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REACHING THE PO Legacy of Liberation

In the autumn of 1944, after the bitter battles at Cassino and the liberation of Rome, the Allies faced the Gothic Line, the German army’s main defensive position in northern Italy. The British Eighth Army attacked up the Adriatic coast, while the US Fifth Army fought through the central Apennine mountains. They broke through the Gothic Line, but German forces were able to fall back to new defensive positions. These, along with heavy rains, swollen rivers and mud stopped the Allied armies.

Artillery gun in mud, October 1944 © IWM

One final offensive was needed – ‘an all-out attack to destroy the maximum number of enemy forces south of the Po’. To do this, the two Allied armies would hit the Germans from two different directions, pushing them back towards the river but preventing them from crossing by using the Allies air superiority to attack bridges or pontoons.

Many countries were represented in the Allied armies in Italy. A Brazilian Division and a South African Armoured Division were in the US Fifth Army. The British Eighth Army had a Polish Corps, an Indian Division and a New Zealand Division. Both armies had Italian combat groups made up of anti-Fascists. In April 1945 they would all work together to end the war in Italy.

Indian troops inspect captured gun, January 1945 © IWM

To break out into the plains towards the Po would not be easy. Fifth Army would have to dislodge German divisions from mountain defences, and Eighth Army had to cross a series of deep, high-sided, fortified rivers. Nearer to the coast, in Eighth Army’s path, the Germans had flooded as much low-lying land as possible, leaving only a narrow strip between inundated fields and Lake Comacchio: the ‘Argenta gap’. Before the offensive began, special forces and Commandos undertook small but high-impact amphibious operations at Lake Comacchio to prepare the way and to confuse the Germans. In one of these, on the night of 8-9 April, Major Anders Lassen was killed.

Major Anders Frederik Emil Victor Schau Lassen

Anders Lassen was born on 22 September 1920 in Copenhagen. Following Germany’s invasion of Denmark in 1940 he came to Britain.

He joined the Commandos and was quickly commissioned and awarded a Military Cross. Anders served in North-West Europe, North Africa, Crete, the Aegean islands, mainland Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy. His unit was absorbed into the Special Air Service in February 1944 and by October Lassen had been promoted to Major and awarded two bars to the Military Cross.

The citation for his Victoria Cross describes his night of 8-9 April 1945:

“…Major Lassen was ordered to take out a patrol of one officer and seventeen other ranks to raid the north shore of Lake Comacchio. His tasks were to cause as many casualties and as much confusion as possible, to give the impression of a major landing, and to capture prisoners.

…the party found itself on a narrow road flanked on both sides by water. Preceded by two scouts, Major Lassen led his men along the road towards the town. They were challenged from a position on the side of the road. An attempt to allay suspicion failed – machinegun fire started from the sentry position and from two other blockhouses to the rear.

Major Lassen then attacked with grenades and annihilated the first position. Ignoring the hail of bullets sweeping the road, he raced forward to engage the second position. Throwing more grenades, he silenced this. Still under a heavy cone of fire Major Lassen rallied his force and brought his fire to bear on the third position. Moving forward he flung more grenades, which produced a cry of "Kamerad ". He then went forward to take their surrender. Whilst shouting to them to come out he was hit by a burst of Spandau fire and fell mortally wounded, but even whilst falling he flung a grenade, enabling his patrol to dash in and capture this final position.

Major Lassen refused to be evacuated. By his magnificent leadership and complete disregard for his personal safety, he had, in the face of overwhelming superiority, achieved his objects.”

Major Lassen was eventually buried in Argenta Gap War Cemetery. His headstone has the Victoria Cross carved upon it, above the words chosen by his family, taken from a Danish hymn

On 9 April, as dusk fell, the first ground attacks of Operation Grapeshot went in. Eighth Army units began the offensive alone, as Fifth Army would not throw their punch until Eighth Army was across two fortified rivers, the Senio and Santerno, and had reached the entrance to the Argenta Gap. From 9-14 April, the Eighth Army attacked alone and in heavy and bitter combat pushed the Germans back.

1st 5th Mahrattas arrive at start point for attack © IWM

The 1st/5th Mahratta Light Infantry, a regiment consisting of Maratha Hindus, led the 8th Indian Division’s assault over the Senio River under heavy German fire.

A company runner, Sepoy Namdeo Jadhav was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 9 April. His citation tells us something about what these men faced:

“Sepoy Namdeo Jadhav was a Company runner and when his Company crossed the river, he was with his Company Commander close behind one of the leading sections. When wading the river and emerging on the west bank the party came under heavy fire from at least three German posts. The Company commander and two men were wounded and the rest, with the exception of Sepoy Namdeo Jadhav, were killed. This gallant Sepoy immediately carried one of the wounded men through the deep water and up the precipitous slope of the bank through the mine belt to safety. He then made a second trip to bring back the other wounded man. Both times under heavy fire. He then determined to eliminate the machine gun posts. Crossing the exposed east bank a third time, he dashed at the nearest enemy post and silenced it with his Tommy Gun. He was wounded in the hand and, being unable to fire his gun, threw it away and resorted to grenades. With these he successively charged and wiped out two more enemy posts. Having silenced all machine gun fire from the east bank, he then climbed on to the top of it and, in spite of heavy mortar fire, stood in the open shouting the Mahratta war cry and waving the remainder of the Companies across the river. ”

Namdeo survived but 16 members of his battalion did not. Wherever possible, the army cremated those who wished to be committed to fire in accordance with their faith. They are commemorated by name on memorials; 15 of the 1st/5th Mahrattas are named on the Cassino Memorial. Other Indian Army servicemen who died in April 1945 and were cremated are named on memorials in Forli Indian Army War Cemetery and Rimini Gurkha War Cemetery, alongside their comrades with graves.

CASSINO MEMORIAL

Cassino War Cemetery © CWGC

Standing in Cassino War Cemetery, the Cassino Memorial commemorates more than 3,000 Commonwealth servicemen who took part in the Italian Campaign and have no known grave and over 900 Indian soldiers whose remains were cremated.

Amphibious vehicles land in Italy, 1945 © IWM

Lt Sidney Spence of 1st Battalion The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) wrote an account after the war of the part they played in trying to reach the Argenta Gap.

“That night in the field of the assembly area the troops slept in rows under individual mosquito nets — there were plenty of insects around those marshes. Each net was supported at the head end by a wooden cross. Viewed in the moonlight I felt that I was looking at a cemetery. The next day was to prove me right, tragically right.”

The Buffs were to take a key objective in the flooded area near Lake Comacchio, necessary to move towards the Argenta Gap. They were to reach their objective – the main bridge across a canal, with surrounding buildings and a pumping station – by amphibious armoured troop carriers, called Fantails or Buffaloes. They embarked before dawn on 13 April.

“The journey across Lake Comacchio was not unpleasant. After the sun came up it was a glorious spring day. Not a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind, and the only ripples on the water were those caused by the considerable commotion generated by the fleet of Fantails. What incredibly noisy, cumbersome, unwieldy vehicles they were!”

In the last 200 yards they come under fire from machine guns and two tanks.

“A moment later we were hit. I didn't hear the bang. In fact there seemed to be an instant of complete silence before I found myself pinned against the ramp watching the front of the Fantail rearing upwards. I thought we would capsize before it fell back and halted.”

The ramp was jammed and fuel oil was on fire so they had to escape from the top of the vehicle, still under machine gun fire, heading for the flood bank, but once there a sniper began to pick them off. The survivors got away after dawn on 14 April, Spence and a German POW swimming out to fetch a damaged assault craft for the non-swimmers to ride in.

One of The Buffs who was killed was Serjeant John Pascall.

Serjeant John Edward Lacey PASCALL

Major Donald Bennett of the Buffs wrote to John’s father on 7 May 1945. He had known John for about three years, ‘and during that time I have never once known him fail to carry out cheerfully and well any duties that were asked of him… his tragic death has been a great blow to us all. The company was called upon to do an amphibious operation on Lake Comacchio but as we were about to land the “Buffaloe” in which Sgt Pascall was travelling was hit by an anti-tank shell. Only one man was lost, but as the remainder jumped out into about three feet of water, machine-guns opened up and Sgt Pascall was killed instantly. … I cannot stress how much he is missed by his comrades…’

John was 30. His father asked that the headstone for his only child read, ‘In loving memory of a dear son.’

ARGENTA GAP WAR CEMETERY

Argenta Gap War Cemetery © CWGC

Site of the cemetery was chosen by the 78th Division, British Eighth Army for battlefield burials during Grapeshot largest number of British unit dead for Operation Grapeshot; cemetery is more than 2/3rds Grapeshot dead.

On 14 April, US Fifth Army joined the offensive. They aimed to break out of the mountains just west of Bologna, on the axis of the River Reno/Highway 64. For the men of the South African 6th Armoured Division, D-Day was 15 April. Fighting as infantry, they were to open their attack by taking the key heights of Monte Sole, Monte Caprara and Monte Abelle. This massif overlooked the valley in which the river Reno and Highway 64 ran. The First City/Cape Town Highlanders attacked Monte Sole first, at 10.30 p.m. on 15 April, the first men reaching the summit just before 1 a.m. on 16 April. With bayonets and grenades, ten machine-gun posts and the ridge were cleared. The Witwatersrand Rifles/Regiment de la Rey struggled with Monte Caprara, however.

Lance Corporal Manuel Soloman Dorfan

Manuel was born on 31 August 1919, in Kinross, Mpumalanga. ‘Mannie’ was the youngest of three brothers and had one sister. He enlisted in 1940.

Mannie was killed during the attack on Monte Caprara. His unit were hit by German artillery and mortars as they moved up to attack. Progress slowed but in a final effort the South Africans charged up the steep slope with bayonets fixed, reaching the summit at 6.15 am, securing the position at 8.15 am on 16 April. The assault cost 24 killed and 144 wounded while the Germans numbered 20 killed, 3 wounded and 39 prisoners. Mannie and his dead comrades are in Castiglione South African War Cemetery. His family requested the Star of David for his headstone but no personal inscription. Mannie was 25.

CASTIGLIONE SOUTH AFRICAN CEMETERY

Castiglione South African Cemetery © CWGC

Started in October 1944 by the 6th South African Armoured Division, many burials made here direct from the battlefields of the Apennines during the winter of 44-45 and early months of 1945 c.1/5th of cemetery is Grapeshot dead. The South Africans fought in the US Fifth Army, hence cemetery here in the mountains.

In five days of intense fighting both Armies broke through – Fifth Army out of the mountains, just west of Bolgona, and Eighth Army through the Argenta Gap. The German commander finally disregarded Hitler’s instructions to stand firm at all costs and tried to save his army by withdrawing over the Po, but it was too late. Allied tanks and motorised infantry carriers sped forward, still encountering stiff resistance and having to fight hard to progress.

Corporal William George Warren

William was born on 14 April 1920 in Okoroire, South Waikato, New Zealand. He left New Zealand for overseas service in 1943.

Corporal Warren was killed in an unexpected action at Cazzano on the Idice River. With the Germans on the run, Allied armoured units were moving quickly across the plains. The history of 18 Armoured Regiment says his unit was moving with relative ease when 'a sudden fight flared up at Cazzano. Here Jerry had planted a little rearguard - as it turned out later, one Tiger tank, one Panther and one self-propelled gun - to hold us up for the precious few hours that would let his main force slip away. Nos. 7 and 8 Troops ran head-on into this ambush. Suddenly the joyride turned to tragedy. Within ten minutes Sergeant Jack Elkis and Corporals Warren and Walmsley were dead, six others wounded, and four Shermans knocked out, one of them in flames.'

Warren is buried in a joint grave (Joint grave VI. G. 8-9.) in Faenza War Cemetery with Corporal Ronald Henry Francis Walmsley. Faenza has the largest group of New Zealand dead for Operation Grapeshot in a single cemetery: 121.

FAENZA WAR CEMETERY

Faenza War Cemetery © CWGC

On 23 April, an armoured division from each army -- the South African 6th and British 6th – fought their way to meet at the village of Finale, just south of the Po, closing the net around a large proportion of the German force in Italy. Huge numbers – perhaps as many as 54,000 – were taken prisoner.

As Allied units closed on the Po, all could see how constant air and artillery bombardment had ‘built funeral piles of burn-out and twisted vehicles at all the crossing sites and on the roads leading to them.’ Some German troops made it across the Po, but they could take almost nothing with them. Without artillery and armour, transport and supplies, fuel and ammunition, within a week their commanders would surrender.

Lt Sidney Spence of The Buffs ended his account of his time fighting in Italy:

“Set among the cypresses, some two miles from the scene of the action I’ve just described, the Argenta Gap Military Cemetery is now to be found. This was a battlefield cemetery started by the 78th Division, which was later extended to include UK and Commonwealth dead from the final offensive in Italy. From the total of [480] British Army dead who are buried no fewer than 50 are from the 1st Battalion, The Buffs. Final victory inevitably exacted its price. The headstones bear witness that no small contribution to that price was made by The Buffs.”

Headstones and memorials across all our beautiful cemeteries in Italy bear witness to the price of victory – a lasting legacy of liberation.

With thanks to the Imperial War Museum.