Operation Herring

This was the Allied drop of a specially trained Italian partisan unit, numbering some 250 men, behind the German lines in the valley of the Po river in northern Italy (19/22 April 1945).

The object of this undertaking, which was the last airborne operation of World War II in Europe, was to disrupt the lines of communication to Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s retreating Heeresgruppe ‘C’ as the Allies swept forward in the final stages of the Italian campaign. The April 1945 'Craftsman' and 'Buckland' Allied offensives in northern Italy were aimed at a decisive breakthrough of the German ‘Gotisch-Linie’, the defensive line along the Apennine mountains and the Po river plain to the Adriatic Sea, for a rapid drive to the north to occupy northern Italy and reach the Austrian and Yugoslav frontiers a rapidly as possible.

However, the Allied planners believed that German strongpoints, the destruction of bridges, road, levees and dikes, and limited but determined resistance over the Po river valley might slow the planned operation. Thus there emerged the concept that the dropping of paratroops into some of the key areas to the south of Po river could disrupt the German rear areas, attack German lines of communication, and destroy German motor transport, so dislocating the German retreat and preventing German pioneers from blowing key chokepoint features before the Allied spearheads could reach and take them.

Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery, commanding of the British 8th Army, had a number of Italian paratroopers available for such an effort. In March 1945, the whole 114-strong F Reconnaissance Squadron organised as 12 squads of Italian paratroops under Capitano Carlo Gay, and 112 volunteers organised as four platoons, each comprising three squads led by Tenente Guerrino Ceiner (all of the Reggimento fanteria paracudisti ‘Nembo’ of Generale di Brigata Giorgio Morigi’s Gruppo di Combattimento 'Folfore') were selected for ‘Herring’. This would comprise eight drops in areas to the south of Po river, at locations to the south-east of Ferrara, the Mirandola area, and Poggio Rusco and the main road linking Modena and Mantua.

During the night of 19/20 April the Italian paratroopers, together with at least one British paratrooper who had joined them, jumped from 14 Douglas Dakota transport aircraft. The drop was very dispersed, but this did not significantly impede the progress of the following ground operation. A few men were captured on landing, but their comrades proved very aggressive. Some 16 paratroopers were surrounded by German forces and fought it out from a farmhouse until all but two had been killed and their ammunition had been exhausted. Other groups were more successful, inflicting heavy damage and suffering light casualties.

The 18 men of two squads of F Reconnaissance Squadron took two small towns, Ravarino and Stuffione, capturing 451 Germans and holding out until the arrival of the first Allied ground forces.

In the event ‘Herring’ lasted 72 rather than the originally planned 36 hours, but was a success. According to some sources, and with the aid of local partisan groups, the Italian paratroopers killed 481 German soldiers of General Traugott Herr’s 10th Army, captured 1,083 German soldiers, destroyed 44 vehicles and captured many more vehicles including some tanks, armoured cars and guns, cut 77 telephone lines, took three bridges, and blew up one ammunition dump.

The paratroopers themselves suffered 31 dead (including one British paratroop sergeant) and some 10 to 12 men wounded.