Operation Lever (ii)

This was the British clearance of General Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk’s LXXVI Panzerkorps and, to a lesser extent, Generalleutnant Hellmuth Böhlke’s I Fallschirmkorps within General Traugott Herr’s 10th Army of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’, from the area between the Reno river and Lake Comacchio in north-eastern Italy by Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s 8th Army (12/19 April 1945).

This was the left-hand component of the ‘Buckland’ offensive’s right wing, whose right-hand component was ‘Roast’. ‘Buckland’ was an undertaking schemed in accordance with the orders of General Mark W. Clark, commander-in-chief of the Allied 15th Army Group, as issued on 18 March, to ‘to destroy the maximum number of enemy forces south of the Po, force crossings of the Po and capture Verona’, and had three phases. In the first phase the 8th Army was to cross the Senio river and then the Santerno river before making dual thrusts (one parallel with Highway 9 [Via Emilia] toward Budrio and the other to the north-west along Highway 16 [Via Adriatica] toward Bastia and the Argenta 'gap', which was the the narrow corridor of dry land through the flooded terrain to the west of Lake Comacchio.

‘Roast’ was to exert pressure to bear on the German forces’ left flank and help to break the Argenta position. Only at this stage would it be decided whether the 8th Army’s primary objective would remain Budrio or be switched to Ferrara.

Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 5th Army would launch its ‘Craftsman’ offensive farther to the west two or more days later to break into the valley of the Po river with the capture of Bologna as a secondary objective.

In the second phase the 8th Army was to advance to the north-west with the task of capturing Ferrara and thus blocking the German lines of retreat across the Po river. The 5th Army was to push past Bologna to the north in order to link with the 8th Army in the area of Bondeno and thus complete the encirclement of the German forces remaining to the south of the Po river. The 5th Army was also to make a secondary thrust farther to the west in the direction of Ostiglia, where the main route to Verona crossed the Po river.

The third phase was to establish bridgeheads across the Po river and launch the formations of the 15th Army Group into a northward exploitation.

The 8th Army’s ‘Buckland’ had to deal with the difficult initial task of getting across the Senio river, along which the front line currently rested. The river had raised artificial banks varying in height between 20 and 40 ft (6.1 and 12.2 m), and these incorporating defensive tunnels and bunkers on their forward and rear faces.

In ‘Lever’ (ii), Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley’s V Corps was instructed to attack the salient formed by the river into the Allied line at Cotignola. On the right of this salient was Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Infantry Division, and on its left Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division: the two divisions were to make concentric pincer attacks across the river. On the V Corps’ left, on Highway 9, the Polish II Corps, under the temporary command of Generał brygady Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko, was to widen the front farther to the west by attacking across the Senio river toward Bologna. The Polish formation had been radically below strength in the autumn of 1944, but had received 11,000 reinforcements during the early months of 1945, most of this fresh strength being Poles who had been conscripted into German service and then been taken prisoner in the Normandy campaign following ‘Overlord’.

At this time the German defence provided by the 10th Army facing the British 8th Army was vested in the east in General Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s LXXVI Panzerkorps and in the west in the I Fallschirmkorps 1.

After they had crossed the Senio river, the assault divisions were to advance to the Santerno river and cross it. Once the line of the Santerno river had been crossed, Major General R. K. Arbuthnott’s 78th Division was to pass through the bridgehead established by the Indians and New Zealanders and punch forward toward Bastia, on the Reno river, and the Argenta 'gap' some 14 miles (23 km) behind the Senio river, where the dry land narrowed to a front of only 3 miles (4.8 km), bounded on the east by Lake Comacchio and on the west by marsh. At the same time Major General J. Y. Whitfield’s 56th Division was to start the ‘Impact’ amphibious flank attack along the south-western side of Lake Comacchio. On the V Corps’ left flank the New Zealand 2nd Division was to advance to the left of the marsh on the western side of Argenta while the Indian 8th Division passed into army reserve.

The 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ was based on an initial thrust by Major General Willis D. Crittenberger’s IV Corps along Highway 64, to the south-west of Bologna, with the task of straightening the 5th Army’s front and drawing German reserves away from Route 65, the direct approach to Bologna from the south. Major General (from 17 April Lieutenant General) Geoffrey T. Keyes’s II Corps was then to attack along Highway 65 straight toward Bologna. After this, the weight of the US offensive was to wheel to the west again with the object of breaking into the Po river valley after skirting the western side of Bologna.

During the first week of April diversionary attacks were launched on the extreme right and left of the Allied front to draw German reserves away from the areas in which the main assaults were to be delivered. These divisions included ‘Roast’ on the eastern flank to capture the ‘Spit’ separating the eastern side of Lake Comacchio from the west coast of the Adriatic Sea and seize Port Garibaldi on the lake’s northern side. Moreover, after Allied air power had so severely damaged the transport infrastructure of northern Italy that the Germans had been compelled to make extensive use of sea, canal and river routes for supply purposes, these routes now also came under Allied major air attack in undertakings such as ‘Bowler’.

The build-up to the main assault started on 6 April with a heavy artillery bombardment of the defences along the Senio river. In the early afternoon of 9 April a force of 825 heavy bombers dropped fragmentation bombs on the support zone behind the Senio river in attacks that were then followed by those of medium bombers and fighter-bombers. In the period between 15.20 and 19.10 the British artillery fired five 30-minute heavy bombardments with fighter-bomber attacks filling the gaps between them.

The Indian 8th Division, New Zealand 2nd Division and Generał brygady Bolesław Bronisław Duch’s Polish 3rd ‘Carpathian’ Division attacked at dusk. These assault divisions had reached the line of the Santerno river, some 3.5 miles (5.6 km) beyond their start lines, by dawn on 11 April. The New Zealanders had reached the Santerno river at the fall of night on 10 April and succeeded in making a crossing at dawn on 11 April, and the Poles had closed up to the Santerno river by the night of 11 April. By a time late in the morning of 12 April, after an all-night assault, the Indian 8th Division had established itself on the northern side of the Santerno river and the 78th Division started to pass through it to make its assault on Argenta.

In the meantime Brigadier M. D. Erskine’s 24th Guards Brigade, part of the 56th Division, had launched the ‘Impact’ amphibious flanking attack from the water and mud of Lake Comacchio to the right of the Argenta 'gap'. Although the brigade gained a foothold, it was still checked at positions on the Fossa Marina during the night of 14/15 April. The 78th Division was also held up on the same day on the Reno river at Bastia.

'Lever' (ii) proper was the Battle of the Argenta Gap. As noted above, a preliminary to the main operation was the 'Roast' commando assault across Lake Comacchio, launched on 1 April to secure the 8th Army’s right flank for the imminent effort to seize the 'spit' and thereby secure the 8th Army’s eastern flank and at the same time also allow operational trials to be carried out to evaluate the suitability of using newly arrived LVT tracked landing craft for subsequent larger operations in the muddy and difficult conditions of Lake Comacchio. The operation was successful, although the LVTs failed dismally, becoming hopelessly bogged down. Two nights later further actions by the Special Boat Service supported by Italian partisans of the 28th 'Garribaldi' Brigade captured islands in the middle of the lake in 'Fry'. The 56th Division also made a preliminary attack on 5/6 April to secure its starting line for the Argenta 'gap' operation. By 8 April, after meeting stiff resistance, it had completed its task in clearing the 'wedge', an area from the southern tip of Lake Comacchio, where it meets the Reno river, to the Fossa di Navigazione.

The 8th Army’s main offensive across the Senio river started on 9 April, and by 12 April had advanced to consolidate across the Santerno river and allow 78th Division to pass through toward the Reno river and the Argenta 'gap'. The latter was a well defended strip of land some 2 miles (3.2 km) wide and 8 miles (13 km) deep between Lake Comacchio and the Lombardy marshes, to the south of the city of Ferrara.

During the night of 10/11 April, the V Corps launched 'Impact Plain' to widen and deepen its bridgehead in the 'wedge': No.40 (Royal Marine) Commando of Brigadier R. Tod’s 2nd Commando Brigade advanced along the raised causeway bordering the lake while Brigadier W. H. Stratton’s 169th Brigade of the 56th Division advanced on the commando’s left across the flooded margins of the lake with two battalions in LVTs. The same division’s 167th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier J. Scott-Elliott, advanced from the 'wedge' along the Reno river’s flood banks. The commando column met stiff resistance at the bridge to the north-east of Menate and suffered heavy casualties, but nonetheless was able to take its objective with the assistance of tactical air support. The 42nd Jägerdivision was apparently taken by surprise by the British amphibious capacity and seemed to have been unnerved by the emergence of the LVTs from the water, and by the break of day on 12 April all three British columns had advanced about 4 miles (6.4 km) and linked in the area of Menate and Longastrino area. The 169th Brigade then pushed forward on the road toward Filo, and the 167th Brigade continued up the Reno river, in the process rolling up the German defences as far as that river’s confluence with the Santerno river, where it met the Italian Gruppo di Combattiemento 'Cremona', which had advanced from the south.

von Vietinghoff-Scheel responded by ordering the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision to move to the south and reinforce the German defences in the Argenta 'gap'. The division’s 15th Panzergrenadierregiment arrived to reinforce the 42nd Jägerdivision on 12 April, but the rest of the division had been to the north of the Po river, was delayed distance as well as air damage and fuel shortages, and was not in position until 14 April.

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

During the morning of 14 April the forward elements of 38th Brigade had crossed the bridge over the Reno river at Bastia, but had then been forced back by an armoured counterattack. The British decided to limit themselves in the short term to mopping up in the area to the south of the Reno river as they awaited the approach of 167th Brigade which, advancing along both banks of the Reno river, would soon pose a threat to the flank of the defenders in the area to the north of the river in Bastia, and therefore compel them to pull back. Rather than wait for the clearance of the bridge at Bastia, Keightley ordered Brigadier G. E. Thubron’s 11th Brigade of the 78th Division to use the 56th Division’s bridges over the Reno river and make all speed to move forward toward Argenta.

On 15/16 April the 56th Division renewed its attack on the Fossa Marina, but once again failed. However, the weight of the heavy air attacks delivered in the Germans since 13 April was now telling, and on the night of 16 April the 24th Guards Brigade was able to cross the canal with relatively little trouble, though its continued advance was once again halted by German resistance about 900 yards (825 m) to the north of the canal. On the western side of the Argenta 'gap' the 11th Brigade was able to get across the Fossa Marina in the area to the east of Argenta. Here the 2/Lancashire Fusiliers was able to hold a small bridgehead under heavy fire and then counterattack as engineers positioned ARK armoured bridge-carriers to allow supporting tanks to cross the canal.

On 17 April the 38th Brigade arrived from newly cleared Bastia and passed through the 11th Brigade’s bridgehead with the object of widening the bridgehead to provide the area needed for the preparation and launch of an armoured break-out. By the fall of night the brigade had advanced 1,000 yards (915 m) against determined resistance, working it way round the rear of Argenta. Meanwhile the 11th Brigade advanced into the town and started to clear it with the support of Crocodile armoured flamethrowers. An armoured counterattack early on 18 April was forced to fall back toward the 38th Brigade. Meanwhile on the western outskirts of the town the bridges over the Reno river had been taken by the 2nd Commando Brigade, which had been advancing up the line of the river from Bastia. German attempts to counterattack the British hold on the bridges were broken up by artillery fire. Also on 17 April, the 56th Division’s 169th Brigade passed through the 11th Brigade’s bridgehead across the Fossa Marina in order to advance to the east and clear the northern bank of the canal and link with the 24th Guards Brigade.

On 18 April the 78th Division brought forward its reserve, Brigadier G. R. D. Musson’s 36th Brigade, which passed through the 38th Brigade and undertook a series of right-hook movements to the north of Argenta. By dawn the brigade had reached Consandolo, about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north-west of Argenta, where the Germans held out stubbornly until a time well into the afternoon. Meanwhile, under the command of the headquarters of Brigadier J. F. B. Combe’s 2nd Armoured Brigade, 'Kangaroo Army' mobile force of one infantry battalion, one tank regiment, one regiment of armoured personnel carriers and supporting self-propelled guns and assault engineers moved forward and, bypassing Consonaldo, secured a bridgehead over the Fossa Benvignante 1 mile (1.6 km) to the north of the town. Advanced elements then pushed forward and before the fall of night overran the artillery lines of 42nd Jägerdivision.

The advance of the 78th Division threatened the flank of the German units facing the 56th Division, and by 12.00 on 18 April the 169th Brigade detected a reduction of the resistance in front of it. The brigade advanced to the Fossa Benvignante, where it took a bridge before the Germans were able to blow it. To this brigade’s right, the 24th Guards Brigade was at last able to clear Chiesa del Bando and advance toward the Fossa Benvignante.

With 56th and 78th Divisions now clear of the northern end of the Argenta 'gap', Major General H. Murray’s 6th Armoured Division, from 8th Army reserve, was released through the left wing of the advancing 78th Division to swing left and make rapid progress to the north-west along the line of the Reno river to Bondeno, where it linked with US 5th Army units advancing to the north from the area lying to the west of Bologna and to complete the encirclement of the German armies defending Bologna. Effective Allied bombing of the crossings of the Po river and shortage of fuel left much of the strength and almost all of the heavy weapon and equipment of Heeresgruppe 'C' stranded in the area to the south of the river, which effectively sealed the fate of the German army group.

On all sectors of the front faxing the 8th Army, Herr’s 10th Army was still determined and effective, but Bondeno was captured on 23 April. As noted above, the 6th Armoured Division linked with Major General G. P. Hays’s US 10th Mountain Division of the IV Corps on the next day at Finale, some 5 miles (8 km) upstream of Bondeno along the Panaro river. Bologna was entered during the morning of 21 April by the 3rd ‘Carpathian’ Division advancing along Highway 9, followed two hours later by elements of the II Corps from the south. The IV Corps continued its progress to the north and reached the Po river at San Benedetto on 22 April, crossing the river on the following day, and then continued to advance to the north toward Verona, which it entered on 26 April.

On the 8th Army’s left wing, Lieutenant General Sir John Harding’s XIII Corps crossed the Po river at Ficarolo on 22 April, while the V Corps was also crossing the Po river by 25 April, heading toward the German defensive line behind the Adige river. As Allied forces pushed across the Po, on their left flank General Tenente João Mascarenhas de Morais’s Brazilian 1st Division, Major General Charles L. Bolte’s US 34th Division and Major General Vernon E. Prichard’s US 1st Armored Division of the 5th Army were driving to the west and north-west along the line of Highway 9 toward Piacenza and across the Po river to seal possible German escape routes into Austria and Switzerland via Lake Garda.

On 27 April the 1st Armored Division met groups partisans who reported they had liberated Milan, and Crittenberger entered the city on 30 April. On the Allies’ right flank the V Corps, in the face of ever-decreasing resistance, crossed the Adige river and entered Padua in the early hours of 29 April, to find that partisans had locked up the German garrison of 5,000 men.

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The LXXVI Panzerkorps comprised Generalleutnant Josef Brauner von Haydringen’s 42nd Jägerdivision, Generalleutnant Ralph von Heyfendorff’s 162nd Division (turk.), Generalmajor Alois Weber’s 362nd Division and Generalleutnant Alfred Reinhardt’s (from 11 April Generalmajor Otto Schiel’s) 98th Volksgrenadierdivision. On 12 April the I Fallschirmkorps comprised Generalmajor Alfred Kuhnert’s (from 19 April Generalleutnant Viktor Linnarz’s) 26th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision, Generalmajor Karl-Lothar Schulz’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, Generalleutnant Harry Hoppe’s 278th Volksgrenadierdivision and Generalmajor Friedrich von Schellwitz’s 305th Division. The army reserve was Generalleutnant Fritz Polack’s 29th Panzergrenadierdovision.