Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: Crossing the River Po
II: Crossing the River Po
It was necessary for Eighth Army to regroup on 23 April. The New Zealand Division of 13 Corps had secured a bridgehead over the Reno River, but 6 Armoured Division of 5 Corps had driven across 13 Corps' front and reached Bondeno, on the Panaro River. Fifth Corps' was the only part of Eighth Army properly in contact with the enemy, but its front was now 50 miles wide, and on the right it was still strongly opposed south of the River Po and east of Ferrara. Therefore, to enable 5 Corps to concentrate on the elimination of the enemy still resisting south of the lower reaches of the river and to facilitate 13 Corps' advance from its Reno bridgehead, 6 Armoured Division passed to the command of the latter corps, and the inter-corps boundary was adjusted to run directly north from the Reno, passing just to the west of Ferrara and reaching the Po at Stienta. The 10th Indian Division was to take no further part in the battle.
When the break through the Argenta Gap was assured on 20 April, General McCreery had decided to make 5 Corps responsible for crossing the Po in the neighbourhood of Ferrara and Polesella, and the Po Bridging Task Force and the pontoon equipment had been placed at its disposal. The German 76 Panzer Corps, however, was still holding the south bank where the crossings had page 501 been selected for 5 Corps, whereas on 13 Corps' front there was a wide stretch of river practically undefended. Thus McCreery had the choice of continuing the main drive as originally planned— ignoring the opportunity that appeared to be offering on 13 Corps' front—or switching all the bridging to the most favourable sector and leaving 5 Corps' three divisions to exert pressure on the enemy still south of the Po; a further choice was to divide the available resources between the two corps.
Fifteenth Army Group announced on 23 April that Eighth Army's task was to turn north-east, breach the Adige (Venetian) Line and capture Padua. Route 16, from Ferrara to Padua through Rovigo, was the only road suitable as the main Eighth Army axis for maintenance and would have to be opened in any case; but it was liable to disruption because of its many bridges and because it could be easily flooded. The alternative axis, from Bondeno across the Po to Ficarolo, Trecenta, Badia and Este, west of the junction of Routes 10 and 16, was less liable to interruption. While the western route was more attractive tactically, Route 16 was to be preferred from an administrative point of view. In addition, since the extent of the enemy's disorganisation was not yet fully realised, the possibility of his being able to make a stand on the Venetian Line had to be considered. McCreery decided, therefore, to give the large body of the enemy withdrawing up Route 16 no respite from the pressure being exerted by 5 Corps and at the same time to press forward with 13 Corps on the western route. Both corps were to establish bridgeheads over the Po and Adige rivers, and the bridging equipment was to be distributed accordingly.
Consequently 13 Corps was to cross the Po with 6 Armoured Division on the right and the New Zealand Division on the left; when they had achieved a sufficient build-up on the north bank, they were to continue northward, with the British division directed on Lendinara and the New Zealanders on Badia Polesine, and make every effort to secure bridgeheads over the Adige River before the enemy could man the Venetian Line in strength.
Already 6 Armoured Division had reached the Po at two points, 1 Derbyshire Yeomanry (the divisional reconnaissance regiment) north-west of Ferrara and 2 Lothians and Border Horse (of 26 Armoured Brigade) east of the Panaro River, which joins the Po north of Bondeno. All was quiet along the river front, but much movement was observed on the far bank, and it looked as though the enemy might defend his positions there. The 61st Infantry Brigade stayed in the Bondeno area until the New Zealand Division took over that sector, and the remainder of 6 Armoured Division page 502 regrouped in the evening of 23 April preparatory to launching the assault across the Po. At first it was intended to attack that night, but the necessary assault craft had not yet arrived. The consequent postponement gave time for the New Zealand Division to move up on the left of the armoured division, and made it possible for the two divisions to assault the river defences simultaneously.
Divisional Headquarters gave orders for the advance northwards to be resumed at dawn on the 24th by 5 Brigade on ‘red’ route and 6 Brigade on ‘blue’; 12 Lancers was to be the first to cross the Reno so that its armoured cars could reconnoitre ahead. The 6th Armoured Division was to withdraw its troops from the New Zealand Division's sector; the two divisions were to operate independently and begin their crossing of the Po as soon as they were ready.
A Squadron of the Lancers swept the ground on the New Zealanders' left inside the great horseshoe bend of the Reno on 23 April, while C Squadron, having crossed the river south of Cento, was first into that town and began to clear the ground north of it and west of the river. C Squadron overran several pockets of parachutists who had been cut off by 6 Armoured Division farther north, and by nightfall had made contact with that division at Bondeno.
Meanwhile the New Zealand Engineers built two bridges across the Reno: in 5 Brigade's sector 7 Field Company erected a 170-foot Bailey between the railway and the road south-west of Poggio Renatico; in 6 Brigade's sector 8 Field Company erected a 210-foot Bailey at Passo Barchetta. Before these bridges were completed many of the tanks forded the river. Both brigades concentrated on the north bank in readiness to resume the advance in the morning.
Late in the morning 21 Battalion sent patrols to the River Po, and at midday Second-Lieutenant Carr2 and Corporal Bisley3, from A Company, paddled across in an assault boat a short distance downstream from Isola Tontola, the small island near the confluence of the Po and Panaro. Carr climbed the far bank and almost trod on a sleeping German in a slit trench but did not disturb him. After a quick look around the two men returned; they were not fired on by the enemy, but were strafed by Allied aircraft while on the way back to their own lines.
The 23rd Battalion, with A Squadron of 18 Regiment in support, followed the 21st towards the Po. A patrol from B Company reconnoitred to the river and reported the near stopbank was 20 to 30 feet high and would hide any movement on the southern side. Enemy defences were seen on the far bank, and some of them were obviously manned. There were good launching sites for boats, and three large enemy barges were moored in the battalion's sector. B and C Companies were told to go up to the stopbank and await orders. Colonels Thomas and McPhail discussed plans for a co-ordinated attack by 21 and 23 Battalions.
1 21 Battalion, pp. 428–9.
The approaches to the River Po ‘were littered with the abandoned material of an army, some blown up and destroyed, some just left, mile upon mile of it. We spent much of that day checking up on it. Under the constant air attack it was clear that a hundred local Dunkirks, each worse in its way than the 1940 evacuation, because here the attackers had held complete control of the air, had taken place. Trucks, horse-drawn wagons, cars, caravans, guns lay aban doned or burnt on the roadside, tipped into ditches, run into fields. Hundreds of supply and artillery horses roamed the fields, the magnificent draught horses of Hungary and Germany. Amongst the trucks we captured the documents of the 4th Parachute Division, including their own books on the Crete campaign and their victory there over the “Neuseelander” in “Einsatz gegen Kreta”.’1
Men, ‘with time on their hands, mingled with civilians, all bent on salvaging something of value from the wreckage. Some of the hundreds of horses roaming about were rounded up and the men enjoyed the unexpected pleasure of an afternoon's ride. Bartering went on with the civilians as horses were sold and then resold. After tea impromptu race meetings were held. The war seemed far away. Several German trucks were repaired and on the following day joined the north-bound convoys, each one loaded with salvage.’2
The Allied air forces had left no bridges standing over the River Po. It was a completely different proposition from any of the Division's previous river crossings. At its narrowest at this point it was 300 yards wide, and it flowed swiftly. It could not be waded, and a bridge could not be built in less than 24 hours; any tank support would have to be ferried over.
General Freyberg would not agree to 5 Brigade's plan to attack before nightfall, although Brigadier Bonifant told him that both 23 and 21 Battalions were sure they could do it. Colonels Thomas and McPhail were asked to report direct to the conference. ‘Each made his case with fervour…. But the General held firm. No daylight attack would go in if there was a risk it might mean higher casualties. It was too late in the war for such things. So the two colonels went back to their jeeps outside to cancel, over the air, their orders for the attack. Disappointment was writ large on their faces. The full attack was then duly planned for that night.’3
2 26 Battalion, pp. 519–20.
Dividing the bridging resources between 5 and 13 Corps absorbed four general transport platoons at a time when the services were feeling the strain of maintaining Eighth Army's advance. Each corps was limited to one folding-boat bridge, one Bailey pontoon bridge and a number of rafts.
The first crossings in 5 Corps' sector were made before midnight on 24–25 April by 8 Indian Division at two places north of Ferrara against light opposition; 56 Division crossed farther east about midday on the 25th. Between 8 Indian Division and 56 Division, 78 Division completed the destruction of 76 Panzer Corps south of the river.
The best site for bridging the Po on 13 Corps' front was at the bend near Ficarolo, where use could be made of Isola Tontola, but this crossing place had been bombed and cratered so heavily that another site was chosen near Gaiba, about a mile downstream, where the river was wider than the allotted bridging would span. To compensate for the delay while additional bridging was brought forward, a large proportion of the duplex-drive tanks1 and Fantails was allotted to 13 Corps, and 12 assault landing craft were hurried up on transporters from Porto Corsini to assist in the work of ferrying troops.
The 6th Armoured Division launched its attack at Palantone, on the extreme left of its front, at 1 a.m. on the 25th. The special equipment allotted for the purpose—seven Fantails, 15 DUKWs, 18 storm boats, a squadron of duplex-drive tanks and two rafts— was sufficient to carry one battalion across. Before daybreak the Grenadier Guards of 1 Guards Brigade held a bridgehead about a mile square in the vicinity of Gaiba. Resistance was slight, scattered and disorganised. The rafts began the long task of ferrying the tanks of the Derbyshire Yeomanry. The Welch Regiment occupied the small town of Stienta to secure the right flank, and the Welsh Guards pushed north to the Canale Bianco, some eight miles beyond the Po.
Special equipment for the crossing had been brought forward by 7 Field Company.1 The New Zealanders preferred assault boats to storm boats; they considered the engines of the latter unreliable and too noisy, but under the cover of darkness they could paddle their assault craft almost to the far bank before being detected. In less than 20 minutes A Company of 21 Battalion and B of the 23rd reached the far side and were on the stopbank. Here also resistance was very slight. D Company of the 21st and C of the 23rd followed in DUKWs, which gave excellent service in ferrying the infantry. The amphibious tanks, however, failed ignominiously: two of the three attached to 21 Battalion bogged while trying to get into the water, and the third sank a few yards from the shore; one attached to 23 Battalion sank after being rammed by a storm boat, another lost a track, and the third accidentally punctured its buoyancy apparatus by firing its machine gun.
A and D Companies of 21 Battalion pressed forward and cut a lateral road after brisk encounters with a few machine-gun posts, while C Company occupied the stopbank in their rear. B and C Companies of 23 Battalion reached their objective on the left of 21 Battalion, and A and D Companies came across the river in Fantails. A patrol entered Ficarolo, which was almost free of the enemy, and by 7.10a.m. A Company completed the capture of the village, together with a German tank, an 88-millimetre gun and two self-propelled guns. A forward observation officer from 5 Field Regiment climbed a tower from which he could see five or six miles in all directions; he reported no targets but many white flags.
Shortly before 6 a.m. A and B Companies of 25 Battalion, which already had occupied Isola Tontola, crossed in assault boats to the far bank of the Po without opposition. The infantry of 5 and 6 Brigades not participating in the crossing closed up to the south bank of the river. ‘So we spent an agreeable enough April 25th— the Anzac Day on which, thirty years ago, the original ANZAC Corps had gone ashore at Gallipoli—bridging the Po. In the sunshine it was like a regatta. Motor-driven storm-boats and ducks filled with Kiwi infantry and gunners plied to and fro between the banks. The wide river was blue under the clear sky, and the banks bare but for a fringe of young poplars on the far side.
1 The equipment and detachments of RE and RASC were allotted as follows: to 6 Fd Coy—folding-boat bridging equipment and a Bailey raft; to 7 Fd Coy (with 5 Bde)—eight DUKWs (amphibious lorries), six storm boats, a Bailey raft and four Fantails; to 8 Fd Coy (with 6 Bde)—eight DUKWs, three storm boats, one close-support raft and four Fantails.
Engineers, their brown torsos bare to the sun, hauled pontoons and boats into position. Men off duty swam from the edge of the motor raft, which slowly carried across Sherman after Sherman. The bulldozers snorted and thundered as they tried to make some order out of the chaos of huge bomb craters….’1
Since the start of the offensive the engineers had been employed almost continuously bridging rivers, canals and drains, clearing mines from roads and stopbanks, repairing and maintaining roads, and bringing up their heavy equipment. Although the enemy did not interfere with their work at the Po, the strain was beginning to tell: they were very tired by the time they had completed their tasks there.
Aerial photographs had not arrived in time for a proper planning of the crossing, but showed which were the best localities for the delivery of equipment and vehicles. When 5 Brigade crossed, 7 Field Company worked the DUKWs, Fantails and storm boats which ferried troops, anti-tank guns, jeeps and support weapons of 21 and 23 Battalions, and constructed a Bailey pontoon raft, which ferried across the first tank (from C Squadron of 18 Regiment) in mid-morning and later averaged three tanks in the hour.
Near the eastern end of Isola Tontola 8 Field Company worked the DUKWs and Fantails for 6 Brigade and constructed the close-support raft,2 which needed much work on the approaches on both sides of the river. This company also used abandoned German equipment farther upstream for the ferrying of 20 Regiment's tanks until the improvised raft grounded with a tank on it.
Early in the day 6 Field Company began work on the approaches to the 450-foot folding-boat bridge at the narrowest part of the river, a short distance downstream from Isola Tontola. The bulk of the Division's traffic was to use this bridge, but it was not strong enough to support tanks. By late afternoon wheeled vehicles began driving over it at the rate of more than 100 in the hour.
The pontoon Bailey bridge built by the Royal Engineers near Gaiba was not ready for use until 27 April. This and the folding-boat bridge had to serve the whole of 13 Corps. Consequently there was much congestion of traffic south of the river, and the rate of build up on the north bank was retarded. The ferrying of tanks was so slow that on 26 April only C Squadron of 18 Regiment and half each of A and B Squadrons of the 20th were north of the river. This, however, did not delay the Division's pursuit of the enemy.
2 This raft was only in the ‘Class 9’ category; the Bailey pontoon rafts were ‘Class 40’. A Class 9 raft could not carry a 33-ton Sherman tank.
As soon as they were across the Po in the afternoon, the armoured cars of C Squadron of 12 Lancers hurried off to take the lead from the infantry. They surprised and dispersed a German rearguard at Trecenta, captured a bridge intact nearby on the Tartaro, and secured another bridge about a mile and a half downstream. Some tanks of B Squadron of 20 Regiment joined 25 Battalion at Trecenta and helped to clean out several spandau nests. In the evening A Company of the 25th attempted to cross the Tartaro and secure a bridge over the Fossa Maestra, a few hundred yards distant, but stopped when Lieutenant King,1 leading 7 Platoon, was shot at the far end of the Tartaro bridge. A patrol from D Company found that the enemy had gone from the Fossa Maestra before dawn.