Now, in the combat all action is directed to the destruction of the enemy, or rather of his fighting powers, for this lies in the conception of combat. The destruction of the enemy's fighting power is, therefore, always the means to attain the object of combat.
CLAUSEWITZ, On War
Race for the Po
As Allied forces debouched onto the Lombardy plain and the Germans began to withdraw in keeping with Operation HERBSTNEBEL, one terrain feature dominated the thinking on both sides: the Po River. Allied commanders still hoped to trap sizeable contingents of the German forces south of the river, while if the Germans were to survive as a fighting force in northern Italy, they had somehow to get their heavy equipment, artillery, transport, and troops beyond the river.
From turbulent beginnings in the Alps of northwestern Italy, the Po meanders for 250 miles in a series of great bends dotted with numerous islands and sand bars, finally to enter the Adriatic through a large delta twenty miles northeast of the Comacchio Lagoon. Halfway in its course the river increases from 1,000 feet upstream from Ferrara to four times that width at a point north of Parma, sixty miles to the west, with the actual wet gap varying between 400 and 1,500 feet. Both east and west of that stretch the wet gap was considerably narrower but still too wide to be spanned by field-type military bridges. There was another difficulty: the danger of flooding. Along almost the river's entire length stood a vast system of dikes, rising 15 to 25 feet above the level of the surrounding countryside and in places bringing the water level to a point higher than the valley floor. If the river were high, breaching the dikes could cause widespread flooding and make the Po a more formidable barrier.
Traversing generally flat terrain, the best highways in Italy crossed the Po Valley, and most secondary roads were graveled and well drained, affording alternate routes to almost any point. Thus, other than fighting delaying actions along watercourses crossing the axes of advance, the fleeing enemy could do little to block his pursuers. German difficulties were further compounded by seemingly omnipresent Allied aircraft. Every day Allied planes swept the length of the river to attack both crossing sites and the troops and equipment streaming toward the Po.
Before the spring offensive the Fifth Army engineers had made thorough aerial and map reconnaissances of that part of the Po crossing the axis of the army's advance. From those surveys the engineers had determined that the best crossing sites within the army's zone lay along a 20-mile stretch of the river between Borgoforte on Highway 62 (the Parma-Mantua road) eastward to Ostiglia on Highway 12. Midway between those two points lay the San Benedetto crossing site. The western half, between San Benedetto and Borgoforte, appeared to be more favorable than the eastern, where a large marshy area near Ostiglia would constrict military operations.1
AERIAL VIEW OF PO RIVER CROSSING
The engineers had selected twelve likely sites for assault crossings, an equal number of sites for ferry crossings, and nine possible sites for floating bridges. Most importantly, nearly all sites were suitable for all three types of river-crossing operations. Expecting that Keyes' II Corps would reach the Po first, General Truscott had placed the 39th Engineer Group of that corps in charge of preparing the river crossings, but when late on 22 April it appeared likely that Crittenberger's IV Corps would reach the Po first, Truscott shifted most of the engineers to the IV Corps.2
Well aware of the tactical problems of withdrawing across a broad river while under attack from air and ground, the Germans months before had begun preparations for re-crossing the Po. Their engineers had selected several favorable crossing sites, understandably the same ones later picked by Allied engineers. At each site they had cached the necessary matériel, including large
GERMAN EQUIPMENT DESTROYED ALONG PO
and small ferry boats suitable for use with any of three possible water levels, for during early spring and summer the Po in this area was unpredictable. Yet as had so often been the case in the Italian campaign, nature would intervene to upset carefully made preparations.3
Despite the heavy snows of the previous winter, spring of 1945 found the Po at its lowest level in half a century. Although that condition removed the danger of flooding, it left the water too shallow for larger ferries on which the Germans had counted for transporting their heavy equipment and vehicles. Often running aground, the ferries became easy targets for Allied fighter-bombers, leaving the Germans no choice but to use smaller, shallower draft ferries with greatly reduced carrying capacity. That inevitably meant abandoning much heavy equipment south of the river.
Plans for withdrawing behind the Po were further jeopardized when many German engineer units, originally detailed to operate the crossing points,
were committed as combat troops to reinforce rear guard operations. Deprived of engineer assistance, unit commanders frequently had no choice but to improvise on the spot.
Moreover, by 21 April it appeared already too late for many of the German units even to reach the Po, let alone to cross it. One such unit was the ill-starred 94th Infantry Division. That night its commander, General Steinmetz, received orders from the XIV Panzer Corps to assemble survivors of his division in the vicinity of Mirandola on Highway 12 about midway between Modena and the Po River crossing point at Ostiglia. At Mirandola the 94th Division was to prepare a delaying position, but even as the hapless Steinmetz was reporting to corps headquarters to receive the order, the U.S. 88th Division entered Mirandola. The 94th Division's survivors, generally in small detachments, made their way to the Po as best they could. Meanwhile, the division's operations officer was wounded and captured while making reconnaissance for crossing the river, and Steinmetz himself was cut off from his troops. Lacking essential signal equipment to control the divisions of the corps, General von Senger und Etterlin saw no alternative but to dismiss his headquarters staff with orders to reassemble at Legnano on the Adige some ten miles to the north. Thus it was that early on 23 April the corps commander and his staff joined the precipitate flight across the Po.4
Imminent German collapse was clearly evident at U.S. Fifth Army headquarters. As early as 21 April Truscott's G-2 had noted in his journal that "no front line in the formal sense exists."5 Truscott planned at that point to thrust virtually his entire army into the gap caused by the disintegration of the XIV Panzer Corps. Crittenberger's IV Corps was to seize crossing sites along a 20-mile stretch of the Po extending from Borgoforte on Highway 62, just seven miles south of Mantua, eastward to Ostiglia on Highway 12, twenty-seven miles south of Verona; while Keyes' II Corps on the right was to capture additional sites on a narrower sector extending from Ostiglia to Sermide, ten miles to the east.6 (See Map XVI.)
The IV Corps continued to lead the way. In the center, Hays' 10th Mountain Division progressed rapidly throughout 21 April against only scattered resistance. To take advantage of the situation, Hays formed a tank-infantry task force composed of a battalion each of the 85th and 86th Mountain Infantry Regiments, the 91st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, an engineer company, a light tank company, and a tank destroyer platoon, all under the assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Robinson E. Duff. The task force reached the Bomporto bridge on the Panaro River at dusk. Although the Germans had prepared the bridge for demolition, the task force captured it intact. In the 85th Division sector, the leading regiment also seized intact the bridge over the Panaro at Camposanto, near where over a century before a
12,000-man Austrian-Piedmontese army under Field Marshal Count Abersberg von Traun fought to the draw a 15,000-man Spanish army under General Don Juan, Count de Gages.7 There was no chance of a draw in the current campaign as the two American corps swept almost unimpeded over the broad Po Valley. If the corps could maintain their rate of advance for the next twenty-four hours, Generals Crittenberger and Keyes assured the army commander, both would be drawn up along the south bank of the Po by the 23d.8
The 1st Armored Division, however, advancing as a covering force along the IV Corps left flank, encountered considerable resistance, as the LI Mountain Corps began to swing back like a great gate toward the northwest. After the collapse of the panzer corps front, that was the only course of action open to General Lemelsen, the Fourteenth Army commander. To the armored division's right rear the Brazilian division, choosing not to press the Germans too closely, followed up the enemy withdrawal, while the 34th Division temporarily garrisoned Bologna.9
At dawn on 22 April, after having crossed the Panaro at Bomporto the previous day, Task Force Duff, its tanks and tank destroyers leading the way, resumed the march northward. What followed was typical of the enemy's many small delaying actions that day, although few others were as effective in gaining time for the Germans. Since the task force had run into little opposition during the past twenty-four hours, General Duff relaxed flank security in order to accelerate a dash for the crossing point at Ostiglia, some thirty miles away. The task force was thus an easy mark for an enemy ambush just beyond Bomporto. Allowing half of the column to pass, the Germans opened fire on the tanks and tank destroyers in the middle of the column with panzerfausts, destroying and damaging several vehicles. Infantry following in trucks quickly dismounted and deployed. Although the enemy detachment was dispersed within an hour, that meant that much more time for enemy forces to escape across the Po.10
Determined to reach the Po by nightfall, General Duff roamed the column like an anxious sheep dog, hurrying the men and vehicles through occasional small arms fire from isolated enemy rear guards firing one last volley before vanishing into a maze of roads, trails, and villages. About an hour before Task Force Duff reached San Benedetto, the main crossing point in the 10th Mountain Division's sector, an antitank mine exploded near General Duff's jeep, seriously wounding him. The division commander, General Hays, came forward to take command of the spearhead. By 1800 San Benedetto was in hand, while the remainder of the mountain division arrived during the night and deployed along the south bank of the Po in preparation for crossing the next day.11
While Hays' division drew up to the Po, Prichard's armored division, with two combat commands forward, advanced
throughout the 22d along the mountain division's left flank, but at a somewhat slower pace. That afternoon CCA on the right bypassed Modena, 23 miles northwest of Bologna, and crossed the Secchia River just beyond the city. With its tank battalion leading the way throughout the night, the combat command reached the Po on the morning of the 23d at the town of Guastalla. Throughout the 22d resistance met by CCB, moving up on the left, so delayed it that it reached the Po several hours after its neighbor.12
In the II Corps sector, the 88th Division led the drive to the Po, primarily because other units constituting the right wing of the corps encountered relatively strong delaying positions manned by contingents of the I Parachute Corps. Troops of the 1st and 4th Parachute Divisions made a particularly strong stand along the Panaro River, which cut diagonally across the zone of advance, thus delaying the 6th South African Armoured and the 91st Infantry Divisions. The 88th Division gained the Po late on 23 April, reaching the river at a point where thousands of Germans were assembling in hope of crossing to the north bank. A mammoth haul over the next two days of 11,000 prisoners, including the 362d Infantry Division's Maj. Gen. Friedrich von Schellwitz, the first German division commander captured during the campaign, surrendered to the troops of the 88th Division.13
On the Eighth Army's front also breakthrough and pursuit were the order of the day. There, however, the general northwestward orientation of the British drive meant that General McCreery would be unable to use his entire force, for a main effort by the 5 British Corps northwestward from Argenta toward Ferrara and juncture with the Americans of the II Corps would soon pinch out both the 13 British Corps and General Anders' 2 Polish Corps.14
Next to reaching the Po, the basic objective of the main effort was to trap the I Parachute Corps. That task fell primarily to the British 6th Armoured Division, which on 21 April had lunged forward to Passo Segni, nine miles south of Ferrara, to establish a bridgehead over a lateral canal between the Reno and a southeastward flowing arm of the Po. After hurling back a series of small but vigorous counterattacks, the armor burst from the bridgehead to rush forward another seven miles to Poggio Renatico, eight miles southwest of Ferrara, there to close the last escape route for survivors of the 278th Infantry Division, until then acting as the left flank pivot for withdrawal of the I Parachute Corps. That action forced the parachutists to continue their withdrawal toward the northwest and assured a complete break between the paratroopers and the LXXVI Panzer Corps.
Even northwesterly withdrawal was soon denied. The next day, the 22d, the British armor drove on to Bondeno, only a few miles from the Po, and on the 23d not only reached the river but linked with the 6th South African Armoured Division of the U.S. II Corps at the village of Finale. For
many of the Germans of the I Parachute Corps the village's name signified their fate. While the cordon thrown up by the two Allied armored divisions was sieve-like, it nevertheless served to trap thousands of Germans, and many escaped only by the expedient of swimming the sprawling Po.
On the same day, the 23d, the 8th Indian Division gained the Po three miles north of Ferrara. By mid-day all organized resistance on the Eighth Army's front west of that point had ceased, but farther east the LXXVI Panzer Corps was still south of the river, remnants of its 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions still posing problems for the British infantry. Yet the position of the units of the LXXVI Panzer Corps was less than enviable, for they were in effect hemmed in south of the Po between strong British formations on the west and the Adriatic coast on the east. About the only way for them to get across the river was to abandon everything and swim for it.
Crossing the Po
By 22 April engineers of the IV Corps had already brought forward fifty 12-man assault boats for an early morning crossing by the 87th Mountain Infantry's 1st Battalion. It was to be the first major river crossing by any contingent of the mountain division, and the troops had received little amphibious training.15
In view of the nature of the opposition, that made little difference. Just before the crossing was to begin enemy 20-mm. and 88-mm. guns opened fire from the north bank, causing some casualties among troops assembled for the operation and delaying it, but supporting artillery located the enemy guns and drove them off. When the engineers propelled the assault boats across the river, not a man was lost.
On the far bank the assault troops found little but abandoned weapons emplacements. Only an hour had passed before the 1st Battalion reported the beachhead secure and ready to receive the remaining battalions. After nightfall, as engineers worked to build a ponton bridge, the rest of the 10th Mountain Division crossed the river, so that at daylight on the 24th all but the division's heavy equipment was deployed north of the Po.
About the time the mountain infantry began crossing the river, a regiment of the 85th Division reached the Po on the IV Corps right flank, while the 1st Armored Division continued to cover the west flank. His "wildest hopes" exceeded by the bold thrust to the Po, General Truscott prepared to take advantage of it by bringing up the 34th Division from garrison duties at Bologna to free part of the armor to exploit the crossing of the Po. Combat Command A then moved eastward to San Benedetto to join the 10th Mountain and 85th Divisions in a dash to the Adige River and Verona, whose capture would further restrict the avenues of escape still left to those German forces in the western half of Italy. Meanwhile, Combat Command B and the 81st Reconnaissance Squadron assembled near Reggio, midway between Modena and Parma, to assist the 1st Brazilian Infantry Division in rounding up the remnants of the LI Mountain
AMERICAN TROOPS STORM ASHORE AFTER ASSAULT CROSSING OF PO RIVER
Corps trapped between the Apennines and the Po.16
As demonstrated by the hordes of Germans eager to surrender, by the debris of a once-proud German Army that choked the roads leading to the Po, and by the easy crossing of the river by the 10th Mountain Division, no need remained for any formal set-piece attack to get across the Po. With that in mind, General Truscott ordered all divisions to cross on their own as quickly as possible.
Close alongside the mountain division, the 85th Division began crossing on 24 April, and by noon of the 25th the IV Corps had a treadway bridge in operation, followed four hours later by the opening of a ponton bridge. Having relinquished engineers, assault boats, and bridging equipment to the IV Corps, units of the II Corps had to improvise. A regiment of the 88th Division stole a march on 24 April by
PLACING A STEEL TREADWAY BRIDGE ACROSS THE PO
sending a detail of men and then an entire battalion across the ruins of a railroad bridge. Others followed in captured rubber assault boats, while men of another regiment shuttled across in a few DUKW's and Alligators. The next day, the 25th, both the 91st Division and the 6th South African Armoured Division also crossed in DUKW's and on makeshift rafts and barges. Nowhere was the opposition more than token.
On the Eighth Army front, as troops of the 5 British Corps gained the Po after having pinched out other contingents of the Eighth Army, General McCreery moved to readjust his formations to bring other corps headquarters back into action. A first step was to transfer the 6th British Armoured Division from the left wing of the 5 Corps to the 13 Corps to afford a second corps at least limited frontage along the Po. Having anticipated a set-piece attack in order to get across the river, McCreery had formed a "Special Po Task Force" to make the attempt under the aegis of the 10 Corps, but the extent and rapidity of the enemy's disintegration
and a sudden serious illness of the 10 Corps commander changed that plan.17 Splitting the task force between the 5 and 13 Corps, McCreery told both to take the river on the run.
Meanwhile, the commander of the enemy's LXXVI Panzer Corps, General von Schwerin, whose troops still maintained a semblance of organization in what was in effect a bridgehead south of the Po, came to the conclusion that nothing could save his corps. As long ago as the preceding summer in Normandy and then in September along Germany's western frontier, von Schwerin had evidenced disenchantment with the war and conviction that continued fighting merely deepened his country's misery; he had survived Hitler's wrath only because he was a respected member of the old German nobility. At this point all was so patently lost that he instructed his troops--including men of the 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions--to abandon tanks, artillery, and other heavy equipment and make for the river to try to swim to safety. General von Schwerin himself surrendered the next morning, 25 April, to the British.18
Contingents of both the 5 and 13 Corps crossed the Po on 24 April against no opposition. A race for the next likely enemy delaying position, the Adige River, was on, but from all indications the Germans had nothing left with which to make a stand at the Adige or anywhere else.
1. See Mayo MS, The Corps of Engineers: Operations in the War Against Germany.
3. MS # T-1b (Westphal et al.). Unless otherwise indicated the following is based upon this reference.
4. MS # C-095e (Senger).
5. Hq Fifth Army G-2 Rpt, 21-22 Apr 45, G-2 Jnl, 105-2.2.
6. Fifth Army OI 9, 19 Apr 45.
7. See Spenser Wilkinson, The Defense of Piedmont, 1842-1848, A Prelude to the Study of Napoleon (Oxford, 1927), pp. 73-81, for details of that battle.
8. IV & II Corps AAR, Apr-May 45.
9. Ibid.; IV Corps History.
10. IV Corps History.
11. 10th Mtn Div AAR, Apr 45; IV Corps AAR, Apr-May 45.
12. IV & II Corps AAR's, Apr-May 45; Howe, The Battle History of the 1st Armored Division, p. 419.
13. Starr, From Salerno to the Alps.
14. Operations of the British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part IV, Sec. B.
15. 10th Mtn Div AAR, Apr-May 45. Unless otherwise cited the following is based upon this source.
16. Truscott, Command Missions, pp. 439-95; II Corps AAR, Apr-May 45; IV Corps AAR, Apr-May 45.
17. The commander, Lt. Gen. J. L. T. Hawkesworth, died a few days later.
18. Operations of the British, Indian, and Dominion Forces in Italy, Part IV, Sec. B. See also MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, pp. 81-82, and Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit, pp. 462-63, for details of von Schwerin's earlier disagreements with his superiors on the battlefield.