Breakthrough on the Fifth Army's Front
Originally scheduled for 12 April, D-Day for the Fifth Army's phase of the spring offensive was postponed when heavy fog rolled in over the air fields and forced cancellation of all flights. When meteorologists could forecast no clearing for the next day, Truscott set D-Day for the 14th, H-hour for 0600.
Before dawn on the 14th the army commander and members of his staff sat anxiously drinking coffee and smoking in their headquarters at Traversa while awaiting the latest weather reports. Presently telephones began to ring. All air bases repeated the same story: fog-shrouded runways. Truscott telephoned his IV Corps commander, General Crittenberger, to tell him to delay his attack but to be prepared to move on an hour's notice. The officers in the headquarters tent then settled back glumly over more coffee and cigarettes.
Only a few minutes passed before a call from the air base near Grosseto revealed that the fog might be lifting there. Again more coffee and cigarettes while calls went out to other bases. Then at 0800 Grosseto reported the end of the runway visible. Fighter-bombers were taking off. Elated, Truscott telephoned Crittenberger: "The attack is on for 0900." Messages from other air bases reporting clearing weather confirmed the decision. For the critical first day of attack the IV Corps would be assured of air support.1
Precisely at 0830 wave after wave of heavy bombers droned over the mountains from the south. For the next forty minutes the sky was filled with hundreds of aircraft dumping thousands of tons of high explosive, fragmentation, and napalm bombs on the enemy's positions. Eventually, over four days, some 2,052 heavy bombers flew, first in support of the IV Corps, then of the II Corps. That number exceeded the 1,673 heavy bombers that had supported the Eighth Army's attack four days before: all in all, "the beginning of the most sustained heavy bomber close support effort ever undertaken in the Mediterranean."2
As the heavy bombers completed their first day's missions, medium and fighter-bombers of the XXII TAC, engaged since the 10th in operations against enemy communications and supply depots, appeared over the front to attack the enemy's main line of resistance. The aircraft flew over 459 sorties, mostly in flights of four planes each against gun positions, strongpoints, troop areas, and other defensive works
The Spring Offensive
9 April-2 May 1945
immediately opposite the IV Corps front. Many of the sorties were napalm attacks against the 10th Mountain Division's first objective of Monte Pigna, four miles northwest of Vergato, the latter at the junction of Highway 64 and the lateral road connecting the highway with the Panaro valley ten miles to the west.
No sooner had the aircraft completed their missions than supporting artillery opened fire at 0910. For thirty-five minutes over 2,000 pieces, ranging from the 10th Mountain Division's 75-mm. pack howitzers to the Fifth Army's 8-inch howitzers, fired a devastating barrage. The smoke and dust raised by the massive aerial and artillery bombardment turned the morning into a gray twilight, whereupon the mountain division's infantrymen began moving to a line of departure on the forward slopes of Monte della Spe, just northeast of Castel d'Aiano overlooking the northernmost of two lateral roads connecting Vergato with Castel d'Aiano and a secondary road that was to be the axis of advance for the division in carrying "the brunt of the attack to the Po Valley--and beyond."3 (Map XVI) With all three regiments moving abreast, the division's immediate goal was a mountain mass extending northeastward for about seven miles from the 2,500-foot Rocca Roffeno massif in the southwest through Monte Pigna and terminating at Monte Mantino and Monte Mosca, the latter overlooking both the Lavino and Reno river valleys.4
Capture of the Roffeno feature would provide early control of the lateral road running west-northwest from Vergato and thence down the Samoggia valley to Modena. Most importantly, with the massif in American hands the mountain infantry would be able to turn the flank of the 94th Infantry Division, which with the 334th Infantry Division was holding that sector of the Fourteenth Army front between the Samoggia and the Reno Rivers. The Roffeno massif was, observed the 94th Division's operations officer, the Achilles heel of that sector.5
Although both German divisions had prepared positions capable of withstanding all but direct hits by heavy artillery and aerial bombs, both were understrength. Each had three grenadier regiments of only two battalions each, and neither had more than company-sized local reserves. Reinforcements could come only from the Fourteenth Army's reserves, i.e., the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division southwest of Bologna, but one regiment of that unit had already moved to the west to reinforce the Ligurian flank.
Artillery support for the sector held by the two divisions totaled only 240 pieces of all types, hardly a match for the 381 pieces that the U.S. IV Corps alone controlled, not to mention artillery under Fifth Army control. Furthermore, the American phase of the offensive would occur approximately along the intercorps boundary between the LI Mountain Corps on the west and the XIV Panzer Corps on the east, traditionally a weak point. The 334th Division, in whose sector lay the Roffeno massif,
was the left flank unit of the mountain corps, and the 94th Division the right flank unit of the panzer corps.
As the aerial and artillery bombardment ceased, the 85th Mountain Infantry on the 10th Mountain Division's left moved down into the Pra del Bianco basin, a small bowl-shaped valley just northeast of Castel d'Aiano. Across the flanks of the hills overlooking the basin from the west the Germans had constructed an intricate system of bunkers and covered gun emplacements. Yet in the basin itself outposts were manned only at night so that men of the 85th Mountain Infantry had no difficulty bypassing them in the half light of early morning. Widespread antipersonnel and antitank mine fields along the basin's western edge were another matter. In addition to causing numerous casualties among the infantrymen, the mines also prevented the 751st Tank and 701st Tank Destroyer Battalions from staying close to the mountain infantrymen and providing support against well-sited enemy automatic weapons overlooking the basin. The mine fields thus enabled the Germans to gain time to man their weapons within the main line of resistance. With a surprisingly heavy volume of fire, considering the bombing and artillery that had preceded the attack, they were able to check the advance just short of the crest of the hills overlooking the basin.
Although the 85th Mountain Infantry's commander, Col. Raymond C. Barlow, called for artillery fire to counter the enemy's mortars and artillery beyond the range of his infantry, credit for finally silencing the enemy's automatic weapons was attributable to the mountain infantrymen themselves, stubbornly fighting their way forward despite the fire. One man, for example, Pfc. John D. Magrath of Company G, armed only with a rifle, charged an enemy machine gun position, killing two enemy soldiers and wounding three others and capturing their machine gun. Arming himself with the captured piece, Magrath continued across an open field to neutralize two more machine guns. Circling behind still another, he destroyed it from the rear. Noticing a fourth position, Magrath opened fire on it, killing two and wounding three of the enemy. Meanwhile the men of Company G followed Magrath, to occupy the ground he had cleared. Volunteering to check on casualties, Magrath fell mortally wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.6
As the men of the 2d Battalion inched forward, the 3d Battalion surprisingly met little resistance and moved quickly to the crest of Hill 860, part of the high ground overlooking the basin. From that vantage point the battalion, with support from guns of the 604th Field Artillery Battalion, fired on the enemy flank, thereby relieving some of the pressure on the 2d Battalion. Soon after noon two additional crests along the high ground were in hand, and the two battalions turned northeastward along the ridge line to clear the rest.7
Meanwhile, at 0945, the 87th Mountain Infantry, under Col. David M. Fowler, crossed a line of departure on Monte Spicchione's forward slopes. In a column of battalions, the regiment traversed
the lateral road leading northeast from Castel d'Aiano to enter the village of Serra Sarzana, a mile to the northeast of Castel d'Aiano and two miles southeast of Monte Pigna, one of the major features of the Roffeno massif. When the mountain infantry attempted to continue, heavy enemy artillery fire forced them to shelter in the ruins of the village, while from the high ground to the west, not at that point cleared by the 85th Mountain Infantry, enemy machine guns probed with fire. Only when that fire ceased, probably as a result of the regiment's advance, was the 1st Battalion able to lead the way into the neighboring village of Torre Iussi. While the battalion fought through the village house by house, Colonel Fowler sent the 2d Battalion to bypass the village and capture Hill 903, high ground overlooking Torre Iussi. The maneuver was sufficient to convince the Germans that to fight any longer invited envelopment. They promptly withdrew from both village and hill.
On the 10th Mountain Division's right wing the 86th Mountain Infantry, under Col. Clarence Tomlinson, attacked with the 2d Battalion forward toward the northern slope of the Rocca Roffeno. Those men too came under heavy fire from the enemy on Hill 903, but once that feature fell to the 87th Mountain Infantry, men of the 86th Mountain Infantry were able to scale a nearby height and by late afternoon take the height of Rocca Roffeno.
Continued resistance and the coming of darkness nevertheless prevented further advance. Yet unknown to the men of the 10th Mountain Division, they had opened a serious breach between
MOUNTAIN INFANTRY IN TOLE AREA
the 334th and 94th Divisions. Any further American advance to the northeast, the Germans feared, would outflank the 94th Division. In an effort to prevent that, the 94th Division commander, General Steinmetz, rushed forward his reserve battalion to close the gap. It was too late. The plight of the defenders of the Rocca Roffeno position became evident that night via a radio message from the survivors: "Fire on our position . . . . " Then the radio fell silent.8
The Americans, meanwhile, had settled down on their newly-won ground to await the customary counterattack, but none came. Instead only sporadic artillery fire and occasional flares indicated that an enemy still waited in the
dark hills and valleys to the north. Key ground had been won, but the first day had been costly, with 553 mountain infantrymen killed, wounded, or missing. Although the Americans had a foothold on the Roffeno massif, Monte Pigna still remained in enemy hands.
At dawn on 15 April a 20-minute artillery barrage, including the guns of supporting tanks and tank destroyers, opened the second day of the IV Corps attack. Twenty minutes later the leading battalions of the 87th Mountain Infantry moved out from Torre Iussi and Hill 903 toward Monte Pigna about a mile to the north. Resistance was spotty, and just over an hour later the Americans were on the crest preparing to continue their advance northward toward the town of Tole, four miles northwest of Vergato commanding a network of secondary roads leading into the Samoggia and Lavino valleys.
About the same time, the 86th Mountain Infantry in the center began moving from Rocca Roffeno toward the hamlet of Amore, a battered collection of stone cottages a thousand yards to the north. There too resistance was weak. Passing through Amore in midmorning, the men continued along a ridge terminating at Monte Mantino and just as darkness fell occupied that height without opposition.
The situation was far different on the division's left flank where the 85th Mountain Infantry, advancing from the high ground overlooking the Pra del Bianco toward Monte Righetti, two and a half miles west of Monte Pigna, ran into such heavy resistance that the division commander thought it prudent to bring forward a special unit for flank protection, the 10th Mountain Infantry Antitank Battalion, formed from the antitank companies of the division's three regiments. Noting the contrast with fading resistance on the fight, the corps commander, General Crittenberger, directed a shift of the division's main effort to the right.
The enemy commander in that sector, General Steinmetz of the 94th Infantry Division, was fully aware that his front was crumbling. Having requested XIV Panzer Corps headquarters in vain for permission to withdraw his left flank regiments, he decided on the 16th to take matters into his own hands. That afternoon he ordered the troops on his center and left to fall back during the night to new positions. But he had waited dangerously long, for the Americans had already cut the few roads leading from that sector. Steinmetz's troops had to withdraw cross-country in the darkness over mountainous terrain, abandoning much of their heavy equipment along the way and falling prey to harassing American artillery fire. So cut up was the division's left flank battalion as to become virtually useless.
The 10th Mountain Division was on the verge of a breakthrough of the enemy front between the Samoggia and Lavino Rivers, and progress over the next three days confirmed it. As the 94th Infantry Division continued to withdraw behind smoke screens and artillery fire, the 86th and 87th Mountain Infantry Regiments, moving in column of battalions following a 20-minute artillery barrage, jumped off at 0620 on the 16th. Despite the efforts of a determined rear guard, the 86th Mountain Infantry in the early afternoon occupied hills just north of Monte Mantino,
GERMAN PRISONERS CAPTURED BY 10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISION
then with the help of tanks from the 751st Tank Battalion advanced another four miles to the hamlet of Montepastore. Meanwhile, the 87th Mountain Infantry advanced via Tole toward Monte Croce and Monte Mosca, the latter five miles northeast of Monte Pigna and the last high point along the eastern ridge line. Progress over the next two days was just as steady, so that by nightfall on the 18th the troops of the 10th Mountain Division had almost reached the edge of the mountains overlooking Highway 9 and the plain.
Five days of attack had cost 1,283 casualties, and the surviving infantrymen were close to exhaustion. Of the first men to enter the village of Montepastore, an officer of the 86th Mountain Infantry observed that they were "incredibly weary . . . . Wherever the men dropped their packs they fell asleep. They slept in barns, cowstalls, bedrooms, any place they could find. After a rest [they] looked for food and found chickens, onions, some captured
German cheese and bologna. Fires sprang up all over town, and soon [they] were eating their first food, other than K-rations, in four days.9
Droves of German prisoners meanwhile streamed back to the division rear. A not uncommon sight was one weary American infantryman shepherding a column of 40 to 50 equally weary Germans. Among the prisoners were the staff and commanding officer of the 2d Battalion, 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment, thus confirming rumors circulating among the Americans for the past two days that the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division was on its way to the front opposite the IV Corps. On the same day, elements of the 190th Reconnaissance Battalion and the 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the same division were also identified. Thus did the Americans learn of Vietinghoff's decision to commit his remaining reserve to plug the widening gap in the Fourteenth Army front between the Samoggia and the Lavino Rivers.10
As the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division came forward, the Germans began to fall back slowly toward a so-called Michelstellung, an east-west switch position passing through Monte San Michele, some five miles north of Montepastore. Last of the prepared positions in the hills south of the Po Valley, the Michelstellung was less a continuous line than a series of lightly held strongpoints. Like the Americans, the German infantry would reach the new positions in a state of virtual exhaustion.
Armor Joins the Battle
While the 10th Mountain Division pushed rapidly over the mountain ridges in its zone of operations, units to the left and right were advancing abreast. On the left the Brazilian division occupied the village of Montese and surrounding hills three miles northwest of Castel d'Aiano, while on the right General Prichard's 1st Armored Division, beginning on 14 April soon after the mountain division's attack started, moved against Vergato and the hills to the northwest of that town.11
On the armored division's right wing, on the heels of TOT fired by the 105-mm. guns of the 27th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, dismounted cavalrymen of the 81st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron stormed an enemy strongpoint at Vergato. Within two hours the Americans had fought through the town's southern outskirts to occupy what remained of the railroad station, while so occupied was the enemy in defending Vergato that the 14th Armored Infantry Battalion encountered little resistance in coming up on the cavalrymen's left to attack the village of Suzzano, two miles to the northwest. Following repeated bombardment by planes of the XXII TAC and supporting artillery and armor, tank-infantry teams moved rapidly into Suzzano late on the 15th. The next day men of the 11th Armored Infantry Battalion passed through to capture Monte Mosca, three miles to the northeast.
The only real opposition was in the ruins of Vergato. In the smoldering town the Germans fought through the night, and only with the coming of daylight on the 15th and arrival of a trio of tanks and an armored bulldozer were the men of the 81st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron able to get on with a systematic clearing of the ruins, house by house. Another night passed before resistance was completely eliminated.
Over the next two days--16 and 17 April--men of the armored division made systematic advances in several columns. By nightfall of the 17th the 81st Cavalry had reached a point nearly five miles beyond Vergato, while the 6th Armored Infantry Battalion passed beyond Monte Mosca to capture Monte d'Avigo, three miles to the northeast. A 30-minute artillery preparation discouraged meaningful resistance by a reinforced German company. To the right the 11th Armored Infantry Battalion gained Monte Milano overlooking the Reno valley.
On the left the Brazilians, on the right the armor had come abreast of the 10th Mountain Division. On the IV Corps front all was going well.
The II Corps Attacks
Not so on the II Corps front, for there the advance toward Bologna seemed at first agonizingly reminiscent of the fighting in November 1944 in the same area. The problem lay not only in the difficult terrain, but in the fact that there the enemy had concentrated his strongest defenses. Yet in the conviction that Keyes' corps would face greater challenges than its neighbor west of Highway 64, General Truscott had placed the majority of his divisions under the II Corps between Highway 64 in the west and Highway 65 in the east.
The Germans had developed their defense on the central sector south of Bologna around four clearly defined geographic features. The first--and most important in terms of Truscott's intention to concentrate his main effort in the Reno valley--was Monte Sole, six miles northeast of Vergato midway between the Reno River and Setta Creek. The capture of Monte Sole, together with the IV Corps' operations west of the Reno valley, would open the way for an advance to the Praduro road junction on Highway 64 where the Setta enters the Reno. The second and third features were Monterumici and Monte Adone, overlooking Highway 65 from the west, and a series of hills just north of Monte Belmonte, overlooking the same stretch of Highway 65 from the east. Clearing the enemy from the high ground would permit an advance to the town of Pianoro, the fourth feature, on Highway 65 only eight miles from Bologna. Possession of Pianoro would enable Keyes to put considerable pressure on the enemy's defenses south of Bologna.
Extensive reconnaissance had disclosed that the strongpoints developed around those four features were mutually supporting. That being the case, it was evident to Keyes that the capture of one would not necessarily lead to a breakthrough, so that it would be necessary to attack simultaneously across the entire corps sector. That, Keyes hoped, would prevent the enemy from shifting local reserves from one threatened point to another. With the enemy pinned down, Keyes would be free to
exploit his vast superiority in manpower and matériel to concentrate sufficient strength at one point to achieve a breakthrough.12
To defend south of Bologna, General Lemelsen had assembled slightly more than four divisions. Although that constituted more units than the U.S. II Corps controlled, in terms of manpower the Germans were far inferior. Opposite the inter-army boundary to the II Corps right lay the 1st Parachute Division, then the 305th Infantry, followed by the 65th Infantry and 8th Mountain Divisions, with part of the 94th Division opposite the II Corps left. The 65th Infantry and the 8th Mountain Divisions were especially well positioned between the Reno River and Highway 65, the main route through the sector.13
The four divisions of the II Corps held a 15-mile front running northeasterly from the Reno River eastward to a ridge line about two miles east of the Idice River. The 6th South African Armoured Division was in position opposite Monte Sole across the high ground between the Reno and the Setta Creek. Next in line was the 88th Division facing Monterumici. The 91st Division stood astride Highway 65 facing Monte Adone and the high ground flanking Pianoro. East of the highway was the 34th Division, whose objectives were the Savizzano and Gorgognano ridges northeast of Monte Belmonte. The Italian Legnano Combat Group on the far right flank was to demonstrate but not attack when the II Corps' phase of the offensive began.
As Keyes prepared for that phase, the full weight of available air support shifted to his corps. On 15 April, the afternoon preceding the attack, 765 heavy bombers attacked targets along both highways between the front and Bologna. Medium bombers followed to attack installations and troop assembly areas in the vicinity of Praduro. The next day the heavy bombers repeated their attacks, while the medium bombers shifted to the enemy's lines of communications in the vicinity of Bologna. Meanwhile, in late afternoon of the 15th, 120 fighter-bombers in waves of four to eight aircraft continuously attacked the enemy in the Monte Sole sector. Just before dusk fighter-bombers turned their attention to other strongpoints across the corps front, dropping tons of flaming napalm on known enemy emplacements and illuminating the darkening landscape with pillars of fire. In addition to the aerial bombardment, 548 artillery pieces fired counter-battery and antipersonnel barrages immediately prior to the first moves by the ground forces. To all that the Germans replied only weakly: only just over a thousand rounds of enemy artillery fell across the entire II Corps front during the first two days of the attack.
On 15 April, while smoke and dust from the bombs and shells hung heavily over the rugged terrain or drifted into the narrow valleys, the 6th South African Armoured Division and the 88th Division on the corps left wing attacked soon after nightfall. Four and a half hours later, at 0300 on 16 April, the 91st and 34th Divisions launched their operations on the corps right wing.
The preliminary aerial and artillery barrages had sent the Germans scurrying deep into their bunkers, but as was soon apparent to the attackers, they quickly reoccupied their gun positions. German fire, supplemented by mine fields and the difficult terrain, limited the 88th, 91st, and 34th Divisions to slow, costly advances, so familiar to the veterans of the previous autumn's operations. Only on the left flank could Keyes report success: there the South Africans, in a series of gallant assaults, supported by a devastating 35,000 rounds of artillery, before daylight on the 16th captured Monte Sole.
On the second day, as the German defenses west of Highway 65 began to waver, the 88th Division finally drove the last enemy from Monterumici. The Germans continued nevertheless to hold firm astride Highway 65. Only on the third day did signs develop that the enemy's defenses were about to crumble there as well, as the 91st and 34th Divisions cleared the high ground flanking the highway. The IV Corps, meanwhile, continued to widen its penetration west of the Reno and Highway 64, and the Eighth Army's Polish corps threatened Bologna from the southeast. Isolation of the German sector south of Bologna seemed imminent.
Sensing that a breakthrough was at hand, General Truscott decided the time had come to shift the weight of his army's attack and the intercorps boundary westward. By so doing he would place the important Praduro road junction and eventually Highway 64 and the Reno River within the zone of operations of the II Corps. The latter was then to make the army's main drive to the Po.
Anticipating the army commander's decision, General Keyes had already begun moving his divisions westward. He first shifted the 88th Division to the corps left flank between the 6th South African Armoured Division and the Reno River. Again the 88th was to team up with the 85th Division, which on the 16th had begun to move from reserve positions on the Arno to an assembly area in the vicinity of Vergato. There the division prepared the next day to relieve the 1st Armored Division west of the Reno. Although Truscott had originally planned to assign the 85th Division to Keyes, he gave it instead to Crittenberger for use on the 10th Mountain Division's right flank, where the progress of the preceding four days had suggested an important enemy weakness.
As the 85th Division completed relief of the 1st Armored Division, the armor moved to positions along the Panaro River, ten miles to the west, where the terrain was more favorable for armored operations. The armor could also cover the extended left flank of the 10th Mountain Division, which was to become the spearhead of the Fifth Army's offensive. To fill the gap created by shifting the 88th Division to the left flank, the 91st and 34th Divisions also sideslipped westward. That move served to widen the relatively inactive sector of the Legnano Group and set Highway 65 as the boundary between the Italians and the 34th Division. The regrouping completed, Truscott expected that the next two days would produce a break out from the mountains onto the Lombardy (Po) plain.
Breakthrough to the Plain
At 0930 on the 18th the 10th Mountain and the 85th Divisions led off the
INFANTRYMEN ENTERING PO VALLEY
renewed IV Corps attack. From the first the 85th Division on the right experienced no contest. Trying to withdraw, the Germans had become so disorganized that they found it difficult to make a stand anywhere. By nightfall of the first day the two leading regiments of the 85th Division had advanced five miles to hills north of the village of Piano di Venola, halfway between Vergato and Praduro.
Men of the 10th Mountain Division had slower going at first. In early afternoon the Germans fought back with heavy artillery and mortar fire, prompting the front-running 85th Mountain Infantry to hold up for the night short of the initial objective of Mongiorgio. Yet as the mountain infantrymen determined early on the second day, the 19th, that spurt of resistance was but a screen for continuing enemy withdrawal. When the 85th Mountain Infantry took the lead in a drive to Monte San Michele, a dominating height northeast of Mongiorgio and key to a position the Germans had hoped to hold at length--the Michelstellung--
34TH DIVISION INFANTRYMEN PAUSE IN BOLOGNA
the German defense collapsed. Around noon Monte San Michele was in hand and a request went back for every available tank and tank destroyer to join the attack, for the enemy withdrawal had become a rout. The leading troops stopped for the night three miles beyond Monte San Michele but only to allow supporting troops and reserves to catch up. To the left a battalion of the 87th Mountain Infantry occupied another height, Monte San Pietro, again in the face of virtually no opposition. General Truscott's hope for a breakthrough onto the plain in two days had fallen short but not by much. Debouchment was bound to come on the 20th.
The 1st Armored Division meanwhile had one combat command ready to attack on the 18th up the valley of the Samoggia to protect the left flank of the corps. The next day the remainder of the division joined the drive. That was fortunate, for in a desperate effort to stop a breakthrough onto the plain, the Germans threw in tanks of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division. As tank fought tank, the advance of the American
armor was restricted, but the desperate effort to prevent a breakthrough had come too late. With the 1st Armored Division obviously capable of handling the nuisance on the flank, the 10th Mountain and 85th Divisions had no cause for concern.
At long last, on 20 April, the bitter struggle to break out of the northern Apennines finally reached a climax. Fighting was still intense on occasion, as at the village of Pradalbino where the Germans made a determined stand, culminating in a bitter house-to-house struggle with the 87th Mountain Infantry. Yet that and other attempted stands were futile. In mid-afternoon the 86th Mountain Infantry broke across the arrow-like concrete ribbon that was Highway 9 in the vicinity of Ponte Samoggia, ten miles northwest of Bologna, while men of the 88th Division crossed the intercorps boundary athwart the axis of the II Corps advance in their eagerness to reach the flat country of the Lombardy plain beckoning ahead. In the resulting confusion the latter division became "the bottom of a gigantic T trying to punch through a top which was the 10th and 85th divisions."14 The situation however was soon straightened out by having the 88th Division's units "relieve in place all 85th Division units as they were overtaken."15
The II Corps immediately south of Bologna had in the meantime also begun to move. The 6th South African Armoured Division throughout maintained close contact with the right flank of the IV Corps, on the 20th gaining the town of Casalecchio alongside the 88th Division at Riale, while that night troops of a battalion of the 34th Division's 133d Infantry clambered aboard tanks of the 752d Tank Battalion and set out in darkness along Highway 65 for Bologna. Proceeding cautiously, the little force nevertheless reported entering the city at 0851 the next morning. All but a few German stragglers had departed.
Progress on the Flanks
To the east and northeast of Bologna the Polish corps also participated in the general advance, pushing back the enemy along a series of stream lines to within ten miles of Bologna, while southwest of Budrio the Poles crossed the Quaderno River midway between Medicina and Bologna to pinch out the 10 Corps and take over the Eighth Army's left flank. Early on the 21st the Poles entered Bologna to join the U.S. 34th Division and the Italian Legnano Group in occupying the city.16
On the Eighth Army's right flank General Keightley of the 5 Corps committed the British 6th Armoured Division in pursuit of a retreating enemy along the axis of Highway 16. By 20 April the division had pushed to within ten miles of Ferrara. West of the highway the 10th Indian Division outflanked Budrio to the east, while a mile north of the town the New Zealand division established a bridgehead beyond the Idice. Those advances had carried the entire corps through the
Genghis Khan Line, breaching the last defenses south of the Po.
On the western side of the peninsula the U.S. 92d Division had also resumed an advance that had been limited since the 14th to relatively modest gains by several battalion-strength counterattacks by the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division's 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment. On the 17th, the U.S. 473d Infantry advanced astride the coastal road, Highway 1, crossed the Parmignola Canal, and closed in on Sarzana, near the junction of the coastal road with Highway 62 ten miles east of the naval base of La Spezia. To the regiment's right the Japanese-American 442d Infantry tried repeatedly, but in vain, to break through defenses running north and south from the mountain strongpoint of Fosdinovo, five miles northeast of Sarzana.17
The reinforcements from the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division, however, were never intended to stop the Americans indefinitely but only to cover a slow German withdrawal into Sarzana and La Spezia. Coastal batteries, firing from Punta Bianca, three miles south of La Spezia, harassed the Allied-held towns of Massa and Carrara and the routes of approaches passing through them. In spite of frequent attempts by tank destroyers, fighter-bombers, and even an 8-inch howitzer to silence the guns, those on the eastern side of the peninsula continued to fire until the 19th, when, presumably, the Germans destroyed them just before withdrawing. The guns on the western side, however, continued to fire for another day, until the enemy, faced with the necessity for a rapid withdrawal, because of the Allied breakthrough on the central front on both sides of Bologna, abandoned the batteries to the 92d Division.18
The 20th of April thus marked the turning point in the Allied spring offensive across the entire front. From that point the operation was to become a pursuit with fighter-bombers of the MATAF flying in close support of wide-ranging Allied columns fanning out across the Lombardy plain. The aerial harassment, which would soon make of the Po River as much of a barrier to the retreating Germans as they had hoped it would be to the Allies, represented the culmination of 11,902 Allied sorties of all types, flown over the battle area since 14 April. The six days since the Fifth Army's phase of the Allied offensive had begun had witnessed the greatest single week's air support effort of the entire Italian campaign and was a fitting climax to the long months of Allied air operations in the theater.19
Meanwhile, five days earlier, the U.S. 6th Army Group under Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers, operating north of the Alps, had begun moving south and southwest into western Austria toward the Austro-Italian frontier. On 15 April the SHAEF commander, General Eisenhower, had issued an order sending General Devers' army group, which included the First French Army and the U.S. Seventh Army, through Brava and into western Austria toward an eventual link-up with the Allied
armies in Italy. At the same time, Eisenhower sent Patton's Third Army southeastward down the Danube Valley into Austria for eventual link-up with the Russians advancing from Vienna. Thus, from three directions an Allied ring was closing around the German armies in the southwest, forcing them into an Alpine fastness from which there was no escape--and no hope of survival.20
Hitler's Strategic Decisions
For the Germans, 20 April had also been a turning point. Until that time the Tenth Army's I Parachute and LXXVI Panzer Corps had managed, except for the Argenta Gap, to keep their fronts intact while skillfully withdrawing northeastward beyond the Reno. Once again it seemed as if the elusive Tenth Army would escape the Eighth Army's grasp. But the failure of the Fourteenth Army's XIV Panzer Corps to prevent a breakthrough west of Bologna, first by the U.S. IV Corps and then by the U.S. II Corps, threatened to open a gap between the two German armies and jeopardize the ability of the Tenth Army to continue its retrograde movement. Faced at that point with a threat to the integrity of his entire army group, General von Vietinghoff, even without obtaining authorization from OKW, ordered the long-deferred Operation HERBSTNEBEL into effect on the night of 20 April. As he did so, he dutifully reported his decision to his Fuehrer, together with congratulations on Hitler's birthday.21
It had been anything but a happy birthday for the Fuehrer, for on that very day Hitler had ordered his headquarters to disperse. Command of the western front was to pass to a northern group under Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, with his headquarters at Flensburg on the Baltic, and a southern group under Field Marshal Kesselring, with headquarters near Berchtesgaden. The Fuehrer and the remainder of OKW were to continue to command the eastern fronts from the Reichschancellery bunker in Berlin.
Hitler had actually made the decision to divide his headquarters nine days earlier, when it became clear that the advance of the Allied armies on all fronts made it virtually impossible to continue direction of the war from a central headquarters. When the Russians crossed the Oder River on the 20th, Hitler realized that he could delay no longer and ordered the northern and southern sections of the OKW to depart at once. The motor convoy carrying the headquarters that was to operate under Kesselring left the Air Defense School barracks at Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin on 20 April and arrived at Berchtesgaden on the 23d. It would be under the command of the latter headquarters that the German forces in southwestern Europe, including
Army Group C, would fight their last battles.22
Implicit in Hitler's decision to disperse OKW was a change in his strategy--if such it can be described. In the weeks immediately preceding the decision the German leader had clung stubbornly to the hope that his armies in the west and south could somehow hold the American and British armies at bay long enough for the German forces on the eastern front to check the Russians and possibly persuade the Western Allies to join forces with the Germans to turn back the Red tide threatening to spill into central Europe. The Russian crossing of the Oder changed all that, prompting the Fuehrer to abandon all hope of persuading the Western Allies to turn against the Russians. The German armies in the west and south were instead to hold out long enough to permit those retreating before the Russians in the east to reach the zones of the Western Allies and thereby avoid mass surrenders to the Red Army.
That strategy, or procedure, quickly became the leitmotif of Kesselring's operations, but not of Vietinghoff's. For within Army Group C's headquarters there soon surfaced a conflict between the partisans of Hitler's strategy of desperation and those who had adopted an attitude of sauve qui peut, convinced that continued resistance in Italy or, for that matter, anywhere else, no longer served a valid purpose. That conflict would help explain the confused moves and countermoves that were to take place within Army Group C headquarters in the closing days of the campaign in Italy.23
The Byzantine atmosphere at the German headquarters in Italy would become murkier with the maturing of covert surrender negotiations between the senior SS commander in Italy, General Wolff, and the head of the American OSS apparatus in Switzerland, Allen Dulles. Under way since early March, those negotiations, like the military operations on the battlefront, had also taken a sharp turn on 20 April. For on that date the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff ordered Field Marshal Alexander and Mr. Dulles to terminate the negotiations. "You should," the CCS informed the Allied commander, "consider the matter as closed and so inform the Russians."24 After 20 April a crushing military victory over the Germans seemed in sight, not only in Italy but on all battle fronts. To the Allied High Command there seemed little to be gained in accepting a capitulation in one of the war's secondary theaters of operations at the risk of alienating one of the major Allied governments--the Soviet Union.
1. Truscott, Command Missions, p. 486.
2. Craven and Cate, eds., AAF III, pp. 486-87; Fifth Army History, Part IX, pp. 91-92; IV Corps history, pp. 614-15. Unless otherwise indicated the following is based upon those references.
3. Truscott, Command Missions, p. 487.
4. 10th Mtn Div Rpt of Opns, Apr-May 45.
5. MS # T-1b (Westphal et al.). Unless otherwise cited the following section is based on that source.
6. Medal of Honor, pp. 359-60.
7. 10th Mtn Div Opns Rpt, Apr-May 45.
8. MS # T-1b (Westphal et al.), Part II, Die 94th Grenadier Division.
9. IV Corps History, p. 623; 9th MRU, Battle Casualty Reports of Fifth Army, 10 Jun 45.
10. MS # T-1b (Westphal et al.), Part II, annex to Ch 11a.
11. Howe, Battle History of the 1st Armored Division, pp. 407-08; Fifth Army History, Part IX, pp. 50-51; IV Corps AAR, Apr 45. Unless otherwise cited the following sections are based upon these references.
12. II Corps AAR, 1 Apr-2 May 45; Starr, From Salerno to the Alps, pp. 410-12; Fifth Army History, Part IX, pp. 50-87; Truscott, Command Missions, pp. 488-89. Unless otherwise indicated, the following is based upon those references.
13. MS # T-1b (Westphal et al.).
14. John P. Delaney, The Blue Devils in Italy (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1947), pp. 203-04.
16. Operations of the British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part IV.
17. Fifth Army History, Part IX, pp. 42-43; Goodman Monograph, pp. 162-63.
18. Goodman Monograph, pp. 162-63.
19. Ibid.; Craven and Cate, eds., AAF III, pp. 486-89.
20. SCAF 281, FWD in SHAEF, Post OVERLORD Planning File, 381, IV. See also, The Last Offensive, by Charles B. MacDonald, Wash. D.C., 1973, pp. 433-42, for the account of the Allied sweep from the Danube to the Alps.
21. Greiner and Schramm, eds., OKW/WFSt, KTB, IV(2), pp. 1438-39; Cable No. 3, 20 Apr 45, Vietinghoff to the Fuehrer, reprinted in Operations of the British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part IV, Sec. G, App. F; Walter Warlimont, Inside Hitler's Headquarters, 1939-45 (New York: Progress, 1964), p. 513.
22. Greiner and Schramm, eds., OKW/WFSt, KTB, IV(2), pp. 1438-39; Warlimont, Inside Hitler's Headquarters, p. 513.
23. In his commentary on the OKW War Diary, Percy Ernst Schramm observed that in the last months of the war Hitler's ". . . leadership had become more and more an 'Illusionsstrategie,' outlined in red and blue markings on situation maps but having no relationship to reality, even if executed." (OKW, KTB, LV, 1944-45, p. 32).
24. Msg WX 70553, CCOS to Alexander, 20 Apr 45, AFHQ 0100/11c/58. For a narrative of the negotiations between Dulles and Wolff, see Chapter XXX. It seems doubtful whether these instructions were known to Hitler at the time he made his change of strategy on the 20th.