The battle of the Biferno (1-7 October 1943) saw the British Eighth Army break through the eastern flank of the first German defensive line in Italy, the Volturno Line.
The advance to the Biferno involved troops that had landed in Calabria as part of Operation Baytown (the Canadian 1st Division) and troops that had landed in Bari after Operation Slapstick (the British 78th Division). The Canadians had advanced up the east coast of Calabria, then moved north-west from the Gulf of Taranto to Potenza. The two divisions had then moved closer together to advance on the key target of Foggia, one of the main Allied targets of the entire campaign because of the network of nearby airfields. The Germans had no intention of defending Foggia, and abandoned the city on 27 September. The first British patrols captured the airfields intact on 1 October, and they were soon in use by Allied heavy bombers.
The battle of the Biferno came just after a reorganisation of the Eighth Army. Baytown had been carried out by the 13th Corps, then made up of the 1st Canadian Division and British 5th Division. Slapstick was carried out by the 1st Airborne Division, which then became part of 5th Corps. Fresh units then landed in Italy and the corps were reorganised. 13th Corps kept the 1st Canadian Division and gained the 78th Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade. This corps, under General Leese, was given the task of advancing up the Adriatic coast. 5th Corps was given the 5th Division and the 8th Indian Division, and briefly contained the 1st Airborne Division, but this was withdrawn after the fall of Foggia.
13th Corps (General Leese) faced the German 1st Paratroop Division (Heidrich), with the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division slowly moving over the Apennines from Benevento to reinforce it. The British were advancing in two columns. On the right the 78th Division was moving north to San Severo, and from there to Termoli on the coast, just to the north-west of the River Biferno. On the left the Canadian 1st Division was advancing to Lucera and then west towards Vinchiaturo in the mountains, where they would make contact with the Fifth Army. On 1 October the British reached Serracapriola, half way between San Severo and Termoli. On 2 October the Canadians reached Motta, ten miles west of Lucera, on the edge of the mountains. 5th Corps was posted on the left-rear of the advance, to keep contact with the 5th Army on the other side of the Apennines. These early British successes convinced Heidrich to pull back behind the Biferno while also placing a battlegroup in Termoli.
Montgomery decided to launch a two pronged assault on the coast, involved the 78th Division and a group of Special Forces units. First No.11 Brigade would attack towards Serracapriola, twelve miles east of the Biferno. Next, the 1st Special Service Brigade, made up of 3 (Army) Commando, 40 (Royal Marine) Commando and the Special Raiding Squadron, would seize Termoli. After that the 36th and 38th (Irish) Brigades would be shipped to Termoli, forcing the Germans to abandon the Biferno. The amphibious operation was given the codename Operation Devon.
The advance towards Serracapriola began on 1 October. 11 Brigade, supported by part of 4th Armoured Brigade, and had to overcome some resistance before even reaching Serracapriola. The first reconnaissance troops reached the Bifernon on 3 October, and the advance then had to pause while the sappers built a bridge over the flooded river. The recce troops were able to cross the river just before the end of 3 October and spent the night of 3-4 October camped two miles to the south of Termoli.
The Special Service Brigade landed near Termoli just before dawn on 3 October, after sailing from Bari. The German defenders of Termoli, Kampfgruppe Rau, only had 400 men, mainly flak personnel with a few sappers and paratroops, and were captured without putting up any resistance. On the night of 3-4 October the 36th Brigade landed in the town as planned, and on the following morning the brigade pushed patrols out from the town.
Kesselring decided to deal with the growing threat on the Adriatic by moving the 16th Panzer Division from the Volturno to Termoli, but it took the division two days to cross from west to east. By the time they arrived, the British were thus already in Termoli. However their presence did come as a surprise when they were detected by the patrols early on 4 October. 16th Panzer was also badly stretched out, and was thus unable to make a concentrated attack.
The British were also rather scattered at this point. Two battalions from the 36th Brigade, the 6th Royal West Kents and the 8th Argylls, advanced out of Termoli to secure the west bank of the Biferno. The Argylls, advancing along the ridge that led to San Giacomo and them Guglionesi, were the first to run into the German armour, followed soon afterwards by the West Kents. The leading battalion from 11th Brigade, the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers was also soon caught up in the fighting. The British lacked anti-tank weapons, and had yet to complete a tank bridge over the river.
The crisis of the battle came on 5 October. The British had a thin line, with 56 Recce, 3 Command and the SRS on the right (defending high ground to the east of the Simarca River, on the western side of Termilo), the Argylls attempting to advance south-west towards San Giacomo, and the Lancashires and West Kents on the left. The engineers had also managed to bulldozer a ford across the river, but only six Shermans were able to get across. Four of them were lost in the attack on San Giacomo, and the Argylls were forced back to the Valentino brickworks, on the left flank of the Special Forces position, south-west of Termoli. The brickworks then came under heavy bombardment and the British were forced to retreat back towards a final defensive line that had been set up by the Lancashires. On the left the West Kents had also suffered badly, and had been forced to retreat south, away from Termoli. The Germans were unable to make more progress, partly because they only had 25 tanks in the area and partly because of the efforts of the Desert Air Force.
Luckily 38th (Irish) Brigade had begun to land in Termoli late on 5 October, and by dawn on 6 October they were mainly ashore. There was more good news - the engineers had build a bailey bridge and 80-90 tanks were expected to be able to cross the river early on 6 October. The initial plan for 6 October was for the Buffs, supported by two armoured regiments, to capture San Giacomo. The Irish would then take over that position. This plan had to be abandoned after the tanks were held up by an anti-tank obstacle. The new plan was for the Irish to seize San Giacomo, supported by one tank squadron, from the Canadian Three Rivers Regiment. The attack began at 11.30am, and after some hard fighting had achieved its objectives by 3pm. The German counterattack had failed, and they were forced to withdraw back to the next defensive line, on the Trigno.
The nature of the Italian landscape meant that this wasn’t such a major blow as it might seem - the two halves of each German defensive line were separated by the high spine of the Apennines, and to a certain extent could be linked up by any choice of mountain positions. The breach of the Biferno line thus had no impact on the Volturno Line, which was held for another week.
There was now a pause in operations. Montgomery wanted to sort out his lines of communication, which now ran back to Bari, and prepare for a major assault which would advance through the German defensive lines all the way to Pescara, from where he could threaten Rome. Unfortunately this pause allowed the Germans to move more troops to the Adriatic, and take up a new line on the Trigno River (possibly the eastern part of the Barbara Line). The Eighth Army thus missed a possible chance for a major advance before the Germans could get fully organised, although suggestions that the Eighth Army could have easily reached Pescara in early October probably underrate the German defenders.