Chapter 11: The Race to Trieste
I: From the Idice to the Reno River
THE last stage of the campaign in Italy might have taken a different course if General von Vietinghoff had had his way – yet nothing he could have done would have averted the defeat of Army Group C. In his appreciation to the German High Command as early as 14 April he showed that he was fully alive to the situation, but the answer he received to his request for permission to withdraw was typical of Hitler’s uncompromising attitude and total disregard for the facts of the situation. Hitler replied on the 17th through Colonel General Jodl, Chief of the Operational Staff:
‘All commanders of troops and staff officers will be instructed in the following Fuehrer orders: All further proposals for a change in the present war strategy will be discontinued. I wish to point out particularly that under no circumstances must troops or commanders be allowed to waver or to adopt a defeatist attitude as a result of such ideas apparently held in your headquarters. Where any such danger is likely, the sharpest counter-measures must be employed. The Fuehrer expects now as before the utmost steadfastness in the fulfilment of your present mission, to defend every inch of the north Italian areas entrusted to your command. I desire to point out the serious consequences for all those higher commanders, unit commanders or staff officers who do not carry out the Fuehrer’s orders to the last word.
‘I request you inform all military formations under your command to this effect and inform the Plenipotentiary General in Italy of this reply.’1
On 20 April, when it was too late, Vietinghoff sent a message which revealed his intention to act on his own initiative:
‘Resolved by my unshakeable will to hold the Italian front under all circumstances and to carry out your orders to the last, I report to you, my Fuehrer, that as a result of heavy battle losses our forces in the Italian theatre are strained to such an extent that, if we persist in our policy of static defence, an enemy breakthrough at Lake Comacchio, Bologna and La Spezia can in all probability not be prevented despite the heroic resistance and determination of our officers and men. All available forces have been concentrated in the focal point of the battle, and other sectors of the front, not under direct heavy attack, have consequently been denuded to provide reinforcements. Mobile reserves are no longer available. Thus, the enemy threatens to achieve his object, i.e., to split and subsequently to crush the German front. In a mobile strategy, however, I will still see a possibility of preventing this threat from being carried out and of continuing our resistance with a chance of success. Difficult as it is for me, I consider it my duty, my Fuehrer, to send you this report at this hour and to await your orders. ...’2
By committing his last reserves against the right wing of Eighth Army, Vietinghoff had denuded the centre, where Fourteenth Army could not muster sufficient forces to prevent Fifth Army breaking through 14 Panzer Corps and fanning out into the Po valley; and Tenth Army’s efforts to conduct an orderly withdrawal with 1 Parachute Corps were nullified by the collapse of 14 Corps on one flank coinciding with the failure of 76 Panzer Corps to close the Argenta Gap on the other.
After the Poles and Americans entered Bologna the city was placed wholly at Fifth Army’s disposal; the Poles were halted in positions which denied its northern exits to the enemy. Meanwhile, north of the Argenta Gap, 5 Corps deployed its forces to develop two thrusts, one against Ferrara and the crossings of the River Po to the north-east of the town, and the other north-westwards to cut off the retreat of 1 Parachute Corps. While 6 British Armoured Division (which had been in Eighth Army reserve until 18 April) swept along the north bank of the Reno River to Poggio Renatico and severed the enemy’s line of communication between Bologna and Ferrara, 78 and 56 British Infantry Divisions thrust to the
Po di Volano, east of Ferrara and only six miles from the main river, and 28 Garibaldi Brigade of partisans pursued the enemy on the coastal flank.
General Keightley decided that 8 Indian Division should take over the drive on Ferrara and thus release 6 Armoured Division to throw its full weight westwards. This decision was amply rewarded. By the evening of 22 April two brigades of the Indian division were in the outskirts of Ferrara, and next morning one of them reached the River Po at Pontelagoscuro. A column from 6 Armoured Division arrived at Bondeno on the evening of the 22nd and also reached the Po next day; another armoured group, continuing westward, made contact with 6 South African Armoured Division, of Fifth Army, on 23 April.
These ‘lightning advances’ by 6 Armoured Division ‘drove deep into the enemy lines of communication, cutting off the escape of his fighting troops, taking base troops by surprise, and throwing the German forces into a high state of confusion.’3 The threat of encirclement compelled the remnants of 1 Parachute Corps to retire hurriedly to the north-west; many parachutists were captured, but a number escaped and were next heard of on the Adige River, north of the Po. German resistance on Eighth Army’s front west of Ferrara was at an end by midday on 23 April, and east of the town 76 Panzer Corps was making its final desperate stand south of the Po.
Ferrara fell to Eighth Army, Modena (on Route 9 north-west of Bologna) and Spezia (on the west coast) to the Fifth. After an advance of 75 miles in eight and a half days, 10 United States Mountain Division crossed the Po in rubber assault boats just north of San Benedetto at midday on the 23rd and secured the first Allied bridgehead.
General Freyberg told an orders group conference in the morning of 21 April that 5 and 6 Brigades were to continue the advance to the north-west. Led by the armoured cars of 12 Lancers, the Division was going to ‘do a movement like we used to do in the desert except that it will be done on two roads.’4 Two brigade groups were to progress by bounds, with Divisional Headquarters close behind them, followed by the gun group. Communication would have to be by wireless because it would be impossible to keep in touch by line except during the halt at night.
It soon became apparent that the German rearguards had not dropped back very far from the Idice. Probing forward on the ‘red’ route on the right, C Squadron of the Lancers could not go much farther than a mile and a half from the river without coming under fire from self-propelled guns and Nebelwerfers in the vicinity of Cazzano, a small village from which roads radiated and which appeared to be the hinge of a line the enemy was holding along the Scolo la Zena. On the left, however, D Squadron was able to go twice as far along the ‘blue’ route before meeting opposition on this line, about three miles from the Idice.
After A and B Squadrons of 18 Regiment had ‘married up’ with 23 and 28 Battalions between the Idice and the Scolo Fiumicello, 5 Brigade resumed the advance in mid-morning. ‘At first it looked like being another country jaunt. Part of the time the infantry rode on the tanks, at other times the tanks were out in front. There was even a bridge or two left intact over some of the canals. For a mile there was only the odd German or two waiting to be picked up, plus a few Italians raising a thin cheer.
‘Then a sudden fight flared up at Cazzano. ... Here Jerry had planted a little rearguard – as it turned out later, one Tiger tank, one Panther and one self-propelled gun. ... Nos. 7 and 8 Troops [of B Squadron with the Maori Battalion on the right flank] ran head-on into this ambush, carefully camouflaged in the farms round Cazzano. Suddenly the joyride turned to tragedy.’5 Four Sherman tanks were knocked out, one of them in flames. British self-propelled guns6 and the mediums ‘smothered the farm buildings with shellbursts, while a “shufti” [air observation post] plane hovering overhead reported targets back to the guns. ...
‘B Squadron, straight out in front of the enemy in the open, could not do much after losing so many tanks, particularly as its right flank was wide open and more trouble could have come from there at any time. A little later it lost a fifth Sherman when our own artillery landed a “stonk” on top of it – the kind of accident that always resulted in much bitterness.’7 A Squadron also lost a tank to the German self-propelled gun, but being farther to the left had more freedom of movement. A 17-pounder tank hit and set fire to the self-propelled gun, which was hidden in a hedge with a tree attached to its turret.
Despite ‘terrible punishment’8 from fighter-bombers and artillery the rearguard was still at Cazzano at nightfall. It hindered 10 Indian
Division, which crossed the Idice River unopposed but was obliged to halt in the vicinity of the Scolo Fiumicello and thus leave 5 Brigade with an exposed right flank. On the other flank, the only resistance in 6 Brigade’s sector came from isolated spandaus, snipers and mortars, and progress was retarded only by the necessity of conforming with 5 Brigade.
After nightfall, however, 5 Brigade advanced without opposition. While 21 Battalion took up defensive positions on the right, 23 and 28 Battalions crossed the Scolo la Zena about midnight, and saw many signs of the enemy having left in a hurry. At least two bridges were still intact.
The Division had captured 150-odd prisoners during the day, which brought its total since the start of the offensive to nearly 3000. The German force which had been encountered on the Idice River had withdrawn in approximately the same order as it had adopted there: the prisoners had been taken from 4 Parachute Division on the right, 305 Infantry Division in the centre, and 1 Parachute Division on the left.
Next day, 22 April, the Division turned to the north. Still in the lead, the armoured cars of 12 Lancers reported on the state of the bridges, demolitions, and the enemy whenever he was encountered. They entered Castel Maggiore, about four miles north of Bologna, made contact with 91 United States Division of Fifth Army near the Reno River, and cleared pockets of resistance in the vicinity of Minerbio (near Route 64, the Bologna-Ferrara highway).
Fifth Brigade’s leading tanks and infantry had reached Route 64 by 7.15 a.m. The bridge over the Savena, a deep canalised stream alongside the highway, had been demolished, and while the tanks of B Squadron of 18 Regiment were waiting for an Ark tank and bulldozer to prepare a crossing, the Maoris pushed on towards the village of Bentivoglio, on the Canale Navile. ‘There was no resistance and every house had a white sheet hanging from its windows. Odd parties of Germans were picked up here and there but there was no organisation behind them. Civilians offered hospitality which was regretfully declined, though many a haversack was filled with cold chicken and hard-boiled eggs.’9 The bridge over the Canale Navile at Bentivoglio had been destroyed, but partisans erected a plank footbridge, and the battalion ‘took position beyond the canal, scooping up an enemy RAP and directing batches of prisoners, some under escort and some under their own power, back to the
rear. ... The troops waited while the engineers worked on the bridge. Rafters from demolished buildings were carried by the enthusiastic populace and by midday the armour and a number of other vehicles were across.’10
The 23rd Battalion also crossed the Savena and Canale Navile, and rested south of a lateral road which linked Bentivoglio with San Giorgio di Piano, farther west. Both 28 and 23 Battalions resumed the northward advance in the late afternoon. The GOC directed 5 Brigade to get across the Reno River if possible. By this time 6 British Armoured Division had gone so far westward along the north bank of the river that a crossing on the New Zealand Division’s present axis of advance would lead into territory already captured by Eighth Army. On the Division’s left the South Africans of Fifth Army had entered Cento, just across the river.
Although the air observation post advised that there was no sign of the enemy for the next four miles, Lieutenant-Colonel Awatere insisted that 28 Battalion advance on foot and search every building on the way. About 20 enemy fled from a house before the Maoris could close with them. Elsewhere a Wasp flame-thrower assisted the partisans who were fighting ‘a pitched battle’11 with some Germans. By midnight 28 Battalion had reached the Fosso Riolo, about seven miles beyond Bentivoglio and only one mile from the Reno.
After their long march the Maoris ‘were wet to the skin through wading so many canals, and because of the mud in their socks were wearing their boots slung over their shoulders. The danger of meeting any opposition now appeared remote and the men were told to climb aboard tanks, portées, and other unit vehicles. This strange mixture of vehicles, with the tanks leading, swept down to the Reno, where the forward companies dug in on the side of the river. Awatere was anxious to throw a company over so he waded across and examined the empty trenches. Then he yelled in Maori, “There’s no one here. Come over B Company.”‘12 B Company crossed, and later was joined by the other companies. Fifth Brigade instructed 28 Battalion, to stand fast until further orders.
In the late afternoon 23 Battalion, on the left of the 28th, had set off with the leading companies (A and D) mounted on tanks and portées. ‘The speed and distance of the advance [over 20 miles that day] caught the imagination of the men, who knew for certain that the “break-through” proper had begun.’13 D Company, on the left flank, discovered that the small town of San Pietro in
Casale was still held by the enemy, but Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas ordered the battalion to bypass it and trust to its surrender once its occupants knew they were completely cut off by the Allied forces. This move saved casualties. A and D Companies reached the Reno about midnight, and by the time B and C caught up in RMT trucks, reconnaissance had revealed that an immediate crossing would be unopposed. B and C Companies took the lead to cross. Thomas described an early morning visit to the foremost platoons: ‘The men, of course, were bitterly cold, having been wet through wading waist high, but were making the most of things and were very cheerful and willing. Heavens! But they have done wonders during this show, nothing seems too much to ask of them, yet they often have no sleep for days on end.’14
Before dawn on 23 April 5 Brigade was holding a bridgehead over the Reno a little more than a mile wide and nearly a mile deep, with the four companies of 28 Battalion astride the railway between the river and the village of Poggio Renatico, two companies of 23 Battalion on the left of the Maoris, and the other two companies of the 23rd still on the southern bank. Both battalions were fired on by mistake by troops of 6 British Armoured Division, and a man in B Company of the 28th was killed by a patrol from this division. Still in reserve, 21 Battalion was two or three miles south of the river.
Sixth Brigade’s axis of advance crossed the Canale Navile and the Bologna-Ferrara railway before turning north towards San Giorgio di Piano, about 10 miles from Bologna, and followed a bitumen road. The brigade was unopposed as far as San Giorgio, which could have been a German headquarters, for many of the buildings still displayed swastikas. ‘The town was in an uproar – people crowding the streets, throwing flowers, jumping on vehicles, proffering wine – all the exuberance of liberation,’ wrote Major Boord,15 of 24 Battalion. ‘I had no desire to take my trucks in there and have half my men get drunk, so we stayed put till 26 [Battalion] came up and the advance continued.’16 Apparently the Germans had told the people of San Giorgio ‘that the New Zealanders were starving, and amid scenes of terrific enthusiasm wine and bread (the former reported good, the latter stale) were heaped on the tank crews [of 20 Regiment]. ... The partisans were busy and
there were sounds of rifle fire coming from the north of the town. ...’17
Sixth Brigade was held up in the afternoon two miles north of San Giorgio, where A and B Companies of 24 Battalion and A Squadron of 20 Regiment were halted by mortar and machine-gun fire. C Company of 26 Battalion and tanks of C Squadron, which followed 24 Battalion, encountered a strong rearguard on the left flank, where a spirited attempt by a platoon failed to drive the enemy from his well-prepared positions. Brigadier Parkinson ordered 26 Battalion to brush the opposition aside and continue the advance, but agreed to a postponement when Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother advised him that the enemy was firmly in position and there was no sign yet of 9 Brigade, which was reported to be coming up on 6 Brigade’s left.
The 26th Battalion was deployed in positions covering the left flank, and 25 Battalion, when it reached San Giorgio,18 was similarly placed. After nightfall D Company of 24 Battalion went to within about a mile of San Pietro in Casale without opposition, and B Company of the 25th sent a patrol to the Scolo Riolo north-west of San Giorgio without making contact.
Next day (the 23rd) 6 Brigade resumed the advance. The 24th Battalion paused south of San Pietro while the 26th passed through to take the lead, and then followed to Sant’ Alberto. With A and B Companies riding on the tanks and C and D following in trucks, 26 Battalion advanced six miles without a check to reach the Scolo Riolo in mid-morning. After a reconnaissance the leading companies waded across the Reno River, which was only about a foot deep in that part, and deployed about a quarter of a mile beyond the north bank. Contact was made with troops of 6 British Armoured Division. Still protecting the left flank, 25 Battalion19 took up positions between Sant’ Alberto and the river.
Ninth Brigade, which had been resting in the Medicina area since 20 April, set out to rejoin the Division in mid-morning on the 22nd. The journey through Villa Fontana, over the Gaiana, along the Budrio road and beyond the Idice, was very slow and exceedingly dusty, mostly on secondary roads and tracks and through congested traffic. The brigade advanced along the ‘green’ route, a system of roads west of 6 Brigade’s sector and in the bend of the Reno River north of Bologna. A Squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment led on the left with A and D Companies of 22 Battalion in support, and B Squadron on the right with B and C Companies in
support; the infantry was in Kangaroos of C Squadron, 4 Hussars.
In the evening B Squadron encountered the enemy at the Fosso Quadra, a watercourse about two miles north-west of San Giorgio di Piano, and suffered a few casualties from mortar and small-arms fire. That night, also, enemy aircraft (perhaps only one) strafed a mess queue in 22 Battalion, apparently with no worse effect than to induce ‘four or five hundred men [to try] simultaneously to dive under trucks or into shelter of any kind. ... and whole containers of food were upset amid shouts of “Put out those lights! You fools!” It was all over within a minute, and a badly shaken battalion queued up again for what was left of the food.’20 Divisional Cavalry Battalion was less fortunate: several casualties were caused by butterfly bombs dropped by this or another aircraft.
Ninth Brigade’s sector was very quiet after midnight. The advance was resumed at dawn on 23 April and, meeting little or no opposition, the leading tanks and Kangaroos reached the Fosso Riolo, in the bend of the Reno, about midday.
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
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
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.
A and B Squadrons of the Lancers reconnoitred the approaches to the River Po above and below its confluence with the Panaro River, and found the south bank clear. The 21st Battalion, in RMT trucks and with C Squadron of 18 Regiment in support, led 5 Brigade to a concentration area east of Bondeno. The convoy drove ‘across country that was still flat, but with longer intervals between canals. The roads were lined with poplars, and there were occasional plantations of oak and pine trees. In every direction and at every distance the pointed spires of village churches showed above the trees. Clouds of light yellow dust were reminiscent of desert days as the trucks swung through the Italian countryside, lovely in the first spring clothing of lucerne and wheat. Every ditch was gay with yellow buttercups, white daisies and blue
snapdragons, every field fenced with mulberry, poplar, elm, chestnut and oak trees, all supporting grape vines in full leaf. The populace waved to the speeding trucks or crowded around with flowers and wine at the frequent and unpredictable halts.’21
Late in the morning 21 Battalion sent patrols to the River Po, and at midday Second-Lieutenant Carr22 and Corporal Bisley23, 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.
Fifth Brigade’s reserve, 28 Battalion accompanied by B Squadron of 18 Regiment, bivouacked east of Bondeno. Sixth Brigade, led by 25 Battalion and B Squadron of 20 Regiment, was intended to cross the Panaro River at Bondeno and continue northward for about five miles to the Po in the vicinity of Quattrelle, opposite Ficarolo. As the enemy had demolished the bridge over the Panaro, however, it was decided that 25 Battalion should remain on the eastern side of that river. It therefore dispersed in mid-afternoon near the Po between 23 Battalion and the mouth of the Panaro. The 24th and 26 Battalions dispersed south of Bondeno, and 20 Armoured Regiment between the town and the Po. The engineers (8 Field Company), using as piers an uncompleted enemy timber bridge, built a 70-foot Bailey over the Panaro between Bondeno and the Po. A four-man patrol from B Company of 25 Battalion paddled an assault boat to Isola Tontola, but found no trace of the enemy there and could not see him on the far bank of the Po. Men from A and B Companies of 25 Battalion occupied the island before midnight. Meanwhile 9 Brigade crossed the Reno River
and closed up in rear of 6 Brigade south of Bondeno; 43 Gurkha Brigade stayed south of the Reno.
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”.’24
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.’25
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.’26
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 tanks27 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.
Fifth New Zealand Brigade’s assault began at 1.30 a.m. on 25 April under the cover of a hastily arranged artillery programme, the last New Zealand Artillery programme of the war. Four field regiments28 fired a short ‘dragnet’ barrage (similar to the gun attacks which started the Senio offensive) on the north bank of the river between Stienta and Gaiba; the medium guns (other than
the 5.5s, which were without ammunition at that stage) and the heavy guns fired deeper into enemy territory, and the heavy mortars also were used.
Special equipment for the crossing had been brought forward by 7 Field Company.29 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.
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. ...’30
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,31 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.
On the morning of 25 April 5 and 6 Brigades were ordered to push forward as early as possible to secure a bridgehead based on the general line of several canals about two miles north of the River Po. It had been intended that they should then be relieved by 43 Gurkha Brigade and 9 Brigade, but now it was decided
that they should keep going to the Adige River. They met very slight resistance, crossed the canals and continued to the Tartaro River, about midway between the Po and the Adige.
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,32 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.
III: Crossing the Adige River
The Allied armies had crossed the River Po and were about to split the German forces in two. On Fifth Army’s front a rapid advance brought 88 Division of 2 US Corps to the outskirts of Verona, which was in American hands by daybreak on 26 April; 10 Mountain Division of 4 US Corps pressed on between Verona and Lake Garda to close the roads to the Brenner Pass. The plan for the completion of the offensive was for Eighth Army to cross the Adige River and breach the Venetian Line, capture Padua and advance on the port of Trieste in north-east Italy, and for Fifth Army to assist the Eighth in the capture of Padua if necessary, close the escape routes into Germany by way of the Brenner Pass and Corno (west of Lake Garda), and destroy the enemy remaining in north-west Italy.
General Freyberg announced at a conference in the late afternoon of the 25th that the Division would have to face the fact that crossing the Adige River, the second largest in Italy, would be more or less like crossing the Po. ‘You will have to collect up your equipment. ... I think if we don’t stop the enemy won’t be able to fight again.’33 It was decided next morning that 5 and 6 Brigades were to push on to the line of the Adige and ‘try out the form’.34
Early on 26 April 12 Lancers again took the lead and covered the whole divisional front, with C Squadron on the right, B in the centre, and A on the left. B Squadron reached the Adige before midday and found that the main bridge, near Badia Polesine, had been wrecked. The enemy appeared to be holding in strength on the far side, where a Tiger tank and many infantry were reported. East and west of Badia groups of Germans had been cut off south of the river. Bypassing Lendinara – where partisans were fighting fascist republican troops – C Squadron headed towards the Adige two or three miles from Badia. The Italian fascists tried to surround the squadron, which killed or captured many of them and also collected much German equipment, including ordnance dumps, medical supplies, and dozens of vehicles in good running order. Meanwhile A Squadron pushed towards the Badia- Legnago railway, parallel with the Adige, and bypassed large pockets of the enemy. At nightfall this squadron had linked up with Fifth Army troops (91 US Division) who had captured Legnago and forced a crossing of the river.
Fifth New Zealand Brigade resumed the advance at daybreak on the 26th with 21 and 23 Battalions still leading and with C Squad ron of 18 Regiment in support. On the right C and B Companies of 21 Battalion crossed the Canale Bianco downstream from the confluence of the Tartaro River and Fossa Maestra and embussed in RMT trucks which carried them to the vicinity of the Adige about two miles north-east of Badia, where they occupied the near stopbank in the afternoon. On the left B and C Companies of 23 Battalion advanced along roads ‘littered with abandoned German equipment; count of guns overrun was lost; the enemy’s organised resistance in that part of Italy had ended. On the other hand, it was evident that the men of the 23rd were also feeling the strain. ... it was very noticeable that the men were suffering from lack of sleep...’35 Early in the afternoon the battalion reached the stopbank of the Adige north of Badia. B Company was fired on from the far bank, where the enemy appeared to be dug in in some strength, but this did not prevent a patrol from C Company from obtaining information about the approaches to the river. When the patrol was grounded by small-arms fire, Corporal Monaghan36 went on alone until he had learned all he wanted to know.
Sixth Brigade also resumed the advance early on 26 April. The 25th Battalion, in the lead, was supported by the tanks of A and B Squadrons of 20 Regiment which had crossed the Po. The bridges over the Tartaro and Maestra north of Trecenta were still intact,
but craters and trees felled across the road caused delay. The enemy offered resistance near Badia, but after shellfire from 6 Field Regiment was brought to bear, the town was taken without casualties. D and B Companies of 25 Battalion occupied positions on the Adige stopbank astride the road and canal (Naviglio Adigetto) which passed through Badia. Early in the afternoon B and C Companies of 24 Battalion, which had been following the 25th, closed up to the Adige and took over from D Company of the 25th the sector on the right of the road.
The prisoners37 rounded up since the Division crossed the Po were a very mixed bag; they included stragglers from seven divisions, ferry-boat men, a bridging team with five trucks of equipment, veterinary orderlies and army fire-brigade men. A New Zealand NCO, who had been taken prisoner at the Sillaro River and returned from the Germans on 26 April, had witnessed their retreat at first hand. ‘Petrol was so short that each lorry hauled at least three or four others. Tanks and even horses and oxen were hauling MT. There were horse drawn and oxen drawn carts in great numbers, but few guns. ... The enemy ... took to the ditches the moment a plane came over.’ The day after his capture the New Zealander was in a column caught in 25-pounder fire on the road west of the Sillaro. ‘The enemy panicked and ran wildly into the fields or fought to get aboard vehicles which were already packed to overflowing. Those on the vehicles fought savagely to keep the others off. ... It was plain that all the German troops felt the war was utterly lost. ...’38
In the afternoon of 26 April a divisional conference discussed the preparations for the crossing of the Adige, which was 100 to 110 yards wide and too deep to wade. Assault boats, storm boats, DUKWs, Fantails and enough folding-boat equipment for a bridge were available. It was decided that 5 and 6 Brigades should launch an assault crossing at 11 p.m. with the support of the artillery already north of the Po. Later, however, when it appeared that the enemy was withdrawing, Brigadiers Bonifant and Parkinson agreed upon an attack without artillery support to start at 10.30 p.m.
The tanks of 18 Regiment engaged the far stopbank with direct fire, and 5 Brigade crossed in assault craft with 21 Battalion on the right and the 23rd on the left. The leading companies were in the vicinity of a lateral road beyond the river before midnight The 21st Battalion had captured 18 prisoners and much equipment
and had had no casualties; the 23rd had taken 39 prisoners, but had five men wounded when the enemy brought down defensive fire on the south bank. Sixth Brigade crossed unopposed with 24 Battalion on the right and the 25th on the left, and reached its objective about half a mile beyond the river without casualties and without taking prisoners.
Heavy rain during the night added to the work of the engineers preparing approaches to the crossing places. Colonel Hanson told General Freyberg in a telephone conversation at 9.20 p.m. that he thought it would be late next day before the folding-boat bridge would be ready.
The crossing place chosen by 8 Field Company in 6 Brigade’s sector, near where the Naviglio Adigetto joins the Adige, was unsuitable for DUKWs because of large shoals, the fast current and the very steep bank on the far side, but two amphibious tanks got across, and the Fantails ferried carriers and jeeps. In 5 Brigade’s sector 7 Field Company had trouble in launching the DUKWs because of the mud, and decided against the use of amphibious tanks. Two anti-tank guns and two jeeps were ferried to 23 Battalion before dawn.
The construction of the 400-foot Class 9 folding-boat bridge by 6 Field Company was delayed at the outset when the Polish bridging train which was to deliver the materials lost its way to the New Zealand Division. Search parties located it in 6 Armoured Division’s sector. It arrived at the bridge site, less than half a mile downstream from the demolished road bridge between Badia and Masi, at 9 a.m. on the 27th, but 14 trucks were missing until after midday. The bridge was completed early in the afternoon, but was damaged when a bulldozer tried to cross it. It was repaired and opened to traffic about 3 p.m.
The engineers also had trouble with one of their two pontoon rafts. When 8 Field Company had prepared the access to the river in 6 Brigade’s sector and unloaded two pontoons, the rain made it impossible to bring up the rest of the materials. The lorries bogged right down. The sappers returned to camp exhausted and wet to the skin, with the raft still not built at dawn. Then 8 Field Company had to abandon this site because the folding-boat bridge was to be built immediately downstream from it. At an alternative site, upstream from the demolished bridge, bulldozers began preparing the approaches early in the afternoon, and with the help of men from 6 Brigade, the sappers completed the raft at 8.30 p.m.
This raft ferried a bulldozer across to construct the landing stage and outlet on the far bank, but when it made its first trip with a tank on board, one of its motors failed and the other three motors
were not powerful enough to prevent the current sweeping it on to the demolished bridge. The sappers freed the raft and got the tank back on shore by 3 a.m., but as the useless motor could not be replaced, the raft was out of action until after daybreak, when a cable was put across the river and a new offloading stage built. With the aid of the cable the raft was finally ready for traffic about midday on 28 April.
Meanwhile, in mid-morning on the 27th, 7 Field Company began work on a similar raft for 5 Brigade about half a mile downstream from the demolished bridge. This raft, which was operated on cables, was completed early in the evening and began ferrying tanks at the rate of four in the hour. The engineers cut and laid corduroy in the boggy approaches to the river and were assisted by two platoons of Maoris with picks and shovels, which undoubtedly saved much time.
General Freyberg told an orders group conference on the morning of 27 April that the armoured cars of 12 Lancers were to have first priority over the folding-boat bridge when it was completed and were to ‘push out on a very wide front and carry on right up to the VENETIAN LINE. I don’t suppose we will be able to gatecrash it. ... this delay with the bridge may allow the Hun to get troops into the line.’39
The 43rd Gurkha Brigade and 9 Brigade were to take over from 5 and 6 Brigades on the north bank of the Adige and continue the advance. Brigadier Gentry reported that 9 Brigade was completely over the River Po, but Brigadier Barker said the Gurkhas had ‘got hardly anything across the PO except for my Bde HQ. The rain messed up the approaches to the Class 9 [folding-boat] bridge.’40 Ninth Brigade, therefore, was to precede the 43rd over the Adige.
Fifth Brigade held its positions on the north bank of the Adige all day without tank support. Because snipers were giving trouble on 21 Battalion’s open right flank, Major Swanson,41 of B Company, took a patrol of three Wasp flame-throwers and two carriers in the direction of Piacenza d’Adige early in the afternoon and drove the enemy from several strongpoints in houses and drains.
A 6 Brigade ‘flying column’, consisting of the anti-tank officer (Lieutenant Hampton42) and nine infantrymen from 25 Battalion, a forward observation officer (Captain Smythe43) and an NCO from 6 Field Regiment, a six-pounder towed by a jeep, and the two amphibious tanks which had crossed the Adige, was given the tasks of reconnoitring bridges and reporting on the state of the roads to the north and – if the bridges were intact – seeing how far it could go. A bridge over the Scolo Manteo near Minotte, about three miles from the Adige, was still intact but had been prepared for demolition. The patrol removed the detonators and continued a mile or so farther along the road to a house which it captured, together with 13 prisoners, at the cost of one man killed. The patrol next took five prisoners at a road junction a few hundred yards ahead and, coming under scattered small-arms fire, occupied a position alongside the road. It was joined about 6 p.m. by four armoured cars from 12 Lancers, which by that time had three squadrons over the river.
Thus reinforced, the patrol was divided into two groups, one under Smythe of one tank, two armoured cars and three jeeps, and the other under Hampton of one tank, two armoured cars and one jeep. Smythe’s party had not gone far when the tank was bogged and had to be hauled out while an armoured car gave covering fire against German infantry. Hampton’s party turned down a side road to investigate a house, and the jeep, which was reconnoitring ahead, was ambushed by Germans: ‘There seemed to be about 150 of them’44 Corporal Rentoul45 eluded the enemy and made his way back to 25 Battalion; two wounded men were later collected by the Lancers; four, including Hampton, were killed or died of their wounds. The rest of the patrol was recalled.
Meanwhile, in the afternoon of the 27th, 9 Brigade followed the Lancers over the folding-boat bridge and passed through 6 Brigade on the ‘blue’ route. The 27th and Divisional Cavalry Battalions reached the Fiume Fratta (short of the Scolo Manteo), and by midnight the whole of the brigade was north of the Adige. The leading battalion of 43 Brigade passed through 5 Brigade’s bridgehead and followed the more easterly ‘red’ route to the Fiume Fratta.
By this time the number of prisoners taken by the Division exceeded 4000. Because many of those captured on 27 April were parachutists it was thought likely that they might be manning the
Venetian Line on the Division’s front. ‘They were getting better organised. We shall have to prepare for an organised scrap,’46 Cox advised General Freyberg late in the evening. The GOC agreed.
IV: Through the Venetian Line
The Venetian Line, designed to close the 40-mile-wide corridor leading into north-eastern Italy between the Adriatic Sea and the Dolomites which border the Alps, was believed to be the strongest system of prepared defences constructed by the Germans in Italy. From the port of Chioggia, at the southern end of the Venetian Lagoon, the line followed the Canale Gozzone south-westward to the Adige River, ran along the north bank of that river, swung north-westward to the towns of Monselice and Este on the southern slopes of the Euganean hills (Colli Euganei), and continued along the northern wall of the great plain of the Po valley to Lake Garda. In the east the line was protected by floods and swamps, in the west by the formidable hill country; in the centre, where there were no natural obstacles behind the outpost barrier of the Adige, the enemy had spent much time and ingenuity on an elaborate defence system.
Eighth Army’s proposed plan had been for 13 Corps to attack the Euganean hills and 5 Corps or the Polish Corps the centre of the line; these attacks were to have been preceded by two or three daily bombardments of the enemy’s positions by the heavy bombers, and when a breakthrough had been assured, 2 Parachute Brigade was to have been despatched by air to capture the bridges over the Brenta River, just beyond Padua. The battles south of the River Po, however, had created so much disorganisation and inflicted such losses on Army Group C that the enemy was unable to weld together an effective force in time to man his defensive system and stand on the Venetian Line. There was, therefore, no occasion to stage an attack on this line, and no need for the aerial assault which was to have started on 29 April.
In 13 Corps the New Zealand Division, having had first use on 25 April of the folding-boat bridge at the River Po, had advanced rapidly to cross the Adige River in the evening of the 26th. The first troops of 6 Armoured Division to cross the Po were halted during the night of 25–26 April at the Canale Bianca, and the equipment for bridging this watercourse did not arrive until next day. By the evening of the 27th, therefore, 6 Armoured Division had reached but had not crossed the Adige. An attempt to construct a raft did not succeed, but next day a battalion of 61 Infantry
Brigade used the New Zealand bridge near Badia and advanced to Monselice, at the junction of Routes 10 and 16.
Thirteenth Corps was ordered on 28 April to take advantage of the enemy’s disorganisation and get to Trieste as quickly as possible. Because of the problems of supply and transport the corps decided to continue the advance with one division only, and although the New Zealand Division had been in action continuously since the start of the offensive on 9 April, it was chosen because it had four brigades under its command – and no doubt because of the rapid progress it had made.
On the right of 13 Corps, 56 Division of 5 Corps was to exploit east of Route 16 to Stra and then north-eastward along Route 11 to Mestre and Venice; on the left 2 United States Corps, with 91 Division leading, was exploiting north-eastward from Vicenza along Route 53 to Treviso. Thirteenth Corps was to exploit at top speed to Trieste along the axis of Monselice– Padua – Mestre – San Dona di Piave – Portogruaro – Monfalcone. The New Zealand Division, retaining 12 Lancers under command, was to lead this advance; it also was to mop up the corps’ sector west of Route 16 as far as Padua with 43 Brigade (which was then to concentrate in the Padua area and revert to corps command).
General Freyberg had to decide on the morning of 28 April whether to race towards the Venetian Line and try to break through with mobile columns, or whether to shape up to the line and put in a set-piece attack. The Division would have to go alone. In 5 Corps’ sector on the right 56 Division so far had only a small foothold on the north bank of the Adige.
At a planning conference at Divisional Headquarters that morning General Harding, the 13 Corps’commander, announced that his object was to ‘gatecrash’ the Venetian Line as soon as possible. Freyberg said it depended on the enemy: ‘If he is in strength we shall have to decide whether we can get sufficient forces forward to attack.’47 Harding replied that 13 Corps Intelligence believed that 1 Parachute Division was the only reasonably organised formation opposite. When Freyberg pointed out that the Division’s Adige bridge ‘is barely sufficient for our own use’, Harding promised to ‘get one and possibly two Class 40 bridges across. The NZ Division is the only formation in a position to gatecrash the line so far as 13 Corps is concerned and top priority must go to you as regards the bridges.’48 Freyberg then drew attention to the fact that a
battalion of 61 Infantry Brigade had caused some trouble at the Adige by using the New Zealand bridge during the night, and also that 43 Gurkha Brigade and Rear Divisional Headquarters had been held up at the crossing of the Po. He asked 13 Corps to go into the question of whether less urgently needed troops than the Gurkhas should be allowed to cross the Po ahead of them. He also wanted the Division to be allowed to control its own bridge and ferry across the Adige.
Part of 4 Armoured Brigade was still on the south bank of the Po. ‘Feeling cheated, the tank crews ... [had] watched their infantry cross in their assault boats while they waited their turn at the ferry or filled in time while the engineers built a pontoon bridge.’49 On 27 April C and A Squadrons of 18 Regiment and half each of A and B Squadrons of 20 Regiment had been ferried over the river; of the armour still on the south bank, a squadron each of 19 Regiment and 2 Royal Tanks, which were to support 9 and 43 Brigades respectively, were to have priority.
Because of the congestion of traffic and the slow progress of wheeled convoys on the roads, C Squadron of 19 Regiment drove across country to the ferry, which by 7 p.m. on the 27th had carried five of its tanks over the river. All work then ceased on the ferry, so Lieutenant-Colonel Everist50 sought permission to use the pontoon bridge, which had just been opened to traffic. He was told that until additional decking was available, Corps’ orders were that only wheeled vehicles were to use the bridge. All tank movement across the river was suspended indefinitely when the bridge was wrecked in the centre by an explosion, apparently caused by a mine floating downstream,51 and the ferry was requisitioned to repair the damage.
Permission was granted for C Squadron of 19 Regiment to use the pontoon bridge in the afternoon of 29 April, and the whole of this regiment was across next day. The rest of the New Zealand tanks followed, but the last did not reach the north bank until 1 May. Thus it took 4 Armoured Brigade a week to complete the crossing of the River Po.
The armoured cars of 12 Lancers made spectacular advances on 28 April and by nightfall had penetrated the Venetian Line: D Squadron reached Este and Monselice and later pushed on to Padua; A Squadron made contact with 6 South African Armoured Division of Fifth Army at Montagnana, west of Este.
Ninth Brigade had passed through 6 Brigade north of the Adige River in the evening of the 27th and reached the Fiume Fratta. A patrol from 27 Battalion went some distance beyond this stream towards San Vitale before dawn on the 28th without meeting the enemy. Two companies (2 and 4) followed on foot, but a large demolition blocked the passage of the tanks and wheeled vehicles, which compelled the remainder of the brigade to take an alternative route farther west. Divisional Cavalry Battalion in RMT trucks, with C Squadron in the lead and supported by tanks from 20 Regiment, made a non-stop run along the road from Masi past Castelbaldo to Casale di Scodosia and then eastward to Ospedaletto, on Route 10 between Este and Montagnana.
‘The previous evening had been miserable. Everybody in the leading squadrons had got wet to the skin clambering through one canal after another, and now, with the rain coming down, had to dig in and suffer a wet night. ... At Ospedaletto both A and C Squadrons had to dismount and fight quite a little battle, for the enemy there had taken to using faustpatronen against the tanks as well as machine guns.’52 The infantry and tanks cleared the enemy from some houses and took about 50 prisoners.
The companies of 27 Battalion which followed Divisional Cavalry Battalion on this route found 2 Company already at San Vitale, where the New Zealanders were given a tumultuous welcome. ‘Rain poured down again while we were there, but all the civilians were out in the streets rejoicing and the band was playing some Italian marches.’53
Meanwhile news of momentous events elsewhere reached the Division. ‘At one o’clock I turned on the wireless for the B.B.C. news. The Russian and American forces had linked up in Germany. The partisans in Milan were rumoured to have captured Mussolini. General Dittmar, the German military spokesman, had surrendered and described the situation as hopeless. Then the telephone rang. ... the G. 2 “I” of 13th Corps was on the line. “The Yanks say they are through the Venetian Line and north of Vicenza.” I started across to the General with this news, when the phone went again. It was the artillery I.O. “The air op. reports that the Este bridge is intact and that the armoured cars of the 12th Lancers are almost on it.”
‘This time I sprinted across to the General’s caravan. He was already in his jeep, with his A.D.C. climbing in the back holding the General’s revolver belt and steel helmet. He had the news
direct from the C.R.A. “I’m off to Este,” he said. “Whips out”‘54
Before he left Divisional Headquarters the GOC had a telephone conversation with General Harding, whom he told: ‘We have Gentry [9 Brigade] stamping up there hard and I have directed 12 L [ancers] to concentrate at ESTE and push through to PADUA. Gentry will go after them and we shall follow afterwards with our HQ.’55 The Division was to manage with the one bridge at the Adige. The GOC intended to get four brigades completely mobile and ready to go when called upon; he would try to get two field regiments and two brigade groups into Padua ‘and then we shall consider further’. The corps commander wanted no more than a squadron to be diverted to Venice; he felt strongly that ‘the place we want to get most of all is TRIESTE’.Freyberg answered, ‘Well, we will direct them on to TRIESTE – we can get there in a day!’56 Harding also wanted only a small force of 6 Armoured Division to go beyond the Adige, and it was to stop at Padua ‘because we cannot give you both petrol’.57
From Este 9 Infantry Brigade, still led by Divisional Cavalry Battalion and B Squadron of 20 Regiment, drove eastward along Route 10 to Monselice and then north-eastward along Route 16 towards Padua. ‘In village after village the crowds had increased, lining the streets to shout “Adios – Viva”, and a new word we had not heard before. It sounded like “Chow”, was written, we discovered “Ciao”, and meant a mixture, so far as we could see, of “Hurrah – Good luck – and Good-bye.” Girls threw us flowers hastily gathered from the fields, and white elder blossom torn from the roadside trees. In one village I asked when the Germans had left. “leri Sera – last night,” and they had left “molti morti.” What, dead Germans? No, “molti morti Italiani.” The parachutists had wanted bicycles, and had shot down half the men of the village in seizing them. ...’58
At Battaglia, on Route 16, the leading tank ran into a road block and was hit by a bazooka, which did negligible damage. The way was cleared by 7 p.m. and the column sped, sometimes at up to 20 miles an hour, towards Padua, which it reached about three hours later. Armoured cars of B Squadron, 12 Lancers, which had passed through the leading troops of 6 Armoured Division at Monselice, had been the first to enter the city.
On the way 9 Brigade overtook a German column. The enemy, with horse-drawn transport and estimated to be 300 strong, ‘wisely enough, made no attempt to interfere with the [New Zealand] tanks’ passage north. “We did not shoot and neither did they and we drove past them as they plodded along,” says one troop commander. “I will always remember a very excited infantryman who was riding on the back of my tank, hammering me on the back and pointing at the waggons moving along beside us and shouting, ‘Those are Jerries!’”59
Among the Germans who blundered into the Division was a colonel who was commanding the remnants of 362 Infantry Division. He showed the New Zealand Intelligence staff the line he had been ordered to take up with his troops. He was escorted with his marked map to Headquarters 9 Brigade, where General Freyberg was with Brigadier Gentry. Already the New Zealanders were across the very branch of the canal where the captured colonel was to have taken his stand.
At Padua 20 Regiment’s tanks entered a large square and took up positions covering the autostrada which ran straight to Mestre. As soon as the Italians had identified the New Zealanders, ‘Windows were thrown open noisily in every direction, “women were running around in their nighties”, partisans fired their weapons, and shouts of greeting and cheers came from all sides.’60 The whole of 9 Brigade entered the city in the next few hours, and Divisional Cavalry Battalion and 27 Battalion went through to the north-eastern side.
The partisans had gained control of Padua on the morning of 27 April and held 5000 German prisoners, including the former commanding officer of the Ferrara area, General von Alten. They also declared that Venice was under partisan control. In fact, from that stage onwards the partisans were in control of most of the towns along the Division’s axis of advance, although many pockets of enemy had not yet surrendered. The large number of prisoners was an embarrassment to 9 Brigade, which could not spare sufficient men to guard them, so they were handed over to the partisans until they could be collected by the following brigades.
The 43rd Gurkha Brigade had completed the relief of 5 Brigade north of the Adige River. It met no opposition on the Piacenza- Este road, but was much delayed by demolitions. After clearing the enemy from the area west of Route 16 as far as Padua, it passed to the command of 13 Corps on the 29th. In the next day or two the number of prisoners held by the Gurkhas, including groups brought in by the partisans, grew prodigiously.
Shortly after 3 a.m. on 29 April Brigadier Gentry ordered 27 Battalion to capture intact the two bridges over the Brenta River, about four miles from Padua. The more northerly of these bridges was at the small village of Ponte di Brenta, where Route 11 crosses the river; the other was on the autostrada, which leaves Route 11 just east of Padua, passes over that highway on the far side of the river about half a mile downstream from Ponte di Brenta and continues straight to Mestre, where it rejoins the winding Route 11. The enemy had damaged the bridge where the autostrada crosses the Brenta sufficiently to prevent vehicles using it. After motoring to within a few hundred yards of the bridge, 1 Company of 27 Battalion advanced on foot with a troop of A Squadron, 20 Regiment in support. The Germans showed little inclination to fight, and after some brief exchanges of small-arms fire about 200 surrendered.
The bridge at Ponte di Brenta was still intact but was held by German armoured cars, two 105-millimetre guns on the north bank and a screen of machine-gunners and infantry on the south bank. Before entering the village some men of 3 Company, 27 Battalion, left their trucks to ride on the tanks of Lieutenant Sisam’s61 troop of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, which dashed straight to the bridge and cut off the retreat of two companies of Germans and two or three armoured cars. The infantry jumped off the tanks right in the middle of the enemy and rounded up many of them before they recovered from their surprise. The tanks knocked out an armoured car and a 105-millimetre gun, and the infantry crossed the bridge and seized ground on the far bank. Further shooting by the tanks helped to put an end to resistance. Altogether about 230 prisoners, both 105-millimetre guns and several vehicles were captured.
Later 27 Battalion collected a further 200 prisoners. Two German officers who surrendered asked if they could return to their battalion and persuade their men to give themselves up. A platoon from 2 Company took these men into custody and continued down the Brenta River as far as Stra without finding any more.
The bold, swift action at Ponte di Brenta had saved the bridge for the Division. Orders were issued to continue the advance from Padua along the autostrada to Mestre and then along Route 14 to the Piave River. The armoured cars of 12 Lancers were to reconnoitre on each flank and advance at top speed to secure
the bridge intact over the Piave. Ninth Brigade was to detach a small force to capture Venice, 20-odd miles from Padua. Sixth Brigade, with C Squadron of 18 Regiment under command, was to replace 43 Gurkha Brigade in the order of march, which then was 12 Lancers, the GOC’s tactical headquarters, 9 Brigade, Main Divisional Headquarters, the engineers, 6 Brigade, the gun group, and 5 Brigade.
B Squadron of 12 Lancers drove on to the autostrada, met and quickly dispersed a few scattered pockets of enemy, turned off along the causeway from Mestre into Venice, where it was the first Allied unit to arrive, and later pushed on towards the Piave River. C Squadron followed B into Venice. A Squadron cleared the ground north of the autostrada, where it captured a column of 600 infantry, six guns, vehicles and horses; on the other flank D Squadron guarded the south-eastern approaches to Padua and the autostrada. It was impossible to obtain an accurate count of the Germans who fell into the Lancers’ hands during the day, but the regiment’s estimate was between 1150 and 1200.
Delay was caused at the start of 9 Brigade’s advance from Padua by reports of enemy columns approaching from the south and south-east. About 9 a.m., when a message was received that remnants of 26 Panzer Division62 were moving towards Padua along the road from the south-east, 4 Field Regiment sited guns of 46 Battery in an anti-tank role, and the rest of the regiment went into action on the road. The 25-pounders were continually in action for about an hour and knocked out three tanks, which ended any threat there might have been to Padua. The New Zealanders did
not escape casualties. A premature explosion in front of the barrel of one of the 25-pounders killed a man and wounded three others who were cutting down trees which affected the field of fire. Some enemy shells fell in Padua, and one which landed in the square wounded the commanding officer (Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Williams) and the Padre (the Very Rev. A K. Warren63) of Divisional Cavalry Battalion, mortally wounded a provost sergeant, and killed another man. Major Tanner64 assumed command of the battalion. When one of 4 Field Regiment’s vehicles was strafed by Allied aircraft (‘two Thunderbolts – markings unknown’65), an officer was killed and two men were wounded.
Preceded by the Lancers’ armoured cars, 27 Battalion and B Squadron of 20 Regiment crossed the captured bridge at Ponte di Brenta and with some difficulty got on to the autostrada, which ran above the surrounding country on a high embankment (through a tunnel in which passed Route 11). The battalion went as fast as the tanks could go. From Mestre the causeway led south-eastward to Venice, Route 13 northward to Treviso, and Route 14 north-eastward to the Piave River. The 27th Battalion took Route 14, and by 3 p.m. had reached Portegrandi, on the Sile River, about half-way to the Piave. So far the 27th had been unopposed, but the following Divisional Cavalry Battalion and 22 Battalion met several groups of enemy, who surrendered willingly enough after the tanks accompanying the infantry had fired a few rounds. One small German column actually passed through a tunnel under the autostrada while 9 Brigade was speeding along it.
Near the Sile River one of the tanks accompanying 27 Battalion opened fire on an object which resembled a tank with a camouflaged superstructure but was in fact a German-manned motor launch moving along a nearby canal. ‘The third shell landed on the deck creating horrible havoc among the Teds aboard. Immediately a white flag was raised and shortly afterwards more appeared all along the stopbank of the canal. Other tanks along our column were firing now, and before they could be stopped they dropped a few shells among the surrendering Jerries. ... 1 Coy was sent off to round up the prisoners. ... The Jerries were Kriegsmarinen of a coast watching unit and were wonderfully equipped.’66 About 200 surrendered. Although damaged, the launches were not holed.
A mile or two short of the Piave River (which was 23 miles from Mestre) the road forked: Route 14 turned eastward to
Musile di Piave and San Dona di Piave, and the other road continued north-eastward to Fossalta di Piave. Directed to Musile, 4 Company of 27 Battalion found the village unoccupied by either civilians or enemy. The bridge over the Piave between Musile and San Dona was down, and according to some Italians a ferry service had been operating since Allied bombers wrecked it in September, five months earlier. Partisans informed 2 Company that there were Germans in Fossalta who might surrender. Eventually 300 or 400 were taken prisoner there.
The 27th Battalion concentrated at Musile. From 7 p.m. onwards it continually received reports from the partisans about a German force not less than 2000 strong between the village and the coast. This was described as mainly a coastal defence unit with a number of 88-millimetre guns and many light anti-aircraft guns. At 8.15 p.m. the partisans said the enemy was filtering towards Musile and had occupied Chiesanuova, a small village on the Piave Vecchia about two miles from Musile. Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders despatched 3 Company to the Piave Vecchia to warn of an enemy crossing, but the company did not make contact and was withdrawn at midnight.
That night 22 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry Battalion also reached the Piave River. C Company of the 22nd was ferried across to San Dona di Piave, rounded up some 60 prisoners and handed them over to the partisans.
There is no record of how many prisoners were taken by the Division on 28 and 29 April, but the majority of them seem to have come from coastwatching and other non-divisional units. A deserter from 1 Parachute Corps stated that the parachutists had been told to make for Verona after retreating across the River Po. but had been prevented from doing this by the speed of the American advance and consequently had been directed on the Euganean hills and Vicenza, with the intention of holding the Venetian Line in these hills and along the lower Adige River. The American thrust to Vicenza, however, had outflanked this part of the line. The Germans had begun a general withdrawal towards the Alps when the New Zealand Division reached Padua.
From Mestre 9 Brigade despatched to Venice a small force of armoured cars from 12 Lancers,67 a troop of tanks from A Squadron of 20 Regiment, and B Company of 22 Battalion, under the
command of Colonel J. I. Thodey. This force was met by a guide from the Lancers at the turn-off to the causeway, and entered the city about 4p.m. on the 29th. Thodey had orders to hold the Albergo Danieli, reputed to be the best hotel in Venice, which General Freyberg intended to be used as a New Zealand forces club.
The tanks were parked by the railway station at the end of the causeway, and the force assembled in an open space nearby while officers guided by partisans reconnoitred the city. The Venetians gave the New Zealanders a tumultuous welcome; they embraced and kissed them, and made lavish gifts of wines, liqueurs and spirits. It was decided that 10 and 12 Platoons of B Company should occupy the Albergo Santa Chiara, near the assembly area, while 11 Platoon and Company Headquarters went by motor barge and launch through the Grand Canal to the Albergo Danieli. The partisans gave information about the location of German troops, and delivered prisoners to a large garage, where 2730 were collected. Next day the officer commanding B Company (Major Spicer68) and eight men went in a commandeered ferry boat to the Lido, the long, narrow island between Venice and the open sea, to demand the surrender of the garrison there, and brought back six officers and 350 other ranks without trouble. Similar excursions to the islands of Murano and Burano, in the lagoon north of Venice, produced no enemy.
The first troops of 56 Division arrived at Venice about four hours after Thodey Force. Next day (the 30th) 169 Brigade ‘formed up and marched impressively to San Marco Square. Several Thodey Force men, on the sideline, ironically hailed the “liberators”.’69 B Company transferred 12 Platoon to the Albergo Danieli, and the New Zealanders refused all requests by representatives of the Allied Military Government and by 56 Division that they should relinquish the hotel.
‘General Freyberg was always anxious to have good leave centres for his men, maintaining, “You can’t treat a man like a butler and expect him to fight like a gladiator.” Denying the story that he spent his honeymoon at the Danieli in Venice, but saying that he had visited the hotel in the late ‘twenties and ‘thirties, the General writes (2 July 1955): “We were allotted the Excelsior Hotel, as a Club [in Rome] and when we arrived there we found Americans with a mounted Guard, who told us to buzz off, and they occupied the hotel themselves for a Club. When we were going up on the way to Trieste, we heard that the Americans were coming
up the road, and on their lorries had placards with Danieli Hotel. We were not going to have a repetition of what had happened in Rome, and I sent a Company of the 22 Battalion to occupy the Danieli Hotel, and made Colonel Thodey personally responsible to me that he kept the Americans out.”
‘The most prominent citizens of Venice, including Italian admirals and generals, generously entertained the New Zealanders at their new club. Soldiers quizzically heard how Venetians always had been patriotic to Italy, not mere supporters of Mussolini. Some maintained they had suffered much; others obviously were war profiteers.’70
The Division’s senior Intelligence officer, Major Cox, obtained much valuable information on 30 April from a group of Italians who had been organised originally by the American Office of Strategic Services and had set up their headquarters in the Danieli. They ‘spent hour after hour collecting information by telephone from behind the German lines. For the Germans in their haste had failed to cut the telephone system. So we phoned to village after village up and down the rivers in our path – the Tagliamento, the Livenza, the Isonzo – finding out which bridges still stood and which were blown. We worked out which areas the partisans held and where the Germans were still strong. We even got through to the C.L.N.71 at Trieste, but before we could do more than identify ourselves the phone went dead.’72
V: Along Route 14
The ease with which the New Zealand Division had passed through the Venetian Line demonstrated how catastrophic had been the enemy’s defeat in the Po valley. It was obvious by 30 April that the Germans had decided to abandon Italy. They no longer had sufficient cohesion to fight delaying actions on the Piave, Tagliamento and Isonzo river lines, which had been contested in the First World War. Disorganised groups of the enemy were trying to make their way north with little transport and practically no communications, and apparently without any plan or central direction. Preference was given to the remnants of the best divisions – 26 Panzer, 29 Panzer Grenadier, and 1 and 4 Para- chute – in the use of the vehicles and the stocks of petrol still available, and these formations were making their way as best they
could towards the Alps with the object of continuing the battle in Austria and southern Germany. The enemy’s headlong retreat was harassed not only from the rear; his columns were attacked from the air almost continuously during daylight, and were exposed to the guerilla tactics of the partisans at night.
The objectives of Fifteenth Army Group now took on a more political complexion: a rapid and orderly occupation of north-east Italy was the only way to forestall the troubles which might spring from the unrestrained assumption of power by groups of partisans. The probability of international disagreement over the fate of the port of Trieste and the province of Venezia Giulia, where Italy and Yugoslavia confronted one another, demanded that the Allied forces should enter this territory as soon as possible; it was also essential that they should anticipate rival claimants who were approaching the prescribed British and American zones of Austria.
The original Allied plan for the occupation of northern Italy had made Eighth Army responsible for the whole of the north-eastern portion, but this had become too formidable an assignment for the number of troops it could maintain in this region. It was agreed, therefore, that the boundary between Fifth and Eighth Armies should extend northward along the road from Treviso to Ponte nell’ Alpi, which left Eighth Army with the Venetian littoral, through which Route 14 led to Trieste and Route 13 to Udine, farther inland.
The growing burden of maintaining the momentum of the advance as the lines of communication lengthened restricted Eighth Army’s pursuit force to two divisions. With the exception of the troops of 56 Division sent to occupy Venice, 5 Corps was halted on the line of the Brenta River, while 13 Corps (with 6 Armoured Division, 2 New Zealand Division, 43 Gurkha Brigade and some armoured units) undertook the tasks of occupying Trieste without delay and cutting off the retreating Germans.
The 6th Armoured Division was to prevent as many as possible of the enemy withdrawing into the Alps. A force which included 61 Brigade, after making contact with 91 US Division at Treviso on 30 April, was divided into two mobile groups of infantry and tanks. One column went along the road to Ponte nell’ Alpi, crossed the inter-army boundary, and accepted the surrender of a force of German parachutists at Belluna on 1 May; the other column drove along Route 13 to Udine, already in the hands of the partisans, and north of the town had a skirmish with a pro-German Cossack force which retired into the mountains.
The New Zealand Division was to continue its advance along Route 14 around the north coast of the Adriatic to Trieste. General Freyberg explained at a conference at Headquarters 9 Brigade on the morning of 30 April that the object was to open the port as a naval base and also as a base for the Allied forces advancing into Austria, but ‘there was a somewhat awkward situation’73 because Marshal Tito wanted his Yugoslav army to get to Trieste.
Below San Dona di Piave, the limit of the Division’s advance on 29 April, the Piave River flows in two divergent channels: Porto di Cortellazzo, where the wider and straighter course reaches the Adriatic Sea, is nine miles from Porto di Piave Vecchia, the mouth of the more southerly course which winds along the fringe of the Venetian Lagoon. German troops withdrawing between Route 14 and the sea were cornered in the pocket between these two branches of the river. They were known to be armed with coast-defence and anti-aircraft artillery.
While the leading New Zealand troops and vehicles were being ferried across the Piave River, 27 Battalion engaged the trapped enemy. Early on the morning of the 30th partisans reported that a German force was approaching on the road leading to Musile di Piave from the south. To meet this threat 2 Company was despatched down this road, and after a brief fight captured about 100 men and some vehicles loaded with ammunition, rations and other equipment.
About 7.30 a.m. 1 and 4 Companies, supported by tanks of B Squadron of 20 Regiment, were directed to clear the ground between the two branches of the Piave. Guided by partisans, 1 Company followed the more northerly course and by midday had cleared two villages, but while approaching a lateral road six miles downstream from Musile, was shelled by some 88-millimetre guns and came under small-arms fire which pinned down the infantry. The troop commander (Second-Lieutenant McLay74) went ahead in his own tank, silenced two spandau posts and a bazooka team and, engaging the 88s behind a house, knocked out two and drove the crews from two more. The infantry closed in, killed or wounded about 60 Germans, and overran the battery. The company’s casualties were only one killed and seven wounded.
Meanwhile 4 Company’s advance was hindered by stubborn resistance from the enemy occupying houses alongside the Piave Vecchia.
The accompanying tanks did so much shooting against these houses, as well as on launches and barges, that they expended most of their ammunition. In the afternoon 3 Company was directed to mop up in the gap between 1 and 4 Companies, but met only stragglers and deserters. At nightfall 9 Brigade ordered 27 Battalion to withdraw to Musile at 9p.m. and be ready to resume the advance on Route 14 next day. The battalion, therefore, ordered all three companies to return.
By this time, however, 4 Company was being counter-attacked by a strong German force using anti-aircraft guns and rocket projectors. Unable to support the infantry because of the lack of ammunition, the tanks retired out of bazooka range. The company occupied some disused enemy positions in a bend of the Piave Vecchia about four miles from Musile, but was in danger of being outflanked on the left and called for artillery support. At that stage – about 7 p.m. – the 25-pounders were returning to Musile along the stopbank of the other branch of the river, three miles to the north-east. At first, because the shells came from this direction, the forward observation officer did not realise they were from his own guns. With this protection, however, 4 Company withdrew to the junction of the Piave Vecchia and the Taglio del Sile (a ditch along the northern edge of the Venetian Lagoon), where there was a bridge. The company embussed in RMT trucks and returned by road to Musile, where the whole battalion was concentrated before 11 p.m.
The enemy south of San Dona di Piave had been foiled temporarily in his attempt to break out to the north, and was still in large numbers on the seaward side of Route 14. His resistance had been stiffened by the influx of Germans retreating from Venice.
While 27 Battalion was thus engaged on 30 April, other troops of 9 Brigade were ferried across the Piave River. First of all D Squadron of 12 Lancers passed through the bridgehead which C Company of 22 Battalion had secured at San Dona the previous night, and went ahead on Route 14. Meeting only slight resistance, the armoured cars took 350 prisoners, destroyed some vehicles, crossed the Livenza River, and in the evening of the 30th were between the town of Portogruaro and the Tagliamento River.
Except for C Company at San Dona and B Company in Venice, 22 Battalion had spent the night in the vicinity of Musile. In the morning Battalion Headquarters and A and D Companies went about four miles upstream to Fossalta di Piave, where they were ferried across, and early in the afternoon the battalion (still without
B Company) assembled east of the river. It was followed by Divisional Cavalry Battalion, which completed the crossing in the evening. The tanks of A Squadron of 20 Regiment went about eight miles upstream to a ford which had been found at Ponte di Piave, near the Treviso – San Vito railway.
The engineers’ last major bridging work was at the Piave River. Near the demolished bridge between Musile and San Dona, 6 Field Company constructed a 300-foot folding-boat bridge, which was open to traffic in the evening, and about a quarter of a mile downstream 8 Field Company salvaged and strengthened four Italian barges to use as floating piers for a Bailey bridge, which was ready to carry heavier transport next day.
Meanwhile 5 Brigade, having halted in the vicinity of the crossing of the Sile River, sent out parties to round up the enemy in the surrounding countryside, while 6 Brigade, nearer Mestre, permitted a proportion of each battalion to take leave in Venice. The area allotted to 23 Battalion for mopping-up was to a depth of five or six miles north of Route 14. Each company, employing an officer and about 10 men with a tank and one or two carriers, had completed the task by evening. C and D Companies of 28 Battalion, accompanied by mortars, carriers and flame-throwers, found no enemy in the rectangular piece of ground south of the Sile River between Route 14 and the Venetian Lagoon, but 10 Platoon of 21 Battalion, despatched with a few tanks and carriers from the Sile towards the Piave Vecchia on the seaward side of the highway, cleared several small pockets of enemy and took 31 prisoners, and learnt from 27 Battalion that the enemy in that locality was about 1500 strong. The 21st Battalion was told that it was to take over from the 27th next morning the task of clearing the Division’s right flank.
The 5th Field Park Company had intended to laager for the night near Mestre, but because it had so many vehicles – between 200 and 300, which included the attached RASC and Polish transport carrying bridge-building material – decided to move closer to the Piave River, where the bridge-building had begun, and stopped on Route 14 near where a road branches northward to Meolo and Monastier. Some of the trucks were unloaded and ready to return to Padua at dawn for more material, and some were dispersed in the fields south of the highway. The engineers’ overnight camp, therefore, was exposed on the seaward side where 27 and 21 Battalions had found the enemy in such strength.
About 2 a.m. pickets on the road saw a column approaching, but did not open fire because they thought it might be just another group of prisoners. The column, which was German, had gone up
a road towards the Piave from the south and then turned south-westward down Route 14, apparently with the intention of crossing the Canale Fossetta by a bridge on the road to Meolo. The Germans opened fire on the engineers’ transport and camp with faustpatronen and 20-millimetre anti-aircraft guns mounted on bullock wagons, and some of them infiltrated through the fields and attacked the engineers in the rear.
A convoy of a platoon of 7 Field Company, coming along Route 14 from the opposite direction, was ambushed. Men were asleep in their vehicles when the enemy opened fire, but most of them jumped out to take cover in a ditch, behind a bank, or in nearby buildings; several were taken prisoner, and three who stayed in a truck were burnt to death when a German threw a hand grenade into it. The enemy set fire to the trucks he could not use and drove off in all those he could start in the direction of Meolo, with the intention of crossing the Piave upstream from San Dona and joining the other Germans in the hills.
The disturbance had wakened a platoon of 1 Ammunition Company which had halted near 5 Field Park Company. The drivers prepared to defend themselves. ‘In the farmyard a quarter of a mile away transport and haystacks were on fire and there was a lot of noise and shouting. Tracers and explosive bullets from bredas, spandaus, and sub-machine guns whistled overhead, and beside these the enemy was using mortars, panzerfaust, and 20-millimetre guns. A continual confused shouting in German, Italian, and English made a worry of sound, like a dog-fight, but the drivers could catch a word here and there: “Avanti!” “Raus.” “Hey Bill!” “Raus!”
‘Rain fell steadily all the time. ... Flame-lit cameos, glimpsed momentarily, appeared and vanished: a figure stooping to pour petrol on and around the YMCA van; two bewildered Germans and a blue flash from a tommy gun; a group of soldiers who seemed to be wrestling among the flames.’75 Captain Williams76 decided that his platoon should take part; he divided his drivers into two groups, one to defend the transport and the other to go to the farmyard. Except for a few stragglers, however, the enemy had gone before the Ammunition Company men arrived on the scene.
The raiders had taken or destroyed about 23 of the engineers’ vehicles, and killed eight men, wounded 19, and captured about 40 (some of whom were wounded). Hindered by their ox-drawn carts and their own dead and wounded, however, they failed to get very far from the scene of the attack. The column was fired on by
partisans at Monastier, and took about three-quarters of an hour to get through this village. But two Stuart tanks from 18 Armoured Regiment’s reconnaissance troop which endeavoured to release the New Zealand prisoners were knocked out by bazooka fire; three of the tank men were killed and five wounded.
Warned by the partisans that a large German force with prisoners was in the neighbourhood, Captain Stewart77 (the transport officer) and two others from Rear Headquarters 9 Brigade in a jeep, followed by Captain Wilson78 and a few men from Headquarters Company of 27 Battalion in a 15-cwt truck, left Musile to investigate. Stewart and his companions stopped their jeep about 150 yards from the enemy, went forward on foot and unarmed, and demanded to see the German commanding officer. Stewart said he had tanks at his command, although there was none in the vicinity, and called on the enemy to surrender. This the German at first refused to consider; he proposed instead to release the New Zealand prisoners with their equipment in return for a safe passage over the Piave River. Stewart continued to bluff, and after some further argument the German consulted his fellow officers and agreed to surrender. The men from Brigade Headquarters and 27 Battalion began to disarm and shepherd the enemy into a nearby field.
The 21st Battalion had been advised at 3.30 a.m. that a large German force had attacked 5 Field Park Company while attempting to escape inland. When A and D Companies, with tank support, reached 5 Field Park Company’s bivouac area about half an hour later, the enemy had gone. While these two companies proceeded to relieve 27 Battalion, B and C Companies, supported by half of A Squadron of 18 Regiment, set off at 7.30 a.m. to pursue the enemy. Eventually, in the vicinity of Monastier, Lieutenant-Colonel McPhail took charge of the 1530 Germans whose commander had surrendered to Captain Stewart. The captured New Zealand engineers were recovered. In addition A and D Companies rounded up over 1300 enemy along the banks of the Piave, which brought 21 Battalion’s total of prisoners for the day to nearly 3000.
Had normal precautions been taken, the attack on 5 Field Park Company might not have occurred. General Freyberg told the divisional conference on the morning of 1 May: ‘You must pay particular attention to local protection after last night’s experience.
Everything should be grouped in such a way that it has infantry protection, and the ordinary measures should be taken of having at least one third of the force properly posted.’79
This was the last divisional conference before the cessation of hostilities in Italy. The General announced that 12 Lancers had discovered a bridge intact over the Tagliamento River. ‘I have told them to sweep along the coastal area and report any formed bodies of enemy troops.’80 The whole of 9 Brigade was to cross the Tagliamento and then await further orders. Sixth Brigade was to follow, and 5 Brigade was to mop up the enemy near the Piave River and deal with any enemy pockets found by 12 Lancers.
D Squadron of the Lancers again led along Route 14, while B Squadron combed the country on its seaward side and C Squadron on the other side. After reporting about 8 a.m. that a one-way wooden bridge over the Tagliamento probably would take all traffic, the armoured cars found that the bridge at Palazzolo, on the next river, the Stella, had been wrecked, but located an alternative crossing about six miles upstream, near Rivignano. This bridge made it possible to get right through to Trieste in the one day.
General Freyberg decided that the Division would have to be careful about petrol if it was to reach Trieste that day, and for that reason all captured vehicles would have to be left behind. As the traffic came off the bridge over the Piave, therefore, the provost diverted to one side the dozens of German cars and motorcycles. Their indignant drivers and passengers, reduced once again to the back of their regulation three-tonners, climbed with their gear on to the nearest passing vehicle. The Division passed through more villages of cheering crowds, along the tree-lined, superbly surfaced Route 14, in country which had not been touched by the war.
B Squadron of 20 Regiment went to the head of 22 Battalion, and the advance continued with the tanks leading A and D Companies, Battalion Headquarters, Brigadier Gentry and General Freyberg, C Company and Headquarters Company in that order. They drove at full speed through Fossalta di Portogruaro and Latisana (on the Tagliamento), around the 12-mile detour to cross the Stella, and reached San Giorgio di Nogara (a road junction) at 1.30 p.m. Behind 22 Battalion came A Squadron of 20 Regiment, then Headquarters 9 Brigade, 4 Field Regiment, and 27 Battalion.
At San Giorgio, some 20 miles short of the Isonzo River, the General spoke with the chief of staff of the Osoppo (right wing) partisan group of the Udine area, and with Lieutenant-Colonel
Wilkinson, who had been sent by Allied Force Headquarters to act as adviser when contact was made with the Yugoslavs. The corps commander (General Harding) also arrived to discuss the moves towards Gorizia and Trieste. Word came from the Lancers at 2.30 p.m. that the Route 14 bridge on the Isonzo (some distance downstream from Gorizia) was intact, and the GOC gave orders to resume the advance.
About 3 p.m. D Squadron of the Lancers made contact with the most advanced troops of Marshal Tito’s Fourth Yugoslav Army near the shipbuilding town of Monfalcone, and half an hour later 22 Battalion met Yugoslav troops near Pieris, just beyond the long concrete bridge which was still intact over the Isonzo. The New Zealanders noticed a change of atmosphere. There were partisans everywhere, with red scarves and red-starred caps. They marched in small columns with Yugoslav flags, and with Italian tricolours with the red star in the centre. On roadside walls were portraits of Tito, and the slogans ‘Zivio Tito’, ‘Zivio Stalin’ and ‘Tukay je Jugoslavia’ – ‘This is Yugoslavia’. The New Zealanders felt like strangers in a strange land, as if at the Isonzo they had passed some unmarked but distinct frontier. They had driven from Italy into what was to become a no-man’s land between Eastern and Western Europe. Obviously the people here had hoped to welcome Yugoslav forces and not those of the British Eighth Army.
Describing this situation three days later,81 General Freyberg said he had understood that Tito was fighting somewhere on the outskirts of Trieste ‘and one is very nervous of approaching another army, especially when many of the Jugoslav troops wear German uniforms, and on account of the great language difficulty. What we did not know was that Tito had determined to get to the line of the Isonzo before us and present us with a fait accompli. The first day when we crossed [the Isonzo] we caught him unprepared however – he had not even blown or picketed the bridge over the river. ...’82
Orders were given for 9 Brigade to advance to the road junction at San Giovanni, about three miles beyond Monfalcone, and there await further instructions; 6 Brigade was to occupy Monfalcone and despatch a column of all arms to capture Gorizia, about 10 miles to the north; 5 Brigade was to occupy San Giorgio and send a detachment to Palmanova, about six miles to the north-east.
D Squadron of 12 Lancers met its first resistance after passing through Monfalcone, when it was fired on in the vicinity of San Giovanni. The GOC ‘saw that some sort of battle was going on along the road ahead. I could not be sure with whom it was going on. So we stopped for the night at MONFALCONE, partly because of the danger of fighting with Tito’s troops and also because of the heavy rain. There were some soldiers running about round a coastal battery and for all I knew they were partisans. However some of our tanks thought they were enemy and fired at them and they were Hun all right and surrendered.’83 A Company of 22 Battalion and some tanks from B Squadron of 20 Regiment, after a short exchange of fire, captured 150 Germans. Tanks of A and B Squadrons joined forces to round up another 50 near Duino, on the coast beyond San Giovanni.
Meanwhile B Squadron of the Lancers entered the little port of Grado, west of the mouth of the Isonzo, and discovered eight undamaged sloops and a tug, as well as 200 enemy surrounded by partisans. Beyond Grado another 400 enemy had to be left in the hands of the partisans. At Palmanova, an old fortress town whose walls show on the map like a nine-pointed star, C Squadron of the Lancers attempted to negotiate the surrender of 600 German marines and 600 Italian fascists, but the German commander declared that he was going to fight his way out. It was impossible to send infantry immediately to Palmanova, and consequently the enemy could not be prevented from breaking out to the north during the night. Nevertheless he did not avoid casualties.
General Freyberg met two senior Yugoslav officers at Monfalcone at 5.30 p.m. and, with the help of Colonel Wilkinson, as interpreter, proclaimed what a proud moment it was to be able to link up with Marshal Tito’s ‘magnificent troops who had fought so long and bravely in the common cause.’84 He asked the Yugoslavs whether they would be content if his Division stayed overnight in Monfalcone pending further discussions, and was told this would be satisfactory. Arrangements were made to meet the commander of the Fourth Yugoslav Army at 7.30 p.m.
The orders given earlier in the afternoon, therefore, were amended so that 9 Brigade disposed 22 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry Battalion on the high ground just beyond Monfalcone, while 27 Battalion (in reserve) sheltered from the rain in a capacious power station. Sixth Brigade, which had been delayed at the crossing of the Piave River, was to concentrate in the vicinity of
Pieris and operate in the direction of Gorizia without entering that town. Fifth Brigade still was to occupy San Giorgio.
Freyberg reported to Harding about 6 p.m. that contact had been made with the Yugoslavs and that the advance had been stopped pending negotiations with their general. The Yugoslav general, however, did not keep his appointment. Freyberg concluded that the Yugoslavs were bluffing about how far they had advanced. He sent a message to Harding about 11 p.m. advising him that he now expected to meet the Yugoslav commander at 8.30 a.m. ‘It seems most obvious,’ he said, ‘that JUGOSLAVS did NOT expect our arrival for at least 48 hrs. Consider doubtful whether TRIESTE or GORIZIA in fact held by JUGOSLAVS and am continuing adv on both places 2 May.’85 Already fresh orders had been issued for 12 Lancers and 9 Brigade to continue the advance on Trieste and for 6 Brigade to occupy Gorizia.
The General went to the Monfalcone town hall at half past eight next morning, but the Yugoslav commander did not arrive. Freyberg then went to Headquarters 9 Brigade and directed the brigade to push on towards Trieste. ‘Do not hand any prisoners you take over to the partisans.’86 He received a signal from Harding saying that it was most important that the Division should occupy Gorizia as early as possible.
Freyberg returned to Monfalcone and conferred with the commander of 9 Corps of the Fourth Yugoslav Army. The language presented some difficulty: the GOC’s statements were translated into Italian and then into Slav. He explained that 6 British Armoured Division, ‘in numbers about 20,000 with tanks and guns, now has its head in UDINE and their main body will continue to arrive there during the next few days. At MONFALCONE my troops which have arrived are only an advance guard at present. We have coming up the main body of some 30,000 troops with 150 tanks and many guns. The greater part of the force is at present moving along the road from VENICE to MONFALCONE. We would welcome the co-operation of your forces in our joint battle against Fascism.’
The Yugoslav corps commander replied: ‘That would give us the greatest pleasure.’ The ensuing conversation proved that he had not been briefed and could make no decision without consulting his higher authorities, but was anxious that the British should advance no farther eastwards.
Freyberg: ‘We have not yet effected a junction with your forces in the direction of TRIESTE. We are pushing along the
road until we meet them. Could you give me the dispositions of the Yugoslav Army in this general area?’
The corps commander pointed on the map to the region of the hills north-east of Udine down to the hills in a south-easterly direction towards Trieste.
Freyberg: ‘Our troops will probably make a junction with yours to the East of UDINE.’
Yugoslav: ‘We shall make contact.’
Freyberg: ‘Also we will contact you in GORIZIA.’
Yugoslav: ‘There is no need for you to send troops towards GORIZIA – it will be better to send them towards Germany. Our troops are in the hills North-East of GORIZIA and UDINE.’
Freyberg: ‘We must have lines of communication northward for the forces which will be going into AUSTRIA.’
Yugoslav: ‘Your Army could go along the edge of the plain running North-West along the edges of the hills. I am not in a position to talk about GORIZIA as our Fourth Army is there and I would have to speak to the Army Comd.’
Freyberg: ‘We will make touch at GORIZIA and in the area East and South-East of MONFALCONE because there are Germans there.’
Yugoslav: ‘It would be better to send your troops Northwards as our troops are in that area.’
Freyberg: ‘We only wish to make a junction. There exists a verbal agreement between Marshal Tito and Field Marshal Alexander that we are to take over the Port of TRIESTE and use the road running up the coast from TRIESTE.’
Yugoslav: ‘Perhaps you could stop meanwhile on the line running South-West or just West of GORIZIA.’
Freyberg: ‘It is of paramount importance that the port of TRIESTE is opened up.’
Yugoslav: ‘It would be better to wait for my superior commander and also for the General of our Fourth Army.’
The conversation continued a while without making any further progress, and concluded with the New Zealand GOC assuring the corps commander: ‘All English-speaking people have a tremendous admiration for Marshal Tito and the great efforts made by the Yugoslav Army.’87
An appointment was made for a conference with the Yugoslav army commander at 2.30 p.m. at Monfalcone. Freyberg found the public square thronged for a pro-Tito demonstration, with placards bearing such inscriptions as Viva Monfalcone nella nuova
Jugoslavia di Tito.88 He waited for about a quarter of an hour in the Committtee of Liberation rooms in the town hall, but as there was no sign of the Yugoslav general he returned to Headquarters 9 Brigade.
Whether or not the Yugoslav general had intended to meet Freyberg at Monfalcone, he probably could not have got there in time from his headquarters in the hills north-east of Trieste. A journey over rough mountain tracks requiring half a day at least would have been impracticable for an army commander at the height of battle.