Operation Roast (1-3 April 1945) saw the 2nd Commando Brigade clear the narrow spit of land between Lake Commachio and the Adriatic in a preliminary operation before the start of the Eighth Army’s spring offensive in Italy, Operation Buckland (part of Operation Grapeshot, the overall Allied spring offensive).
By the end of the fighting in 1944 the Eighth Army had advanced as far as the Senio River, which flows north into the Reno, and then east into the Adriatic. To the north of the Reno is Lake Comacchio, a large shallow lagoon, which in 1944-45 had been extended to the west by flooding. However there was a narrow gap between the lake and the Reno at its south-western corner, the Argenta gap, and this was the main target for the Eighth Army. Operation Roast was carried out in an attempt to convince the Germans that the main attack was actually going to come on the coast instead, and also to protect the right flank of the proposed attack.
A narrow spit of land ran from north to south between Lake Comacchio and the Adriatic. In the south the Reno river ran past the southern shore of the lake, and then curved left, entering the sea a short distance up the spit, leaving a narrow tongue of land between the south bank of the river and the sea (this was longer in 1945 than it is now). Almost half way up the spit the Bellochio canal cut across from the lake to the sea. The Valetta canal flows across the northern end of the spit, with the fishing village of Porto Garibaldi on its northern side. Finally a third canal formed an ‘L’ shape, running from the lake into the middle of the spit and then turning north to reach the Valetta plan. The area was defended by the Turkoman Division, with some German troops, but most of the fortifications assumed that the attack would come up the spit.
The Allied plan was for a four pronged assault, using Brigadier Tod’s 2nd Commando Brigade. 2 Commando was to cross the lake, land on the western side of the spit north of the Bellochio canal and then capture two bridges across the canal. 9 Command was to cross the lake, land on the western side of the spit and clear the south-west corner. 43 RM Command was to clear the tongue and then the south-eastern corner of the tongue. 40 RM Commando was to make a fient attack across the Reno, take the north bank of the Reno at the south-western corner of the spit and provide a reserve. Once the southern end of the spit was cleared, 2 Commando and 43 RM Commando were to advance up the split, with 2 Commando on the lake side and 43 RM Commando on the Adriatic side and reach the Valetta Canal. 9 Command would then cross the canal and capture Porto Garibaldi.
The lake crossings were to be made in a mix of LVTs (Landing Vehicle, Tracked), storm boats and assault boats. The noise of the preparations were to be hidden by an artillery bombardment, tank movements, aircraft overhead and the playing of Wagner! The attack was to begin at midnight on 1-2 April, with the two landings and 43 RM Commando’s attacks all taking place at the same time. The LVTs were to enter the lake several miles to the west of the spit, move north to a gap in a dike that ran north-west across the lake, then turn east to reach the spit, following a route set out by Major Anders Lassen’s M Squadron, SBS.
Despite all of the careful preparation, the plan immediately ran into a problem when the LVTs got bogged down at the lake edge, which was too muddy for the tracks and too shallow for them to float. The storm boats needed to be carried across the muddy shores before they could get into the water. As a result the midnight starting time soon slipped, but Tod decided to continue with the operation in daylight.
At 0500 43 RM Commando began its assault into the tongue, taking out a heavily defended defensive position, which fell by 0730. At about the same time 40 RM Commando began its feint, sending dummies in boats across the Reno. Five miles inland they crossed the Reno and then advanced east along its north bank to attack another strong point. Their advance was delayed by a deep ditch, which held them up until 1330, and the strong point didn’t fall until 2000. In the meantime more men from 43 Commando had crossed the Reno near the coast and after heavy fighting cleared the south-eastern part of the spit.
At around 0530 2 Commando landed north of the Bellochio canal and took their objectives on the canal. However the Germans were able to destroy one of the two bridges before it was captured. 9 Commando, landing to the south, took their main objective, strongpoint ‘Leviticus’. By the end of 2 April the commandos had reached the Bellochio canal and were ready to advance north.
The advance north from the Bellochio canal had originally been timetabled for 1100 hours on 3 April, but it was now postponed to 1400 hours to allow the supporting armour to get to the front. When the advance did begin, the Commandos were able to reach the Valetta Canal fairly easily, but were then held up by heavy German fire from Porto Garibaldi. During this battle Corporal Tom Hunter was killed while attempting to provide cover fire for his comrades. He was awarded a posthumous VC for his actions. The commando attack across the canal was cancelled, and 24th Guards Brigade was moved up instead to take over at the northern end of the spit. They took over at last light on 4 April.