April 1945 proved a momentous month for the two battalions of the London Irish Rifles in Northern Italy as they both took leading roles in the 8th Army’s assaults on German positions south of the River Po as part of Operation ‘Buckland’. The two battalions were to meet on the battlefield for the first time during the war on the afternoon on 14th April – the 1st Battalion (1 LIR) had left Britain in August 1942 and the 2nd Battalion (2 LIR) in November 1942.
Before the main attack, which was planned to start on the evening of 9th April, along with other units of 56th Division and 2 Commando Brigade, 1 LIR took a leading part in the crossing of the River Reno, close to its confluence with Lake Comacchio. Their part in this assault commenced on the night of 5th/6th April and was spearheaded by B and C Companies, respectively led by Captain Dorrity and Major Boswell. They were supported in the early morning of the 6th by A Company, led by Major H St G Gallagher and, by dawn, a bridgehead of a mile and a half in depth had been successfully established.
Meanwhile, 2 LIR were concentrating with the rest of 38 (Irish) Brigade in Forli and were informed that 78th Division’s part in ‘Buckland’ would commence a few days after the initial assaults, which were being led by 8th Indian Division and 2nd New Zealand Division across the Senio River and then advancing northwards towards the River Santerno.
Both battalions were now ready and waiting for the opening of Operation ‘Buckland’, with ‘H’ hour was now confirmed for 720pm on the evening of 9th April.
“KANGAROO” ARMY GOES INTO ACTION
After the lower reaches of the Reno had been crossed, the main attack by the Eighth Army went in following a terrific air and artillery bombardment. Along the winding banks of the Senio, ‘Wasps’ and ‘Crocodile’ flame-throwers went forward and sprayed the enemy posts with fire. Seven hundred bombers laid with great accuracy a carpet of fragmentation bombs about three thousand yards west of the river. The 5th Corps went across on the right and the 2nd Polish Corps on the left. The 2nd New Zealand Division attacked at a big bend of the Senio west of Cotignola and made a big wheel to the left. The 8th Indian Division went over south of Lugo. Both divisions, fighting with great spirit, reached the Santerno, and the 78th Division was then called in. It had been in reserve and moved forward between the New Zealanders and the Indian Division. 36 Brigade pushed on at night and a bridgehead over the Santerno, was secured.
Then followed a momentous battle, in which the 2nd Battalion London Irish played an important part. They became part of a “Kangaroo Army” which leapt forward with giant strides and added to the general demoralisation of the enemy. Under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Bredin, the battalion was mounted in armoured carriers, known as ‘Kangaroos’, of the 4th Hussars, and with the able support of the 9th Lancers they made a powerful striking force which operated under 2nd Armoured Brigade.
Each company, together with its allotment of eight Priest ‘Kangaroos’, lived and worked with its own squadron of the 9th Lancers. The ‘Kangaroos’ were stocked with reserve ammunition and forty-eight hours’ rations, thus making the force completely independent for a substantial period, if necessary. In the same way, battalion headquarters was mounted in eight ‘Kangaroos’, including two for medical purposes and two for reserve ammunition. At all times, the force moved in the closest liaison with Tactical Headquarters and the Armoured Regimental Headquarters. In addition, at various times, the force included an armoured squadron of the 4th Hussars, some ‘Flail’ Shermans for mine clearance, Sherman ‘Arks’, Churchill flame-throwing ‘Crocodiles’, and the inevitable but invaluable Sherman bull-dozers. The ‘Kangaroo Army’ was under the command of the armour, and comprised over a hundred major tracked vehicles.
On April 13, the two other battalions in the Irish Brigade, the 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, broke out of the bridgehead forced over the River Santerno by the 8th Indian Division. They advanced in a northerly direction and, following up, the 2nd Battalion London Irish crossed the river in readiness to pass through the rest of the brigade.
Orders to do this came at midday, and less than two hours later the leading squadrons of the ‘Kangaroo Army’ were out in the open, with only the enemy in front. The line of advance was due northwards through a corridor one thousand yards wide, hemmed in on the right by the Santerno River and on the left by the Fossatone Canal. The country was flat, with orchards and farmhouses at intervals, and villages here and there. The only variety in the terrain was the varying widths of the numerous canals and small rivers.
The object of the first day was to secure crossings of the Conselice Canal, which formed a link in the bend of the Santerno before it flowed into the Reno on the right. If possible the force had to exploit to the Reno, which ran north-westwards several thousand yards ahead. At first, little resistance was encountered. The two other battalions in the Irish Brigade had given the enemy a good shaking, and he was moving back. Scattered enemy bazooka men were met and one tank was lost through the fire of an anti-tank gun, which itself did not long survive. A number of prisoners were taken by G Company. As the Conselice Canal was approached the defile widened, and H Company, with C Squadron of the 9th Lancers, came up on the left. The first serious bit of trouble was encountered in the village of La Frascata. This was rapidly by-passed, but as the leading tanks arrived at the canal the bridge was blown up immediately in front of them. H Company, who had driven past La Frascata in their ‘Kangaroos’, quickly debussed on the canal bank and, covered by tanks, forced a crossing over the remains of the road and railway bridges. They got into the houses on the far bank so swiftly that few of the defenders managed to escape.
Meanwhile, G Company cleared the area on the canal bank on the right, and E Company was ordered to clear La Frascata and assist H Company in holding and enlarging the bridgehead. The enemy had been surprised by the speed and weight of the attack. Few of them, not more than ten, had been killed, but all three forward companies took a number of prisoners, about eighty altogether.
The bridgehead was firmly established by 2200 hours and the companies dug in for the night, while the sappers got to work in building a bridge over the canal.
In the meantime the 56th (London) Division was pushing northwest parallel to the Reno through flooded country. One battalion of the Queen’s Brigade, loaded in amphibious Buffaloes, successfully passed over the flooded area. Menate fell to the Queen’s, and the Eighth Army were now closing on the vital bridge over the Reno at Bastia, the 56th Division moving from the east and the 78th Division from the south. On the night of April 13-14 a “right-hook” was made by the 24 Guards Brigade over the flooded country. The object was to outflank the Argenta Gap and to secure a bridgehead over the Marina Canal in the area of Chiesa Del Bando. The Germans by now were well aware that we were using amphibious vehicles and had rushed down reinforcements from north of the River Po. The Guards suffered considerable casualties on landing from their Buffaloes, but the movement was pressed home with great determination, and a firm footing was established south of the Marina Canal.
Early on the 14th, before dawn, patrols from E Company of the 2nd Battalion London Irish felt their way forward, up through Lavezzola towards the Reno at Bastia. At first light, they were followed by the armour in two columns, one due north along the axis of the main road, and the other sweeping round to the right to avoid the mine-fields that were known to exist in the Lavezzola area. In fact, there were mines almost everywhere in the vicinity, and in the northern half of the village all the houses had been booby-trapped. Fortunately, so swift had been our penetration that the German notices warning of mines were still in place and not a single casualty was caused either to the tanks or to the infantry. The flails had a great though noisy morning blowing up the mines.
The Reno was reached at 0940 hours and thirty Germans were taken during the advance. Eight were caught in the act of laying further mines. Both the road and rail bridges over the river had been blown but sufficient rubble remained to allow foot soldiers to cross dry-shod. A reconnaissance was carried out and a plan evolved for a small bridgehead to be made by E Company. With the aid of a smoke-screen this was done, but while the platoons moved on north of the river they were forced back by a sudden counter-attack. No assistance could be given by the tanks owing to the high flood-banks on the river and the blown bridges.
The 2nd Battalion decided to remain on the southern bank of the river for the night, and eventually static positions were maintained for two days.
For the first time throughout the war the two battalions of the London Irish now found themselves sharing a part of the same front, because the 1st Battalion, on the extreme left of the 56th (London) Division, was moving along on the right of the ‘Kangaroo Army’. One of the 1st Battalion’s patrols crossed the Reno and made contact with G Company of the 2nd Battalion.
During the short respite there were one or two changes in the 2nd Battalion. Major M Davies, who had been wounded three times, left to take up an appointment at Corps Headquarters, and Major F Cave took over E Company, with Lieutenant Mosley, now promoted Captain, as Second-in-Command. Mr Girvan, who had been with the battalion as RSM almost throughout its fighting existence, was also posted on promotion.
Two or three days of stubborn fighting were necessary at the Marina Canal before a crossing was forced, and finally Bastia was captured on April 16. The enemy withdrew to Argenta, towards which the 78th Division and the Queen’s Brigade of the 56th Division made steady progress. Early on the 17th, the 2nd Battalion crossed a bridge which had been hurriedly constructed over the Reno at Bastia, and a brief halt was made while conferences were held to decide when to unleash the Kangaroos again.
The battle for the Argenta Gap now developed, and the 56th (London) Division, pushing north-westwards parallel to the Kangaroos, was heavily engaged. The Gap was a narrow strip about four thousand yards wide and four or five miles deep between the Reno and large flooded areas bordering Lake Comacchio on the right. Argenta was on the railway in the centre.
The decisive day was April 18, when at first light the Kangaroo Army went once more into battle. The intention was to by-pass Argenta to the east, and the move was unforgettable. Through the orchards north of Argenta, between the lake and the canal, passed a mass of armour all going over the one bridge at the main water obstacle. An impressive sight. Wrecked vehicles, masses of equipment, and enemy dead littered the route, while machine gun fire from Argenta, already surrounded, crackled away on the left.
There was some difficulty as usual in breaking through the congestion in our own forward areas, but by 1000 hours the 2nd Battalion was in the open and the tanks were firing energetically at enemy self-propelled guns and Mark IVs that were trying to make themselves a nuisance. A ‘Kangaroo’ was hit by armour-piercing shot and some trouble came from two small villages, Boccaleone and Consandolo, but the weight of armour and mobile infantry was beginning to make itself felt. The advance continued steadily, with prisoners streaming in. The Germans were thus receiving a taste of medicine similar to that they inflicted on the Low Countries during their invasion in 1940.
A jig-saw puzzle confronted the tanks, and that was the maze of ditches that barred their path forward. But a crossing was found intact over the Fosso Benvignante and very soon the infantry were across and infesting the area up to the next obstacle. As it was late evening this success took the enemy completely by surprise, and an officers’ mess, a battery of eighty-eight-millimetre guns, and numerous smaller ack-ack and anti-tank pieces and about two hundred prisoners were overrun. The enemy tried to smash the advance by firing at close range over open sights, but their belated efforts failed.
In the light of numerous burning houses and with a not unjustifiable sense of complete victory, the battalion moved to its final area for the night in the vicinity of Piazzo Coltra, having captured three sound bridges over the next canal.
At 0400 hours, patrols from G and H Companies went forward two thousand yards in an attempt to seize further crossings over the Scolo Bolognese west of Porto Maggiore. The bridges were found to be blown, but they took up positions on the near bank and at dawn were joined by the never-failing armour.
F Company had a minor operation in clearing the enemy from Porto Maggiore and caught up with the rest of the battalion later in the evening. During this period prisoners were continually being taken in groups of ten or fifteen, indicating that the enemy had very little stomach for a fight. With smoke, high-explosive, and flame-throwers, G Company made a bridgehead over the Fosso Bolognese in the afternoon, and H Company followed suit and captured the village of Porto Rotta on the far side. The success of these operations led to the decision that the main divisional axis of advance was to pass through Porto, Rotta, and the battalion was therefore ordered to widen its bridgehead so that the sappers might get a crossing ready for the armour. That was done at 2200 hours and was supported admirably by timed concentrations from the divisional artillery. All objectives were taken by 2300 hours.
Under mortar fire the sappers bull-dozed a crossing over the two canals comprising the Fosso Bolognese, and early on the 20th the brigade began to pass through in a north-westerly direction. The Kangaroo Army, tanks and infantry, was again on the move. After heavy fighting the Skins and the Faughs crossed a canal south of Montesanto, and the Army continued over very open country to the west of Voghenza.
Opposition was met from well-sited self-propelled guns and tanks, mostly from behind farm buildings, and the London Irish were called upon several times to de-buss and mop up bazooka men and Spandau posts. The Allied Air Forces, as always, put in some magnificent work destroying German guns and armour ahead of the leading squadrons.
While the ‘Kangaroos’ were concentrating to move forward south of Montesanto, a heavy “stonk” came down and the London Irish regimental aid-post received a direct hit. Captain Rhys Evans, the Medical Officer, was badly wounded.
As evening approached resistance stiffened. Fire from enemy tanks increased, and F Company dealt with several pockets of enemy troops, some of whom were hidden in trees. The ‘Kangaroo Army’ began rapidly to run out of the range of the supporting artillery, and a definite feeling that they were “out on their own” became noticeable.
Light began to fail as reports came in of German troops and transport moving on the left and on the right. A quick conference was held, and it was decided to carry on to the final objectives These were the bridges at Cona and Quartesena south-east of Ferrara. A most unorthodox battle followed. By the light of the moon and flames from burning farmhouses, the tanks, escorted by E and F Companies, attacked the two bridges. Both columns were soon involved in battle, and tracer flew in all directions. Quartesena, the approaches to which were being continually mortared, contained three enemy tanks and several strong parties of bazooka men and machine-gunners. After two of the Lancers’ tanks had been knocked Gut the German tanks withdrew and escaped in the darkness over the bridge, which was captured intact.
In the near-by village of Cona an even more complex battle developed. The Germans had a fifteen-centimetre gun sited a hundred yards from the bridge, firing over open sights back into the bridge and down the main street of the village. It was supported by the usual groups with bazookas and Spandaus.
At the second attempt, F Company rushed the bridge, and were backed up nobly by the tanks, who were having a most uncomfortable time nosing their way round in the darkness. A firm hold was made, and H Company was rushed up in their Kangaroos to give F Company support. By 1300 hours on the 22nd the situation at both bridges was satisfactory. In this operation about sixty prisoners were taken, several trucks, and a fifteen-centimetre gun fell into London Irish hands, and a German lorry laden with artillery ammunition was hit at short range by one of the Lancers’ tanks while it was trying to escape.
By now the battalion was extremely tired; at least half had been on the go for seventy-two hours. Everyone was well content when the Lancashire Fusiliers came along as a relief battalion and the London Irish had a good day’s sleep.
Elsewhere on the front the fighting had gone well, and the position of the Germans south of the Po appeared hopeless. The attack by the Fifth Army had flared up and the Allied Armies moved relentlessly forward like a mammoth steam-roller.
On the Eighth Army front, the 6th Armoured Division passed through west of the 78th Division and took on the chase, while the .56th Division swept north-east. An American force, troops of the 10th Mountain Division, was the first to reach the River Po. It got there near Ostiglia during the night of April 22nd, beating the Eighth Army by a few hours.
A hold had also been obtained on the river near Fossalta, and the ‘Kangaroo Army’ was called into action once again. With the rest of the Irish Brigade the London Irish had to sweep the wide area between the Po and the numerous canals running east from Ferrara.
The ‘Kangaroos’ moved through a maze of ditches and small water-ways, and the leading squadrons did a splendid job in finding a way through and at the same time keeping a sharp look-out for the enemy. They were aided considerably by air reports, which indicated where bridges were or were not blown. Soon opposition began to assert itself, but it came only from pockets of rear-guards, and both G and E Companies, covered by tanks, did some clearing up. The Germans surrendered in large numbers. When reports came in from air reconnaissance that there were many enemy tanks ahead the Lancers at once got busy, and between that time and darkness in a series of exciting actions they knocked out seven Mark IVs for the loss of only one of their own.
The tank actions continued over a wide area as night came and the companies, in their very conspicuous Kangaroos, wisely did their best to keep out of the battle of the armour. Every farm for miles seemed to be on fire, and there was confusion everywhere. The advance continued by moonlight, but at 2200 hours an order was received to change its general direction a full hundred degrees. When just short of their original objective, the Kangaroo force was ordered to make straight for the Po at a point north-east of Ferrara, where the Germans were reported to be evacuating their rear-guards by pontoon. This complete change of direction in the darkness was accomplished with very little difficulty, in spite of the fact that the force was still in contact with the enemy and it did not pay to be too bold by moonlight.G and F Companies moved forward but met minor opposition, and by dawn were on the banks of the Po in the midst of an extraordinary collection of burning and abandoned vehicles. They included six Mark IV tanks and a large number of lorries. Many Germans who had either left it too late or could not swim were rounded up.
Thus ended the fourth and last advance of the ‘Kangaroo Army’. Once the Argenta Gap had been forced, the battle became a rout, and even at the River Po there was virtually no resistance. The last “mighty punch” had sealed the fate of the German armies in Italy.
A great feature of the last series of operations in which the ‘Kangaroo Army’ took part was the co-operation and mutual trust established between armour and infantry, a feature without which success would have been impossible. The effect on the enemy of the full weight of such a cohesive force thrusting on a narrow front and disgorging infantry rapidly at centres of strong resistance was disastrous every time the Kangaroo Army swung into action. Appreciation must be made of the fact that openings and opportunities for the force to be used were made on all four occasions by hard fighting on the part of the remainder of the Irish Brigade.
THE FINAL SURRENDER
THE advance from Palazzo Tamba towards the River Po was a gruelling time for the 1st Battalion, as a mass of plans and moves for attack were all the time being prepared, only to be changed at the last moment. The battalion was usually at one hour’s notice to move for a period of several days. The last real fighting was with enemy rear-guards in the neighbourhood of a small village, Tamara, where the Germans put up a sharp and stubborn resistance before withdrawing during the night.
The battle south of the Po proved to be the last in Italy and, so far as the two battalions of the London Irish were concerned, their final engagement in the Second World War. The crossing of the Po, one of the largest rivers in Europe, was practically unopposed throughout its entire length, and a despairing last-minute stand by the Germans on the Adige Line, south of Venice, did not occur. The Line had been prepared for months and had massive concrete forts, minefields, and everything to enable the enemy to make a last stand before withdrawing, if they could, to the homeland.
Already the number of prisoners had reached a large figure, but it was not until the 1st Battalion had reached the banks of the Po that they were able to appreciate the full extent of the victory. Not only did they find thousands of Germans, including a Corps Commander and several other Generals, who had been unable to cross the wide river, owing to the effectiveness of the Allied bombing, but also a mass of abandoned equipment of every kind. Along the banks of the river were scattered the guns, vehicles, and other equipment of a whole army.
Soon it was realised that the Adige Line was useless to the enemy. They had nothing with which to hold it, and the Eighth Army went straight through it towards Padua and Venice, which was entered by the Queen’s Brigade of the 56th (London) Division on April 29. The Fifth Army, to make sure, made a swing round on the left and turned the Adige Line from behind.
The German armies in Italy had been defeated.
The two divisions, the 56th (London) Division and the 78th Division, had played a great part throughout the months of struggle in the Italian campaign, and complimentary messages were sent throughout the formations.
Roll of Honour: April 1945.