older men and convalescents; Generalmajor Martin Strahmmer’s 114th Jägerdivision comprising largely ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Alsace; and Generalleutnant Hellmuth Böhlke’s 334th Division, which had suffered heavy casualties while bearing the brunt of the 5th Army’s drive through the Futa pass in October. General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps held the rest of the army’s front with Generalleutnant Bernhard Steinmetz’s 94th Division, since the fighting in the region to the south of Rome a frequent, if somewhat battered, opponent of the 5th Army; Generalmajor Paul Shricker’s 8th Gebirgsdivision; and Generalleutnant Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division, another long-term exponent of fighting on the Italian front. Since the beginning of April Generalmajor Heinrich von Behr’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision had been assembled in army reserve behind the XIV Panzerkorps’ sector and to the north-west of Bologna.
Except for the 8th Gebirgsdivision, which had more than 3,000 combat infantry, all of these divisions were woefully understrength in front-line soldiers. The 114th Jägerdivision was worst off in this capacity, with just 984 combat infantry as of the end of March 1945; the other divisions were in somewhat better condition with strengths ranging from 1,766 to 2,542 men. It is clear that Lemelsen had concentrated his strength to the south of Bologna on the XIV Panzerkorps’ sector and opposite Major General (from 17 April Lieutenant General) Daniel T. Keyes’s US II Corps rather than the US IV Corps.
The last component of Heeresgruppe ‘C’, under the supervision of Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani, was Guzzoni’s Italo-German Armee ‘Ligurien’ (otherwise the 97th Army). Comprising mostly fortress and coastal defence units, this was deployed along the Gulf of Genoa as far as the Franco/Italian border with two corps comprising two German divisions, one German brigade and three Italian divisions. These formations were Generalleutnant Kurt Jahn’s Corps 'Lombardia' with Generale di Divisione Amilcare Farina’s Italian 3rd Marine Division 'San Marco' (3rd and 5th Marine Regiments) and the Kampfgruppe 'Meinhold' (Oberst Almers’s 135th Festungsbrigade and elements of Colonnello Giorgio Milazzo’s Italian 4th Alpini Division 'Monte Rosa').
Extending from coast to coast across northern Italy, the front line was the line along which the Allied offensive had come to a halt during the winter, and only on the western coastal plain did it still include portions of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences.
Opposite the 8th Army the German defences were of some depth to protect Bologna against an attack from the south-east. The defences were based upon a series of river lines. From the south-east, these were the Senio river, the Santerno river, the Sillaro river, a switch position along the Sellustra river, and finally the so-called ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’ based on the Idice river and anchored in the east on the flooded plain to the west of Lake Comacchio. At their northern extremities these river lines were linked to another defence line based on a stretch of the Reno river which flows to the east from a great bend 12 miles (18.5 km) to the south-west of Ferrara. The latter line gave some depth to the defences of the line of the lower Po river, and was an essential element of the German defensive system. The Germans saw it as the pivot upon which the central and western sectors of their front had to swing toward the lines of the Po and Adige rivers and the north-eastern passes leading into Germany.
Throughout the winter more than 5,000 German engineer troops and additional thousands of impressed civilian labourers had prepared field works along the Po and the Adige rivers. The line along the Adige was reinforced with naval gun batteries from the Ligurian coast, while the line of the Po was continued to the west along the Ticino river to cover the withdrawal of the Armee ‘Ligurien’ on the German forces’ western flank.
Behind the Po and Adige river defence lines, the Germans were in the early stages of developing yet another line, the so-called 'Voralpenstellung' (forward position of the Alps). Extending to the east and west of Lake Garda, this line represented an outwork of the almost impregnable bastion represented by the Alps. In a manner somewhat similar to the way the river lines to the south-east of Bologna were associated with the Reno river, the river lines of the Brenta, Piave, Tagliamento and Isonzo, all flowing from the Alps in a generally southerly and south-easterly direction toward the Adriatic, were associated with the 'Voralpenstellung', and were intended to cover any German withdrawal to the north-east in the direction of the Ljubljana gap.
As its officers studied the situation map on which the German defences were indicated, the staff of Field Marshal the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, since 12 December the Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean Theatre, had available to it, as a result of ‘Ultra’, an accurate knowledge of the German troop dispositions. Alexander and his staff had to take into consideration the possibility that the Germans might ignore those defensive lines and instead opt to withdraw from northern Italy directly into what the Allies thought might be a German ‘national redoubt’ in southern Germany. This was believed by the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces, and a number of senior Allied commanders, to be a possibility based on an assumption that Hitler and the survivors of his forces might fall back into an Alpine defence zone extending from Salzburg and Klagenfurt in the east to the Swiss frontier in the west and including the cities of Innsbruck, Bolzano, Landeck and Bregenz, there to make a last-ditch stand of indefinite duration. Although British intelligence circles, to which Alexander was privy, was dubious of the existence of any such redoubt, it was a possibility that no senior commander could ignore.
There were some within the Allied command structure in Italy who believed that Kesselring and von Vietinghoff-Scheel had either to surrender or to fall back into the Alps, there to seek refuge in former Austro-Hungarian fortifications that had survived World War I. Constructed along the former Austro-Hungarian/Italian frontier, many had been left intact by the Italians and could prove quite formidable if manned.
As the spring offensive was planned, there was another divergence in British and US strategic ideas along the lines of that which had affected the planning for ‘Anvil’, later launched as ‘Dragoon’ (i). As they had right from the beginning of the Italian campaign, the British perceived the Italian peninsula as the starting point for an Allied campaign into eastern Europe and the mid-Danube basin. The Americans, on the other hand, still saw the Italian campaign as a strategic distraction from what they believed should be the main, if not only, Allied strategic axis, namely that from the Normandy lodgement secured in ‘Overlord’ straight into the north-west European plain, as the direct and shortest route to the direct defeat of Germany. During the closing months of the Italian campaign, the Americans continued to believe in the shortest axis to the Alps in the form of a direct thrust via Bologna, Verona and Lake Garda straight to the north in the direction of the Brenner pass: this, the Americans believed, would trap the still large German forces in north-western Italy and provide access to the ‘national redoubt’ before the Germans could prepare their ultimate defences there.
Thinking in terms of the post-war European balance of power of political as well as military power, however, the British continued to look toward north-eastern Italy. Even if there should be no drive into the mid-Danube basin, the British averred, a thrust to the north-east could thwart long-held Yugoslav ambitions to acquire territory along Italy’s north-eastern frontier. The Italian ports of Trieste, Fiume and Pola all lay in the region coveted by Tito, and the British were determined to keep these ports out of communist hands lest they become naval bases from which a Soviet fleet might dominate the Adriatic. For several months since the launch of ‘Manna’ (i), the British had been involved actively in the first stages of the Greek civil war in an effort to keep that strategically important Balkan and Mediterranean land from falling into communist hands, and the loss of Trieste and control of the Adriatic would jeopardise that effort. Furthermore, the British needed Trieste as the port through which to support the occupation forces they eventually expected to deploy in Austria. As they had been since the start of World War II, British strategy in the Mediterranean area in general, and the Italian theatre in particular, was therefore considerably more comprehensive and complex than that of the Americans.
Inter-Allied differences were further complicated when, early in the planning for the spring offensive, it became clear that command changes had also modified attitudes and relationships among command and staff at the three major Allied headquarters in Italy. Formerly, Alexander and the commander of the 8th Army (General Sir Bernard Montgomery to 29 December 1943, then Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese to 1 October 1944, and finally McCreery) had tended to think along similar lines in developing their operational concepts, especially during planning for the ‘Diadem’ offensive to the south of Rome and for the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ battle, while Clark as 5th Army commander sometimes found himself a lone dissenter in the triumvirate. When Clark moved up to become commander-in-chief of the 15th Army Group in mid-December 1944, the close identity of views that had characterised the relationship between that headquarters and the 8th Army rapidly came to an end: Clark and the staff which accompanied him from the 5th Army continued to see their former command as the dominant partner in the Italian enterprise and to view the 5th Army’s role in the forthcoming offensive as essentially a continuation of that directed at Bologna.
As Clark’s successor in command of the 5th Army, Truscott soon began to demonstrate that he too was as determined to develop his own operational concepts as independently of Clark as the latter’s concepts had been vis-à-vis Alexander. In this circumstance Clark frequently found himself once more holding a minority viewpoint (although, as army group commander, the prevailing one) in Allied planning councils. As planning progressed at the several headquarters, Clark had sometimes to compromise long-held views to make allowance for the particular operational concepts being developed at the headquarters of his two subordinate armies. The eventual plan by the 15th Army Group was thus a rather loosely worded compromise allowing the two army commanders to carry out operational concepts which Clark had initially opposed.
Indications that that would happen surfaced even as Alexander and his staff embarked on the creation of broad operational guidelines for the coming offensive. As Alexander and his staff considered the zone of operations that lay between them and the Alps, they concluded that by occupying the ‘Venetian quadrilateral’ (Mantua, Peschiera, Verona and Legnano) the Allies would have a good chance of destroying many of the German formations in northern Italy and quickly reaching the north-eastern frontier and the Alps.
Some 30 miles (48 km) to the south-east of the ‘Venetian quadrilateral’ and defending the approaches to this, the Reno river makes a sharp curve from the north to the east and, passing to the south-east of Ferrara, enters the Adriatic Sea to the south of Lake Comacchio. It was along the northward-flowing tributaries of that section of the Reno river that the Germans had constructed their defensive positions in the area to the east of Bologna. If the Allies could cross the Reno river near its mouth, those successive lines might be turned with relative ease by an advance to the north-west along the Reno river’s northern bank, which would afford an opportunity to trap a major part of the 10th Army to the south of the Reno as it flowed to the south-east, and also to prevent the Germans from using the Reno river as another defensive line to cover a withdrawal to the Po and the ‘Venetian quadrilateral’.
Uninterrupted by large water courses and possessing a good system of roads, the plain to the north of the Reno river also offered the 8th Army terrain favourable for manoeuvre warfare. Since the key to the area lay not in the 5th Army’s operational zone to the south of Bologna but in that of the 8th Army, Alexander and his staff no longer focused attention on Bologna. In Alexander’s words ‘[We] were…no longer thinking merely of the capture of Bologna, nor, indeed, of any objective on the ground, but of more wide-sweeping movements which would encircle as many of the Germans as possible between the converging blows of the two armies.’ Drawing frequently upon earlier experience on the desert theatre of North Africa, Alexander had never lost his enthusiasm for ‘wide-sweeping movement’ and the ‘double-fisted’ blow.
As the 5th Army’s IV Corps held suitable positions to the west of the Reno river as it flows to the north-east in the direction of the great bend to the south-west of Ferrara, the 5th Army might serve as the left fist of the manoeuvre. The Americans might advance along the axis of Highway 64 and, remaining to the west of the highway and river, debouch into the Lombard plain to the west of Bologna, thereby avoiding the Germans positions to the south of the city. Once in the valley, the 5th Army could attempt to cut off the German forces in north-western Italy by driving directly toward the Alps along Highway 12 on the axis from Ostiglia to Verona. As for the right fist, after crossing the Reno river as close to its mouth as possible, the 8th Army could advance along the axis of Highway 16 to Padua, thence via Highway 14 into north-eastern Italy and the frontier with Austria, and also link with the Americans to cut off the German forces defending Bologna to the east and the area south of the Po river.
A prerequisite to success for the Allied plan was that the Germans continue to defend in place rather than fall back. Yet both Alexander and Clark were aware of the possibility that the Germans might at any time break contact and fall back beyond the Po river into their suspected Alpine redoubt. This was a factor which nagged at Clark throughout the planning period, for such a manoeuvre would adversely affect US rather than British strategic objectives. Alexander, at least, was confident that wide-ranging Allied aerial reconnaissance and information from partisan groups operating on the German side of the line would provide early warning of any withdrawal. Thus Allied planning proceeded on the assumption that the Germans would continue to fall back only under overwhelming pressure.
That Alexander’s broad operational concepts were somewhat different from those developing in Clark’s thinking started to become apparent when, early in January, the army group commander began a series of planning conferences with his two army commanders. The first took place on 8 January, when Clark and McCreery met at the former’s headquarters in Florence. McCreery arrived convinced that, inasmuch as the integrity of the north-eastern Italian frontiers was as significant a challenge as defeating the German armies in Italy, the 8th Army should have primacy in the main Allied effort, and therefore have first claim on Allied resources in the theatre. Moreover, despite a chronic shortage of replacements and the transfer of troops to Greece, the 8th Army in January was still the larger of the two Allied armies. In spite of McCreery’s arguments, which Clark agreed had some merit, the army group commander maintained long-held private reservations about the 8th Army. Clark was determined not to yield to McCreery as he believed Alexander had done in the case of Leese on the eve of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ offensive in August of the previous year.
On 12 February Clark presented to his commanders his own ‘Diadora’ operational concept for the offensive with instructions to prepare plans for its implementation. Clark’s plan followed essentially the same pattern that Alexander had outlined for the offensive of autumn 1944. The 15th Army Group’s offensive was to be developed on an axis extending from Bologna to Verona in order to divide the German forces to the north of the Apennine mountains into two groups. Within this broad concept the offensive was to be divided into three phases: the first was to take the area in and around Bologna; the second to advance to the Po river and prepare a set-piece attack against that German-held line; and the third to cross the Po river and advance to the Adige river at Verona, whose capture would close the main line of retreat out of Italy to the north-east for the German forces in north-western Italy. At the same time, a so-called ‘Venezianische-Linie’ along the Adige River was to be attacked. If the Germans did not defend that line, both armies were to cross the Adige river without any pause, the 5th Army striking toward the Alps and north-western Italy, and the 8th Army advancing toward Trieste and the north-eastern frontier. Inherent in Clark’s ‘Diadora’ concept was that the 5th Army would initially commit its main weight against the formidable German defences astride Highway 65 to the south of Bologna and take the city while the 8th Army resumed its methodical advance to the north-west astride Highway 9 toward Bologna.
Taking into account the differing views of Truscott and McCreery, Clark’s staff prepared a detailed three-phase plan which Clark presented at a conference at his headquarters on 18 March. During the first phase, the 8th Army in a secondary role was to cross the Senio river and drive forward to establish bridgeheads across the Santerno river. Until this waterway had been crossed, all available air support, including heavy bombers, was to be allotted the 8th Army. Thereafter priority would shift to the 5th Army, which was to make the main effort by advancing into the Po river valley either to capture or to isolate Bologna. The wording left Truscott free to bypass the city, if he wished, and downgraded the earlier priorities that Clark had placed on its capture.
Emphasis in the second phase was placed, as both Alexander and McCreery had argued, on encircling major German formations to the south of the Po river, rather than on Clark’s earlier emphasis on a rapid drive through the German centre to divide Heeresgruppe ‘C’ and develop the line first of the Po and then the Adige rivers.
If the first two phases were completed successfully, the third would be relatively easy: to cross the Po river, capture Verona, and develop the line of the Adige river which, if the Germans’ main strength had been destroyed in the area to the south of the Po river, would in all probability be only lightly defended. As Clark saw it, the 8th Army’s role in the third phase was primarily to assist the 5th Army in trapping the Germans to the south of the Po river. After establishing bridgeheads over the Santerno river, the 8th Army was to continue its advance along two axes, one in the direction of Bastia and the other toward Budrio. The former, a crossing of the Reno river, lies 3 miles (4.8 km) to the south of Argenta, while Budrio is located 9 miles (14.5 km) to the north-east of Bologna. Clark expected Budrio to draw the 8th Army to the north-west in the direction most advantageous to the 5th Army. Only if he appeared to be making good progress in that direction was McCreery to launch an amphibious operation across Lake Comacchio. If McCreery thereby managed to outflank the Argenta gap, which Clark doubted he would be able to do, the two commanders would then decide whether to redirect the 8th Army’s main effort in a more northerly direction toward Ferrara, as McCreery had originally planned and desired. Only then would Budrio and the entrapment of major German forces between Budrio and Bologna be relegated to the status of secondary objectives. In short, if all went well along the Santerno river, McCreery would be given an opportunity to make his right hook against the Argenta gap, which the British foresaw as the first major step on the road to Trieste.
For the launch date of the offensive, Clark insisted, over McCreery’s objections, on 10 April. Clark’s meteorologists had assured him that by mid-April the ground in the Po river valley would be firm enough for the movement of tracked and wheeled vehicles: moreover, even though the winter had been bitterly cold, there had been less snow than usual on the higher ground, and thus a reduced likelihood of flooding in the rivers’ lower reaches during April. Clark was also concerned that the Soviet advance up the line of the Danube river and the progress of Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army of General Jacob L. Devers’s US 6th Army Group through southern Germany would reach Austria’s alpine frontier before the 15th Army Group could get there. After the long, arduous advance to the north from Cassino, Clark was determined to have crossed out of his primary area of responsibility by the time the war ended, and therefore not become bogged down either in the northern Apennines or in the Po river valley.
McCreery objected to the start on 10 April because the LVT (Landing Vehicle, Tracked) vehicles, which the British called Fantail or Buffalo machines and which he hoped to use in an amphibious right hook over Lake Comacchio, had yet to arrive, and he doubted whether enough vehicles would be on hand and crews trained to operate them before May. When in mid-March it appeared that enough vehicles and crews would be available early in April to lift at least one infantry brigade, he agreed to the 10 April date.
Clark’s operational guidelines gave Truscott somewhat greater freedom than McCreery to realise his own operational concepts. Clark had downgraded the isolation or capture of Bologna to a secondary mission, for example, and Truscott was to debouch into the Po river valley, presumably to the west of Bologna. Once in the valley, the army was to exploit rapidly toward the Po river as well as toward a junction with the 8th Army near Bondeno on the Panaro river to complete the encirclement of the German forces in the central sector. Clark’s failure to insist on Highway 65 as the 5th Army’s primary axis represented a significant concession to Truscott’s views that the sector to the west of Highway 64 offered the greater opportunity to break through the German positions and enter the Po river valley. Truscott was determined to retain that concept in his plans and not to make it possible for Clark, as a result of his predilection for ‘Pianoro’ (Highway 65), to impose a restriction which would make it impossible. In this, Truscott had not forgotten Clark’s strategically futile change of axis in the ‘Buffalo’ break-out from the Anzio lodgement in June 1944.
Truscott was also to make a preliminary attack. Before the 5th Army moved, the 92nd Division was to capture Massa and exploit via Carrara toward the naval base at La Spezia. Truscott expected that this would serve to draw some of the German strength from the central front toward the west, thereby easing the task of his IV Corps and II Corps.
As McCreery and his staff studied the situation after the 8th Army had reached the Senio river during January, they appreciated that they had a choice of one or two axes for their army’s main effort. The first, along Highway 9, accorded well with Clark’s strategic concept and led directly to Bologna. The second led 13 miles (21 km) to the north-west along Highway 16 to Argenta. If the main effort was made along the Argenta axis it would avoid the many defended river lines to the east of Bologna, and would make it possible for the army to outflank the east/west stretch of the Reno river on which those lines were anchored. The major disadvantage of this axis was the fact that much of it lay under water: the Germans had blown the dikes and dismantled numerous pumping stations, thereby flooding all but a narrow and easily defended corridor, known as the Argenta gap, through which ran Highway 16, and the immediate vicinity of Argenta itself.
This disadvantage called for extraordinary measures, and was the genesis of the British plan to use LVTs to outflank the corridor by moving across Lake Comacchio and the flooded lowlands next to it. The idea had long appealed to the 8th Army engineers, but for long they had lacked the necessary topographic data, such as the depth of the water and soil conditions of the bottom and shore line. The information, it developed, could be supplied by friendly Italian fishermen slipping through the German line.
For such an operation to succeed the Germans had to be kept ignorant of the presence of the LTVs and persuaded to commit their reserves to another sector before the start of the amphibious movement. To achieve this, the 8th Army devised a cover plan designed to suggest to the Germans that the main Allied effort would again be made along the axis of Highway 9 and a secondary effort, in the form of an amphibious landing, would be launched in a manner analogous to that of ‘Shingle’ at Anzio to the south of Rome in January 1944, in the area to the north of the Po river estuary in the Gulf of Venice. The concealment of the LTVs’ presence from the Germans presented few difficulties as only a small number of the vehicles had reached Italy, and their crews were being trained on Lake Trasimeno far to the south.
After the withdrawal in February of Lieutenant General C. Foulkes’s Canadian I Corps and its two divisions to northern Europe in ‘Goldflake’, McCreery had extended the right flank of Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley’s British V Corps to cover the former Canadian sector on the Adriatic flank. With one armoured and five infantry divisions, Keightley’s corps was the largest of the 8th Army’s four corps, and thus a logical choice for the assignment. Manning the sector from right to left from Highway 9 were Major General J. Y. Whitfield’s British 56th Division (24th Guards, 9th Armoured, 2nd Commando, and Italian 28th ‘Garibaldi’ Brigades), Generale di Brigata Clemente Primiera’s Italian Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Cremona’, Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division, Major General R. K. Arbuthnot’s British 78th Division, and Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division. The 21st Army Tank Brigade, 2nd Armoured Brigade and 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade were in corps reserve awaiting an opportunity for armoured exploitation. The units had recently been reinforced with several items of new equipment, including Crocodile flamethrower (modified Churchill) tanks, Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers, and ordinary gun tanks adapted for river crossings.
Lieutenant General Władysław Anders’s Polish II Corps, with Major General Bronisław Duch’s 3rd 'Carpathian' Division and Major General Nikodem Sulik’s 5th 'Kresowa' Division, and the equivalent of one armoured division (Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade, British 7th Armoured Brigade and 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade) held the sector astride Highway 9 near Faenza.
For a brief period at 8th Army headquarters, after it was informed of the agreements reached at the ‘Argonaut’ conference at Yalta to determine the future of Poland, there had been some concern that the Polish forces in their despair might decide to sit out the last offensive. For a time Anders considered giving up his command and requesting that the Western Allies accept him and his corps as prisoners of war rather than accept the Yalta decision. How to replace the Polish corps was for a time a matter of serious concern for Clark, and it was only after consulting with the Polish government-in-exile in London that Anders decided that his formation would remain in the fray.
The 8th Army’s other two major formations, Lieutenant General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s X Corps and Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s XIII Corps, had between them the equivalent of only two divisions and held that part of the army front still in the mountains to south of Highway 9. Along a sector extending from the upper reaches of the Senio river to a point to the south of Imola, the X Corps, recently returned from Greece, had only Brigadier E. F. Benjamin’s Jewish Brigade and Generale di Brigata Arturo Scattini’s Italian Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Friuli’. The XIII Corps held the remainder of the 8th Army’s front to the Monte Grande sector with Major General D. W. Reid’s Indian 10th Division and Generale di Brigata Giorgio Morigi’s Italian Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Folgore’.
Key elements of McCreery’s ‘Buckland’ plan included a two-axis attack to the north and north-west. The first and main attack was to be made by the V Corps in the direction of Lugo, 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west of the Senio river and 9 miles (14.5 km) to the north of Faenza on Highway 9. With Lugo taken, the corps was to drive on Massa Lombarda, 4 miles (6.4 km) to the west, before turning to the north in the direction of Bastia and Argenta: the former was the key to the Argenta gap. Spanning the lower Reno river some 13 miles (21 km) to the west of Lake Comacchio, Bastia represented the most desirable crossing point of the Reno opposite the V Corps’ right wing. Once a crossing had been made, the line of the lower part of the Reno river would be turned, thereby permitting the V Corps to move along the river’s northern bank to turn the successive German river lines anchored on that stretch of the Reno waterway.
Before the V Corps’ attack, Whitfield’s 56th Division was to launch a series of preliminary operations in ‘Impact Plain’ and ‘Impact Royal’ to gain control of a wedge of flooded lowland at the south-eastern corner of Lake Comacchio and several small islands in the middle of the lagoon, and commando forces were to undertake ‘Roast’ to clear the Germans from the spit of land separating the lagoon from the sea. If those operations succeeded, the corps would gain control of the lagoon and of favourable sites along its western shore from which to develop attacks against the seaward flank of the Argenta gap. The object of these small but complex undertakings was to draw the attention of the Germans away from the main sector opposite Lugo and Bastia.
In preparation for the main attack, McCreery planned to concentrate six divisions behind his centre, from a bend of the Senio river near Lugo where the waterway toward the north-east to the area just short of Highway 9. The sector had the advantage of several good crossing sites, and might avoid the highway along which the Germans had concentrated at least two of their best divisions, the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision and 26th Panzerdivision. Once the attacking British divisions had crossed the Santerno river, about 5 miles (8 km) beyond the Senio river, they were to turn onto a more northerly course toward Argenta. By holding the Germans in place and drawing units away from the coastal flank, the manoeuvre was expected to aid these formations and units making an amphibious right hook across Lake Comacchio against the Argenta gap.
The V Corps’ operation against Lugo was to be made by the Indian 8th Division and New Zealand 2nd Division passing respectively to the right and left of the town. It was expected that be the third day of ‘Buckland’ both divisions would have established a large bridgehead beyond the Santerno river near Massa Lombarda. At that juncture the 78th Division, having moved beyond Lugo, was to relieve the Indian 8th Division and continue the attack toward Bastia. While that was in progress, a brigade of the 56th Division, transported in LTVs, was to cross the flooded plain as far as the Menate pumping station on shore of Lake Comacchio 11 miles (17.75 km) to the east of Bastia. The New Zealand 2nd Division was meanwhile either to cover the 78th Division’s left or, in co-operation with the Polish II Corps, to advance to the west in the direction of Budrio, 17 miles (27.5 km) to the north-west of Massa Lombarda, depending upon the success of the thrust in the direction of Bastia. The Indian 8th Division and Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Cremona’ were to capture bypassed Germans troops and then pass into V Corps reserve.
The Polish II Corps to the left of the V Corps was to form the second prong of ‘Buckland’. The initial Polish objectives beyond the Santerno river were the towns of Medicina, 18 miles (29 km) to the north-west of Faenza, and Castel San Pietro, a similar distance from the Polish front on Highway 9. Eventually the Polish II Corps was expected to co-ordinate closely with the 5th Army’s II Corps in the capture or isolation of Bologna, and in the event the V Corps failed to break through the Argenta gap, to keep open McCreery’s option for switching the axis of his main effort toward Budrio.
If his plan succeeded, McCreery intended to continue his offensive in two separate battles, of which the first was to be a battle of annihilation against the Germans to the south of the Po river, and the second an exploitation as far to the north as Ferrara. Both were to be followed by pursuits, the first beyond the Po and Adige rivers, and the second along the southern bank of the Po river to prevent German forces still to the south of this waterway from reaching and crossing to its northern bank.
On the other hand, if the V Corps had difficulty in forcing the Argenta gap, the headquarters of the XIII Corps was to move from the 8th Army’s left flank to take control of those divisions fighting the first of the two battles in the direction of Budrio, thereby freeing the V Corps free to concentrate on the Argenta sector. Once the corps broke through there, the headquarters of the X Corps was to come around from the left to take control of a special engineer task force. Passing through the gap in the wake of the V Corps, the X Corps was to move forward on the right to prepare for the first crossings of the Po river.
By the end of March, Truscott was on the verge of completing the regrouping of his army for the spring offensive. With the British XIII Corps restored to 8th Army control, the 5th Army was operating on a narrower front. On the 5th Army’s left, Crittenberger’s IV Corps continued to hold the wider segment, 50 miles (80 km) from the Reno river to the Ligurian Sea. Within the IV Corps, Crittenberger extended the sector of the 92nd Division and its attached units, the 473rd and 442nd Infantry, as far as the Cutigliano river valley, where the 365th Infantry, detached from the division, held an independent command in the former sector of Task Force 45. East of the 365th Infantry lay Major General João Batista Mascarenhas de Morais’s Brazilian 1st Division of the Força Expedicionária Brasileira, occupying a mountainous sector stretching to the north-east from the Riva ridge past Monte Belvedere to the US 10th Mountain Division’s left flank to the west of Pietra Colora. With the exception of a narrow sector held by the 81st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron on the corps’ right flank south of Vergato, Hays’s mountain division held the remainder of the IV Corps front.
On the 5th Army’s right, the dispositions within Keyes’s II Corps reflected its commander’s plan again to use Major General John B. Coulter’s 85th Division and Major General Paul W. Kendall’s 88th Division to spearhead the renewed drive to Bologna and the Po river valley. Major General Vernon Prichard’s 1st Armored Division, with the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron attached, held a sector, 5 miles (8 km) wide, on the left wing just to the east of the Reno river. Major General Charles L. Bolte’s 34th Division lay astride Highway 65 in the centre of the corps. On the right wing Major General William G. Livesay’s 91st Division, with Generale di Brigata Umberto Utili’s Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Legnano’ attached, occupied positions in the Idice valley and on Monte Belmonte. Three formations (the 85th and 88th Divisions and Major General W. H. E. Poole’s South African 6th Armoured Division) were grouped in the corps’ rear area for rest and training.
Truscott had long ceased to focus his attention on Bologna, and intended instead to concentrate the 5th Army’s primary effort in the IV Corps’ sector to the west of Highway 64, between the Samoggia and Reno rivers, where he expected the IV Corps to outflank from the west the strong German defences to the south of Bologna. When the IV Corps debouched into the Po river valley, Truscott’s plan ordained that the II Corps, to the west of Bologna, was to shift to the left from the axis of Highway 65 to that of Highway 64. Once out of the mountains, the two corps were to advance abreast from Modena to the north in the direction of the Po river, the IV Corps capturing Ostiglia, where Highway 12 crossed the river, and the II Corps taking Bondeno, 18 miles (29 km) to the south-east near the point at which the Panaro river flows into the Po river. It was here that contact was to be made with the 8th Army advancing from Ferrara, thus completing the encirclement of German forces still within the bend of the Reno river.
After crossing the Po at Ostiglia, the IV Corps was to advance as far as Verona and thence to Lake Garda. If all proceeded according to plan, this would cut off the German forces still in north-western Italy. In co-operation with the 8th Army’s push to the north-east, the II Corps was to cross the Po river and advance to the Adige river. Meanwhile, on the 5th Army’s left flank, the 92nd Division, operating directly under 5th Army control, was to continue its advance to the north along the Ligurian coast to Genoa, Italy’s major north-western port, and thence to the north-west for a junction with French forces along the Franco/Italian frontier.
Thus the 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ (ii) operation was designed to deceive the Germans into believing that the II Corps was moving to the east to join the 8th Army in making the main Allied effort along the Adriatic flank, and that the IV Corps would take over the 5th Army’s whole front. Dummy radio nets were established for some units, and radio silence imposed upon others. While most of the movement was simulated, some units, their divisional markings removed from personnel and equipment, actually shifted but only within the army sector.
To avoid having to divide air support equally between the two armies, Clark instructed Truscott to delay his phase of the offensive until about four days after the launch of the British ‘Buckland’, by which time the British forces should have crossed the Santerno river. Thus the full weight of the strategic and tactical air forces could be committed first to the support of the 8th Army on the right, and then of the 5th Army on the left. Truscott developed a similar scheme for allotting air support between his two corps. Attacking first, Crittenberger’s IV Corps would at first receive the whole of the 5th Army’s allotment of air power, then 36 hours later all air support would be shifted to the support of Keyes’s II Corps. This staggering of the 5th Army’s attack had the additional advantage of placing greater firepower alternately behind each of the two army corps rather than dividing it between them as McCreery had done with the 8th Army. While assigning one of the 5th Army’s two armoured divisions to each corps, Truscott nevertheless managed to provide for a concentrated armoured thrust by positioning the two divisions side-by-side on the interior wings of the corps: the US 1st Armored Division on the IV Corps’ right and the South African 6th Armoured Division on the II Corps’ left.
In the 5th Army’s main zone of operations opposite the IV and II Corps only Highways 64 and 65, on the left and right respectively, passed led through the 12-mile (19.5-km) belt of mountainous terrain between the front and the Po river valley. Highway 65 offered the more direct approach straight into the south-eastern sector of Bologna. Except for two rugged peaks, Monte Sole and Monte Adone rising above the north/south ridge lines bordering the Setta river valley between Highway 65 and the Reno river to the west, the terrain was suitable for US purposes, and allowed the movement and support of as many as five divisions. The main disadvantage of Highway 65 lay in the fact that the Germans had concentrated their strongest positions astride the highway in defence of the southern approaches to Bologna, so any major offensive along that route might risk a repeat of the costly experiences of the previous winter campaign.
On the other hand, Highway 64 offered the possibility of enveloping Bologna from the south-west instead of assaulting the city’s defences frontally. This route too allowed the passage of up to five divisions. Following the course of the Reno river, the highway was defiladed from the west for much of its length through the mountains by a 15-mile (24-km) ridge paralleling the highway from Monte Belvedere to Monte Pigna, 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north-west of Vergato, a heavily fortified road junction just to the north of the US line. An advance along Highway 64 therefore needed a simultaneous effort to clear the remainder of that ridge line as well as Monte Sole, which overlooked the highway some 5 miles (8 km) to the north-east of Vergato.
By the middle of March, almost all the salient details of a significantly modified ‘Pianoro’ plan had thus been finalised to create the ‘Craftsman’ (ii) plan. This ordained an attack with two corps abreast, the IV Corps attacking first four days after the launch of ‘Buckland’ and the II Corps on 24-hour notice to advance on army command. From a line just to the south of Vergato, the IV Corps was to advance to the north-east on a front 10 miles (16 km) wide bounded by the Samoggia river in the west and the Reno river in the east. The IV Corps was expected to debouch into the Po river valley near Bazzano, some 13 miles (21 km) to the west of Bologna.
Deployed essentially along the same line where the winter offensive had come to a halt, the II Corps was to advance at first directly toward Bologna along the axis of Highway 65, but after the IV Corps had captured the road junction of Praduro, on Highway 64 some 15 miles (24 km) to the north of Vergato, most of the II Corps was to side-step to the west onto the axis of Highway 64 so that both corps debouched abreast of each other into the Po river valley to the west of Bologna. Only a minor effort was to be made frontally against Bologna, mainly to pin the Germans holding the city.
For control purposes, Truscott fixed the Green, Brown and Black phases. During the Green phase, Crittenberger wold launch the 10th Mountain Division toward Monte Pigna and Monte Mantino, 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north-east of Monte Pigna, and the 1st Armored Division along the axis of Highway 64 against Vergato and Monte Pero, 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north-west of town. The IV Corps’ left flank was to be covered by the Brazilian 1st Division and the 365th and 371st Infantry detached from the 92nd Division, which were to follow any German withdrawal along the axis of Highway 12, approximately paralleling Highway 64 some 15 miles (24 km) to its west. The II Corps was to be ordered to start its attack once the IV Corps reached the Green Line.
Once the offensive was under way, Truscott planned to form a mobile reserve of his armoured divisions with which to exploit the most promising opportunities. When his forces reached the Po river valley, Truscott planned to create, from his mobile reserve, infantry/armour task forces to lead the dash first to the Panaro river and then the Po river.
In the Brown phase the two corps were to advance abreast of each other, the IV Corps continuing in a north-easterly direction to the west of Highway 64 and the II Corps capturing Monte Sole, Monterumici and Monte Adone, the high ground between Highways 64 and 65. Truscott believed that Lemelsen would have to weaken these otherwise formidable positions to deal with the advance of the IV Corps to the west of Highway 64. On the II Corps’ right flank, the Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Legnano’ was to patrol aggressively and maintain contact with the British XII Corps on the 8th Army’s left.
At the beginning of the Black phase, the 85th Division was to emerge from army reserve and pass through the 1st Armored Division to come under II Corps command. That would be made possible by a shift in the corps boundary from a location just to the east of Highway 64 to a position 4 miles (6.4 km) to the west of the highway in the area south of Praduro. During that phase the armoured exploitation force was to begin assembling: the 1st Armored Division just to the west of Vergato and the South African 6th Armoured Division to the south-east of the same town. Truscott planned to employ both divisions to exploit the breakthrough expected to the west of the highway, thrusting into the Po river valley as far as the Panaro river 22 miles (35.5 km) to the north-west of Bologna. The US armoured division was to move in the direction of Modena, on Highway 9 some 22 miles (35.5 km) to the north-west of Bologna, and the South African armoured division to the north-east in the direction of the 8th Army’s left flank and Bondeno, on the Panaro river 27 miles (43.5 km) to the north of Bologna. It was expected that the 5th and 8th Armies would meet at Bondeno.
In the hope of securing tactical surprise, there was to be no artillery preparation, though the army’s artillery was instead to fire a 20-day programme of gradually increasing intensity, building to a crescendo during the week immediately before the start of ‘Craftsman’ (ii). Truscott had gained success with this tactic in the ‘Buffalo’ break-out from the Anzio lodgement. To support the programme, Truscott mandated an increase of 328,090 rounds over the basic rate for the 20-day period preceding the offensive, and or this the stocks assembled in depots during the winter and early spring were more than adequate.
To support an exploitation beyond the Po, the 5th Army’s logistics staff planned to create a 15-day reserve of all types of supply in the Bologna area as soon as the city had been captured. Reserve rations, sufficient to feed 400,000 prisoners for 30 days, were also stocked in anticipation of the surrender of very large numbers of Germans, although captured German stocks were to be used first.
As the dates for the launches of ‘Buckland’ and ‘Craftsman’ (ii) approached, McCreery, Truscott and their senior commanders were more than happy with the levels of air support their forces could expect, for the Allied air forces had complete domination of the skies, over both the front lines and the German rear areas extending as fat to the north as the southern face of the Alps. Except for a few concentrations of Flak artillery defending vital targets, the Germans in the spring of 1945 possessed almost nothing with which to prevent the Allies from using their air superiority to strike wherever and whenever they pleased. As a result, Brigadier General Thomas C. Darcy’s US XXII Tactical Air Command of Major General Benjamin W. Chidlaw’s US 12th AAF, which during March had concentrated its efforts against German communications targets, had by the end of the month virtually run out of suitable targets in the northern part of Italy. At the same time, the heavy bombers of Lieutenant General Nathan F. Twining’s Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force had also run out of targets outside Italy. This meant that, in addition to the aircraft of the XXII TAC, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the MASAF were fully available for close support of the spring offensive.
The staggered nature of the ground offensive meant that the 8th Army’s ‘Buckland’ would be supported by a greater mass of air power than any previous Allied offensive in the Italian campaign. On the afternoon of D-day 800 heavy bombers were to drop 175,000 20-lb (9.1-kg) anti-personnel fragmentation bombs in a carpet on the German artillery and reserve positions in front of each of the two assaulting corps. More specifically, between 13.50 and 14.20 the bombers were to attack an L-shaped area of 2 sq miles (5.2 km²) ahead of the V Corps and to the west of Lugo. At the same time, 120 medium bombers were to attack three artillery areas opposite the Polish II Corps, and an additional 48 medium bombers were to target an artillery area opposite the V Corps. Then, between 15.20 and 19,30, 500 fighter-bombers of Air Vice Marshal R. M. Foster’s Desert Air Force and 200 fighter-bombers of the XXII Tactical Air Command, normally operating in support of the 5th Army, were to attack 56 German artillery batteries and 64 strongpoints, mortar positions, and command posts across the assault front. Any traffic on roads into the battle area was to be strafed.
During the same period, on the V Corps front, a series of five 42-minute ‘false alarm’ bombardments by artillery and mortars was planned, with a 10-minute interval between each during which fighter-bombers were to attack front-line targets along the western floodbanks of the Senio river. As the offensive began, immediately after the end of the final artillery bombardment, the aircraft were make dummy attacks along the floodbanks. From 18.30 to 19.30 the fighter-bombers would also attack the floodbanks in front of the Polish II Corps. It was planned that even the start of the offensive and darkness would offer the Germans no respite from air attack, for between 20.30 and 040.0 on the first and second days of the offensive, counter-battery artillery fire was to be integrated with attacks by 100 light bombers, while 100 heavy bombers were to attack defences along the Santerno river identified by artillery night marker shells. On the offensive second day, between 11.00 and 12.30, 800 heavy bombers were to saturate an area of 10.5 sq miles (27.2 km²) just across the Santerno river with fragmentation bombs.
The great scale of the air support planned for ‘Buckland’ is attested by the fact that 148,556 bombs with a total weight of 16,924.37 tons were dropped. Similar numbers and tonnages were planned for ‘Craftsman’ (ii), although as a result of the mountainous nature of the terrain there was no carpet bombing.
The Allies’ total superiority in the air was mirrored on the ground, albeit to more limited degrees: the Allied had twice as many pieces of artillery as the Germans, even when the latter’s towed anti-tank guns, infantry support weapons and Nebelwerfer artillery rocket launchers are included, twice as many infantry, and three times as many armoured fighting vehicles even including the Germans’ self-propelled anti-tank and assault guns.
The 8th Army, for example, had 1,017 pieces of artillery with which to support of its two assault corps and an additional 256 pieces in support of the two holding corps, for a total of 1,273 pieces. Compared with the 187 field and medium guns and 36 Nebelwerfer weapons which the Germans had deployed in positions from which they might tackle the 8th Army’s offensive, the advantage was almost as impressive as that in the air. Similar ratios also existed in the 5th Army.
Although each of the Allied armies contained a similar number of divisions, those of the 5th Army had considerably greater assigned overstrengths and far larger replacement pools from which to draw than did those of the 8th Army. Of the nine divisions and the equivalent of a tenth in the 5th Army, there were six US infantry divisions, one Brazilian infantry division, single US and South African armoured divisions, and a miscellany of US and Italian units to the equivalent of another division. As advancements on future replacements, more than 7,000 officers and other ranks had been assigned as overstrengths to those divisions to enable these men to receive some training and experience before the offensive began. In addition, in replacement depots there were 21,000 white officers and enlisted men, 2,000 African-American replacements for the 92nd Division, 5,000 replacements for the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, and 1,200 Nisei (US-born Japanese) for the Japanese-American 442nd Infantry.
As well as facing overwhelming force along the front line, the Germans also had to contend with the fact in their rear areas in north-western Italy, north-eastern Italy and the Apennine mountains there were some 50,000 partisans organised into companies, battalions and brigades. These were ready to strike at German rear-area targets as and when the Allied command structure demanded. Allied support for the Italian resistance movement had begun shortly after the latter’s spontaneous beginning in September 1943 in the aftermath of the surrender of Italy, the ‘Avalanche’ landing at Salerno, the German ‘Achse’ (ii) seizure of northern Italy, and the revival of a puppet Fascist regime in northern Italy. Since that time some 2,400 tons of military supplies had reached partisan bands either by air drop or by covert landings along the coasts: 500 tons had been delivered during March 1944 alone. With the start of the Allied autumn offensive in August 1944, a combination of increased Allied assistance and a wave of enthusiasm, resulting from an over-optimistic anticipation of early liberation, had prompted an estimated 130,000 persons to join the resistance forces, but during the winter months, in which the Allied offensive bogged down, discouragement and vigorous German reaction had reduced the number of partisans to some 50,000 by the spring of 1945. These men, however, were the hard core on which rapid expansion could be based as and when the Germans were forced into a large-scale retreat. At the time of ‘Buckland’ and ‘Craftsman’ (ii), some 200 Allied personnel, divided into 60 mission teams, were in contact with and assisting the partisan formations behind the German lines.
The first of the two preliminary operations scheduled for each of the coastal flanks began on the night of 1/2 April when a flotilla of LTVs carrying part of Brigadier J. F. R. Tod’s 2nd Commando Brigade set out along the shallow water of Lake Comacchio’s eastern side on the 8th Army’s Adriatic flank. This ‘Roast’ operation to take the ‘Spit’ (the narrow neck of land separating Lake Comacchio from the sea) and reach Porto Garibaldi, with the support of the 28th ‘Garibaldi’ Brigade of Italian partisans, was the first of three small undertakings designed to give the British forces advance positions from which to cover an amphibious right hook against Argenta.
The lagoon’s waters immediately proved to be too shallow for the LVTs, however, and shortly after launching all of these craft became stuck on the lagoon’s muddy bottom. Only after the commandos had transferred to storm boats were the lightened vehicles pulled free. The assault then continued in the boats against the ‘spit’. Despite a draught shallower than that of the LVTs, many of the boats also became stuck on the muddy bottom as the water level was low. The men were able to wade ashore, albeit in some instances through knee-deep mud. Surprisingly, those mishaps failed to arouse the 1,200-man garrison of Turkoman troops on the ‘spit’. The commandos and partisans therefore took the defence entirely by surprise, and by 4 April the brigade had pushed 5 miles (8 km) to the north, cleared the ‘spit’ and taken Porto Garibaldi, a small fishing village off the lagoon’s north-eastern corner, yielding some 800 prisoners. The next day a squadron of the Special Boat Service completed the second action by quickly capturing a group of small islands in the centre of the lagoon.
The 2nd Commando Brigade and its newly acquired sector passed under the control of the 56th Division. On 6 April that division launched the third and last of the actions near the mouth of the Reno river to take the ‘wedge’ of ground at Lake Comacchio’s south-western corner by land in ‘Lever’ and by water in ‘Impact Plain’, and despite strong opposition, the fall of night on the second day the 56th Division had cleared the area and taken another 700 prisoners. On this occasion, the LVTs performed perfectly, easily crossing the flooded fields and putting to rest concern raised by the earlier groundings in the operation against the ‘spit’. British troops were now established, though not in great numbers, on the northern bank of the Reno.
Meanwhile, some 120 miles (195 km) to the west on the 5th Army’s Ligurian flank, on 5 April the 92nd Division began the second preliminary operation. This ‘Second Wind’ was designed to capture Massa, on the southern bank of the Frigido river, 5 miles (8 km) to the north-west of the division’s front and the last German-held strongpoint of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences. Since the ill-starred ‘Fourth Term’ operation of the preceding winter, the 92nd Division had been significantly reorganised. Two of its former regiments (the 365th and 371st Infantry) had been detached to cover the long left flank of the IV Corps. By movement of men within the division, Almond had gathered the best men of the three original regiments into Colonel Raymond G. Sherman’s 370th Infantry, and to replace the detached regiments, Truscott attached Lieutenant Colonel Virgil R. Miller’s Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Colonel William P. Yarborough’s 473rd Infantry, the latter made up of anti-aircraft artillerymen now superfluous in their original for lack of German aircraft. Thus the 92nd Division was now a formation vastly different from that which had performed so poorly in ‘Fourth Term’.
On this occasion Almond decided not to risk any repetition of the abortive operation across the Cinquale Canal on the coastal plain, but instead to make his division’s main effort across the high ground overlooking the plain from the east. The 370th Infantry was to cross the flanks of the Strettoia hills to the east, while the 442nd Infantry operated on the right over the higher summits just below the jagged peaks of the Apuan Alps, where the 371st Infantry had fought in February. The 473rd Infantry was initially to remain in the Serchio river valley on the division’s right flank. By gaining control of the high ground as far as Massa, Almond expected to force the Germans to yield the objective without any need for a costly US frontal attack. The question yet to be answered was how well the reconstituted 370th Infantry would perform over the same terrain that had been the scene of the regiment’s debacle in ‘Fourth Term’.
Early on 5 April, US warplanes bombed the German positions, including the naval guns at Punta Bianca, followed by a 10-minute artillery preparation aided by British destroyers offshore. The two regiments on the left wing attacked from a line 5 miles (8 km) to the south-east of Massa astride the coastal highway. Getting off to a good start, the 370th Infantry’s leading company covered more than 2 miles (3.2 km) to occupy a height halfway to Massa, but when the Germans made their inevitable counterattack, the company and its supporting armour yielded most of what they had gained. Sherman reorganised and attacked again, but was unsuccessful as a result of mediocre unit leadership and a general tendency to straggle. For the next few days the 370th Infantry continued to lag behind the 442nd Infantry on the right.
The 370th Infantry’s lagging at first had little effect on the progress of the 442nd Infantry. After passing through the lines of the 371st Infantry on Monte Cauala, 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north-east of the mouth of the Cinquale Canal, the 442nd Infantry, led by the 100th Battalion, drove forward about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) in a wide flanking attack against 2,800-ft (355-m) Monte Fragolita, 3 miles (4.8 km) to the south-east of Massa. By the fall of night on 5 April, the 442nd Infantry had driven the Germans not only from Monte Fragolita but also from several surrounding heights. For the next two days the regiment pursued the Germans as they retreated over narrow mountain trails made even more treacherous by rain and fog, and captured the 3,000-ft (915-m) Monte Belvedere some 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north-east of Massa.
As the 442nd Infantry advanced, Almond relieved the lagging 370th Infantry with the 473rd Infantry moved from the Serchio river valley. The 370th Infantry was then positioned to protect the division’s right flank in a static role. With Massa outflanked from the east by the 442nd Infantry, Almond believed he needed a more aggressive unit to co-operate with the 442nd Infantry in a frontal assault on the town, which the Germans showed no inclination to yield. The 473rd Infantry drove steadily to the north astride Highway 1 through extensive minefields and under a steady rain of artillery shells and mortar bombs to reach the outskirts of Massa by 12.00 on 9 April. The 473rd Infantry prepared to assault the town, with the support of the 758th and 760th Tank Battalions, on the morning of the following day, but the Germans, already outflanked, finally opted to slip away during the night. The Americans occupied the town on the morning of 10 April. On the same day, to the north-east of Massa, the 442nd Infantry forded the Frigido river to capture Monte Bruguana, 2.5 miles (4 km) to the north of Massa, then continued another 2 miles (3.2 km) early on 11 April to occupy the celebrated marble quarry of Carrara.
By that time increasing difficulties in supplying the forward troops and the growing German resistance, the latter including long-range harassing artillery fire, especially against the 473rd Infantry in the coastal corridor from the Italian coastal batteries at Punta Bianca, near the naval base of La Spezia, clearly indicated that the little period of relatively swift advances would soon end. For the next week, until 19 April, the 92nd Division would be brought to a virtual standstill by German units emplaced just behind the Carrione creek, 7 miles (11.25 km) to the north of Carrara.
‘Second Wind’ had nonetheless served its purpose, for in order to check the advance of the 92nd Division beyond Carrara, the Germans had been forced to divert some of their main reserve to this secondary area: despite attacks by Allied warplanes and a severe shortage of fuel, one regiment of the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision was able to move in sufficient strength from its reserve position near Modena to the Ligurian flank to help check the 92nd Division’s advance. This meant that von Vietinghoff-Scheel had been compelled to commit an irreplaceable part of his reserve against what was only a diversionary effort: he had taken the risk because he considered himself still bound by the long-standing Oberkommando der Wehrmacht order to yield no part of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences without a fight.
The Allies’ combination of well-designed deception plans and two preliminary attacks had succeeded in diverting from the front’s two primary sectors at least part of the German reserves. Anticipating an amphibious descent somewhere along the Adriatic coast to the north of the mouth of the Po river, von Vietinghoff-Scheel had earlier shifted half of his army group reserve, the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision to watch that flank, which was separated by several river lines from what was soon to become the main battle area. Then he had sent a regiment of the remaining half of his army group reserve, the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, to bolster the Ligurian flank. Thus when the 8th Army began ‘Buckland’ on 9 April as the first of the two major blows against Heeresgruppe ‘C’, a significant portion of the German reserve was poorly positioned to reinforce the primary area.
Shortly before the 8th Army began its offensive against the 10th Army, whose troops had been on alert since the beginning of April, Herr recommended to von Vietinghoff-Scheel the adoption of a tactic which had been used by the Germans and French on the Western Front in World War I. Known to the Germans as the ‘false front manoeuvre’, this called for withdrawal under the cover of an artillery barrage as short a time as possible to the start of the opponent’s offensive. If the 10th Army withdrew from the Senio river to the Santerno river in this fashion, Herr advised, the 8th Army’s attack would fall on nothing and would in all probability be thrown off balance, and this was exactly what Clark and McCreery feared might happen. If it did, the 8th Army would be forced to pause and reorganise. Because the timing of the 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ (ii) was tied to the 8th Army’s ‘Buckland’ advance, the entirety of the Allied plan might this be placed in jeopardy.
The tactic appealed to von Vietinghoff-Scheel, who saw the validity of Herr’s suggestion despite the fact that a voluntary withdrawal ran counter to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s directive to hold and then to fall back only under overwhelming pressure. Because of the directive, von Vietinghoff-Scheel had first to obtain the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s authorisation. Although he himself had considered employing the same tactic a year earlier on the eve of the ‘Buffalo’ break-out from the Anzio lodgement, Hitler now refused to permit von Vietinghoff-Scheel to adopt it.
Deprived of the single chance to provide themselves with a change of extended survival, the two German armies in northern Italy had no choice but to brace themselves to meet the Allied offensive. Herr nevertheless ordered an artillery barrage during the night of 6/7 April to conceal a thinning of the sectors held by the 98th Division of the LXXVI Panzerkorps and the 26th Panzerdivision of the I Fallschirmkorps along the line of the Senio river. Anticipating that the 8th Army’s main attack would fall upon the boundary of these two corps, Herr believed that the Allies might be checked briefly on the Santerno river, the first waterway barrier behind that of the Senio river, if the Germans’ primary resistance was made between the two waterways instead of along the line of the Senio river itself. Despite the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s diktat, Herr decided to employ an attenuated version of the false front tactic. However, when planning this manoeuvre, he had failed to take into account the fact that it would leave the retiring German troops exposed to the carpet bombing attack preceding the 8th Army’s offensive.
Shortly after 12.00 on 9 April Clark and his chief-of-staff, Major General Alfred M. Gruenther, left their headquarters near Florence to fly to Forlì, on Highway 9 to the south-east of Faenza. From there the US officers were driven to Faenza, where McCreery joined them, then continued a few miles to the west of the town to an observation post in a farmhouse with a fine view of the front some 2,000 yards (1830 m) distant. Assembled were the commanders of the MASAF, 12th AAF, XXII TAC and Desert Air Force. Meanwhile, several formations of heavy bombers had departed airfields in central Italy and flown to the north parallel with the Adriatic coast as if they were making a normal long-range mission to an area to the north of the Alps. Reaching the latitude of Cesenatico, 17 miles (27.5 km) to the east of Forlì, they turned west and them, passing over the Germans’ main defensive zone parallel with the Senio river, began to drop their bombs. For the next two days 1,673 heavy bombers completely carpeted specific target areas between the Senio and Santerno rivers. During the same period 624 medium bombers attacked the German defences and troop concentrations along both sides of Highway 9 in the area between the two rivers, then turned to the area opposite the V Corps, astride Highway 16 to the north-west of Ravenna. After the heavy bombers had completed their tasks on 9 April, fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force and XXII TAC launched fly their pre-planned close-support missions, while the ground troops, supported by more than 1,000 pieces of artillery and hundreds of tanks, began to close on the bank of the Senio river in the evening dusk.
The start of ‘Buckland’ had been set for 19.30 to remove the need for tank crews to fight with the sun in their eyes, and also to give the infantry the advantage of the concealment provided by dusk, heightened by billowing clouds of dust raised by the bombers. The dust also had the effect of making it difficult for the tactical aircraft to find many of their close-support targets. Just before the infantry started to advance from their assembly areas 200 yards (185 m) to the east of the Senio river, several flights of fighter-bombers roared across the army front in dummy runs in an effort to convince the Germans to remain under cover as the British infantry and armour moved toward the crossing sites along the south-eastern bank of the river.
In the lead were Crocodile flamethrower tanks, which seared the river’s far bank, then came the assault infantry bearing assault boats and kapok bridges to provide men and equipment a way across the river. Despite the bombing and flaming napalm from the Crocodiles, some German automatic weapons opened fire from positions along the north-western floodbank of the Senio river, but supporting artillery and mortars swiftly silenced these and enabled the Allied infantry to launch their small boats and push their assault bridges into place.
After eight hours of almost continuous bombardment from the air and the ground, the fact that the Germans could resist at all was a tribute to the courage and discipline of their infantry, which occupied well-prepared positions built during the winter. As was often the case, the heavy Allied bombardment did less damage to front-line positions than to communications to the rear, though that forced the Germans to fight independent and unco-ordinated small unit actions all along the front. Under those conditions resistance could only be short-lived. The fact that the V Corps took more than 1,300 prisoners in the first 24 of ‘Buckland’ reflected, to a degree at least, the disorganisation among the German units resulting largely from the disruption of their communications.
The main assault on the 8th Army’s right wing, made by the New Zealand 2nd Division and Indian 8th Division of the V Corps, established bridgeheads beyond the Senio river during the night. The break of day on 10 April found contingents of both divisions firmly established in their new bridgeheads, and by evening the New Zealanders had pushed 3 miles (4.8 km) beyond the line of the Senio river to gain the south-eastern bank of the Santerno river. Encountering somewhat greater resistance, the Indians got to within 1 mile (1.6 km) of the Santerno river in their sector.
Although the attack of the Polish II Corps between Highways 9 and 16 began at about the same time as that of the V Corps, the Polish units ran into considerably stronger resistance, for opposite them lay the relatively fresh battalions of the 26th Panzerdivision. It took two brigades of the 3rd (Carpathian) Division until the morning of 10 April to establish a bridgehead beyond the Senio river. Even so, the attack of the Polish II Corps gathered pace during the day, and by evening the Poles had taken a strongpoint at Solarolo on the Lugo Canal, 2.5 miles (4 km) to the west of the Senio and 5 miles (8 km) to the north-west of Faenza, although the Santerno river still lay 3 miles (4.8 km) to the west.
During the first 24 hours of ‘Buckland’, the 98th Division and 362nd Division bore the full brunt of the attack. The 362nd Division managed to make a counterattack to the south of Lugo against the British right wing, but this was designed only to facilitate the division’s extrication from positions on the bend of the Senio river to the south-east of Lugo, before abandoning Lugo itself later in the day. By evening of 10 April, across a front of 3.5 miles (5.6 km), both German divisions had withdrawn to the Santerno river, and on the following day continued British pressure forced them back across the river, uncovering the left flank of the 26th Panzerdivision, which also withdrew behind the Santerno river. To the south of Highway 9 in the foothills of the Apennine mountains, the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision of the I Fallschirmkorps also began to withdraw in order to conform to the retreats on its left.
By the morning of 12 April, both the British V Corps and Polish II Corps had established shallow bridgeheads beyond the Santerno river, and during the afternoon of the same day the New Zealand 2nd Division drove forward from its bridgehead and advanced 2 miles (3.2 km) to take Massa Lombarda, while on the flanks of that thrust the Indians and the Poles continued to strengthen and deepen their bridgeheads.
While that encouraging progress developed, the 56th Division on the 8th Army’s right wing launched the first of the ‘Impact Royal’ series of amphibious attacks from the ‘wedge’, itself taken in ‘Impact Plain’, to expand the division’s positions to the north of the Reno river’s mouth. Carried by a flotilla of Fantails, an infantry brigade landed near the hamlet of Menate, 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north of the Reno river’s debouchment into Lake Comacchio and 7 miles (11.25 km) to the east of Bastia. Not expecting an attack from that direction, the Germans were taken completely by surprise, and within a few hours both Menate and Longastrino, 3 miles (4.8 km) to its south, were in British hands. Simultaneously, a second brigade pushed westward along the north bank of the Reno river in ‘Lever’ to link up with the first. The two brigades joined to open a route along which armour and artillery could advance along dikes paralleling the Reno river’s northern bank to lend additional weight to the attack. Yet at the same time resistance stiffened as the defending 42nd Jägerdivision, now threatened also by envelopment on the right by Allied advances beyond Massa Lombarda, fought desperately to withdraw from a salient created by the 56th Division’s thrust at Alfonsine, near the point at which Highway 16 crossed the Senio river 10 miles (16 km) to the south-east of Bastia.
The crossing of the Santerno river in the west and the outflanking of the line of the Reno river in the east marked the completion of the first phase of ‘Buckland’. McCreery believed nevertheless that the situation had yet to develop sufficiently to enable him to decide whether to concentrate on a westerly thrust toward Budrio or a northerly drive toward Argenta. Deciding to force the issue, McCreery brought forward the 78th Division. Passing through the Indian 8th Division’s bridgehead, the 78th Division moved to the north along the north-western bank of the Santerno river in the general direction of Bastia, while the 56th Division prepared to move on Bastia from the east. The 78th Division’s left flank was covered by the 2nd Commando Brigade, advancing in Fantail amphibian vehicles across flooded fields to the south of Argenta. To the right of the 56th Division Brigadier M. D. Erskine’s 24th Guards Brigade prepared to launch yet another Fantail-borne assault, setting out across the flooded lowlands toward the Chiesa del Bante, 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north-east of Argenta.
One British division advancing frontally on Bastia and another outflanking it from the east, over flooded areas hitherto regarded as impassable, convinced both von Vietinghoff-Scheel and Herr that the 8th Army no longer intended a major amphibious operation to the north of the Po river’s mouth. That prompted the army group commander to relieve the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision from its pointless vigil in that area and commit it to the defence of the Argenta gap.
After a brief check at the village of Conselice, 5 miles (8 km) to the north of Massa Lombarda, the 78th Division reached the Reno river and captured the all-important Bastia bridge early on 14 April before the retreating 42nd Jägerdivision could destroy it. Yet when the British attempted to expand their bridgehead, they found the German division well-entrenched within the village of Bastia. To the south-east of the Bastia sector the same German division also checked the 56th Division’s second amphibious operation, launched on the morning of 13 April, short of its goal.
Despite those local defensive successes, it was obvious from the loss of the Bastia bridge that the check would be brief. Once more von Vietinghoff-Scheel asked the Oberkommando der Wehmacht for authorisation to make limited withdrawals in less threatened sectors in order to provide the reinforcements needed to prevent a breakthrough on Herr’s left wing. After pointing to the courage and steadfastness of the embattled troops attempting to hold the Argenta gap, von Vietinghoff-Scheel called attention to the imminent threat of an Allied breakthrough into the Po river valley which, if successful, would endanger the ‘whole east flank of the [army group’s] front…If we do not succeed in stopping the enemy at the north-western corner of Lake Comacchio, a breakthrough into the Po valley will be inevitable. All necessary forces to stop this move must be available at once. They can only be taken from the I Fallschirmkorps’ sector and only if the salient [at Imola] is reduced by a fighting withdrawal.’ Any other solution, von Vietinghoff-Scheel concluded, could bring only temporary relief and raised the threat of entrapment. In connection with the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’ along the Idice River, the last before Bologna, von Vietinghoff-Scheel felt that it ‘will likewise not be defended for any length of time, since, as far as can be judged by this headquarters, neither new units nor replacements of personnel and matériel, particularly motor fuel, can be supplied in sufficient quantities’. Even that estimate was optimistic, for the 8th Army had penetrated the line several days before.
Without waiting for the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s response, and risking Hitler’s anger, von Vietinghoff-Scheel ordered the I Fallschirmkorps with withdraw from the Imola salient and fall back to the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’. At the same time he continued to reinforce his forces in the Argenta gap as best he could.
von Vietinghoff-Scheel had little time available to him, for the V Corps was closing on the Argenta gap and McCreery, deciding to strengthen his centre, started shifting the XIII Corps, with its Indian 10th Division, from the 8th Army’s left wing to a sector between the Polish II Corps and the British V Corps. Unaware of McCreery’s decision, but anticipating its likelihood, Herr ordered the entire 29th Panzergrenadierdivision to the defence of Argenta and the 278th Division from the I Fallschirmkorps to the LXXVI Panzerkorps, where the infantry division was to relieve the 98th Division, reduced by casualties to little more than a Kampfgruppe. Herr then withdrew the 26th Panzerdivision from the line opposite the Polish II Corps to provide a mobile reserve for the defence of the line of the Reno river.
By 15 April the 278th Division had taken over from the 98th Division the sector astride the rail line linking Medicina and Massa Lombarda, but this change came too late to achieve anything but a momentary check the momentum of the thrust of the New Zealand 2nd Division from its bridgehead over the Sillaro river. To the south of that sector the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision also briefly delayed the elements of the Polish II Corps advancing astride Highway 9. Short as it was, that rearguard action nevertheless enabled the I Fallschirmkorps to withdraw those forces still in the Imola salient to the temporary, in fact illusory, security of the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’.
With his V Corps now confronted by elements of the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision rather than the remnants of the 42nd Jägerdivision and 362nd Division, Keightley decided to commit as much of his strength as the narrow confines of the Argenta sector could accommodate. All three of his separate infantry brigades were to continue their efforts to outflank Argenta: the first to drive to the north-east in the direction of Portomaggiore, the second to pass directly to the east of Argenta, and the third to aid the 78th Division in reducing the strongpoint at Bastia village. The 2nd Commando Brigade was at the same time to continue its advance in the area to the south-west of Argenta.
In the meantime, von Schwerin-Krosigk, commanding the LXXVI Panzerkorps, had speeded the deployment of the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision into the Argenta gap, but it was nonetheless too late. Because the advance of the 78th Division to the north was threatening to force the collapse of the central sector, held by the 362nd Division, which would uncover the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision’s right flank, von Schwerin-Krosigk formed the surviving elements of the 42nd Jägerdivision and 362nd Division into two Kampfgruppen which he ordered to hold until a time early on 16 April. Although forced to yield the village of Bastia on 15 April, the 42nd Jägerdivision offered a stubborn defence which gave the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision some time to prepare defences to the north of the Marina Canal, about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the south of Argenta. To enable von Schwerin-Krosigk to extricate remaining units of his LXXVI Panzerkorps still to the south of the Reno river, the Panzergrenadier division had to hold that line for at least one day, for once they had taken the Argenta gap, the British forces would be in a position to move rapidly to the north-west along the Reno river’s northern bank, turn successive river lines, and thereby expedite the advance of the divisions attacking astride Highway 9.
By the evening of 16 April the 78th Division had struck the line of the Marina Canal on the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision’s right flank. Although the Panzergrenadiers fought bravely and tenaciously, the leading British battalion managed early on 17 April to secure a small bridgehead. The Marina Canal line had not held quite as long as von Schwerin-Krosigk had hoped, but the rearguard action nevertheless enabled him to straighten his front to the south of the Reno river in preparation for a withdrawal to the Reno itself.
While supporting artillery controlled with the aid of observation aircraft pinned down the German troops still deployed along the line of the Marina Canal, the Desert Air Force’s tactical warplanes on 17 April to attack anything that dared move in the area to the north of Argenta. During the morning the 78th Division burst out of its bridgehead and passed to the east of Argenta, while a brigade of the 56th Division, mounted in Fantails, moved up on the right across the flooded lowlands to the near bank of the Marina Canal in the area to the south-east of Argenta. On the 78th Division’s left. the 2nd Commando Brigade, also in Fantails, crossed a flooded area to the west of the Reno to pull abreast of the centre. These advances stretched the German defences to the extent that two fresh battalions of the 78th Division reached Argenta without difficulty, one bypassing it on the right, the other moving directly into the town. While the leading battalion cleared the last German troops from Argenta, a second brigade of the 78th Division moved forward, and in the early afternoon of 18 April two of the division’s brigades advanced to the north-west of Argenta along Highway 16. As von Vietinghoff-Scheel had warned the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht four days earlier, a British breakthrough of the Argenta gap threatened to turn the line of the Reno river.
The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s reply to von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s warning of 14 April reached the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ on 17 April even as the threat became a reality. Although the reply bore the signature of Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the chief of the operations staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the order was that of Hitler: ‘All further proposals for a change in the present war strategy will be discontinued. I wish to point out particularly that under no circumstances must troops or commanders be allowed to waver or to adopt a defeatist attitude as a result of such ideas apparently held by your headquarters. Where any such danger is likely, the sharpest countermeasures must be employed. The Führer expects now, as before, the utmost steadfastness in the fulfilment of your present mission, to defend every inch of the north Italian areas entrusted to your command. I desire to point out the serious consequences for all those higher commanders, unit commanders, or staff officers, who do not carry out the Führer’s orders to the last word.’
However, it needed more than orders and threats to check the momentum of ‘Buckland’. While the 78th and 56th Divisions pushed through the Argenta gap on the British right, in the centre and on the left the New Zealand 2nd Division of the V Corps, the Indian 10th Division of the XII Corps, and the 3rd ‘Carpathian’ and 5th ‘Kresowa’ Divisions of the Polish II Corps advanced along the axis from Medicina to Budrio and along Highway 9. In this sector, the main burden of the German defence fell on the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision as the 278th Division had been pulling back steadily before the New Zealanders ever since arriving in the sector on 15 April. The paratroopers gradually fell back to the line of the Gaiano Canal, about half way between Medicina and Budrio and 1.5 miles (2.4 km) beyond Castel San Pietro on Highway 9. By 18 April, the Polish II Corps and British XIII Corps had closed on the canal, some 5 miles (8 km) to the east of the Idice river, which formed the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’ in this sector. Although Herr hoped to delay the 8th Army’s advance here for a time long enough to allow his forces to fall back to the line of the Po river in good order, by 18 April the end of the battle to the south of the Po was within clear sight.
Meanwhile, just four days earlier, the US 5th Army had launched its ‘Craftsman’ (ii) phase of the Allied ‘Grapeshot’ spring offensive. Originally scheduled for 12 April, the 5th Army undertaking had been postponed postponed when heavy fog closed the airfields from which air support was to be delivered, and after meteorologists could forecast that the fog would not clear on the following day, Truscott set the start of ‘Craftsman’ (ii) at 06.00 on 14 April.
Before dawn on this date Truscott and his staff waited anxiously at their headquarters in Traversa as they waited for the latest weather reports. Then news began to arrive that all the air bases were still fogbound and that flying was impossible. Truscott telephoned Crittenberger, command of the IV Corps, to delay the start of the offensive but nonetheless maintain preparedness to at one-hour notice. Only a few minutes later the air base near Grosseto reported that the fog might be lifting, and by 08.00 flight operations there were possible and that fighter-bombers were taking off. Truscott telephoned Crittenberger to order the start of ‘Craftsman’ (ii) at 09.00. Soon new messages confirmed that the fog was clearing from other air bases, and the US offensive would therefore have all the benefits of formidable air support.
At 08.30 waves of heavy bombers started to arrive from the south, and in the following 40 minutes the bombers a massive weight of HE, fragmentation and napalm bombs on the German positions. Over this four-day duration of the bombing, some 2,052 heavy bombers flew in support first of the IV Corps and then of Keyes’s II Corps.
As the heavy bombers completed their first-day missions, medium bombers and fighter-bombers of the XXII TAC, engaged since 10 April in attack on the German lines of communication and supply depots, appeared over the front to attack the German main line of resistance. The aircraft flew more than 459 sorties, mostly in four-aircraft flights, against artillery positions, strongpoints, troop concentration areas, and other defensive works immediately opposite the IV Corps. Many of the sorties were napalm attacks against the Germans holding the 10th Mountain Division’s first objective, Monte Pigna some 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north-west of Vergato, the latter at the junction of Highway 64 and the lateral road connecting the highway with the Panaro river valley 10 miles (16 km) to the west.
As soon as the air bombardment had ended, the supporting artillery opened fire at 09.10 and in the space of 35 minutes more than 2,000 pieces of artillery, ranging in calibre from the 10th Mountain Division’s 75-mm (2.95-in) pack howitzers to the 5th Army’s 8-in (203-mm) howitzers, fired a devastating barrage. With the morning light turned to a grey haze by the smoke and dust of the air and artillery bombardment, the 10th Mountain Division began to move to a line of departure on the forward slopes of Monte della Spe, just to the north-east of Castel d’Aiano overlooking the northernmost of two lateral roads connecting Vergato and Castel d’Aiano and a secondary road which was to be the divisional axis of advance. With all three of its regiments moving abreast, the division had as its immediate objective a mountain mass extending to the north-east for about 7 miles (11.25 km) from the 2,500-ft (760-m) Rocca Roffeno massif in the south-west through Monte Pigna to Monte Mantino and Monte Mosca, of which the latter overlooked both the Lavino and Reno river valleys.
The seizure of the Rocca Roffeno massif would provide early control of the lateral road extending to the west-north-west from Vergato down the Samoggia river valley to Modena. Most importantly, with the massif in its hands the 10th Mountain Division would be able to turn the flank of the 94th Division, which with the 334th Division was holding that sector of the 14th Army front between the Samoggia and Reno rivers.
Although both German divisions were sited in prepared positions capable of withstanding all but direct hits by bombs and heavy artillery projectiles, each was below strength in manpower terms. Each of the divisions had three two-battalion grenadier regiments, and neither possessed anything more than company-sized local reserves. Reinforcements could come only from the 14th Army’s reserve (the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision) to the south-west of Bologna, but one of that formation’s regiments had already been shifted to the west to reinforce the Ligurian flank.
Artillery support for the sector held by the two divisions totalled only 240 pieces of all types, hardly a match for the 381 pieces that the IV Corps alone controlled, not to mention the 5th Army’s artillery. Moreover, the US phase of the offensive was to strike the Germans on about the boundary between the LI Gebirgskorps on the west and the XIV Panzerkorps on the east, and the boundary between formations is always a weak point. The 334th Division, in whose sector lay the Rocco Roffeno massif, was the left flank unit of the mountain corps, and the 94th Division the right flank unit of the Panzer corps.
As the air and artillery bombardment ceased, the 85th Mountain Infantry on the 10th Mountain Division’s left moved down into the Pra del Bianco basin, a small bowl-shaped valley just to the north-east of Castel d’Aiano. Across the flanks of the hills overlooking the basin from the west the Germans had developed a complex of interlinked bunkers and covered gun emplacements. Yet in the basin itself the outposts were manned only at night, so the men of the 85th Mountain Infantry had no difficulty bypassing them in the half light of early morning. The large anti-personnel and anti-tank minefields along the basin’s western edge were another matter. In addition to causing many infantry casualties, the mines also prevented the 751st Tank Battalion and 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion from remaining close to the mountain infantry they were supporting and from providing fire on on the well-sited German automatic weapon positions overlooking the basin. The delay caused by the minefields therefore gave the Germans the time they needed to man their weapons within the main line of resistance. With a surprisingly heavy volume of fire, considering the bombing and artillery that had preceded the attack, they were able to check the advance just short of the crest of the hills overlooking the basin.
Although the commander of the 85th Mountain Infantry, Colonel Raymond C. Barlow, called for artillery fire to counter the German mortars and artillery beyond the range of his infantry, credit for finally silencing the Germans' automatic weapons was attributable to the mountain infantry themselves, stubbornly fighting their way forward despite the fire.
As the 2/85th Mountain Infantry inched forward, the 3/85th Mountain Infantry encountered surprisingly little resistance and moved quickly to the crest of Hill 860, part of the high ground overlooking the basin. From that vantage point the battalion, with support from guns of the 604th Field Artillery Battalion, engaged the German flank, thereby relieving some of the pressure on the 2/85th Mountain Infantry. By a time soon after 12.00 the US infantry had taken two more crests along the high ground, and the two battalions turned to the north-east along the ridge line to clear the rest.
Meanwhile, at 09.45, Colonel David M. Fowlers’s 87th Mountain Infantry advanced from its start line on Monte Spicchione’s forward slopes. With its battalions in column, the regiment crossed the lateral road leading to the north-east of Castel d’Aiano to enter the village of Serra Sarzana, 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north-east of Castel d’Aiano and 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south-east of Monte Pigna, one of the major features of the Rocca Roffeno massif. When the infantry tried to continue, however, heavy German artillery fire forced the men to take shelter in the ruins of the village, while from the high ground to the west, not at that point cleared by the 85th Mountain Infantry, German machine guns made movement effectively impossible. Only when that fire ceased, probably as a result of the regiment’s advance, was the 1/87th Mountain Infantry able to lead the way into the neighbouring village of Torre Iussi. While the battalion fought through the village house by house, Fowler despatched the 2/87th Mountain Infantry to bypass the village and capture Hill 903, which was the high ground overlooking Torre Iussi. The manoeuvre was sufficient to convince the Germans that to fight any longer invited envelopment, and they withdrew from both the village and the hill.
On the 10th Mountain Division’s right wing Colonel Clarence Tomlinson’s 86th Mountain Infantry attacked, with its 2/86th Mountain Infantry forward, in the direction of the northern slope of the Rocca Roffeno. The men of this battalion also came under heavy fire from the enemy on Hill 903, but once that feature had been taken by the 87th Mountain Infantry, the 86th Mountain Infantry was able to scale a nearby height and by late afternoon had taken Rocca Roffeno.
The combination of continued German resistance and the approach of night now prevented further advance. Even so, the 10th Mountain Division had opened a serious breach between the 334th Division and 94th Division, and the Germans feared that any farther US advance to the north-east would outflank the 94th Division. In an effort to prevent this, Steinmetz, rushed forward the reserve battalion of his 94th Division to close the gap, but it was already too late.
The Americans, meanwhile, had prepared to face the customary German counterattack, but none came. Key ground had been won, but the first day had been costly, with 553 men of the 10th Mountain Division killed, wounded or missing, and although the Americans had a foothold on the Rocca Roffeno massif, Monte Pigna was still in German hands.
At dawn on 15 April a 20-minute artillery barrage, including the guns of supporting tanks and tank destroyers, opened the second day of the IV Corps attack, and 20 minutes later the leading battalions of the 87th Mountain Infantry moved out from Torre Iussi and Hill 903 toward Monte Pigna about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north. The Germans resistance was scattered, and slightly more than one later the Americans were on the crest preparing to continue their advance to the north in the direction of Tole, 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north-west of Vergato commanding a network of secondary roads leading into the Samoggia and Lavino river valleys.
At about the same time, the 86th Mountain Infantry in the centre started to move from Rocca Roffeno toward Amore about 1,000 yards (915 m) to the north. There too the German resistance was weak and, passing through Amore in the middle of the morning, the 86th Mountain Infantry continued along a ridge which ended at Monte Mantino and, just as darkness fell, occupied that height without opposition.
The situation was very different on the division’s left flank, where the 85th Mountain Infantry was advancing from the high ground overlooking the Pra del Bianco toward Monte Righetti, some 2.5 miles (4 km) to the west of Monte Pigna, and encountered resistance so heavy that Hays, the divisional commander, decided that flank protection was needed and therefore brought up the 10th Mountain Infantry Anti-Tank Battalion, which comprised the anti-tank companies of the division’s three regiments. Noting the contrast along the 10th Mountain Divisions’s front, where the resistance was fading on the right, Crittenberger ordered Hays to concentrate his division’s main effort in this area.
Steinmetz knew that his front was crumbling and, having requested in vain for XIV Panzerkorps’ authority to withdraw his left-flank regiments, decided on 16 April to take the decision on his own authority. During the afternoon of that day, Steinmetz ordered the troops on his centre and left to fall back during the night to new positions. Steinmetz waited a dangerously long time, however, for the Americans had already cut the few roads leading from that sector. Steinmetz’s units had to withdraw across country in the darkness over mountainous terrain, abandoning much of their heavy equipment along the way and falling prey to harassing US artillery fire. The German division’s left-flank battalion was hit so hard that it was rendered effectively useless.
The 10th Mountain Division was on the verge of a breakthrough of the front between the Samoggia and Lavino rivers, and this was confirmed by the formation’s progress over the next three days. As the 94th Division continued to withdraw behind smoke screens and artillery fire, the 86th and 87th Mountain Infantry, moving in column of battalions following a 20-minute artillery barrage, jumped off at 06.20 on 16 April. Despite the efforts of a determined German rearguard, the 86th Mountain Infantry in the early afternoon occupied hills just to the north of Monte Mantino, then with the armoured support of the 751st Tank Battalion advanced another 4 miles (6.4 km) to the hamlet of Montepastore. Over the same period The 87th Mountain Infantry advanced via Tole toward Monte Croce and Monte Mosca, the latter 5 miles (8 km) to the north-east of Monte Pigna and the last high point along the eastern ridge line. Progress over the next two days was just as steady, so that by the fall of night on 18 April the 10th Mountain Division had almost reached the edge of the mountains overlooking Highway 9 and the plain of the Po river valley.
Five days of combat had cost the 10th Mountain Division 1,283 casualties, and the surviving men were close to exhaustion. Large numbers of German prisoners meanwhile streamed back to the division’s rear. Among the prisoners were the commanding officer and staff of the 2/361st Panzergrenadierregiment, a fact which confirmed rumours that the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision was on its way to the front opposite the IV Corps. On the same day, elements of the same division’s 190th Aufklärungsabteilung and 200th Panzergrenadierregiment were also identified, thereby effectively revealing the fact that von Vietinghoff-Scheel had decided to commit his remaining reserve in an effort to seal the widening gap in the 14th Army’s front between the Samoggia and the Lavino rivers.
As the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision came forward, the Germans began to fall back slowly toward a so-called ‘Michel-Stellung’, an east/west switch position passing through Monte San Michele, about 5 miles (8 km) to the north of Montepastore. Last of the prepared positions in the hills to the south of the Po river valley, the ‘Michel-Stellung’ was hardly worthy of the name as it was not a continuous defence line but rather a series of lightly held strongpoints. Like their US opponents, the German infantry started to reach their new positions in a state of near-exhaustion.
While the 10th Mountain Division pushed rapidly over the mountain ridges, the formations to its left and right were advancing abreast of it. On the left Mascarenhas de Morais’s Brazilian 1st Division occupied the village of Montese and surrounding hills some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north-west of Castel d’Aiano, while on the right Prichard’s 1st Armored Division, beginning on 14 April soon after the start of the 10th Mountain Division, struck at Vergato and the hills to the north-west of that town.
On the 1st Armored Division’s right wing, and following the time-on-target bombardment fired by the 105-mm (4.13-in) guns of the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, dismounted cavalry of the 81st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron stormed a German strongpoint at Vergato, and within two hours the US troops had fought through the town’s southern outskirts to occupy what remained of the railway station. So preoccupied were the Germans with the defence of Vergato that the 14th Armored Infantry Battalion encountered little resistance in coming up on the cavalry’s left to attack the village of Suzzano, 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north-west. Following repeated bombardment by the warplanes of the XXII TAC and supporting artillery and armour, mixed tank and infantry teams moved rapidly into Suzzano late on 15 April, and on the following day men of the 11th Armored Infantry Battalion passed through to capture Monte Mosca, 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north-east.
The only real opposition the Americans met was in the ruins of Vergato where, amid the ruins of the burning town, the Germans fought through the night. It was only on 15 April, with the arrival of dawn and four armoured vehicles (three tanks and one armoured bulldozer) that the men of the 81st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron able to embark on the process of clearing the ruins on a house-by-house basis. Another night passed before the last pockets of German resistance had been eliminated.
During 16 and 17 April, the 1st Armored Division advanced systematically in a number of columns. By the fall of night on 17 April the 81st Cavalry had reached a point nearly 5 miles (8 km) beyond Vergato, while the 6th Armored Infantry Battalion had passed beyond Monte Mosca to capture Monte d’Avigo, 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north-east, after a 30-minute artillery bombardment had discouraged meaningful resistance by a reinforced German company. To the right the 11th Armored Infantry Battalion gained Monte Milano overlooking the Reno river valley.
All was proceeding according to plan on the IV Corps’s front, with all three of the corps’ divisions in line and advancing well.
The same was not true of the II Corps, however, for on this formation’s front the advance toward Bologna seemed at first to be painfully similar to that of the fighting in November 1944 in the same area. The problem lay not only in the difficult terrain, but also in the fact that it was here that the Germans had concentrated their strongest defences. Yet in the conviction that Keyes’s corps would face greater challenges than the IV Corps to the west of Highway 64, Truscott had placed the majority of his divisions under the II Corps between Highway 64 and Highway 54 in the west and east respectively.
The Germans had built their defences on the central sector to the south of Bologna round four clearly defined geographic features. The first of these, and most important in terms of Truscott’s intention to concentrate his main effort in the Reno river valley, was Monte Sole some 6 miles (9.7 km) to the north-east of Vergato and half-way between the Reno river and Setta creek. Together with the IV Corps’ operations to the west of the Reno river valley, the capture of Monte Sole would open the way for an advance to the Praduro road junction on Highway 64 where the Setta creek enters the Reno river. The second and third features were Monterumici and Monte Adone, overlooking Highway 65 from the west, and a series of hills just to the north of Monte Belmonte, overlooking the same stretch of Highway 65 from the east. Clearing the Germans from the high ground would permit an advance to Pianoro, the fourth feature, on Highway 65 only 8 miles 13 km) from Bologna. Possession of Pianoro would enable Keyes to exert considerable pressure on the German defences in the area to the south of Bologna.
US reconnaissance had established that the German strongpoints developed round these four features were mutually supporting, so Keyes appreciated that the capture of one would not necessarily lead to a breakthrough. It was therefore necessary for the Americans to attack simultaneously across the whole of the II Corps’ front, which Keyes hoped, would prevent the Germans from shifting local reserves from one threatened point to another. With the Germans pinned, Keyes would be free to exploit his manpower and matériel superiority to concentrate sufficient strength to achieve a breakthrough at one point.
For the defence of the area to the south of Bologna, Lemelsen had assembled slightly more than four divisions. Although that constituted more formations than the US II Corps controlled, in terms of manpower the Germans were far inferior. Opposite the boundary of the US 5th Army and British 8th Army, on the right of the US II Corps, was the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision then, from east to west, the 305th Division, 65th Division and 8th Gebirgsdivision, with part of the 94th Division opposite the II Corps’ left. The 65th Division and 8th Gebirgsdivision were especially well positioned between the Reno river and Highway 65, the main route through this sector.
The II Corps’ four divisions held a 15-mile (24-km) front extending between the Reno river and a ridge line about 2 miles (3.2 km) to the east of the Idice river. The South African 6th Armoured Division was opposite Monte Sole across the high ground between the Reno river and Setta creek. Next in line was the 88th Division facing Monterumici. The 91st Division stood astride Highway 65 facing Monte Adone and the high ground flanking Pianoro. To the east of the highway was the 34th Division, whose objectives were the Savizzano and Gorgognano ridges to the north-east of Monte Belmonte. The Italian Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Legnano’ on the far right flank was to make a demonstration but was not to attack when the II Corps’ phase of the offensive began.
As Keyes prepared his corps, the full might of the available air support shifted to his corps. On 15 April, during the afternoon preceding the attack, 765 heavy bombers attacked targets along both highways between the front line and Bologna. Medium bombers followed with attacks on installations and troop assembly areas in the vicinity of Praduro. On 16 April the heavy bombers repeated their attacks, while the medium bombers shifted their attentions to the German lines of communication in the Bologna area. Meanwhile, late in the afternoon of 15 April, 120 fighter-bombers, flying in waves of four to eight aircraft, maintained a constant attack on the Germans in the Monte Sole sector. Just before the fall of night the fighter-bombers turned their attention to other strongpoints ahead of the II Corps’ front, dropping tons of napalm on known German emplacements. The effects of the aerial bombardment were heightened by the efforts of 548 pieces of artillery, which fired counter-battery and anti-personnel barrages immediately before the first advances of the ground forces. The Germans were able to reply only weakly: only slightly more than 1,000 rounds of artillery fire fell across the entire II Corps front during the first two days of the attack.
On 15 April the South African 6th Armoured Division and the 88th Division on the II Corps’ left wing attacked soon after the fall of night. Some 270 minutes later, at 03.00 on 16 April, the 91st and 34th Divisions launched their operations on the II Corps’ right wing.
At the start of the aerial and artillery barrages the Germans had taken shelter in their deep bunkers, but as soon as the barrages lifted they emerge to reoccupy their positions, as immediately became clear to the attackers. Supplemented by minefields and the difficulties of the terrain, the German fire limited the 88th, 91st and 34th Divisions to the type of slow, and therefore costly, advances that had characterised the previous autumn’s operations. Only on the left could Keyes report success: here the South Africans, in a series of courageous attacks supported by 35,000 rounds of artillery fire, took Monte Sole before the break of day on 16 April.
On the second day, as the German defences to the west of Highway 65 began to show signs of breaking, the 88th Division finally drove the last German units from Monterumici. The Germans continued nevertheless to hold firm astride Highway 65, and it was only on the third day that there began to emerge any signs that the German defences in this area were also about to crumble as the 91st and 34th Divisions cleared the high ground flanking the highway.
Meanwhile the IV Corps continued to widen its penetration in the area to the west of the Reno river and Highway 64, and the Polish II Corps of the 8th Army threatened Bologna from the south-east. Thus the isolation of the German sector to the south of Bologna seemed imminent.
Sensing that a breakthrough was at hand, Truscott decided that it was time to shift the weight of the 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ (ii) offensive and the inter-corps boundary to the west, thereby placing the important Praduro road junction and eventually Highway 64 and the Reno river within the II Corps’ operational zone. The II Corps was then to make the 5th Army’s main drive to the Po river.
Anticipating Truscott’s decision, Keyes had already begun moving his divisions to the west. He first shifted the 88th Division to the corps’ left flank between the South African 6th Armoured Division and the Reno river. Again the 88th Division was to be paired with the 85th Division, which on 16 April had started its movement from reserve positions on the Arno river to an assembly area in the vicinity of Vergato. There the 85th Division prepared on the following day to relieve the 1st Armored Division in the area to the west of the Reno river. Although Truscott had originally planned to assign the 85th Division to Keyes, he allocated the formation instead to Crittenberger for use on the 10th Mountain Division’s right flank, where the progress of the preceding four days had suggested that the Germans had a major weakness.
As the 85th Division completed its relief of the 1st Armored Division, the US armoured formation moved to positions along the Panaro river, 10 miles (16 km) farther to the west, where the terrain was more favourable for armoured operations, and the armoured formation could also cover the extended left flank of the 10th Mountain Division, which was to become the spearhead of the 5th Army’s offensive. To fill the gap created by shifting the 88th Division to the left flank, the 91st and 34th Divisions also sideslipped to the west. That move served to widen the relatively inactive sector of the Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Legnano’ and set Highway 65 as the boundary between the Italians and the 34th Division.
With this regrouping of his forces completed, Truscott expected that the next two days would produce a break-out from the mountains onto the Lombardy plain and an advance to the Po river.
At 09.30 on 18 April the 10th Mountain Division and 85th Division started the revitalised IV Corps’ attack. From the first the 85th Division on the right met no experienced no contest. Trying to withdraw, the Germans had become so disorganised that they found it difficult to make a stand at any point. By the fall of night on the first day the two leading regiments of the 85th Division had advanced 5 miles (8 km) into the hills to the north of the village of Piano di Venola, mid-way between Vergato and Praduro.
The 10th Mountain Division initially found its advance to be more difficult than it had been in the first phase of the operation. Early in the afternoon the Germans fought back with heavy artillery and mortar fire, prompting the leading unit, the 85th Mountain Infantry, to halt for the night at a point short of the initial objective of Mongiorgio. Early on 19 April, though, it became clear that this German first-day resistance had been only a short-term effort designed to screen a continuing withdrawal. When the 85th Mountain Infantry took the lead in a drive to Monte San Michele, a dominating height to the north-east of Mongiorgio and key to the ‘Michel-Stellung’, the German defence collapsed. At about 12.00 Monte San Michele was in US hands and an order went back for every available tank and tank destroyer to join the attack as the German withdrawal was now becoming a rout. The leading troops stopped for the night 3 miles (4.8 km) to the north of Monte San Michele not as a result of exhaustion but rather to allow supporting troops and reserves to catch up. To the left a battalion of the 87th Mountain Infantry occupied another height, Monte San Pietro, again meeting only vestigial resistance. Truscott’s hope for a breakthrough onto the plain in two days had just failed, but only by a fraction, and the US debouchment was inevitable on 20 April.
On 18 April the 1st Armored Division had readied one combat command to attack up the valley of the Samoggia river to protect the II Corps’ left flank, and on the following day the rest of the division joined the drive. This was fortunate for the Americans, for in a desperate effort to stop a breakthrough onto the plain, the Germans committed armour of the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision. In the resulting armoured engagement, the advance of the US tanks was restricted, but this German last-ditch attempt to prevent a US breakthrough had come too late. With the 1st Armored Division obviously capable of handling the nuisance on the western flank, the 10th Mountain Division and 85th Division had no cause for concern.
At long last, on 20 April, the bitter US struggle to break out of the northern edges of the Apennine mountains finally reached a climax. Fighting was still intense in some places, but these German last stands could no longer slow the momentum of the 5th Army’s advance. During the afternoon of 20 April the 86th Mountain Infantry crossed Highway 9 near Ponte Samoggia, 10 miles (16 km) to the north-west of Bologna, and the 88th Division crossed the inter-corps boundary athwart the axis of the II Corps advance in their eagerness to reach the flat country of the Lombardy plain. The resulting was soon sorted by having the 88th Division’s units relieve in place all 85th Division units as they were overtaken.
To the immediate south of Bologna, the II Corps had meanwhile also begun to move. The South African 6th Armoured Division throughout maintained close contact with the right flank of the IV Corps, on 20 April reaching Casalecchio alongside the 88th Division at Riale, while during the night part of a battalion of the 34th Division’s 133rd Infantry boarded the tanks of the 752nd Tank Battalion and set out during the dark along Highway 65 to Bologna, which the infantry and tank partnership entered at 08.51 to find all but German stragglers had departed.
To the east and north-east of Bologna the Polish II Corps was also involved in the general advance, pushing back the Germans along a series of stream lines to a point within 10 miles (16 km) of Bologna, while to the south-west of Budrio the Poles crossed the Quaderno river half-way between Medicina and Bologna to pinch out Hawkesworth’s British X Corps and take over the 8th Army’s left flank. Early on 21 April the Poles entered Bologna to join the US 34th Division and the Italian Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Legnano’ in occupying the city.
On the 8th Army’s right flank, Keightley’s British V Corps committed the British 6th Armoured Division in pursuit of the Germans retreating along the axis of Highway 16. By 20 April the division was only 10 miles (16 km) from Ferrara. To the west of Highway 16 the Indian 10th Division outflanked Budrio to the east, while 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north of the town the New Zealand 2nd Division established a bridgehead over the Idice river. Those advances had carried the entire corps through the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’, thereby breaching the last German defences to the south of the Po river.
On the western side of the peninsula the US 92nd Division had also resumed an advance which since 14 April had been limited to relatively modest gains by several battalion-strength counterattacks by the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision’s 361st Panzergrenadierregiment. On 17 April the 473rd Infantry advanced astride Highway 1, the western coastal road, crossed the Parmignola Canal and closed on Sarzana, near the junction of the coastal road with Highway 62 some 10 miles (16 km) to the east of the naval base of La Spezia. To the regiment’s right the 442nd Infantry sought repeatedly but fruitlessly to break through north/south defences from the mountain strongpoint of Fosdinovo, 5 miles (8 km) to the north-east of Sarzana.
The reinforcements from the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision were not intended to stop the US forces indefinitely, however, but merely to cover a slow German withdrawal into Sarzana and La Spezia. Coastal batteries, firing from Punta Bianca, some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the south of La Spezia, harassed the Allied-held towns of Massa and Carrara and the routes passing through them. Frequent attempts were made by tank destroyers, fighter-bombers, and even an 8-in (203-mm) howitzer to silence these coastal guns, but those on the eastern side of the peninsula continued to fire until 19 April, when the Germans finally pulled back to the north. The guns on the western side, however, continued to fire for another day, until the Germans, needing to effect a rapid withdrawal as a result of the Allied breakthrough on the central front to each side of Bologna, abandoned the batteries to the 92nd Division.
It was thus 20 April which marked the turning point in the ‘Grapeshot’ spring offensive across the entire front. From that point the operation was to become the ‘Grapefruit’ pursuit with fighter-bombers of the MATAF flying in close support of wide-ranging Allied columns fanning out across the Lombardy plain. The aerial harassment, which would soon make of the Po river as much of a barrier to the retreating Germans as the Germans had hoped it would be for the advancing Allies, represented the culmination of 11,902 Allied sorties over the battle area since 14 April. The six days since the start of the 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ (ii) phase of the Allied offensive had seen the greatest one-week air support effort of the entire Italian campaign.
Five days earlier, Devers’s US 6th Army Group, to the north of the Alps, had begun to advance to the south and south-west into western Austria in the direction of the Austro-Italian frontier. On 15 April Eisenhower had ordered the 6th Army Group, which included Général d’Armée Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s French 1st Army and Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army, into the western part of Austria toward an eventual link with the Allied armies in Italy. At the same time, Eisenhower sent Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army of General Omar N. Bradley’s US 6th Army Group to the south-east down the Danube river valley into Austria for an eventual junction with the Soviet forces advancing from Vienna. Thus it was from three directions that an Allied ring was closing around the German armies in the south-west, forcing them into an Alpine fastness from which there could be no hope of escape or long-term survival.
For the Germans 20 April was also a significant turning point. Up to that date the 10th Army’s I Fallschirmkorps and LXXVI Panzerkorps had managed, except in the Argenta gap, to keep their fronts intact while skilfully withdrawing to the north-east beyond the line of the Reno river. Once again it seemed as if the elusive 10th Army would escape the 8th Army’s attempt to trap it. But the failure of the 14th Army’s XIV Panzerkorps to prevent a breakthrough in the area to the west of Bologna, first by the US IV Corps and then by the US II Corps, threatened to open a gap between the two German armies and jeopardise the 10th Army’s ability to continue its retreat. Now faced by the very real possibility of the disintegration of his army group, von Vietinghoff-Scheel did not wait for authority from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and ordered the long-deferred ‘Herbstnebel’ (ii) into effect on the night of 20 April.
This day was Hitler’s birthday, and on it he had ordered the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht headquarters to disperse. Command on the Western Front was to pass to a northern group under Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, with his headquarters at Flensburg on the Baltic, and a southern group under Kesselring, with his headquarters near Berchtesgaden. Hitler and the remainder of the Oberkommando des Heeres were to continue to command the Eastern Front from the Reich Chancellery bunker in Berlin.
Hitler had made the decision to divide his headquarters nine days earlier, when it became clear that the advance of the Allied armies on all fronts made it virtually impossible to continue direction of the war from a central headquarters. When the Soviets crossed the Oder river on 20 April, directly threatening Berlin, Hitler realised that he could delay no longer and ordered the northern and southern sections of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht to depart at once. The motor convoy carrying the headquarters which was to operate under Kesselring left the air defence school barracks at Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin on 20 April and arrived at Berchtesgaden on 23 April, and it was to be under the command of the this headquarters that the German forces in south-western Europe, including Heeresgruppe ‘C’, were to fight their last battles.
Implicit in Hitler’s decision to disperse the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht was a change in his thinking. For some weeks Hitler had adhered stubbornly to the hope that his armies in the west and south could somehow hold the British, French and US armies at bay long enough for the German forces on the Eastern Front to check the Soviets and possibly persuade the Western Allies to join forces with the Germans to turn back the ‘red tide’ of communism threatening to spill into central Europe. The Soviet passage over the Oder river changed all that, prompting Hitler to abandon all hope of persuading the Western Allies to turn against the Soviets. The German armies in the west and south were now ordered to hold out long enough to permit those retreating before the Soviets in the east to reach the zones of the Western Allies and thereby avoid mass surrenders to the Soviets.
This revised thinking was readily accepted by Kesselring, but not by von Vietinghoff-Scheel. With the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘C’ there finally surfaced the undercurrent of conflict between the adherents of Hitler’s strategy of desperation and those who believed the time had come for surrender on the grounds that continued resistance in Italy no longer served a valid purpose. This troubled atmosphere at the German headquarters in Italy became steadily more obscure as the covert surrender negotiations between Wolff, the senior SS commander in Italy, and the head of the American OSS apparatus in Switzerland, Allen Dulles, matured. Under way since a time early in March, these negotiations had also changed on 20 April as this was the date on which the Allied Combined Chiefs-of-Staff ordered Alexander and Dulles to break off the negotiations, and this paved the way to ‘Grapefruit’ as the final phase of the Allied spring offensive in northern Italy before the surrender of the German forces in northern Italy on 2 May.