|A TYPICAL SOUVENIR ITALY 1944 / 1945|
19 Days from the Apennines to the Alps -- The story of the Po Valley Campaign
The trap snaps shut
By now the principal preoccupation of the enemy was not to establish and maintain positions but, as he once conservatively put it after El Alamein, + to extricate himself from a situation which had become confused. ; There was no longer any cohesion in his ranks. Units were hopelessly mixed up, and prisoners taken in one small area frequently included men from half a dozen or more organizations. The men of the Fifth were weary but happy, even though they were all over northern Italy, with units spread thin and communications extended almost to the breaking point.
But the Germans still fought. Those who were able retreated to the Po, and some succeeded in crossing. But large numbers were hopelessly trapped south of the River, and some even in the northern Apennines, where the rapid cross-country run of the 34th had cut them off from retreat. Highway 9 was blocked, the BEF was moving up, and huge pockets of Germans and Fascist Italian troops milled about, vainly seeking escape. These fought desperately in isolated areas, selling their freedom as dearly as they were able. And on the right and left flanks of the Fifth, where the enemy was not yet completely trapped, fighting continued intense.
On Wednesday, 25 April, the same day the last of the 88th crossed the Po on Highway 12, the 351st Infantry of that division after nine days of fighting advanced on foot nearly 30 miles to Verona. An hour before midnight patrols entered the city in the face of brisk enemy fire. While these advance elements of the 88th were fighting in the southern part of the city, the 86th Mountain Infantry of the 10th moved up from the southwest on Highway 62, after having taken the vital Villafranca airfield.
On the 26th, the 85th Division passed through Verona and crossed the Adige Line, the last prepared defense line of the Germans south of the Alps. During the afternoon, elements of the 339th Infantry crossed on a footbridge in the western edge of Verona, while the 338th moved up and crossed on a railroad bridge south of the city. While the 337th remained in Verona, the other two regiments moved swiftly on to the north, and before midnight were several miles up in the Alpine foothills, with the vaunted Adige Line hopelessly breached. Meanwhile the 88th Division had crossed several miles to the east and had cut Highway 11. The 6th South Africans and the 91st made the Adige crossing on the 27th.
Twelve days after Fifth Army's D Day the Adige River Line, which our troops, with the Eighth Army, were to develop as the third phase of the basic plan of campaign, no longer existed. Five divisions had crossed in two days, and on the 28th the British also crossed in strength, after very + sticky ; going south of the river.
On 26 April the Fifth Army's position was roughly as follows: The line, or rather the border of the controlled area, ran sharply northwest from a point just north of Ferrara, in the British zone, past Verona on the East, and mostly along the north bank of the Adige. At Verona the line turned west, passing the city on the north, skirting the southern shore of Lake Garda and extended a menacing finger toward the industrial city of Brescia, only six miles away on Highway 11.
By now the last exit from the western Po Valley was closed. The Ligurian Army and what remained of the 14th Army were trapped. Farther south astride Highway 9 the 34th and the Brazilians were closing in on enemy troops still south of the road. In the mountains on the west coast the 92d Division and attached troops, temporarily under control of Headquarters 15th Army Group, were progressing steadily northward toward the Germans' last seaport.
The enemy found himself in two vast blind alleysbetween the Apennines and Highway 9, and between Highway 9 and Highway 11, just south of the Alpine foothills.
From east to west, the units lined up in this fashion: 6th South African Armored Division, 91st Division, 88th, 10th Mountain, 85th, 1st Armored, 34th, BEF, and 92d, including the 442d Infantry Regiment, which had entered La Spezia on the 24th, and the 473d Infantry, which was spearheading the drive up the coast to Genoa.
At the head of the lake, near Riva, the Germans fought back with an energy born of desperation and the 10th suffered heavily before it could resume its drive. Here Colonel Darby was killed. In Italy on a routine mission from Washington, he had been abruptly assigned to help his old friend General Hays, and had died in action after a few glorious days of battle. He was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General. The Army boundary was now shifted to a north-south line through Treviso, to relieve heavy pressure on the Eighth Army. Immediately the 91st, advancing east south of Highway 53, passed Vicenza, crossed the Brenta River, and drove on to take Treviso, only 12 miles due north of Venice, before it halted and began mopping-up operations. It was at this point that the remnants of the German 14th Army, which had been delaying the Eighth along the Po, were frantically attempting to escape through a narrowing gap between Treviso and the sea. On 30 April elements of the 91st and the South Africans linked up with the British 6th Armored Division just east of Treviso and closed the trap.
Over on the west coast the 473d took Genoa right after breakfast on 27 April. Three days later the 442d occupied the industrial city of Turin, far to the northwest toward the French frontier. Combat patrols reached Imperia and Cuneo. On the morning of the 29th the 1st Armored sent a reconnaissance force right through Milan without stopping, having received orders not to become involved in any large city until the enemy's escape routes were fully blocked. The next day a small group selected from IV Corps, representing American, British, and Brazilian troops, made a formal entry, remaining in the city overnight. The 34th Division, after its spectacular dash across the Fifth Army rear to cut off the Germans south of Highway 9, was now relieved by the BEF. Here started an even more spectacular movement. Relieved by the BEF early on the 28th, the 34th doubled back. By forced marches it crossed the Po River and on the heels of the 1st Armored Division had by the night of the 29th closed in the Brescia-Bergamo area and was blocking the escape routes from the valley to the mountains west of Lake Garda. The entire Division had fought a stiff fight in Piacenza and moved roughly 156 miles in a little over 24 hours. On the 29th General Mascarenhas accepted the surrender of the entire German 148th Division and the commander of the Italian Italia Division, troops his men had cut off and isolated in the mountains south of Parma. More than 6,000 prisoners, 4,000 horses and 1,000 trucks were taken. It was a moment of great satisfaction for the + Smoking Snakes ; because it was the 148th which had been their principal antagonist from the start.
That same Sunday Generaleutnant Max Joseph Pemsel, Chief of Staff and acting commander of the German-Italian Army of Liguria, surrendered to General Crittenberger at IV Corps headquarters. Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, the Army commander, had been captured by the Partisans, General Pemsel had little idea where his troops were, and could see no purpose in continuing the pretense of a battle. That night Graziani, released to IV Corps by the Partisans, confirmed the act of his deputy.
By now all routes out of Italy had been blocked, and the enemy forces had been rendered utterly ineffective. Only in the north, on the route to the Brenner Pass, did there remain any determined resistance. Here in the mountains the German commander had been trying to reassemble his shattered troops. But they never got there in any material numbers, and the Bolzano-Merano-Cortina-Bressanone area, high up in the Dolomites, wound up as a troublesome nest of Gestapo, SS, and Hitler Youth elements, who somehow had found a way to get there ahead of the Wehrmacht.
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