The 7th Armoured Brigade
Engagements - 1945
During 1945 the 7th Armoured Brigade was involved in the following battles and campaigns. These include Clearing the Senio River, Crossing the Senio and the Final Push to Venice and Trieste.
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Clearing the Senio River
The final year of the war began for 7th Armoured Brigade when on 3rd January 1945, 2 RTR, eliminated a bridgehead west of Furli. There were two pockets of land on the east side of Senio River had to be eliminated (called the Cassanigo pocket) before the big spring offensive could start. Operation 'Cygnet' was led by 2 RTR, followed by 2/6th Queens infantry in Kangaroos, and then by the rest of 169th Brigade, from 56th (London) Brigade. In thick fog, over waterlogged but now frozen ground the Germans were taken by surprise, as they had never encountered infantry operating from Kangaroos. Over 200 prisoners were taken and a number of tanks and SP guns were captured.
By now the Python scheme, for all men who had served overseas for five years, started and large drafts of 'time-expired' men and officers returned to the UK, including Lt-Colonel R. F G. Jaynes, Commanding Officer, 7th Hussars, who had earned a DSO in the Italian campaign. The 7th Hussars, after training with DD tanks, spent two months dismounted. Their tanks were left at Ostra with the technical staff and in between two dismounted Lancer regiments they held the line at Madonna del Albero and Molinaccio, a few miles south of Ravenna, as infantry. Patrols went out day and night across the Lamone river held by 114th Jaeger Division. On 1st February 1945 they left the Lamone marshland and brimming dykes around the Senio and returned to Lake Bracciano. On 14th April they fitted Platypus Grousers to all 54 DD tanks, which were effectively metal fins attached to tracks to give a better grip in deep going.
During February 1944, 2 RTR had a static role on the Senio and did their best to dislodge the enemy by firing armour-piercing shells into the flood banks. At the end of the month they came again under command of 43rd Gurkha Brigade for operational planning in a pursuit role. On 12th February 6 RTR begun course at Brigade Schools in Forli for conversion from Sherman to Churchill tanks, which continued until the end of March, with the Churchills arriving on 7th March 1944.
The appalling winter eventually came to an end, and the 'campaigning season' started again in April 1945. General McCreery's 8th Army was ordered to push the Vth Corps through the Argenta Gap (on its right flank) with the Polish Corps forcing the lines of the Senio and Santerno. The US 5th Army, under General Mark Clark, would endeavour to capture Bologna and Verona and possibly bring the Italian campaign to an end. To counter the allied offensive Field Marshal Kesselring still had ten German divisions established in his 'Genghis Khan' Line, which was heavily mined and well wired. It was sited along the northern Apennines south of Bologna, along the line of the Senio and across the lower Po Valley. By now 7th Armoured Brigade, was commanded by Brigadier K. C. Cooper, and consisted of 2nd RTR (Lt-Col H. A. Lascelles), 6th RTR (Lt- Col A. C. Jackson) and 8th RTR (Lt-Col S. D. W. Seaver), having become a type 'B' Armoured Brigade with no infantry.
Crossing the Senio
In early April 1945, the 8th Army was holding its winter line on the Senio River from Lake Commacchio in the north to Brisighella in the south. The Allied forces now included Indians, New Zealanders, Poles, a Jewish Brigade and Italian troops and 7th Armoured Brigade, less 2 RTR, was under command of 2 Polish Corps for the initial breaking of the Senio River position. 2 RTR, having fought the battle of the Cassanigo pocket in January and February was being rested in the Forli area, was now under command of 43rd (Gurkha) Lorried Infantry Brigade. Opposite 2 Polish Corps were German units with forty Tigers, thirty-five Panthers, forty Mk IV Special tanks and a brigade of SP guns. The 29th Panzer Grenadier Division were in reserve and the famous 90th Light Division (from the North African campaign days) were in the Budrio area.
The 7th Armoured Brigade were part of the 'pursuit' force, and each tank troop of 2 RTR and 8 RTR was now equipped with the new 17-pounder 'Firefly' and two 76mm (US gunned) Shermans and each Squadron HQ was equipped with two 105 mm guns carrying hollow charge anti-tank ammunition. In the campaign in north-west Europe 'Hobart's Funnies', 79th Armoured Division, had been an outstanding success and a fearsome array of specialised armoured products, crewed in the main by Royal Engineers, had broken through every defensive line including the D-Day invasion defences. Now some of these machines were available in the Italian campaign, including Sherman bulldozers and tracked Kangaroos carrying infantry. The 14th/20th Hussars joined 7th Armoured Brigade at this time to operate the Kangaroos. For crossing anti-tank ditches, two options were available, two of which were a) 'Cribs' which were man-made steel frames with baulks, wooden railway sleepers, placed on top and the completed effect was excellent provided the working party was not killed in the process of completion, and b) Fascines, or circular bundles of wooden staves, could be lashed to the front or rear and could be dropped 'in situ' into the obstacle without the crew dismounting. Lt-Col P. H. Hordern, commanding 2 RTR, was naturally keener on the use of fascines, which were then used in the forthcoming battle. Also available were Churchill Armoured Recovery Royal Engineer tanks (AVREs), and Churchill Bridging tanks called 'ARKS', which were turretless and carried a metal bridge ramps from each end, over which another tank could drive. With luck and considerable skill, these could be driven into an anti-tank ditch, to form a hump- backed bridge. At the smaller end of the scale there was flame-thrower mounted in a Bren-gun carrier, called 'The Wasp'.
The main offensive started on 9th April, 8th Indian Division would be supported by the Brigade on their crossing of the Senio on either side of Lugo (due west of Ravenna). The battlefields here were on a large flat plain with hamlets, farmhouses and vineyards. In addition to the enemy strongpoints the irrigation system (although perfect for the farmers), also presented very tricky obstacles and usually ran south-west to north-east across the line of advance. The larger canals and rivers, including the wide and fast-flowing Po, needed major bridging and/or rafting operations. General Vietinghoff was now in command of the German forces, as Kesselring had been promoted to Commander-in-Chief West. He had no fewer than twenty-three German and, rather surprisingly, four Italian Divisions, thus outnumbering the Allies, but the RAF and USAAF dominated the skies, and the German armour were restricted by a shortage of fuel. With 6 RTR on the right, 8 RTR on the left crossed over the Lugo Canal helping in the capture of Solarolo. Both reached the Santerno on 11th April 1945 giving much help to the hard-pressed infantry, while 2 RTR followed up with the 43rd (Gurkha) Lorried Brigade and a week later they were across the Sillaro, had occupied Medicina and had reached the Qualderna Canal south of Budrio (just east of Bologna).
What followed was to be, 2 RTR's last action in Italy. Although, the Germans were definitely in retreat, but rearguards of the 1st and 4th Parachute Divisions were putting up strong resistance in well-chosen positions. The ground in this area is cut up by a series of rivers, canals and ditches and heavily planted with tall vines. At intervals there are unexpected patches of completely open ground, across which a German anti-tank gun could kill as the tank emerged suddenly from the vines. At first light on 16th April 'A' Squadron, 2 RTR (Commanded by Major P. S. Hunter) acted as advanced guard to 14th/20th Hussars (half tanks, half Kangaroos), carrying 2/6th Gurkha Rifles in a ten mile advance to Medicina. At 6am 'A' Squadron, 2 RTR, led the way across the Sillaro, which though practically dry had very steep banks. Two 'Ark', bridging tanks, had been put in one on top of the other, but the ramps were still at an extremely sharp angle. As it crossed the 'bridge' the leading tank slipped and the driver stalled his engine leaving the tank at a sideways angle half way up the exit ramp. At this moment an accurate enemy salvo arrived slap on the crossing, but the driver managed to straighten up and drive forward off the ramp. As a result of this the squadron commander decided to go straight across country and avoid all roads, which were expected to be heavily mined, which resulted in no tank casualties from mines or anti-tank guns the whole day. The 14th/20th Hussars on the other hand followed the main road, and suffered considerably, as every small bridge was blown and mined and often covered by anti-tank fire. As 'A' Squadron advanced on the left of the axis with two troops up and at La Palazza, the leading tank bogged in a deep ditch. A German armed with a bazooka who crawled up the ditch to snipe the tank was killed before he could fire. Elsewhere an German SP gun appeared from out of the houses, fired twice at one tank, missing it, before disappearing northwards. The lead Troop following its tracks was able to cross the ditch, and throughout the whole day the track marks of this troop of hostile SP Guns was studied with much attention and saved as much reconnaissance time in finding crossing places. 'A' Squadron received orders from the Commanding Officer of 14th/20th Hussars to hold back in Medicina. However, No 1 Troop, 'A' Squadron, was too fully occupied shooting up enemy held houses at point-blank range, and co-operating with a platoon of Gurkhas against barricaded and sandbagged houses. Eventually, wireless messages did penetrate through the fog of battle, and No 1 Troop also unwillingly withdrew.
Meanwhile, 8 RTR were in action on 15th April in the attack on Imola and the advance to the Sillaro, and on the 19th took part, with the Poles, to the line of the Bologna-Ferrara high road. 6 RTR arrived at Minerbio (north-east of Bologna) on 23rd April, having supported 10th Indian Division, were across the Sillaro and their 'A' Squadron had a determined action at the Galana Canal completely surprising the enemy who made off for the Idice River line which fell on the 21st April 1944.
Final Push to Venice and Trieste
While the 7th Armoured Brigade was taking part in the above offensive, 7th Hussars, were also supporting the crossing of the Po, on a wide frontage, playing a leading part on the whole front of the 8th Army. Although by now not part of 7th Armoured Brigade, it is essential to relate the story of 7th Hussars at the end of the war, as they had been part of the Brigade for so long.
Lt-Col Congreve and his RHQ directed the technical side of the river crossing on one sector of the front. 'A' Squadron, (Commanded by Major M. V. Argyle), was placed under command of 56th (London) Division, 'B' Squadron went to 8th Indian Division and 'C' to 6th Armoured Division, with a troop of 'C' also being detached to 2nd New Zealand Division. The Squadrons did not meet again until the pursuit was over. Within a week the regiment was spread around the head of the Adriatic with its extremities 150 miles apart. As 7th Hussars were part of 7th Armoured Brigade for so long it is only proper that the events of their last actions are also recorded here, too.
'A' Squadron, 7th Hussars, (by now re-equipped with Sherman DD tanks) crossed the Po on the evening of 25th April, with no casualties, but one tank hit an underwater obstruction and sank like a stone. 2/6th Queens infantry then crossed in Fantails and after minimum resistance a bridge over the Tartaro was captured, and then another over the Adige at Anguillara. Elsewhere, the village of Mardimago needed combined Queens and Hussars to clear it. On the 27th April 1945 at 11 pm at Pioppe, five DD Shermans swam the River Adige, followed by 2/7th Queens in Fantails and the hot pursuit continued, which meant that by 9 pm on 28th April the 2/7th Queens and 7th Hussars column was held up near the canal bridge at Brenta only three miles from the great Venice lagoon. The next day at the canal bridge at Dolo the column met the New Zealanders arriving from Padua. Then a 30 minute argument ensued, about who should lead into Venice? The New Zealanders had maps of the area and also had wireless contact with Divisional, and higher, formations, so claimed the privilege. Both columns set off and at Mestre the New Zealanders kept straight ahead, while the Queens and Hussars turned off down the causeway into Venice. The port authorities surrendered and 'A' Squadron moved into leaguer in the docks area. An hour later 'B' Squadron arrived having supported the Royal Fusiliers and 5th Gurkhas across the same three rivers starting from near Ferrara to Canale Bianco and Roverdicre. Another seventeen DD Shermans loaded up a company of 5/5 Mahratta Light Infantry (8th Indian Division) and set off along Route 16 to Battaglia, sped through Padua along the autostrada into Venice, there they harboured in the Piazzale Roma instead of the docks. 'C' Squadron (commanded by Major Marcus Fox) who initially supported the 3rd Grenadier Guards, then the Welsh Guards, a New Zealand formation and 2nd Rifle Brigade, (of 61st Brigade, 6th Armoured Division) were held back after the Po and Adige crossing, as the New Zealanders had road priority. However, 4th Troop of 'C' Squadron allied to 20th New Zealand Armoured Regiment drove via Padua, Musile and Route 14 straight for Trieste, where having covered 97 miles in one day, they entered the city and met a patrol of the Long Range Desert Group there.
Of the fifty-seven 7th Hussar DD tanks that had set off and eighteen were still fit for swimming at the end (Venice lagoon or Trieste). All of the rest except one were recoverable. By the time the capitulation was signed 7th Hussars were concentrated at Mestre. The 7th Hussars were 'joint first' into Venice and Trieste and with that their war and that of the Green Jerboa came to an end.
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