The failure of Operation OLIVE to achieve a breakthrough on to the plain of Lombardy and a possible end to the war in Italy in 1944 meant that Allied soldiers suffered a second winter campaign. Such was the nature of this that armour had little part to play and it was spring 1945 before the surviving British armoured division in Italy – 6th – saw action again in its intended role. But that proved a remarkable action as part of what was arguably the best manoeuvre operation by the western Allies of the war. Before then, however, the division, with 78th Division, took part in an attack in the Santerno valley in mid-December that was essentially an infantry operation which failed to gain its objectives but cost 61 Brigade heavily with 220 casualties. Thereafter, until March, 6th Armoured was static and its soldiers saw dismounted action as infantry before being brought down to the low ground behind Eighth Army’s lines to rest, re-organize and re-equip. Their old Shermans were handed in, to be replaced by newer models, mounting a superior 76mm gun while 17-pounder Sherman Fireflies were also issued as well as close support Shermans fitted with 105mm howitzers. While the 76mm gun was a great improvement on the earlier 75mm fitted to the Sherman, the 17-pounder of the Firefly was a huge boost to morale, since tankmen knew that the gun could take on the best of German armour and give the Firefly crew a real fighting chance.
There followed intense training to familiarize the crews with their new equipment and practise close co-operation with infantry. The battlegroup system was already in use with the division’s groups formed from the units of 26 Armoured and 61 Brigades. Unlike the north-west Europe divisions, however, there were only three battlegroups; the divisional reconnaissance regiment, 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry, was held as an armoured reserve while 1 Guards Brigade was also held in reserve, ready, in Murray’s words, ‘to punch holes if required’. Losses had brought changes in the orders of battle of both Guards and 61 Brigades: 10th Rifle Brigade was disbanded on 20 March 1945, its soldiers allocated to 2nd Rifle Brigade in 61 Brigade and its place taken by 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps (1 KRRC); in 1 Guards Brigade 2nd Coldstream left on 2 March to join 24 Guards Brigade in place of 5th Grenadiers, who were disbanded, while 1st Welch Regiment took 2nd Coldstream’s place in 1 Guards Brigade.
Eighth Army was now commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery, who had succeeded Leese on 1 October 1944. McCreery had commanded X Corps and, briefly, V Corps and had been Alexander’s chief of staff in the Middle East. Before that he had been sent as an armoured adviser to Middle East HQ but, sadly, he and Auchinleck did not get on and he was removed from his post. Before his appointment to Cairo he had commanded 8th Armoured Division and had seen action in France in 1940 commanding 2 Armoured Brigade. Commissioned in 12th (Prince of Wales’s Royal) Lancers in 1915 he was:
one of the most knowledgeable and experienced armoured commanders in the war … He was determined that the Division would be used in an armoured role, but only when the circumstances were favourable … It presupposed breaking out through the infantry when the latter had softened up the opposition and the battle was on the verge of becoming fluid. Such situations are difficult to read and the conclusion we came to was that we would have to be prepared to fight our own way out if needs be. We knew also that there was little likelihood of breaking out on a broad front. It was essential to make our battlegroups as flexible as possible.
Coincidentally, the new commander of Fifth Army, Lucian Truscott, was also a cavalryman and had brought cavalry ‘thinking speed’ to the US infantry, introducing the famous ‘Truscott Trott’ as a divisional commander; his division had the reputation of being the fastest moving in the US Army. Truscott did not share the anti-British bias of his predecessor, Clark, who now commanded 15th Army Group, and found a fellow spirit in McCreery. It was due largely to their co-operation and planning that the final campaign in Italy evolved as it did. Clark, who remained anti-British and, especially, anti-McCreery, although (or possibly because) the latter had served under him as a corps commander, had decided that Eighth Army was no longer an effective fighting formation and that Fifth Army would undertake the final assault. He reckoned without his two army commanders who presented him with a detailed plan that envisaged both formations co-operating in an attack to destroy the German forces in northern Italy. Clark gave his approval to the plan, Operation GRAPESHOT, in which the armies would carry out a double encirclement, a strategy the Germans described as Kiel und Kessel, or ‘wedge and trap’. Eighth Army would launch Operation BUCKLAND on 9 April with the support of the entire Allied air effort until the 12th when Fifth Army would launch Operation CRAFTSMAN.
McCreery planned carefully for BUCKLAND and wrought great changes in Eighth Army while doing so. Although more formations, including I Canadian Corps, had been transferred to north-west Europe, he raised the army’s morale to a high pitch and gave it the tools needed for success. A miniature 79th Armoured Division was created with specialized armoured vehicles: 25 Tank Brigade became B Assault Brigade RAC/RE and then 25 Armoured Engineer Brigade with flame-throwing Churchill Crocodiles, Flail tanks to clear paths through minefields, bridging tanks and tank-dozers (almost 200 specialized AFVs were produced in workshops in Italy) while 9 Armoured Brigade was re-roled to operate amphibious LVTs, or Buffaloes, codenamed Fantails, and Kangaroo APCs. These played critical parts in BUCKLAND.
Prior to the main offensive, commando operations secured the right flank of Eighth Army’s advance by taking islands in Lake Comácchio and the spit of land separating the lake from the Adriatic. Then 167 Brigade of 56th (London) Division crossed Comácchio in Buffaloes to complete the operation by creating a wedge between the Reno river floodbank and the area west of the lake that the Germans had flooded. The Germans may have considered the expanse of water that was Lake Comácchio and the neighbouring inundation an impassable obstacle but McCreery thought otherwise. He had flown over the area and identified a route for Eighth Army’s advance via Argenta, which became known as the Argenta Gap, around which he built his plan. With the commandos and 167 Brigade having achieved their objectives, all was set for the main attack.
For Operation BUCKLAND McCreery had reinforced V Corps to a strength of five divisions, the Italian Gruppo di Combattimento Cremona and 2 Parachute Brigade with 6th Armoured held in reserve until the initial attack reached Argenta. The spearhead of that initial attack was 78th Division which was expanded to include 2 Armoured Brigade, and elements of 9 Armoured and 25 Armoured Engineer Brigades, with infantry riding in Kangaroo APCs manned by 4th Hussars. Leading the division into battle was a breakout force to clear the way for the mobile force, or Kangaroo Army; a reserve force was held for special roles.
On 9 April Eighth Army launched BUCKLAND with over 1,500 artillery pieces and more than 1,000 Allied aircraft hammering the Germans before V Corps crossed its start lines. Before long the Kangaroo Army was racing into action, the Reno was reached and Argenta was cleared by 18 April while Fifth US Army had launched Operation CRAFTSMAN on 14 April. It was time to unleash 6th Armoured Division. Initial progress was slow with the way through Argenta a mass of congestion and streets filled with rubble.
Both 56th and 78th Divisions were using the route to supply their own units at the front and the resulting transport problems were a nightmare. By late afternoon on 19 April, however, the Lothians and 16th/5th Lancers were both passing through the leading infantry with their support groups and preparing to move from Consandolo, ten miles north of Argenta.
Murray had been told by McCreery that reports had been received that Argenta was in British hands but suggested that he confirm this with Keightley. Putting the division on six hours’ notice to move, Murray went to see Keightley who thought the way was clear but Murray then went forward to see Major General Keith Arbuthnott, GOC 78th Division, to confirm this.
Unfortunately the ‘gap’ was even less obvious than we had thought, but two factors decided me in accepting this challenge. In the first place the opposing troops must have had quite a hammering in the previous ten days since the operation commenced and might well be reasonably disorganized. Secondly, we were now within striking distance of the Po, and in this area 6th Armoured Division would have its last chance of fighting an armoured battle. We would never have forgiven ourselves if that fleeting chance had escaped us: it was now or never.
And so the decision was made. Murray’s orders from Keightley were straightforward: pass through 78th Division’s left flank, swing north-eastward, advance to Bondeno, with the divisional left flank along the Reno, and link up with Fifth Army. Once that junction was achieved the destruction of what remained of Tenth and Fourteenth Armies, ‘caught in the noose of Bologna’s defences’, would be complete. According to the CO of 17th/21st Lancers the ‘gap’ was ‘literally only a few yards wide’ but enough to give an armoured division the chance to perform its role. The battlegroups rode to their final battle with enthusiasm.