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Action on Lake Commachio 13 April 1945

by Mike Spence

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
Mike Spence
People in story: 
Sidney Spence
Location of story: 
Lake Commachio Italy 1945
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Contributed on: 
05 August 2003

This is the account written by My late father Lieutenant Sidney Spence of "C" company 8 platoon of the 1st Battalion "The Buffs"

The action of 13 th April 1945 had its begginings on the evening of the previous day. The final offensive in Italy had been in progress for some 3 days. The Battalion was grouped in an assembly area at Madriole around some farm buildings adjoining the flooded extension of Lake Comacchio where the amphibious armoured troop carriers codenamed Fantails had been gathered.

Major W.S Riley "C" company Commander called his "order group" that evening and we listened to our part of an attack planned for the following morning with increasing horror and disbelief!

"C" Company was to be one of the two leding companies in the proposed attack. Our objective was the main bridge accross the canal named Fossa Marina, together with the surrounding buildings and the irrigation pumping station which formed the hamlet of De Bando - which was at that time some 2 miles behind the enemy front line.

To achieve this we were to embark in the fantails before dawn - each fantail carried one platoon - to be transported accross the lake to a small dry beach some 100 yards from the buildings whence to secure the bridge etc.

Simultaneously the 2nd Parachute Brigade would drop in tyhe area immediatly ahead of us and No. 9 Commando would also land on our right , all of which was comforting news.

Despite reasurances to the cotrary we felt that our objective would be well defended, which would make the whole operation extremely chancy. After all , our H hour was to be in broad light of Midday after an approach cooped up in the fantails on not less than eight hours! The Fantails had been used twice previously in the past few days in similar operations. Our arrival in them would surprise no one, least of all 29th Panzer Division!

Putting this accross at subsequent Platton "O" group was not easy. The fact that the day 13th April was also a Friday did little to encourage the more supersticious.

That night in the field of the assembly area the troops slept in rows under indervidual mosquito nets - - there were plenty of flies around those marshses. Each net was supprted at the head end by a wooden cross. Viewed in the moonlight I felt that i was looking at a cemetary. The next day was to prove me right, tagically right.

Reveille came before dawn, It had been a cold night with an early morning mist. I'm sure that I was not the only one who could not face the inevitabl Meat and Vegitable stew for breakfast at 3 .30 am.
In spite of some understandable confusion in the mist and darkness we eventually embarked in the correct Fantail, much hampered by the extra overload of arms , rations, and additional ammunition we were required to carry. As we were about to move off it was reported to me that the machine gunner member of my fantail crew had gone "missing" in the darkness. I did not require two guesses to know what that meant !

I appointed the Platoon Sergeant , the solid and dependable Sgt Ernie Haccker to the job for the duration of the trip. I'm afraid his training on a .5 browning consisted of being shown the position of the safety catch and trigger.

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 nor 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! I doubt it they cod do more than 3 mph. when afloat and driven by the tracks. However , we had an ample supply of cigarettes so the tension relaxed.

I received a few calls on the radio during the trip from my "Sunray" that is from Wally. The first of these being the information that the 2nd Parachute Brigade landing had been called off , followed soon afterwards by the news that the 9th Commando landing had also been cancelled.

By now we had the increasingly uneasy feeling that we- the buffs- were being left to do the job on our own.

Then on the radio up comes Wally to tell me that [ I quote] " There will be white stuff on the V.P." Now this caused some confusion since my knowledge of jargon did not include that term , and my shouted enquiry to the rest of the Platoon of " anyone know what whit stuff is?" brought no response. It was only after Wally's repeated and anguished requests to me to "think of Players, Sidney think of Goldflake! " that the penny finally dropped , and my involuntary reply of "oh you mean smoke" di nothing to preserve what little secrecy may still have existed. Fortunately his reply to that gaffe was lost in the static.

In the event "C" company arrived early at the point from which we were to make our final run in, so we stopped about 1000 yds offshore to await the artilliary bonbardmnt. We could hardley have given the opposition a better opportunity to prepare for our arrival.

After some 15 mins we resumed our approach in formation of " Two Up", that is, No7 and No.9 Platoons leading some 30 yds apart, Myself with No 8 platoon 30 yds behind closely followed by Wally with Coy HQ

From where I sat on the ramp of the Fantail I could see shells landing around the buildings of our objective. Thre was no great volume but what there was were accurate. The promised smoke was completely useless. I saw only 1 cannister land between us and the target and the smoke from that one just petered out. From my vantage point I was able to give some sort of commentary to those in the body of the vehicle who could of course see nothing of what was going on.
Now in the last 200 yds of our approach, in about 18 inc of water, we travelled parallel to the flood bank of the canal which was about 30 yrds to our right. Only then did I notice that we were passing a machine gun pill box which was set into the bank. It appeared to be un-manned and with overwhelming relief the thought flashed through my mind "Wally's right after all" [ He had suggested at the "O" group that our objective might not be defended]

That relief was immediately shattered by bursts of fire from Spandaus apparently sited near the road on our left. Suddenly all was unbelievable bedlam. When they hit the fantail it was like being inside an empty oil drum with a hord of demented woodpeckers trying to break their way in,

To encourage everyone [myself very much included!] I ordered Sgt. Hacker to open fire with the Browning. Well, not quite like that, I regret to say. My fire order of " let em have it serge! " is not to be found in any training manual. However, it worked and he opened fire in the general direction of the road.

It was then I saw an enormous furrow cut accross the surface of the water alongside and thought "That's a high velocity round". Immediatly followed a shout from the American crewman "They got Tanks!" and I saw what I took to be two Tanks on the road along the shore line ahead of us.

A moment later we were hit. I never heard 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 capsise before it fell back and we halted. It must have been an H.E. shell that hit us, an A.P. shot ould have passed clean through. There followed immediatly a shout from the American crewman "The driver's dead!" There was now considerable chaos inside the Fantail with casualties up at the mangled front end.

The loading order for Fantails was such that the Platoon Commander was at the rear to release the ramp, to be first out with two secton leaders. The blast had sprung the ramp which was now held by the safty chains. We attempted to close it in order to release the saftey chains but it was jammed immoveably leaving no option other than evacuate the vehicle over the top since fuel oil was now burning.

Getting over the top was not very inviting since we and the other Fantails we receiving bursts of fire from the Spandaus but we were only about 30 yds from the floodbank which I thought would offer cover. My order "Get to that F***ing bank!" is another not found in any Manual but evenso, those still able to, made a dash through the shallow water around us.

On reaching the bank we found it to be covered by a Spandau firing from the road. I saw one one section get their Bren into action but the Spandau got them before they could fire more than half a magazine and both they and the Bren slid into the ditch at the base of the bank.

Meanwhile, I could see "A" Company arriving to a similar but less intense reception some 500 yds away to our left. After disgorging it's Platoon one of their Fantails made an attempt to get away only to be hit in the centre of the star painted on the ramp. Probably an A.P. shot- no explosion just a hole.

By now I was feeling , irrationally , quiet detached from the events around me. Dazed, - elated almost. In this incomprehensible state I looked at the man lying next to me on the bank and saw that half his battle dress blouse was missing together with a large part of his left arm. My immediate thought on seeing this has stayed with me vividly. It was:- " I never realised an elbow joint was so complicated"

Of the group on the bank there was now only one alive but wounded. Seeing holes in the water bottles and equipment of others lying around me showed me the appalling error of my directing them to the bank.

There was now only fire from a sniper. It felt like being "Marker" on the Butts of a rifle range. The deafening crack made by the passing bullet followed by the comparatively slight pop of the distant weapon.

All movement from the burning Fantails had now ceased, the only sound being the crackle of the exploding ammunition as the fire reached it. The sniper appeared to be getting more persistent - and accurate - so, taking a rifle from one of the dead I made a quick scramble to the top of the flood bank from where I saw Wally Riley and the survivors of Company H.Q. between the two flood banks. He shouted to me "Where's your Platoon?" and my reply of " They're all dead" did nothing to help matters. He had his problem too, a number of badly wounded men around - The sniper had just killed our stretcher bearer while he was attending to one of them, and our radio was damaged and could only make intermittent contact with "A" Company. Our position between the two floodbanks was completely untenable being overlooked by the pumphouse but there was nothing better.

I made my way back to the Fantails in an attempt to assemble any others but I found only dead and wounded. Among them my friend and fellow Platoon Commander Ronnie Horton. He seemed to be paralysed fromt the waist down, and was lying on the dry beach among others of his platoon having made it to within one hundred yards of the buildings when a shell or mortar landed among them killing or wounding most of his Platoon.

I returned to Wally to collect some Morphia syrettes he carried. Then I got back to Ronnie Horton. There was little I could do for him. The occasional shell or mortar was still falling nearby - the splinters buzzed by. Ronnie said to me " Get the M.O. , Sid" I'm afraid to say I told him the easy lie which was - " David's on his way up here". He died shortly afterwards.

Among the others I found my Radio Opereator. Pte Walsh, wounded and pinned down in a dranage ditch by the weight og the "38" set and his equipment and our joint efforts got him over the bank near the others. I left him with a water bottle which I took from one of the obviously dead.

Having lost track of time I can only say sometime during the afternoon three Typhoons appeared and proceeded to beat the place up. We had laid out yellow markers and they avoided us by a comfortably generous margin.
Wally sent me down the bank to find a place from where we might wade back across the floods after dark. A junction with a secondary canal seemed to offer possibilities, and from here "C" company - now reduced to Wally Riley, myself and eight or nine others plus two most willing German "prisoners" made our way across the floods in the darkness.

We spent most of the night on a half submerged straw stack from were we watched the action ashore. Someone had a good supply of tracer!

After dawn on the 14th, Wally sent me back to retrieve a damaged assault boat which we could see floating nearby since most of our group could not swim. I was accompanied on this excursion by one of our willing " prisoners". He was a much better swimmer than I was. With the non-swimmers and our clothes and equipment in the boat and the rest of us slowly propelled the boat by swimming across the flooded area to where, soon after mid day, we saw a jeep on a spit of dry land. Wally went on in the jeep to find Bn H.Q. and the rest followed on foot.

My mood of elation promptly evaporated to be replaced by utter exhaustion, and I told the others to go on without me. Two of the chaps whom, I suspect, had already guessed the reason turned back and said to me " come on Sir we'll help you"

In Bn H.Q.- a derelict barn- someone, I think it was Simon, gave me a white enamel mug containing a lavish measure of whiskey. Unfortunately, it did not have its usual effect. I awakened next in Hospital in Assisi with 3 weeks growth of beard. Others in the ward were talking of the war being over. I'm told there was a V.E day. I know nothing of it, but I'm sure I missed a wonderful celebration.

To-day, set amongst the cypresses some two miles from the scene of this action is the Agenta Gap Military Cemetery. This was a battlefields cemetery started by the 78th Div. and later extended to include U.K. and commonwealth dead from the final offensive in Italy. From the total of 464 British Army dead who are buried there no fewer than 50 are from 1st Battalion, The Buffs. Final victory inevitable exacted its price. The headstones bear witness that no small contribution to that price was made by 1st Bn The Buffs

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Fantail Tanks in Italy

Posted on: 31 October 2003 by Ron Goldstein

My diary entry for the 23rd March 1945 is as follows:
The fantails are now in the wood, having been brought in one o'clock this morning. Wierd looking things!
Spent greater part of the day un-sheeting. Had to guide a new lot in at 9.30 pm.
I had just been posted to the 4th Queen's Own Hussars and we were to use these water borne tanks in the last campaign of the war in Italy.

Message 1 - Your story edited and categorised

Posted on: 11 November 2003 by Helen

Dear Mike

Thanks for submitting your brilliant story to the site. It has finally been edited and categorised - apologies for the delay. You will now find it linked from the following pages:

You will also find it featured on the front page as a top story in weeks to come.

Congratulations and best wishes

Helen, WW2 Team

Message 1 - Lake Comacchio

Posted on: 16 November 2003 by GerryChester

Lt Sidney Spence's memoirs are particularly interesting, as they contribute to one of the most important operations undertaken in Northern Italy, about which virtually nothing has been written. If it had failed in its purpose, the German Army may well have had time to withdraw into Austria. Not inconsequential, the award of Victoria Crosses to Corporal Thomas Hunter Peck, 43 Royal Marine Commado and to Major Anders Lassen, Special Boat Service!

Realising, once 8th Army was able to cross the River Po it would be the end for the Wehrmacht in Italy, Kesselring had ordered the construction of a series of formidable river based defences south of the river. These were, the Irmgard Line - River Senio, the Laura Line - River Santerno, the Paula Line - River Sillaro and the Genghiz Khan Line - River Idice. Consequently, in order to deceive the Germans into thinking that the spring offensive would be elsewhere, the Operation Roast was conceived and put into effect.

For a map of Lago di Comacchio see: links

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