Operation Squireen

This was the US capture of Verona on the Adige river in north-eastern Italy by Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott’s 5th Army (25/26 April 1945).

Following the success of his army’s ‘Craftsman’ breakthrough past Bologna to the Po river, Truscott drove Major General Willis D. Crittenberger’s IV Corps and Lieutenant Geoffrey T. Keyes’s II Corps through the gap in the German line left by the collapse of General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 14th Army, the central formation of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’. The IV Corps had swung three divisions to the north-west to cut off General Friedrich-Wilhelm Hauck’s LI Gebirgskorps and sent Major General George P. Hays’s 10th Mountain Division and Major General John B. Coulter’s 85th Division due north toward Verona. The II Corps also punched straight through to the north.

The 5th Army’s immediate goal beyond the Po river, at a distance of 27 miles (43.5 m), was Verona on the Adige river at the point at which the main highway to Trento, the Alps and the Brenner pass crosses the river. Fast-flowing the Adige river was in this area between 300 and 500 ft (90 and 150 m) wide, which made it potentially a major obstacle. By this stage in the Italian campaign, however, the possibility of a significant German defence along this river line or elsewhere gave Allied commanders cause for concern, for the final German collapse was indubitably imminent.

As Hays’s 10th Mountain Division led Crittenberger’s IV Corps and the 5th Army across the Po river on 23 April, Truscott assigned his two corps commanders missions intended to bring the 5th Army to the Alps and and clear German and Italian Fascist forces from northern Italy. Keyes’s II Corps, after crossing the Po river at Ostiglia, was to continue as the 5th Army’s right wing along the axis of Highway 12 to occupy the southern bank of the Adige river between Verona and Legnano, some 20 miles (32 km) to the south-east. Crittenberger was allocated a more complicated task. He was to send three of his IV Corps’s division to the north along the axis from San Benedetto to Verona via Mantua with Verona and its airfield at Villafranca, 10 miles (16 km) to the south-west, as its first objectives. The IV Corps was simultaneously to locate and destroy or take all the Axis forces in north-western Italy. This was a task Crittenberger was to accomplish by sending combined armour and infantry task forces to the Po river valley’s northern edge, and thence to the north-west along the base of the Alpine foothills to block the exits from the Po river valley leading to the Italian lakes region and the Swiss frontier. Crittenberger was also to send Major General João Batista Mascarenhas de Morais’s Brazilian Expeditionary Force and Major General Charles L. Bolte’s US 34th Division to the north-west on each side of Highway 9 along the southern reaches of the valley to seal the three divisions of Hauck’s LI Gebirgskorps in the Apennine mountains. In that assignment the BEF and the 34th Division were to be supported by Major General Edward M. Almond’s 92nd Division on the 5th Army’s left flank which, by 23 April, had passed through the last of the ‘Gotisch-Linie’ defences along the Ligurian coast and despatched columns to the north-west and north-east. One column, comprising two infantry regiments, advanced very rapidly along the coastal highway toward the port of Genoa, some 35 miles (55 km) away, while the other, comprising just one regiment, advanced along Highways 62 and 63 on the heels of Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico’s German 148th Division and Generale di Divisione Mario Carloni’s 1a Bersaglieri Divisione ‘Italia’ as they pulled back from the mountains in the direction of Highway 9 and into the trap to be formed by the Brazilians and the 34th Division.

For the main drive to the Adige river, Crittenberger again had recourse to Hays’s 10th Mountain Division as his corps’ spearhead. Screened on the left by the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron, the 10th Mountain Division was to bypass Mantua to sever the highway connecting Verona and Lake Garda. On the right, Major General John B. Coulter’s 85th Division was to strike straight for Verona. Armoured support as to be provided by Combat Command A of Major General Vernon E. Prichard’s 1st Armored Division, which was to cross the Po river at San Benedetto as the rest of the division turned to the north-west to support the thrust toward Milan and other cities of the upper part of the Po river valley.

As before, Hays opted to use a mobile task force to lead the advance of his mountain division, and fortuitously obtained for it a new commander to replace Brigadier General Robinson E. Duff, the assistant divisional commander, who had been wounded. An old friend of Hays, Colonel William O. Darby, who earlier had commanded a Ranger unit in Italy but had later been assigned to a staff position in Washington, arrived at Hays’s headquarters in the middle of April as escort for several visiting Department of War personnel. Much to Darby’s pleasure, Hays persuaded Truscott and General Mark W. Clark, commander of the Allied 15th Army Group, to request Darby’s assignment as assistant divisional commander. When the Department of War agreed, Task Force ‘Darby’ came into being with the 86th Mountain Infantry, 13th Tank Battalion of the 1st Armored Division’s Combat Command A, one company each of light tanks and tank destroyers, three battalions of field artillery, and small engineer and medical units. The tank battalion was to spearhead the column, while the light tank and tank destroyer companies were dispersed along its length to provide flank protection or to establish flanking roadblocks. Hays motorised his own headquarters and brought up the rear of the task force, followed by the 85th and 87th Mountain Infantry to mop up bypassed Axis formations and units.

The moment at which the task force could start to advance depended on when a bridge could be constructed across the Po river to enable tanks, tank destroyers and artillery to cross, and this moment did not, in fact, arrive until the afternoon of 25 April. Meanwhile, beginning on 24 April. the 85th Mountain Infantry started to probe the northern limits of the division’s bridgehead without making contact with the Axis forces. Coming to the conclusion that the Germans had withdrawn, Hays did not wait for Task Force ‘Darby’ and despatched the regiment in pursuit. The 1/85th Mountain Infantry set off at a time early on 25 April for Villafranca airfield, some 20 miles (32 km) away. Because there were innumerable mines to clear from roads, culverts, and bridges, it took the head of the column an hour to move the first 5 miles (8 km), but from that point the column’s speed increased. At about 09.00 the column entered Mantua, found Italian partisans already in control, and passing quickly through continued heading toward the airfield. Without mines to clear, the column covered the 15 miles (24 km) in less than an hour. Quickly dispersing a small German rearguard, the battalion established a defensive perimeter and awaited the arrival of the armour and artillery of Task Force ‘Darby’.

On the mountain infantry’s right, Coulter’s 85th Division had crossed the Po river at a time early on 24 April and also set out in the direction of Verona at about the same time. Proceeding warily, two forward regiments reached the vicinity of the Villafranca airport around dusk and halted for the night. At dawn the division continued to move cautiously in column of regiments toward Verona, some 7 miles (11.25 km) away. This caution was unnecessary, as events proved, for the division’s men soon discovered that troops of Major General Paul W. Kendall’s 88th Division were already in control of the city. Unlike the 85th Division, with a cautious approach in its belated assault on Verona, the 88th Division had won the race by a headlong pursuit: Kendall had ordered his units not to wait for heavy equipment to cross the Po river but to strike boldly for the city. At a time early on 25 April, the 351st Infantry, spearheaded by its 2nd Battalion along Highway 12, emerged from the Po river bridgehead at Ostiglia and, using any means of transport it could find (captured trucks, Jeeps and even bicycles) drove without thought rearguard units or mines straight for Verona, about 30 miles (48 km) away. Late in the afternoon of the same day , five light tanks and seven tank destroyers, the first to cross a newly completed pontoon bridge, caught up with the forward troops to form a small armour and infantry assault force to lead the way into Verona. Although resistance was only sporadic, some squads and platoons were compelled on a few occasions to engage in sharp firefights before the small German units surrendered.

The worst setback came, somewhat ironically, not from the Germans but from Allied aircraft. As the column paused on the outskirts of Verona, it was attacked by two Allied warplanes, most probably because their pilots believed that a small force so distant from other Allied units had to be German. Despite identification panels prominently displayed and frantic efforts by a radio operator to reach air-ground control, the aircraft strafed the column repeatedly, killing five men of a radio crew and destroying several Jeeps.

The 2/351st Infantry’s task force entered Verona at 22.10, some 16 hours after it had emerged from the Po river bridgehead, and within 60 minutes the rest of the regiment had arrived to help secure the city. Only some small contingents of Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision, holding the ruins of Verona’s railway station, offered any real resistance, and by the break of day on 26 April even that had ended.

The II Corps had already wheeled to the east to advance parallel with Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British 8th Army across the Adige river, which it reached at the same time as a British corps. The IV Corps crossed Lake Garda using Fantail amphibious tracked carriers and Duplex Drive amphibious tanks to cut the road to the Brenner Pass and Austria, and also pushed to the west to take Milan and Turin on 2 May, and also the other major cities of north-western Italy.

The Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (Committee of National Liberation), primary Italian opponent of the Benito Mussolini’s revived Fascist state known as the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Salò Republic), had ordered a general insurrection on 25 April, making further German withdrawals almost impossible. By 28 April all escape routes into the Alpine passes had been closed.

Generale d’Armata Rodolfo Graziani surrendered his joint German and Italian 97a Armata ‘Liguria’ (Armee ‘Ligurien’). Generalmajor Heinrich Baron von Behr’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, the last of the veteran mobile divisions available to Heeresgruppe ‘C’, made a final great effort to hold open the escape route for the divisions in the west, but surrendered after its divisional commander and his staff had been captured.