Operation Craftsman - Battle of Bologna, 14-21 April 45

Operation Craftsman or the battle of Bologna (14 April-2 May 1945) was the Fifth Army's part of the final Allied offensive in Italy and saw the army break out into the Po valley to the west of Bologna then advance rapidly to the Po before occupying the central and western parts of the Po valley.

The Fifth Army was now commanded by General Truscott, and he had a major influence on the development of the Craftsman plan. General Clark, the army’s previous commander, and now the Army Group commander in Italy, had wanted to take Bologna, but Truscott was aware that the Germans had built their strong defences along Highway 65, the road to Bologna. He wanted to make his main effort further to the west, along and to the west of Highway 64, which would bring his men out onto the Po plains to the west of Bologna.

Truscott’s plan was for the attack to begin with an advance by Crittenberger’s 4th Corps, on his left. This corps held a 50 mile section of the front, from the Reno south-west of Bologna to the west coast. On the left the 92nd Division would carry out diversionary attacks. In the centre was the 1st Brazilian Division, which was also given a fairly minor role. The main part of the 4th Corps offensive would involve its’ right hand unit, the excellent 10th Mountain Division. Once the 4th Corps had reached the Po plain, the 2nd Corps would attack on their right, with part of the corps emerging west of Bologna and part attacking the city. The two corps would then advance north to the Po, with 4th Corps heading up Highway 12 to Ostiglia and 2nd Corps making for Bondeno, eighteen miles to the east. The 2nd Corps would join up with the advancing Eighth Army somewhere on the 2nd Corps front, hopefully trapping large parts of the German 10th Army between them. Each corps was allocated an armoured division, but they were posted next to each other on the corps boundary, with the US 1st Armoured Division on the right flank of 4th Corps and the South African 6th Armoured Division on the left flank of 2nd Corps.

After crossing the Po 4th Corps was to move north to Verona and then west to Lake Garda, to cut off the German 14th Army in the north-west of Italy. 2nd Corps and the Eighth Army were to advance north-east to the Adige, and hopefully break through the German ‘Venice Line’ and prevent the Germans from retreating into the Alps, where the Allies feared they might be setting up a ‘national redoubt’ and preparing for a last stand.

The Allied offensive was to begin on the Eighth Army front, to allow the entire strength of the Allied air forces to support the attack across the Senio and Santerno Rivers. The Fifth Army would then attack on D+3. Within the Fifth Army attach, 4th Corps would attack first, with all available air support. 2nd Corps would attack 36 hours later, again with all air support.

The Fifth Army carried out one diversionary attack, Operation Second Wind (5-19 April 1945). This saw the modified 92nd Division force the Germans to abandon Massa, on the coast south-east of La Spezia, and move a regiment from the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division from their reserves to the west coast. The 29th Panzer Grenadier Division had already been moved to the coast behind Venice, and was thus unavailable when the main attacks began.

The Battle

D-Day for Craftsman had been set for 12 April, but heavy fog intervened, and the attack was postponed until 14 April. The first air attacks began at 0830, starting with heavy bombs, and followed by medium bombers and fighter bombers. The artillery opened fire at 0910, and the ground forces followed soon afterwards.

The initial attack involved the US 10th Mountain Division, attacking towards the Rocco Roffeno massif. Control of this mountain and the associated ridges would open the road that ran west/ north-west from Vergato towards Modena. The attack would also hit the junction between the 51st Mountain Corps in the west and the 14th Panzer Corps in the east. The massif was defended by the 334th Division of the mountain corps. The 94th Division of the 14th Panzer Corps was on its east. The Mountain Division attack successfully broke a hole in the German line by the end of the first day. The advance continued on the next day, and by the end of 15 April the 94th Division had been forced to retreat. By the end of 18 April the 10th Mountain Division had reached the northern edge of the mountains.

The 4th Corps attack was also making progress on its flanks. On the left the Brazilians advanced north-west from Castel D’aiano, while on the right the 1st Armoured Division took Vergato on 16 April and by the end of 17 April had advanced five miles past the town.

The 2nd Corps attack began on the night of 15-16 April, and made slower progress. They were attacking four German divisions in pre-prepared defences on the line that the Germans had expected to have to defend. The Germans were still holding out across Highway 65 on 18 April, but they were becoming dangerously isolated by the advancing 4th Corps on one flank, and the 2nd Polish Corps of the Eighth Army, coming from the east. General Truscott decided that the time was right to shift most of the 2nd Corps effort to the left to reinforce the success of the 4th Corps.  

The final attack towards the plains began at 0930 on 18 April. 10th Mountain and 85th Divisions led the attack. On the right the 85th ran into little or no resistance, and were able to push forward five miles down the valley from Vergato. The 10th Mountain Division ran into more resistance on 18 April, but the Germans attempted to withdraw. This retreat turned into a rout, and on 20 April the Americans finally broke out onto the plains. By mid afternoon the 87th Mountain Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, had reached Highway 9 near Ponte Samoggia, ten miles to the north-west of Bologna. To their right the 88th Division, which had replaced the 85th, reached Riale, and on their right the 6th South African Armoured Division reached Casalecchio, both at the foot of the mountains.

The first Allied troops entered Bologna on 21 April. This included a force from the 133rd Infantry, 34th Division coming from the west, the Poles coming from the east and the Italian Legnano Group.

The Pursuit

The German position in Italy now collapsed. Late on 21 April General Vietinghoff ordered a full scale retreat behind the Po, Operation Herbstnebel, but many of his units began to collapse as they fled back towards the Po. Allied aircraft destroyed most bridges over the river, trapping most of the German heavy equipment on the south bank. On the US side the 4th Corps advanced towards Ostiglia, reaching the Po there on 22 April. As they pushed north the Americans broke up more German units. On 23 April General von Senger und Etterlin had to dismiss the HQ of the 14th Panzer Corps and join the flight to the Po. On the corps left the 1st Armoured Division ran into more resistance, as the 51st Mountain Corps attempted to retreat to the north-west. Even so its Combat Command A passed Modena on 22 April and reached the Po at Guastalla early on 23 April, followed a few hours later by Combat Command B.

On the 2nd Corps front the 88th Division reached the Po late on 23 April. The division occupied one of the German crossing points, and was able to take 11,000 prisoners over the next two days, including General von Schellwitz, commander of the 362nd Infantry Division. The South African 6th Armoured advanced north down the west bank of the Reno, running into resistance from the 1st and 4th Parachute Divisions. On 23 April, at Finale, to the north-west of the point where the river turned east, they met up with the British 6th Armoured Division from the Eighth Army, cutting off the retreat of the 1st Parachute Corps.

The first troops from 4th Corps crossed the Po early on 23 April. The first crossing was carried out by the 1st Battalion, 87th Mountain Infantry. The battalion suffered some casualties from German fire on the south bank, but none during the crossing and within an hour the bridgehead was secured. The division was across the river by 24 April.

Truscott’s next targets were Verona and the Adige River. A quick advance to the Adige would stop the Germans using it as a defensive line, and cut off the survivors of the 14th Army in the north-west. In order to carry out this advance, the 85th Division crossed the Po on 24 April and the first pontoon bridge had been completed by 25 April. On the 2nd Corps front a regiment from the 88th Division managed to get a battalion across a damaged railway bridge on 24 April. On 25 April the 91st Division and South African 6th Armoured Divisions crossed in DUKWs and various rafts and barges.

After the crossing of the Po, Truscott send his corps in different directions. The 2nd Corps was to advance along Highway 12 and occupy the Adige between Verona and Legnano. 4th Corps was to deal with the Germans and Italians in the north-west. This involved a two pronged assault, with the Brazilians, and the 34th Division on the left, advancing up Highway 9, and a number of combined arms task forces along the northern edge of the Po valley to block the escape routes into the Alps.

On the 2nd Corps front the 10th Mountain Division was sent to bypass Mantua, and then cut the road between Verona and Lake Garda. The 85th Division was sent to Verona. The 1st Armoured Division was split, with part heading towards Milan and part supporting the advance towards the Adige. The advance began on 25 April, and the Americans made rapid progress. In many places they found Italian partisans had already taken control. To the right the 88th Division raced into Verona, arriving in the city first, and once again finding very little resistance. There was very little resistance, and it had been overcome by 26 April.

Troops of US 5th Army in Genoa, 1945
Troops of US
5th Army in Genoa,

The same happened further to the west. At the far left of the line Genoa was occupied by the 92nd Division on 27 April. Troops advancing from that direction occupied Turin on 2 May. On 29 April the forces advancing west in the northern Po valley occupied Milan. Over the next few days the Fifth Army advancing west ran into the advanced emelemts from General Devers’ 6th Army Group, coming from the south of France.

Elsewhere elements of the Fifth Army took part in the advance to the north-east, reaching Treviso, near Venice.

The last serious resistance on the Fifth Army front came as the Germans attempted to escape up Highway 12 towards the Brenner Pass and into Austria. General Vietinghoff attempted to follow this route. The remnants of von Senger’s 14th Panzer Corps were ordered to try and defend the gap between Lake Garda and Highway 12. By the end of 26 April von Senger controlled three Kampfgruppen, with 2,000 men between them. The purpose of this last battle was to try and win time for troops retreating from the east to reach areas where they could surrender to the Americans or British. As a result the 10th Mountain Division had to fight one more battle. The division was caught by surprise when it ran into serious resistance on 28 April, after over a week of easy advances. For the last time the Germans fought a series of skilful delaying actions, demolishing bridges and tunnels and slowing up the Allied advance. This time there was an open flank on Lake Garda, and the division used DUKWs to get around the German blockades. There was another hard fight at the northern end of the lake, when the Germans defended Torbole, and even launched an armoured counter attack. By the end of 30 April all resistance on this front had ended as well.

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 (28 May 2019), Operation Craftsman - Battle of Bologna, 14-21 April 45 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_craftsman_bologna.html

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