Operation Paula-Linie (ii)

Paula Line

This was a German defence line on the Sillaro river in northern Italy (spring 1945).

Like most of the German secondary defence lines along river barriers in northern Italy, the ‘Paula-Linie’ (ii) defences were only moderately effective, and were breached in the ‘Buckland’ operation. The Germans had expended considerable effort in the winter of 1944/45 in strengthening their defences along river barriers covering the south-eastern approaches to Bologna against the inevitable assault of Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British 8th Army: in the order in which they would have to be assaulted and broken, these defence lines were the ‘Irmgard-Linie’ along the Senio river, the ‘Laura-Linie’ along the Santerno river, the ‘Paula-Linie’ along the Sillaro river, the ‘Anna-Linie’ along the Gaiana river, and the ‘Dschingis Khan-Linie’ along the Idice river, all of whose north-western ends were tied into ‘Reno-Linie’ defences some 20 miles (32 km) to the south of the Po river.

The German defences were held by General Traugott Herr’s 10th Army using one of its two primary formations, namely General Eugen Meindl’s I Fallschirmkorps, which comprised Generalmajor Fritz Polack’s 26th Panzerdivision facing Generał dywizji Władysław Anders’s Polish II Corps under the acting command of Generał brygady Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko, Generalmajor Karl-Lothar Schulz’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision facing Lieutenant General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s X Corps, Generalleutnant Harry Hoppe’s 278th Division facing Lieutenant General S. C. Kirkman’s XIII Corps, and Generalmajor Friedrich von Schellwitz’s 305th Division facing the co-belligerent Italians of Generale di Divisione Umberto Utili’s Gruppo di Combattimento ‘Legnano’ of Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps in Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 5th Army.

By 13 April the 8th Army’s ‘Buckland’ campaign had divided into two separate but well co-ordinated sub-operations, namely those directed at Argenta just to the west of Lake Comacchio and at Budrio just to the east of Bologna. Both were pressed with equal vigour by Lieutenant General C. F. Keightley’s V Corps and the combination of the XIII Corps and Polish II Corps respectively. The more westerly drive toward Budrio had the effect of delaying the I Fallschirmkorps’ planned movement of the 26th Panzerdivision to the Argenta sector of the front.

During 13 April Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division closed on the Sillaro river after dealing with the German rearguard units, which had attempted to delay the division on one of the area’s minor canals. Here Freyberg decided that there should be no pause, and at 02.00 on 14 April his leading brigades, Brigadier G. B. Parkinson’s New Zealand 6th Brigade and Brigadier W. G. Gentry’s New Zealand 9th Brigade, were to bounce the Sillaro river and seize its north-western flood bank by dawn. Artillery had been brought forward over roads jammed with transport and then across the Santerno river in order to provide the opening barrage. By dawn the New Zealand 6th Brigade, on the division’s right, had one battalion dug in on the far bank and another on the near bank, while the New Zealand 9th Brigade, on the left, had gained a small bridgehead on the far bank but was uncomfortably overlooked by the Germans in Sesto Imolese. There had been little opposition during the crossings, most of the casualties having been caused by supporting artillery dropping rounds short. When daylight came the reason for the ease of the crossing became apparent. The Germans, fearing a flamethrower assault of the type that had been used with some success in recent operations, had decided to hold a line about 500 yards (150 m) behind the river and to keep the flood banks under fire from a distance.

This German fire was in fact so effective that the New Zealand engineers concluded that a daylight bridging of the Sillaro river was impossible. Interrogation of German prisoners revealed that Generalmajor Otto Schiel’s 98th Division of General Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s LXXVI Panzerkorps, Herr’s other primary formation, had been replaced by Hoppe’s 278th Division, newly arrived from the Apennine salient and well able to mount a series of counterattacks. These were checked only with difficulty as the New Zealanders had no armoured support because tanks had not been able to get across the river into the shallow bridgeheads.

On the evening of 14 April the New Zealand 2nd Division passed from the V Corps to the XIII Corps as this formation assumed command of the Budrio thrust. Before departing, Keightley said to Freyberg that ‘I hear the New Zealand Division has done it again,’ but Freyberg responded that though his men might be across the Sillaro river, they were not yet through the German defences. Freyberg added that he would need more artillery to gain the desired breakthrough. Both Keightley and Lieutenant General Sir John Harding, the chief-of-staff of Field Marshal the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s 15th Army Group, who visited Freyberg’s headquarters soon after this, agreed that additional artillery should be provided, but added this would not be able to reach the sector in time to provide the preparation for the set-piece attack planned for the night of 14/15 April. The start was therefore delayed until the evening of 15 April. The pause would also make it possible for the Polish II Corps to come up on the left and Major General D. W. Reid’s Indian 10th Division to begin coming into the line on the right.

The Poles were still finding progress far from easy in their sector, for they were opposed not only by parts of the 26th Panzerdivision but also by the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision. Moreover, the Polish engineers were encountering problems in opening enough routes behind the front to allow fresh troops to move up as rapidly as they were needed. By the fourth successive night of bridging, often under fire, the men were beginning to tire and make mistakes.

The Poles’ Santerno river bridgehead was firm enough by 13 April for Bohusz-Szyszko to consider passing through his two pursuit groups (Pułkownik Bronisław Rakowski’s Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade Group under Generał dywizji Nikodem Sulik’s 5th ‘Kresowa’ Division and Brigadier A. R. Barker’s reinforced 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade). He was prevented from doing so by traffic congestion, aggravated by the lack of bridges, and instead decided to continue with the 6th ‘Lwowska’ Brigade, the reserve of Major General Bolesław Bronisław Duch’s 3rd ‘Carpathian’ Division, while the pursuit groups moved forward.

The three bridges over the Santerno river were not completed until 21.00, and only one of these was suitable for use by armour. The 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade had priority for passage over this bridge, but on reaching the river met the leading regiment of Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade. The resulting confusion meant that both columns had crossed the river only by 07.20 on 14 April. Meanwhile the 6th ‘Lwowska’ Brigade had driven forward despite nicely conceived and executed rearguard actions by the 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision, which made clever use of every canal and irrigation ditch.

The headquarters of the 5th ‘Kresowa’ Division came up to take command of the 6th ‘Lwowska’ Brigade and 2nd Armoured Brigade at 19.30 on 14 April, and to supervise their thrust to the Sillaro river. The 6th ‘Lwowska’ Brigade crossed first during the early hours of 15 April, capturing a bridge intact. The powerful armoured group followed some 24 hours later, its speed limited by the ability of its single infantry battalion to establish successive crossings. The 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade finally freed itself from the traffic jams and approached the Sillaro river late on 14 April. Its first crossing attempt failed when heavy and accurate fire on the crossing points rendered the bridgehead untenable. Preparations were made to renew the assault on the night 15/16 April, and this would clearly have derived a useful benefit from the powerful set-piece attack laid on for that same evening by the New Zealanders, but no attempt was made to correlate the two; each force was pressing forward at its best speed.

Together with the progress of the V Corps on the east of the British front, this meant that the 8th Army was now astride the third of the five major German river defence lines, the ‘Paula-Linie’ (ii) along the Sillaro river, and by 15 April it had taken 5,052 prisoners in the form of more than 1,000 men each from the 42nd Jägerdivision, 98th Division and 362nd Division.

The 29th Panzergrenadierdivision had been brought forward from the reserve of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’, and most of the I Fallschirmkorps had been committed before the start of the next phase of the US 5th Army’s ‘Craftsman’ offensive. Elements of Generalmajor Heinrich Baron von Behr’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, the only reserve now left to Heeresgruppe ‘C’, had also been drawn off to meet 5th Army’s preliminary operations.

The writing was now on the wall for the German forces in Italy, for the 8th Army could now attack to the north-west with the strategic object of punching through the German lines of communication to the north-east and Austria, causing the Germans to fall back from Bologna, to the west of which the 5th Army was very temporarily stalled. The Poles entered Bologna on 21 April, by which time the Americans were once more on the move, pushing through to the valley of the Po river valley in hot pursuit of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army. It was at this stage that von Vietinghoff-Scheel realised that the end for his Heeresgruppe ‘C’ must come sooner rather than later, and that despite Hitler’s orders to the contrary he must seek a rapid surrender to avoid needless casualties in a pointless continued defence.