Victory in Italy

Posted on Monday 26th January 2015

15th Army group's final campaign

On Monday, 9 April 1945 hundreds of heavy bombers roared high over the plain of Lombardy in northern Italy. Four-engined B-17s and B-24s began dropping more than 1,500 tons of bombs on positions held by soldiers of Tenth German Army. Nor was there any relief when the heavies finished. Twin-engined medium bombers flew in, attacking artillery and other critical defensive positions. They were followed by 720 fighter-bombers of the British Desert Air Force and US XXII Tactical Air Command firing rockets, cannon and machine guns and dropping bombs on the German front-line positions.

As the fighter-bombers flew off, British artillery took over the bombardment. Then the fighter-bombers returned. Almost until the light died, aircraft and the artillery took it in turns to pound the German positions along the little Senio stream with its mighty floodbanks. As the guns fell quiet at 7.10pm, the fighters swooped again. But this time they dived and pulled up, without dropping bombs, firing rockets or weapons.

The Germans had kept their heads down as they had been intended to. Unnoticed, Churchill Crocodile flame-thrower tanks and lighter Wasp flame-throwers had driven up to drench the floodbanks with flame. And the artillery opened fire yet again, this time supporting the infantry of V British and II Polish Corps as they assaulted the floodbanks in Operation Buckland.

Eighth Army had opened its final offensive in Italy. After months of preparation and stockpiling munitions, D Day had arrived. Leading the assault, 2nd New Zealand Division was quickly over the Senio and making for its next objective, the Santerno river some miles ahead. Taken completely off balance, Tenth Army’s resistance was not co-ordinated. The Poles met more opposition than the New Zealanders but, even so, were soon moving forwards.

Some redundant Shermans and M7 Priest self-propelled howitzers were modified to act as armoured personnel carriers, dubbed Kangaroos. Infantry of the New Zealand 9 Brigade wait for the order to advance in their Kangaroos. (Author's collection)

Over the next few days British, Indian, New Zealand and Polish formations pushed ahead steadily. Although the Santerno had been intended to provide a major barrier, the New Zealanders wasted no time there, ‘bouncing’ the river thanks to their superb engineers and their bridges.

As British troops of 78th and 56th Divisions converged on the town of Argenta, the Germans were again taken by surprise. The ‘Black Cats’, 56th Division, crossed the Comácchio lake and neighbouring flooded area in Fantails, amphibious carriers transporting infantry, artillery and lighter vehicles. Meanwhile, 78th (Battleaxe) Division, having pushed through the bridgehead secured by the Indians, sent its Irish Brigade ahead with 2nd London Irish Rifles mounted in Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers. The speed of the advance soon saw the division fighting for Argenta, as the Black Cats tackled tough opposition to take their objectives.

On the 14th, Fifth US Army launched Operation Craftsman, the second pincer of 15th Army Group’s Operation Grapeshot, against the German Fourteenth Army. Craftsman also opened with a hammering of German positions by heavy bombers, followed by fighter-bombers. American, South African and Brazilian troops took part, but the outstanding US formation was 10th Mountain Division, which opened Fifth Army’s assault and was to be the first Allied formation to reach the River Po.

Fifth Army included two armoured divisions, the US 1st, known as Old Ironsides, and 6th South African. It was the South African division that was to link up with the British 6th Armoured Division, pushing forward through the Argenta Gap, at the aptly-named Finale nell’Emilia on St George’s Day, 23 April.

With much of the German Army Group C in disarray, Bologna was taken with the support of Italian partisans – there were also Italian divisions in both Allied armies. Then followed the race to the Po, with 10th Mountain Division reaching the great river ahead of the British 6th Armoured. Elsewhere, 88th US Division, the ‘Blue Devils’, took some 16,000 prisoners en route to the Po, including the first German general captured in Italy.

As elements of both Eighth and Fifth Armies advanced from the Po, the pace continued to be set by General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealanders and General George P. Hays’s Mountaineers. With the cohesion of German resistance crumbling, 10th Mountain Division was directed towards Lake Garda, from where it was to thrust into the Alps. In the meantime, the New Zealanders were sent to liberate Venice and then race for Trieste to secure that city for the western Allies.

Brigadier Pat Scott DSO, 38 (Irish) Brigade (left) and one of his staff officers examine the detritus of Tenth German Army along the Po.

Both were successful, the Mountain Division moving from the heat of the plain into the cold of the high mountains before it learned of the German surrender. Freyberg’s men interposed themselves between Yugoslavs and Germans in Trieste, taking the surrender of the latter and holding the city and surrounding area against Marshal Tito’s wishes.

These two armies had made the most impressive advances of western Allied armies in Europe. Having broken the crust of a stout German defence, they had pushed hard to destroy the command, control and communications of two German armies, and a Fascist Italian army, as well as their army group. Their success was arguably the best example of manoeuvre warfare in western Europe.

This was due largely to the army commanders. Both were cavalrymen: Sir Richard McCreery of Eighth Army and Lucian K. Truscott Jr of Fifth Army. They used the strengths of their respective forces to overcome the obvious disadvantages, including the Germans’ well prepared defensive locations, and their own lack of a three-to-one manpower superiority. They planned for surprise, which they got, and speed, which both armies achieved.

Sadly today, Operation Grapeshot is all but forgotten and McCreery and Truscott have rarely received the credit they merit: McCreery was Eighth Army’s best ever commander and Truscott the best field commander the Americans had in Europe. They deserve to be remembered.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt of the Brazilian Air Force, operating as part of the USAAF 350th Fighter Group of the US XXII Tactical Air Command, on the ground between missions. The Brazilian 1º Grupo de Caca (1st Fighter Group) carried out many close support missions, as the bomb symbols under the cockpit canopy of this Thunderbolt indicate. (NARA)

Soldiers of 5th Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment fighting their way through the ruins of the town of Argenta on 17/18 April. The Northamptons were counter-attacked by the Germans but that assault was repelled and the Argenta Gap had been opened. (UK Government official/Public Domain)

92nd Division in the Po Valley campaign, April 1945. American troops advancing.

Italian partisans played a vital role as the campaign developed, often taking control of villages, towns and cities before Allied forces arrived. The partisans were supplied with British battledress, as shown in this photograph, while the man in the foreground is operating a Browning .50-inch machine gun. (NARA)

Bailey bridges were essential to operations in Italy and especially so during Operation Grapeshot. This example of a section of the highly-adaptable bridging equipment is on permanent display outside the Senio Line Museum in Alfonsine. (Author's photo)

Further Reading

Victory in Italy
(Hardback - 246 pages)
ISBN: 9781783462988

by Richard Doherty
Only £25.00

While the main focus in early 1945 was on the advance to The Fatherland, 15 Army Group's 5th (US) and 8th (British) Armies were achieving remarkable results in Northern Italy.

Superb generalship (Truscott – 5th Army and McCreery – 8th Army under General Mark Clark's 15 Army Group), planning, preparation and training outweighed the diversion of major formations to NW Europe, the appalling terrain, harsh climate and general battle fatigue. Equipment was improvised and air/ground operations coordinated to a very high level..

In April…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...