Allies launch the last big offensive in Italy

A casualty is brought back across the River Reno during operations by 'C' Company, 1st London Irish Rifles to establish a bridgehead across the river, 6 April 1945.

A casualty is brought back across the River Reno during operations by ‘C’ Company, 1st London Irish Rifles to establish a bridgehead across the river, 6 April 1945.

The long hard slog up Italy was nearing the end. The Allies were almost out of the mountains, the natural defensive features that had favoured the Germans and hindered progress since 1943. Now they were ready to push north east into the open country beyond Bologna towards the River Po. The US 5th Army would attack on the left the British 8th Army on the right.

Major Ray Ward commanded A Company of 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. ‘It was a big push, one of of the biggest of the war’, although little remembered now by comparison with the other big attacks in northern europe. A Company had the task of seizing the banks of the River Senio before the other companies moved through their positions:

The morning of Monday 9 April 1945 heralded the noisiest day I have ever lived through.

At 1440 hours, four hours and 40 minutes before H-hour, A and D companies pulled back from the positions at the river bank. At 1505, sections from A Company ran forward and threw and fired cortex mats to blow up mines and booby traps on top of the near floodbank, then withdrew 200 metres under covering fire.

All four companies then lay low in their assembly areas, to be clear of the artillery bombardment. Fifteen minutes later, all hell broke loose.

For four hours, the Germans were bombarded by artillery and mortars and bombed and strafed at intervals by hundreds of Allied aircraft. Thousands of fragmentation bombs hit enemy artillery dugouts and reserve areas. Sunset that day illuminated a hellish pall of smoke and dust across the German lines. The noise was thunderous. For the beleaguered Jerries it must have seemed like the end of the world.

Even for the battle-hardened troops on our side, it was an unnerving experience. For the rookies in our battalion it was a terrifying one. Some, not many, had little stomach for it and took a powder. They didn’t get far. They were soon rounded up by MPs to face court martial. To run away and leave your comrades in these circumstances was shameful and unforgivable and they deserved all they got.

Inspecting our assembly area, I was furious to find two young Jocks cowering in their slit trench, clearly too afraid to move. ‘Get out of there! Noise won’t hurt you,’ I yelled. They wouldn’t budge, even when the sergeant major appeared at my side and threatened to shoot them. ‘Miserable bastards. Fuck!’

I’ve no idea what happened to them, whether they caught up later or deserted. I had enough on my plate to bother. I had some sympathy for the poor devils, having seen the effect of bombing and shelling on better men. The Senio was the most frightening introduction to frontline soldiering they could have had. Fortunately their behaviour wasn’t copied by any of the Jocks in A Company, who went forward to the attack resolutely when the time came.

During that frightful commotion — shells whining and aero engines whirring overhead, the crumps of exploding bombs and sporadic return fire – we were compelled to lie huddled in our slit trenches. I made periodic tours of our position, assuming an air of nonchalance I did not feel, to cheer the men up and show them there was nothing to be afraid of.

They thought I was mad, but on that day I didn’t much care what happened to me. If I was killed, as so many others had been in the long campaign, I would have died in a cause most of us believed in.

Nevertheless I was convinced I would survive the war, despite tempting providence by an occasional show of reckless bravado. Luck was everything. Experience seemed irrelevant. Mortar stonks killed two of our men and wounded seven others as they sat waiting for H-hour. CSM Carruthers, one of the battalion’s most seasoned regulars, a veteran of Sidi Barrani where he had won the Military Medal, was shot and killed by a sniper.

‘No one,’ Mac had observed grimly at Faenza, ‘get’s out of the infantry. Just the cowards, and the dead.’

About 10 minutes before we were to go over the top, Churchill tanks drove through our position to shoot up the enemy on the floodbanks. Immediately afterwards, Wasp and Crocodile flamethrowers trundled up to within 25 metres of the near bank. For five minutes, they blazed away at suspected enemy dugouts.

Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank supporting infantry of 2nd New Zealand Division during the assault across the River Senio, 9 April 1945.

Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank supporting infantry of 2nd New Zealand Division during the assault across the River Senio, 9 April 1945.

The banks of the Senio sizzled with flame and the air stank with petrol fumes. Oily black smoke billowed towards us. The armoured vehicles withdrew.

Dozens of fighter-bombers came over, streaking above our heads to strike further terror into the hearts of the enemy. They made several low-level attacks with bombs and cannon, hitting enemy artillery and spandau positions, forward HQ areas and any Jerry foolish enough to move. By this time, the mere sound of aero engines kept enemy heads down.

Then came the final run, a dummy one. Under its cover, the assault companies of the 8th Indian and 2nd New Zealand divisions launched their attack.

At 1920 hours, we sprang from our trenches and sprinted forward through the flames, smoke and fading light. We knew we only had seconds to seize the Senio before Jerry, sheltering in his bunkers, recovered from the bombardment and grabbed his weapons.

Charges designed to blow a hole in the floodbank for us failed to explode, as the leads had been cut by shelling. In the event, that didn’t matter. My men scrambled up and captured the near bank, hurled cortex matting down the reverse slope and flung a kapok bridge across the narrow trench of the river. Within minutes, we were across and up and over the far bank, and secured a bridgehead.

I gave some Jerries a burst from my tommy gun to keep their heads down. I saw one of my men have a miraculous escape. He trod on an S-mine which shot up in front of him and hung in the air, chest high. It failed to explode. The Jock collapsed in a dead faint.

See Ray Ward: The Mirror of Monte Cavallara

A Sexton 25pdr self-propelled gun crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, 10 April 1945.

A Sexton 25pdr self-propelled gun crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, 10 April 1945.

A Churchill tank of the North Irish Horse crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, Italy, 10 April 1945.

A Churchill tank of the North Irish Horse crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, Italy, 10 April 1945.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Foley April 15, 2015 at 7:01 pm

The action in Italy, brutal though it was, kept an entire German Army Group (nearly 400,000 troops) locked down and unable to be moved to the fronts in either northwest Europe or to the defense of Berlin. Nobody knew at the time when the Germans would surrender. It had been clear for many months that they were going to lose, but still they fought ferociously on. And given what the Germans were doing to the local populations, to hold back just when they were on the verge of the breakout into the Po Valley where they had more advantages of maneuver would have been shameful as well as foolish.

Andrew Shakespeare April 9, 2015 at 9:37 am

I’m not one of those people who thinks that Hitler should have been accomodated in the name of not sacrificing lives, but I do find myself asking what the point of this offensive was. It was clear that Germany would collapse within a few weeks, and with that, the German forces in Italy would surrender. They might well have surrendered anyway had Berlin tried to withdraw them to face the Russians. So why this offensive in the Italian peninsula, which was such difficult and costly terrain, and never amounted to much beyond securing the Mediterranean, and displaying unity with the Russians, anyway? It does seem like squandering lives, not just of soldiers on both sides, but of Italian civilians, who had suffered brutally.

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