Operation Buckland - Battle of the Argenta Gap, 9-19 April 1945

Operation Buckland or the battle of the Argenta Gap (12-19 April 1945) was the Eighth Army’s contribution to the Allied Spring Offensive in Italy, and saw them bypass the last series of river defences facing them and break out into the Po plains.

The Allies had hoped that the Eighth Army would break out into the Po plains during the autumn offensive of 1944, Operation Olive, but instead it got bogged down in a series of hard fought battles - at Gemmano, Remini, San Marino and finally the battle of the Rivers in the Romagna Plain. By the end of 1944 the army was running short of infantry, and the offensive had to be cancelled.

The Allies then concentrated on planning their spring offensive. General McCreery, commander of the Eighth Army, had two options. The first was to attack along Highway 9, the road along the northern edge of the Apennines, heading for Bologna and an early junction with the US Fifth Army. That was General Clark’s preferred option, but it meant that the Eighth Army would have to fight its way across yet another series of rivers, many of which had been fortified by the Germans.

British Troops in the Ruins of Cotignola, Spring 1945
British Troops in the
Ruins of Cotignola,
Spring 1945

The second option was to attack through the ‘Argenta Gap’. Most of the rivers that the British were faced ran north from the mountains and flowed into the Reno, which also rose in the mountains and flowed north past Bologna before turning east to flow into the Adriatic on the southern side of Lake Commachio. There was a narrow gap between the lake and the river, which carried Highway 16 past Argenta and on to Ferrara. McCreery preferred an attack through the Argenta Gap, supported by amphibious attacks on Lake Commachio and its flooded surroundings. If the British could get through the gap while the bulk of the German 10th Army was still fighting to defend Highway 9, and then advance west along the northern side of the Reno, the Germans could be trapped between the Reno in the north and the advancing Fifth Army in the west. This would also allow the Eighth Army to bypass most of the north-south rivers, and get around the eastern flank of the fortified western part of the Reno. General Clark approved McCreery’s plan, which became Operation Buckland.

By this point the Eighth Army was a truly multinational force. The main role in the offensive would be taken by General Keightley’s 5th Corps, on the right flank. This corps contained the 56th Division (24th Guards, 9th Armoured, 2nd Command and Italian 28th Garibaldi Brigades), Italian Cremona Battle Group, 8th Indian Division, 78th Division and 2nd New Zealand Divisions. The 21st Tank, 4th New Zealand and 2nd Armoured Brigades were kept in the corps reserve.

On their left, along Highway 9, was the 2nd Polish Corps (Anders), which had agreed to remain in the fight despite their anger with the results of the Yalta Conference, where the Soviets made it clear that they were taking eastern Poland. This corps had the 3rd Carpathian and 5th Kresowa Divisions, the 2nd Polish and 7th Armoured Brigades and the 43rd Lorried Gurkha Brigade.

3in Mortar of Jewish Infantry Brigade Group, Italy, Spring 1945
3in Mortar of Jewish Infantry Brigade Group, Italy, Spring 1945

Next in line was the 10th Corps, which held a line from the upper Senio to the mountains south of Imola. The corps had been reduced to just the Jewish Hebron Brigade and the Italian Friuli Battle Group.

On the Eighth Army left was the 13th Corps, which held the gap between 10th Corps and the US 5th Army. This corps now contained the 10th Indian Division and the Italian Folgore Battle Group. Neither of these corps were expected to play a major part in the upcoming battle.

McCreery’s plan took advantage of a narrow gap between Lake Commachio and the Reno. Lake Commachio was rather larger in 1945 that it is now, and most wartime maps also show a large flooded area west of the main lake that had been inundated by the Germans. Modern maps show a canal that runs around the edge of this larger flooded area.

A series of preliminary operations would take place before the main offensive. 56th Division would capture the ‘wedge’, an area at the south-eastern corner of Lake Comacchio. This would be followed by Operation Roast, which would push up the spit of land between the lake and the sea, and Operation Fry, which would take the islands in the lake. This would allow the 5th Corps to launch a series of amphibious assaults along the lake side of the Argenta Gap (Operation Impact Plain and Operation Impact Royal).

The main attack would start with an attack by 5th Corps towards Lugo, two  miles west of the Senio. From there the corps would push west to Massa Lombarda, and then turn north to take the Bastia Bridge over the Reno and Argenta. Once the Bastia Bridge had been taken, the corps would cross the Reno and advance west along the north bank of the river, bypassing the main German defensive lines and hopefully trapping the German 14th Army.

The 2nd Polish Corps would launch the second prong of the Eighth Army offensive, advancing west along Highway 9 towards Medicina and Castel San Pietro, and eventually to join up with the US Fifth Army’s right wing around Bologna. If the attack towards the Argenta gap failed, then the Eighth Army could switch its main focus to this flank, and attack towards Budrio, just to the east of the Idice River and the German Genghis Khan Line.

Preliminary Operations

The first of the preliminary operations, Operation Roast, began on 1 April. Despite some problems with the LVTs, which couldn’t cope with that part of the lake, the 2nd Commando Brigade managed to capture the spit and reached Porto Garibaldi, at the northern end of the spit. The SBS then carried out Operation Fry, capturing several islands in the lake. On 6 April the 56th Division took the ‘wedge’, the area between the Reno and the south-western corner of Lake Commachio, to the west of Sant Alberto. This gave the British control of an area of solid lake shore on the boundary between the original lake and the flooded area, ready for the amphibious plans that were to support the main offensive. 

The Main Attack

The massive aerial assault began early on 9 April. The heavy and medium bombers hit the area between the Senio and Santerno Rivers, ironically hitting many German troops who had been withdrawn from the Senio to avoid the expected Allied artillery bombardment.

The ground attack began at 1930 hours. There was some resistance along the Senio, but by dawn on 10 April the 2nd New Zealand and 8th Indian Divisions were both securely across the river. By the end of 10 April the New Zealanders had reached the Santerno and the Indians were within a mile of that river.

On the left the Poles ran into the 26th Panzer Division, and took some time to get across the Senio. Even there, the advance sped up during 10 April. A German strongpoint at Solarolo on the Lugo Canal was overcome during the day, and by the evening the Poles were within three miles of the Santerno. The 362nd Division counterattacked to the south of Lugo (near the corps boundary), but then retreated to the Santerno, followed by the 98th Division. This forced the 26th Panzer to retreat on the right.
 

Indian Troops with Vickers Gun, Sillaro River, April 1945
Indian Troops with Vickers Gun, Sillaro River, April 1945

By the morning of 12 April both corps were across the Santerno. 12 April saw the New Zealanders on the 5th Corps left advance two miles and take Massa Lombarda, between the Santerno and the Sillaro.

On their right the 56th Division launched their first amphibious attack, Operation Impact Plain. This saw an infantry brigade land near Menate, about half way along the shore of the extended lake, and seven miles to the north-east of the key bridge of Bastia. The attack achieved surprise, and Menate and nearby Longastrino both fell to the amphibious attack. Another brigade advanced west from the ‘wedge’, along the north bank of the Reno, to join up with the amphibious force. Further to the south-east the division reached Alfonsine, close to the point where Highway 16 crossed the Senio. This area was defended by the 42nd Jaeger Division, which now had to fight hard to avoid being trapped between the 56th Division to its east and the New Zealanders and Indians around Massa Lombarda.

McCreery’s next move was to feed the 78th Division into the battle. The division attacked north from the 8th Indian Division’s bridgehead across the Santerno, along the west bank of the river towards Bastia Bridge, where Highway 16 crosses the Reno (now the site of the Bar Bastia, at the northern end of the bridge). 2nd Commando Brigade protected the left flank of the assault. At the same time 56th Division attacked from the east, while the 24th Guards Brigade launched the second amphibious assault, Impact Royal. This began early on 13 April, but was held up short of its objectives by the 42nd Jaegers.

Early on 14 April the 78th Division captured the Bastia Bridge intact, but were held up by the Jaegers in the nearby village (San Biagio). Vietinghoff made desperate attempts to get permission to shorten his line to allow him to move troops to the Argenta Gap. He was able to order the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to move from its position past Venice back to the front. He also moved the 1st Parachute Corps from its dangerous position around Imola back the Idice. He also moved the 26th Panzer Division out of the line to form a mobile reserve. The 278th Division was moved from the Parachute Corps to take over from the battered 98th Division on the front west of Massa Lonbarda.

Churchill IV at Portomaggiore, April 1945
Churchill IV at Portomaggiore, April 1945

On 15 April the 278th briefly held up the advancing New Zealanders. The 4th parachute Division also slowed down the Poles on Highway 9, which allowed the 1st Parachute Corps to escape from Imola to the Genghis Khan Line.

On the right the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division began to reach the Argenta sector. General Keightley now committed as many troops as he could find to the key battle. He had three independent infantry brigades to commit to the fight. One was to attack north-west towards Portomaggioire, beyond the western end of the flooded area. One was to attack east of Argenta. The third was to support the 78th Division at the Bastia bridge. 2nd Commando, which had been operating on the left flank of the 78th Division advance, was now to attack across the area south-west of Argenta.

On the same day the 29th Panzer Grenadiers were beginning to dig in along the Marina Canal, which ran from the Reno to the flooded area, starting just to the east of Argenta and running north-east. The survivors of the 42nd Jaeger and 362nd Divisions were ordered to hold on until early on 16 April to try and give Panzer Grenadiers time to dig in, and the units south of the Reno to escape.

8th Army Mopping up in Argenta, April 1945
8th Army Mopping
up in Argenta,
April 1945

The 78th Division attacked the 29th Panzer Grenadiers’ right flank on the canal on the evening of 16 April, and were across by the morning of 17 April. During the morning they were able to break out of their bridgehead. By the end of the day Argenta had fallen to the 78th Division, and two of its brigades were advancing north along Highway 16. On the right the 56th Division carried out another amphibious advance up to the Marina Canal. On the left the 2nd Commando Brigade also continued to push forwards.

On the Eighth Army’s left flank, the 2nd New Zealand Division pushed back the 278th Division and the Polish Corps and the 10th Indian Division from 13th Corps pushed along Highway 9 and the parallel route from Medicina to Budrio. By 18 April the Allies had reached the Gaiano canal, five miles to the east of the Genghis Khan line on the Idice River.

Achilles Tank Destroyer on road to Ferrara
Achilles Tank Destroyer on road to Ferrara

The Allies were now on the brink of a victorious end to the Italian campaign. The 6th Armoured Division was committed to the pursuit on the right, and by 20 April was only ten miles from Ferrara on Highway 16. On their left the 10th Indian Division had passed to the east of Budrio, while the New Zealanders cross the Idice north of Budrio. The 5th Corps had now broken through the Genghis Khan line on its left and was advancing past the Argenta gap on the right.

By the end of 20 April the German 10th Army was in real danger. The Americans had broken out of the mountains and were about to rush north to the Po. On the right part of the British 5th Corps was advancing through the Argenta Gap. That evening General Vietinghoff ordered a full scale retreat behind the Po, Operation Herbstnebel. However it was now too late for this to achieve anything significant. Allied aircraft destroyed most of the bridges over the Po, while low water levels stopped the Germans ferrying their heavy equipment across the river.

The 6th Armoured Division continued to push west. On 21 April the division reached Passo Segni, nine miles south of Ferrara. They then advanced to Poggio Renatico, seven miles further to the west, cutting off the last line of retreat for the 278th Infantry Division on the left flank of the 1st Parachute Corps, and splitting the German line in two. On 22 April they reached Bondeno, almost at the Po, and on 23 April, at Finale, to the north-west of the bend in the Reno, joined up with the South African 6th Armoured Division of the Fifth Army, coming from the south. On 23 April the 8th Indian Division passed Ferrara and reached the Po. The remains of the 1st Parachute Corps were now trapped between the Eighth and Fifth Armies.

By the end of 23 April all organised resistance on the Eighth Army front west of Ferrara had ended. The 76th Panzer Corps still had some organised troops further to the east, especially from the 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier Divisions, but they were trapped between the Po and the advancing Eighth Army, and like their colleagues further west soon had to abandon their equipment and swim across the river.

McCreery had made plans for an opposed crossing of the Po. Part of this saw the 6th Armoured Division moved to the 13th Corps, which was brought back into the main battle. He had also planned to use the 10th Corps to form a Special Po Task Force, but the corps commander fell ill. The collapse of German resistance meant that the forma attack was no longer needed and McCreery ordered the 5th and 13th Corps to ‘bounce’ the river. They successfully crossed the Po on 24 April without any resistance.

The last major intact German force south of the Po was the 76th Panzer Corps, under General von Schwerin, but by 24 April he had decided that the situation was hopeless. He ordered his men to abandon their heavy equipment and try to swim to safety. Von Schwerin himself surrendered to the British on 25 April.

This meant that the Eighth Army faced very little resistance after crossing the Po. On the left the 2nd New Zealand Division reached the Adige on 26 April, followed by the 6th South African Division. There was also one last airborne operation, when 250 Italian paratroops were dropped across the Eighth Army line of advance to disrupt the German retreat. The 8th Indian Division and 56th Divisions reached the Adige by the evening of 26 April. On the coastal flank the Italian Cremona Combat Group crossed the Po near its mouth and advanced up the coast. On 27 April troops from the 5th and 13th Corps managed to cross the Adige without any serious resistance.

The final stage of the pursuit saw the Eighth Army chase the survivors of the Tenth Army north-east. The long supply line meant that only the 56th and 2nd New Zealand Divisions could take part in this final advance, but they ran into no resistance. On 29 May the 56th Division reached Venice and the New Zealanders reached Padua. General Clark also temporarily placed the US 91st Division under Eighth Army control, while the Fifth Army continued to supply it, strengthening the advance. The only difficulties came at Trieste, where the German garrison refused to surrender to the Yugoslavian partisans and waited for the 2nd New Zealand Division to arrive on 2 May. The port of Venice had been taken intact, allowing the 6th Armoured Division to join the advance, heading for Udine and Belluno.

The last battles in Italy took place while secret surrender negotiations were underway. These finally came to a successful end on 29 April, when officers representing General Vietinghoff and the supreme SS commander in Italy, General Wollf, signed the armistice agreement. It came into effect on 2 May 1945, and affected almost one million German and allied troops in Italy and parts of Austria. Another 145,000 prisoners had been taken during the final Allied offensive. The Italian armistice was the first large scale surrender of German troops during the European campaign.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (20 May 2019), Operation Buckland - Battle of the Argenta Gap, 9-19 April 1945 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_buckland_argenta.html

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