Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: A Chance to Jump the Idice
III: A Chance to Jump the Idice
General Freyberg had told his brigadiers on the afternoon of 17 April, ‘If you get a chance to jump the Idice do it, but I don't think you will get the chance.’4 He could not foresee then that the parachutists' stand on the Gaiana was to delay the advance for a day, but later the chance did occur to ‘jump’ the Idice River.
4 GOC's diary.
By the 19th 5 Corps had breached the Argenta Gap and was within striking distance of the River Po; the westward thrust by 13 Corps and the Polish Corps was approaching the Idice River north-east of Bologna; farther west, in Fifth Army's sector, the Americans were drawing close to the city from the south. Nevertheless the Allied armies would have to move swiftly if they were to thwart the enemy's attempt to withdraw his armies across the Po in as good order as possible.
Already General McCreery had issued instructions for Eighth Army's pursuit to the Po. Fifth Corps was to continue its advance north-westwards to the city of Ferrara (which guarded the bridge across the Po on the main road to Padua and Venice) and to Bondeno; it was also to be prepared to seize a crossing over the Po north or north-east of Ferrara. Thirteenth Corps was to establish a bridgehead over the Idice north of Budrio and continue its advance north-westwards to San Marco and San Giorgio, north of Bologna (which was to be the Americans' objective). The Polish Corps was to establish a bridgehead over the Idice, on the left of 13 Corps, and was to protect Eighth Army's left flank and prevent the withdrawal of enemy forces from Bologna by the routes east of the Reno River; it also was to be prepared to occupy Bologna (if the opposition was not too strong) and to cross the Reno.
For the attack across the Idice the Poles were directed to the river south of Budrio, and the New Zealanders were to cross north of the town; to the right of the main effort (farther to the north-east) 10 Indian Division was to cross the Quaderna and also engage the enemy on the Idice. When the enemy position on the river, the Genghis Khan Line, had been broken, the New Zealand Division was to exploit rapidly across Route 64 (the Bologna- Ferrara highway) to San Giorgio di Piano and then northwards, and 10 Indian Division was to despatch a brigade across the New Zealanders' most northerly bridge to the small town of Minerbio. The boundary between 13 Corps and the Polish Corps was revised so as to be along the railway from Villa Fontana to a road junction just south of Budrio, and thence north-westwards across the Idice. This boundary was to assume unexpected significance.
General Freyberg told a divisional conference early in the evening of the 19th that an intercepted message had revealed that the enemy was pulling back to the Idice that night. The Division was going to attack with the whole of the available artillery—216 field guns and 120 mediums and heavies—in support, and on a 4000-yard front chosen to open up the two roads leading north-westwards from the Idice north of Budrio. The left flank, exposed because the Poles were so far in rear, would have to be strongly held.
That night 5 and 6 Brigades replaced 9 and 43 Brigades at the head of the Division.
While 28 Battalion protected the right flank, 23 and 21 Battalions of 5 Brigade continued the advance beyond the il Canalazzo, and by 2 a.m. were on the next bound, about three-quarters of a mile from Budrio. After the changeover with the Gurkhas, who withdrew east of Medicina, 6 Brigade set out to conform with the 5th, with 24 and 26 Battalions in the lead and the 25th protecting the left flank.
Fifth Brigade resumed the advance at 5.30 a.m. on the 20th, an hour or so before 6 Brigade reached the bound about three-quarters of a mile from Budrio. The tanks (C Squadron of 18 Regiment) with 21 Battalion subdued a strongpoint at the San Pancrazio crossroads, just short of Budrio, and the infantry passed through the northern outskirts of the town. After meeting only scattered resistance they reached the Idice about 11 a.m., and found the enemy dug in on both banks.
Meanwhile 23 Battalion had bypassed Budrio, approached the Idice about three-quarters of a mile downstream (north-west from the town) without opposition, and captured a few Germans who had been unaware that the New Zealanders were anywhere in the vicinity. By 8.30 a.m. the leading infantry and tanks of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, were about 500 yards from the river. Patrols reconnoitred the 15-foot near stopbank and found it wired and mined, but thought the watercourse, about 30 feet wide, could be forded by infantry. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas sought Brigadier Bonifant's approval for an early daylight crossing.
Bonifant instructed 23 Battalion to send a patrol across. If this was successful, the battalion was to follow. In addition 28 Battalion was to go to the right flank, where it was to be prepared to occupy the near stopbank.
1 Lt W. M. O'Sullivan, m.i.d.; Reefton; born Pleasant Point, 6 Nov 1916; clerk; wounded 10 Apr 1945.
The bridgehead was reinforced by 7 Platoon and ‘within an hour the two platoons were well into the Genghis Khan Line….’3 A Company had captured 42 prisoners without the loss of one man. Before sending two platoons across on the right of A Company at one o'clock, D Company, anticipating that the Germans would now be fully alerted, plastered the far bank with fire from Wasps and tanks. The leading section of 18 Platoon met- small-arms fire from a post which had not been eliminated, but Private MacLeod4 stormed it and killed two of the enemy, and the section went far enough ahead to cover the advance of the rest of the platoon. No. 17 Platoon drove the enemy from a large house and had some good shooting with Brens and tommy guns at Germans running from this and other houses in the vicinity. Within a few minutes the two platoons had taken 30 prisoners and killed and wounded others. Some of the dumps of ammunition and weapons—which confirmed that the enemy had intended to make a stand on the Genghis Khan Line—were destroyed so that they could not be recaptured.
Fifteenth Army Group, 9 April – 2 May 1945
2 23 Battalion, pp. 457–8.
3 Ibid., p. 458.
5 23 Battalion, p. 459.
Early in the afternoon 28 Battalion, with B Squadron of 18 Regiment in support, went into position on the right flank astride the railway about two miles north-east of Budrio, and made contact with 10 Indian Division and also with troops of 12 Lancers who were occupying houses in the vicinity. The Maoris sent out a patrol to test the strength of the enemy on this part of the Idice, but the patrol was fired on when within 500 yards of the river and withdrew. On 5 Brigade's other (left) flank 21 Battalion manned the near stopbank but did not cross the river because of the strong defences there.page 486
Meanwhile, about midday, 6 Brigade crossed the railway south-west of Budrio and reached the Idice without opposition. D Company of 24 Battalion had little difficulty in getting to the other side, but C Company, on D's left, encountered strongpoints on the far bank and needed the support of A Squadron, 20 Regiment. One of the strongpoints was a sanatorium which the tanks' gunners cleared systematically from top to bottom, one floor at a time, with delayed-action shells. Two platoons of C Company occupied a building on the far side, but later in the afternoon D Company was forced back over the river by German tanks, which left C isolated.
The Germans resisted, mostly with small arms, when 26 Battalion attempted to cross the Idice on the left flank, but by mid-afternoon both C and D Companies had platoons on the far side. The battalion did not attempt to enlarge this bridgehead until dusk because of the closeness of the Allied air assaults on the enemy. In the meantime, however, Second-Lieutenant Burland,1 of C Squadron of 20 Regiment, found that tanks could ford the river outside the Division's boundary—in the Poles' sector—where only a few inches of water flowed over a shingle bottom. A few Germans, who had kept quiet while Burland and his squadron commander (Major Moodie2) stood at the water's edge, tried to surrender to the first tank which got over the ford, but the Sherman did not stop for them. C Squadron formed a bridgehead about 600 yards deep, and in the evening 26 Battalion had three companies (C, D and A) over the Idice. The 25th Battalion, supported by B Squadron of 20 Regiment, still protected the left flank east of the river.
1 2 Lt R. B. Burland; Waikari, North Canterbury; born Kaikoura, 23 Apr 1922; telegraphist.
‘The last-war simile hit home. The General grinned, and slowly gave way,’3 Major Cox noted.
Freyberg: ‘If they say you've got to get out then you must do so. We have tried. I thought it would be OK because the Poles were 12 miles behind us. I spoke to General DUCH but he was determined to go ahead and cross over just where we have got our brhead. … There are two alternatives. Either we do a penetration under Brigadiers tonight or else put in a proper show with arty tomorrow night. Ian [Bonifant] could go ahead to the road parallel with the river under a short arty programme of his own….’
Parkinson: ‘I think that if we shove enough stuff through our ford the whole thing will bust.’
Freyberg: ‘OK then. Ike [Parkinson] will carry on under his own steam and move across to the right and take over his own bde front. 5 Bde will go in at 2400 [hours] with their own arty plan provided Ian decides that it is possible.’4
1 GOC's papers.
4 GOC's papers.
5 GOC's diary.
After crossing the ford in the Poles' sector the infantry of 26 Battalion and tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, held a bridgehead over the Idice about 600 yards deep and 700 wide. The three companies (C, D and A) were harassed by spandaus and mortars and, although the tanks retaliated, the darkness made it difficult to pinpoint the enemy positions. About 10 p.m. on the 20th the foremost platoons withdrew to slightly better cover.
At five o'clock A and B Companies of 24 Battalion had been ordered to establish a bridgehead on the line of a lateral road 700–800 yards beyond the river. A Company on the left came under fire from two machine-gun posts which hitherto had remained concealed, and the advance might have been halted had not Lance- Corporal Beckham2 attacked and killed the crews of both of them. By eight o'clock the two companies were about midway between the river and the lateral road and had been joined by the tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, which had crossed at the ford.
Sixth Brigade was not to sideslip to the north until both 5 and 6 Brigades held a firm bridgehead. Brigadier Bonifant gave orders at 7.30 p.m. for an attack by 28 and 23 Battalions to expand the bridgehead. On their left 21 Battalion, after crossing the river and occupying ground in the gap between the two brigades, would be squeezed out of the line when 6 Brigade conformed with the 5th, and would go into reserve.
B, C and D Companies of 21 Battalion, starting at 8.30 p.m., crossed the river without difficulty and before midnight were occupying positions beyond the far stopbank astride the road from Budrio. Meanwhile, in preparation for the assault, A and B Companies of 28 Battalion, assisted by B Squadron of 18 Regiment, approached the river on the right of 23 Battalion and were on the near stopbank by 8.40 p.m. The enemy used bazookas and light mortars in an attempt to dislodge them, but without success.
1 GOC's diary.
Fifth Brigade's orders for the attack by 28 and 23 Battalions, which was to start at midnight on 20–21 April, gave as the objective a track 800 yards from the river, twice the distance set by the divisional orders. The artillery programme was arranged at lightning speed. The 4th and 5th NZ Field Regiments and 23 Field Regiment, RA, were to cover the advance with a barrage on a 2000-yard front; other heavy, medium and field guns and heavy anti-aircraft guns were to fire counter-battery and counter-mortar tasks and concentrations. Sappers of 7 Field Company were to construct a Bailey bridge, and 28 Assault Squadron was to lay an Ark bridge; the tanks of 18 Regiment were to be ready to use the first available crossing.
The assault over the Idice by C and D Companies of 28 Battalion (after passing through A and B) was to have been preceded by a flame attack by Crocodiles, but owing to a misunderstanding the Maoris crossed without this assistance. They pressed on against only slight resistance, but had difficulty in keeping direction because of what was reported to be dense smoke from the artillery barrage but probably was dust raised by the exploding shells. C Company was guided by a road on its right flank, but D had to rely on compass bearings. The presence of German tanks was reported near the final objective, and for this reason C Company pulled back slightly. Much enemy movement in the vicinity of the Scolo Fiumicello, only a short distance ahead, was engaged by the artillery.
During the first stage of the attack 23 Battalion reported poor visibility because of river fog. D and C Companies, however, advanced without opposition and by two o'clock were on their objective. A patrol discovered that a bridge over the Scolo Fiumicello was intact and would take tanks.
The construction of 7 Field Company's high-level 100-foot Bailey bridge took longer than expected. Because the bridging train was delayed by a vehicle being ditched and the high banks required much preliminary work, the construction was not begun until after two o'clock, but was completed about six hours later. The assault squadron's attempt to place an Ark bridge about half a mile farther upstream was abandoned when it was found to be impracticable, but 8 Field Company, assisted by bulldozers from 27 Mechanical Equipment Company, opened a ford in the vicinity about 4.30 a.m. page 490 and began work shortly afterwards on a 50-foot low-level Bailey near the ford. This was completed by nine o'clock.
Because of these delays it was decided to pass C Squadron of 18 Regiment over the ford in the Poles' sector and direct it northwards through 6 Brigade and 5 Brigade's sector. This squadron was in contact with 21 Battalion by 7 a.m.; A and B Squadrons, using 8 Field Company's crossing, were marrying up with the infantry an hour or two later.
On the evening of 20 April the German Commander-in-Chief South-West (General von Vietinghoff) ordered a general withdrawal from the Bologna area. He had not been allowed by Berlin to order a fighting withdrawal to the River Po; he had failed to halt the Allied offensive on the Apennine line, and when retreat ‘was forced upon him as the only alternative to annihilation south of the Po, he found that his armies were already battered, he had no reserves and his pace of withdrawal was limited to that of the foot soldier.’1 Already Eighth Army had breached the Genghis Khan Line in the Argenta Gap and on the Idice River, and Fifth Army had debouched from the mountains into the Po valley.
Early on the morning of 21 April troops of 3 Carpathian Division entered Bologna from the south-west, shortly before men of 34 Division, 2 United States Corps, drove into it from the south; later in the day they were joined by the Italian Legnano Group and troops of 91 US Division. To Eighth Army's triumph of having the first troops in the city, the New Zealand Division had contributed not a little by seizing the chance to ‘jump’ the Idice River. The Poles made good use of the ford captured by the New Zealanders.
1 Operations of British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part IV, Sec. G, p. 8.