Operation Roast - Lake Commachio
Unit/ Formation: 43 Cdo RM Location: Italy Period/ Conflict: World War II Year: 1944 Date/s: 2 - 18th April 1944
It was shortly before 05:00 on 2 April and Operation ‘Roast’, though hours behind schedule, was under way. Commandos passing Churchill tanks with specially fitted contraptions designed to protect their exhausts for the crossing of the Reno.
Stars were still visible and a mist obscured the horizon when the sky to the south suddenly erupted in a devastating display of firepower.
The marines, who had been waiting in their forming up positions for 11 sleepless hours, were momentarily spellbound by the “fierce intervention”. The air, wrote C Troop’s Lieutenant McConville, “was sundered by a continuous succession of flickering flashes, approaching sibilant whisperings in the sky developed into increasingly high decibel shrieks, and there was the mighty rolling, drumming sound, as more than 100 guns of the Royal Artillery engaged targets ahead of 43”. It was time to go. A and B Troops swiftly advanced 1,000 yards to the first enemy position.
The unit war diary noted: “They were rocketed on their start line, and were constantly under murderous machine gun and mortar fire. The enemy posts were winkled out one by one.” Officially styled as Operation ‘Roast’, the assault launched on the night of April Fool’s Day 1945 was a curtain-raiser to Eighth Army’s last great offensive of the war.
Partly intended as a diversion to draw reserves away from V Corps’ main advance, it had the added advantage, if successful, of removing a potential threat to the thrust into the Po Valley. Handed to the 2nd Commando Brigade, the task of snuffing out the ‘Comacchio pocket’ posed particular problems. Bordered by the apple-shaped expanse of mud and water known as Lake Comacchio to the west, the flood-banked river Reno to the south and the Adriatic to the east, was a sliver of land unremittingly flat and featureless and criss-crossed by rivers, streams, dykes and canals.
The front here had been static since December, allowing the enemy, a large proportion of whom were Asian and Turkic ex-Russian POWs marshalled into the 162nd Turkoman Division, to strengthen their defences on ground that afforded only limited room for manoeuvre. It consisted of a series of what Mike McConville called “interdependent fortified lumps” to which planners had attached Biblical names. They mainly comprised farm complexes and slit trenches dug on high, steep-sided river banks, each skilfully sited to offer protection to neighbouring positions. An added threat was posed by mines.
Indeed, to Captain Ian Gourlay, the commander of 43 Commando’s D Troop, they represented the biggest obstacle. He later wrote: “The Germans were very fond of the jumping mine and also of a mine mounted on a stick and actuated by a trip wire. But most feared was the Schu mine which consisted of a simple block of explosive enclosed in a wooden box. Difficult to detect, it removed one’s foot very effectively…”
Lake Comacchio presented planners with an different set of problems. At the best of times it was shallow, brackish, heavily silted and, in places, reed-tangled. But the dry spring reduced water levels even further, large tracts of the lake were turned into a bog.
The plan devised by Brigadier Ronnie Tod’s staff was for an array of amphibious LVTs, known as ‘Fantails’ or ‘Buffalo’, to ferry two army commando units across the flats to the channels beyond from where they would launch their attack.
As soon as they were ashore, the marines of 40 Commando were to create a diversion while 43 Commando pushed forward. They were to clear a thin strip of land called the ‘Tongue’ before making an assault crossing of the Reno to capture five defended localities.
Positions taken, they were then to link up with the army commandos to continue what amounted to a seven-mile advance up a narrow, mine-infested corridor of sand and scrub known as the ‘Spit’ as far as the Valetta Canal where it looks out towards Porto Garibaldi.
This was the Royal Marines’ last battle honour of the Second World War. Corporal Tom Hunter was awarded a posthumous VC for his part in the actions of April 3.
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