Allied breakout and pursuit by tanks in Italy

Bologna fell to 8th and 5th Army troops on 21 April. This picture is one of a series taken during the advance to the city. This particular image shows an old Italian woman sitting mourning in the ruins with a coffin waiting for the dead. Despite a warning to get out of the town before the Allied air attack, many people remained.

Bologna fell to 8th and 5th Army troops on 21 April. This picture is one of a series taken during the advance to the city. This particular image shows an old Italian woman sitting mourning in the ruins with a coffin waiting for the dead. Despite a warning to get out of the town before the Allied air attack, many people remained.

Infantry of the 1st King's Own Royal Regiment start to dig trenches in an orchard near Vedrano, 21 April 1945.

Infantry of the 1st King’s Own Royal Regiment start to dig trenches in an orchard near Vedrano, 21 April 1945.

In Italy the final assault by the British 8th Army and the US 5th Army was making good progress, having broken through the last of the prepared German defensive lines. After nearly two years of struggle, in which it had seemed that there would always be one more mountain ridge to be taken, that were finally out into open country. Now the Allied superior strength and air superiority could be given full reign.

The 6th Armoured Brigade included the 17th/21st Lancers, an amalgamation of two old established cavalry regiments. The 17th Lancers had taken part in the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. Now they took part in a rapid thrust north-west designed to disrupt German attempts at an orderly withdrawal.

Lieutenant Stiebel of the 17th/21st Lancer describes the situation on the 22nd April:

When we reached the meadow I saw a double-storeyed farmhouse ahead and movement in an upper window. The best way to clear out any enemy was to fire an H.E. shell on ‘delay’ — a turn on the screw on the fuse head delayed the explosion of the shell by 0.05 seconds; enough to allow the shell to penetrate the walls before exploding inside the house. My gunner fired at the floor level of the upper storey and so managed to spread the effect to both floors. He then fired Browning at the surviving Germans who speedily evacuated by the back door.

A Sqn on the right lost two tanks to German Panther tanks and the Hurribomber – Rover David – was called in. This resulted in a direct hit one Panther and the other badly crippled.

Then I got the order to move on to Poggio Renatico — about 5-6 miles away — at full speed. My Sergeant’s tank would not start right away so I took the lead and drove off (My troop corporal’s tank was having the gun problem).

At the turn-off to Poggio, the Germans had set up a road-block of a few carts, rails and planks. These we burst through and away we went at between 25 and 30 m.p.h. I shouted ‘Tally-Ho’ over the wireless which was not appreciated by James Maxwell! Sergeant Cormack’s 2nd troop was right behind me.

There were Germans breaking cover all over the place and we chased them with our machine guns. The bow gunner was given ‘gun control’ which meant that he fired at anything he could see. On the road to my right — some 1000 yards away — I saw a German convoy of about 40 vehicles including transporters. Trying to shoot at them with the very long barrelled gun, traversed to the right, we only got one shot off before the gun started to hit telegraph poles and this swung the turret to face the rear.

Concentrating our efforts to the front, we shot at every farmhouse and haystack — many burst into flame as there was fuel stored in them. A German horse-drawn convoy was seen heading towards us and was shot off the road by the bow gunner. All the tanks behind also joined in the fray and I had to ask them to stop firing ahead because, where the road went slightly to the left, I was getting machine gun fire from the rear around my ears.

There was a freshly dug hole in the middle of the road and I told my driver to slow down in case it was a mine. From a house nearby a German stepped out and fired a Panzerfaust (Bazooka) at us but he hit the bank in front and showered my face and hand with grit. He only had the chance before Cormack, riding behind me, riddled him with his Browning.

I saw a train over to the right and it consisted of an engine and two or three cattle trucks. In an open doorway was a man sitting with his legs hanging out and the train was moving slowly towards Poggio. I was certain that everyone behind me could have seen this but it later appeared that Maxwell had not. I could not traverse my gun to the right to engage this target because of the telegraph poles, nor could I have stopped or slowed down as the tanks behind would have all bunched up and, also, because I was very much involved with my immediate front, I left it to others to deal with.

As we approached the town of Poggio, dozens of Germans and civilians appeared with white flags but there was nothing I could do about them. The whole scene was of chaos with people running in all directions. To encourage the confusion my driver sounded the hooter continuously, which was very loud and alarming – but unfortunately not as spectacular as the sirens with which our previous tanks were equipped.

Into the first house in the town, we fired a shell and, turning half-right into the main street, we fired two more rounds of H.E. straight into a mob of milling Germans, horses and vehicles. James Maxwell told me to turn left to skirt the town and that anti-tank guns were firing at the main column of our tanks from that direction.

I was driving along very carefully with a high wall on my right. Beyond the end of the wall, suddenly a tracer shell passed by about 10 yards ahead of me. I reversed to the cover of the wall and could clearly see the tracer shells going off aimed at our tanks — the tracers were travelling just above the level of the road surface. Beyond the end of the wall there was an open gap before a wooden shed. I moved forward to try to see where the enemy guns were and hid my tank behind the shed. The guns were somewhere to the south of the town but there was so much dust about that I could not give an accurate position.

Two other tanks joined me and we tried firing round the sides of the shed. The gunners must have seen our move because they then set about trying to demolish the shed that gave us cover, so we withdrew behind the wall. They then fired several airburst shells over us. I could see the smoke from the guns but could only guess that their position was on the Reno bank.

Dick Tamplin got hold of a German who told him that there were four 88mmm Anti-aircraft guns on the Reno levee which were positioned to protect the bridge from air attack. Our F Battery of 12th R.H.A. [Royal Horse Artillery] under Major Cecil Middleton, who was riding on a tank with our R.H.Q., now engaged the 88’s with every gun they could muster and must have secured a hit because there was a large explosion from that area.

The 'Tankman'. Sergeant A G Williams of 17/21 Lancers in the turret of his Sherman tank at the main Headquarters of the Eighth Army in the San Angelo area of Italy, April 1944. Sergeant Williams from Woodford Bridge, Essex left England in November 1943, landed in North Africa, and from there was sent to Italy.

The ‘Tankman’. Sergeant A G Williams of 17/21 Lancers in the turret of his Sherman tank at the main Headquarters of the Eighth Army in the San Angelo area of Italy, April 1944. Sergeant Williams from Woodford Bridge, Essex left England in November 1943, landed in North Africa, and from there was sent to Italy.

Trooper Buckle was in a tank of C Squadron’s Headquarters and describes the situation after their arrival in Poggio:

Suspicious movements were reported from the upstairs room of a house quite close to us. Captain Wilson ordered Jack Pole to train his gun on this and put a shell through the window. With great relish, Jack did just this and as the tank rocked slightly from the impact of firing, there, just ahead of us, we saw the front of the room torn out.

Curtains flapped in the gentle breeze and through the jagged masonry and splintered woodwork we saw the bed, the wardrobe and other fittings. It seemed unreal somehow — as though we had suddenly intruded into some family’s private domain. In a way we had of course and when nothing seemed to move in there or indicate any signs of anyone having been there, we felt less elated. Indeed, later, even Jack Pole said he felt guilty of vandalism. But that is war.

Now there was not time to think, for the Germans, having recovered somewhat, began to shell and mortar the place. A bunch of German prisoners who were making their way to a hastily prepared P.O.W. compound, hands above their heads, suddenly disappeared in a wave of smoke and dust as their own shells crashed down among them.

When the air cleared, few got up: those who did, moved more swiftly still, their faces a mask of petrified fear. This was war also. There was no doubt about it, this sudden swoop by a British crack cavalry regiment had taken the enemy completely by surprise!

Transport containing rations and supplies were abandoned in one main street and I remember how surprised we all were to see this supply train. It consisted of carts drawn by horses. Perhaps the Germans were getting short of petrol as had been reported, otherwise why this mode of transport? This wasn’t difficult terrain either.

What impressed me most of all however was the stoicism of the horses. There was no panic, no bolting as machine guns rattled, pouring a steady stream of bullets up that very street. I cannot recall one horse moving — nor one shot, amazingly enough.

These accounts appear in the Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy: A Vital Contribution to Victory in Europe 1943-1945.

Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, supported by Achilles 17pdr tank destroyers, wait to go forward near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.

Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, supported by Achilles 17pdr tank destroyers, wait to go forward near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.

Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers are carried forward on Sherman tanks near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.

Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers are carried forward on Sherman tanks near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.

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