Part 10

19 Days from the Apennines to the Alps -- The story of the Po Valley Campaign

Bologna and points north

By the night of 18 April more and more optimistic reports began to reach Army Head-quarters, and when the headquarters itself made preparations to move to an area just north of Vergato, the optimists were convinced this must be it: the hoped for breakthrough. The greatest optimists were the airmen. The Krauts were being forced to move, and more and more targets were falling into the sights of their 50 caliber machine guns and rockets and bombs. The battle had begun well but was still far from won. There were rivers to cross, hills to be taken, and the Germans were still in there fighting. Some had surrendered, but only when forced to do so by lack of ammunition or when overwhelmed by the weight and speed of the advance.

Allied leaflet Frontpost No. 100, article on spreading Frontpost
Picture. In the Frontpost S|d No. 100 ( January 19, 1945) was this article on the spreading of this newspaper.
But be sure to read the piece on the SS also. The SS article is typical "divide an conquer" propaganda and tries to drive a
wedge between Wehrmacht and SS.
(coll. Burridge)
But the crushing threat of the vast arrowhead pointed at the guardian city of the Po Valley was increasing hourly. On Thursday the 19th, elements of both the 91st and the 6th South Africans crossed the Reno, whose valley broadens out just southwest of Bologna into terrain suitable for armor. The same evening the 85th entered the town of Casalecchio on the Reno, just outside of Bologna to the southwest, and held it against strong counterattacks. Next day the Springbok armor had reached the same town, while the 88th, advancing now against weakening resistance, reached Riale to the west of Casalecchio.

The 34th was moving forward, two battalions abreast, along Highway 65 just outside Bologna, and the Legnano Group on its right was keeping pace. Far to the left, the Brazilians likewise were forging ahead, and the 365th Infantry on their left was advancing slowly toward Modena on Highway 12, which slants northeast from the Ligurian coast. Across nearly three-fourths of the breadth of Italy the entire Fifth Army was on the move.

Resistance by now varied widely from sector to sector. The 442d on the coastal plain was able to move rapidly behind a swiftly retreating enemy. The enemy was withdrawing as fast as he could, but as he did so he was making it as hot as possible for our men pursuing him. Bologna was outflanked, beset by Partisans, and becoming untenable. Early in the morning of Saturday, 21 April, doughfeet of the 34th Division's 133d Infantry, riding tanks of the 752d Tank Battalion, rumbled up Highway 65 into Bologna. Elements of the 91st joined them in mopping up the city, while the Eighth Army's 2d Polish Corps hurried in from the southeast on Highway 9. The rest of the 91st moved on north past Bologna in the wake of the Jerries, now retreating headlong toward the Po. This was the real start of the race. All along the Fifth Army line the enemy was striving desperately to extricate himself, hustling north to reach the river if possible ahead of our spearheads. He had no time to waste. After cutting Highway 9 on the 20th, the 10th Mountain moved rapidly north, and next day its spearhead, + Task Force Duff ;, crossed the Panaro River east of Modena and continued on toward the Po. Next day, Sunday, 22 April, five more divisions crossed the Panaro  the 85th, 88th, 91st, 6th South Africans, and 1st Armored, the latter taking the important city of Modena in its stride as its unleashed armor drove irresistibly to the northwest. The 34th had been temporarily held back to clean up Bologna. An outstanding exploit on this day was the seizure intact of the bridge at Camposanto by the 88th.

At 8:30 in the evening of that same Sunday, Task Force Duff, headed by Brigadier General Robinson Duff, assistant division commander of the 10th Mountain, reached the Po River at the town of San Benedetto Po. Next morning the rest of the division moved up, and under a terrific hail of small arms, mortar, and 88 fire, established a firm bridgehead on the north bank, crossing in assault boats under the very nose of the enemy. The Po is wide and its banks are steep, but the 10th didn't wait for support. Bridges were begun at once, and soon guns and tanks and trucks were racing on to the north. Next day the 85th and the 88th reached the river, crossing on Tuesday. The same day the 9151 and the South Africans arrived at the south bank, the 91st crossing at once, the Springboks delaying a day to get their formidable complement of armor across.

Meanwhile the 34th, released from its brief assignment in Bologna, was attached to IV Corps and on 23 April raced northwest along Highway 9. For the next five days this division, in conjunction with elements of the 1st Armored Division, the 91st Reconnaissance Squadron, and later the BEF, fought a confused but bitter battle with units from several German divisions attempting to withdraw from the mountains south of Highway 9 to the Po River.

On the morning of the 24th it was engaged with elements of three German divisions. Some were driven back toward the mountains while others were pushed up against the Po River, which they were unable to cross. All over the valley between Highway 9 and the Po small and large battles were in progress. During this drive the 34th took prisoners from the 232d Infantry Division, 148th Division, the 90th Panzer Division and the Italia Division.

Code IT15. Front of leaflet translation Code IT15. Back of leaflet translation
Picture. The front and back of a leaflet aimed at the 'Italia Division'
(coll. Burridge)

By the night of Wednesday the 25th the division had crossed the rear of the entire Army and had passed Parma, nearly 60 road miles from Bologna, thus blocking escape routes for all enemy forces withdrawing northward through the mountains to the south. By morning of the 28th Piacenza was taken after a bitter fight in which the town changed hands twice. Ahead was Milan, but far more important to the success of the campaign were the escape routes of enemy forces in north-west Italy. Milan could wait  blocking the vital highways from northwest Italy could not. It was to this task that the 34th and the 1st Armored now devoted themselves.

The 1st Armored moved rapidly almost due north from Modena and crossed the Po in the 10th Mountain zone on the night of 25 April, just as the South Africans were getting their tanks across farmer to the east. A day later the 1st Armored had a task force in Montechiari, and by night fall were engaged in a sharp fight with a German SS motor column on the outskirts of Brescia.

The feel of victory

The feel of victory came slowly to the men who had spent a winter in cold muddy fox holes, straining their eyes from windswept peaks, watching for enemy patrols, ducking enemy mortars and patiently sweating out the pounding of enemy artillery. As the enemy line crumbled under the weight of our attack, the pace of battle stepped up. Battle groups moved forward less cautiously, then faster, and soon were up on tanks, trucks and jeeps, pressing forward at all possible speed.

The same officers who yesterday would not order the advance without the mortars, artillery, and the air to pave the way now threw caution to the winds, and were possessed with a mad desire to get ahead and in a hurry. It may have looked like confusion and disorganization, but the scent of victory was in the air. The battle was changing from the heavy attack on an enemy in an organized defensive position to the pursuit of a not yet beaten but retreating foe.
So one can understand the tired soldier of the 34th Division when he exclaimed: + Hell, yesterday crawl and shoot; today a rat race! ;
Dour wearers of the Red Bull patch stared poker-faced from the truck ahead. Men, women, plump young girls and small children lined the highway and the village streets, screaming + Evviva! ;, + Ciao ;, and tossed spring flowers into the vehicle. The men of the 34th could take it. They were tough. Besides, why get all worked up over a dream? They'd wake up in the morning and they'd still be up there in those mountains, with Krauts looking down at them. This level land, this slick, paved road, couldn't be true.
Presently one of them believed it. Standing up suddenly in the truck, he yelled + whoopee! ;, blew a kiss at a blonde girl, and abruptly sat down again. So it developed all over the Po Valley during those tremendous days. You had to see it to believe it, and even then you weren't sure. The Fifth had come down out of the Apennines with such a rush and in such concentrated strength that the enemy was unable to organize his intermediate defensive positions south of the Po. There was plenty of hard fighting, but more and more the battle took on the aspect of a chase, a gigantic mopping-up operation.

German leaflet, January 1945, Horrors of the Po Valley, front
German leaflet, January 1945, Horrors of the Po Valley, back
Picture. German leaflet of S|dstern. Spread in January 1945 to allied soldiers. The leaflet consists of a 'touristic folder' with a colorfull front.
However, the propaganda poison was on the leaflets back. It shows to the allied soldier what to expect if he tries to cross the river Po:
Death will await you at the river Po.
As you can read in the text of this article, the reality was somewhat different.
(coll. Moonen)
On the night of 18 April the General had asked: + Were you in Tunisia? ; + Yes sir, ; replied his visitor. + Well, ; remarked the General, + if my armor is where I think it is, by tomorrow night it will be far enough down the valley to deploy, and if that happens, by Sunday night I'll have troops all over the Po Valley. And then you'll see a worse mess than the wind-up in Tunisia. ; A few days later the enemy was fleeing for his life. Few of his units retained any semblance of order; few commanders had any clear idea of where their own troops or the American were. Germans were ordered to make for the Po and get across by any means they could devise. Said one divisional order captured by the Fifth Army: + We will cross the River as individuals as best we can. Motorized vehicles will be left behind and destroyed if possible. Horse-drawn vehicles will be taken across if possible, with the horses swimming. Heavy weapons will be discarded, and we will defend ourselves with rifles and machine pistols. ;

So the south bank of the Po was a scene of indescribable confusion, a gargantuan junk pile. Vehicles were run into the ditches, overturned, and set afire. Others were abandoned intact as they ran out of fuel. Still others, including many horse-drawn, lay in ruins where American fighter bombers and artillery had stopped them. Horses lay in rigid postures of death. Other horses, unscathed, milled up and down the banks of the stream, and as the wave of retribution passed on, Po Valley peasants streamed out from their houses to replenish their stables. Sometimes one farmer could be seen driving as many as a dozen stout steeds back toward his farm. A German Strength-Through-Joy Volkswagen, the enemy's jeep, could be had for the taking and enough gasoline to drive it away.
American G.I.'s, many of whom had never sat a horse before, roped and mounted stray cavalry hacks and cantered down the roads looking for scattered enemy. Two, from the 85th Division, came thus upon some forty dejected Nordics, sitting beside the road, with one other squatting under a tree a few yards away. Dismounting, the infantrymen approached the Germans and with significant gestures indicated that they were prisoners and the time had come to go to the cage. All rose but the solitary one. He just sat. + Get going, ; invited the Americans. He said nothing, did nothing. + Get up! Via! Andate! ; the doughfeet told him, prodding him with a + can-opener. ; + I am a General of a Division, ; replied Superman in halting English, + and I demand to ride as is due my rank. ; + Oh yeah! And we're General Coulter and his Chief of Staff, ; replied his captors. The outraged German rose and stiffly marched the few miles back to the C.P., where he asserted his rights with no little emphasis. For of course he was a German division commander.

All along the highways our advance elements moved so rapidly that they didn't take time out in many cases to mop up. Their primary assignment was to cut off the enemy from his avenues of retreat, as by this time he was more concerned with escape than with fighting. By 22 April German units still south of the Po River realized that they were being cut off; exhausted and with little or no ammunition left, they were beginning to surrender in large numbers. Organized units still with transportation were moving north on secondary roads with orders to cross the river as best they could and to occupy the prepared defenses on the north bank and prevent our crossing at all costs. This situation resulted in odd incidents.
The highways were relatively safe in daylight and in the vicinity of troops, but one division staff officer strayed a few hundred yards off Highway 9 and was captured by a wandering band of Germans. Many a party of the enemy sneaked across that road under cover of darkness, thinking it was the farthest north the Americans had progressed, only to run head on into another spearhead. And a German aviator landed his plane on Villa-franca Airport near Verona, thinking it was still in German hands, only to be greeted by a very American Tommy gun and a drawled + Step down, brother  this is old home week! ; The Army Commander flying out over the valley during this period counted in one area seven German columns moving in five different directions.

One German, fearing the Partisans but desiring to surrender, changed to civilian clothes, walked into an American camp, and asked, in his best Italian, + Dovh MP.? ; A group of others, likewise disguised, were walking gingerly along when an MP spoke to them. Instantly six pairs of hands shot skyward.
Whole units sat down and waited for someone to capture them. Passing American units simply pointed the way to the rear and hurried on. Some tried to surrender to chaplains, some to war correspondents. When large units began to give themselves up, they were disarmed, loaded into their own trucks, and started back along the road which would lead them to a stockade. One entire field hospital, complete with nurses and ambulances, was captured and sent packing back under its own power to the P. W. cage.

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