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The Allied April 1945 offensive on the Italian front, which was to end the Italian campaign and the war in Italy, was to decisively break through the German Gothic Line, the defensive line along the Apennines and the River Po plain to the Adriatic Sea and swiftly drive north to occupy Northern Italy and get to the Austrian and Yugoslav borders as quickly as possible. However, German strongpoints, as well as bridge, road, levee and dike blasting, and any occasional determined resistance in the Po Valley plain might slow the planned sweep down. Allied planners felt that dropping paratroops onto some key areas and locales south of the River Po could help wreak havoc in the German rear area, attack German communications and vehicle columns, further disrupting the German retreat, and prevent German engineers from blowing up key structures before Allied spearheads could exploit them. Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery, commander of the Commonwealth 8th Army, had a number of Italian paratroopers at hand for the task.
In March 1945, the whole 114-strong Italian paratroops "F" Recce Squadron (12 squads under Captain Carlo Gay), and 112 volunteers – four platoons, each made up by three squads, led by Lieutenant Guerrino Ceiner - from the Italian Nembo Paratroops Regiment, were picked for Operation Herring. They received a rapid but thorough training update under the supervision of the British paratroops Major Ramsay, who was reportedly pleased by the paratroopers' excellent performance.
The mission would entail eight battle drops on as many areas south of Po River, southeast of Ferrara, the Mirandola area, and Poggio Rusco and the Modena-Mantua highway. It would last 36 hours. Every paratrooper would be equipped with an Italian Beretta MAB submachine gun with 400 rounds, high explosive charges, four hand grenades, dagger, maps, and foodstuff for 48 hours.
On the night of 19–20 April 1945, the Italian paras (plus at least one British paratrooper who had joined them) jumped from 14 Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft of the U.S. 64th Troop Carrier Group and on their drop zones. Scattering was considerable, but it did not significantly hinder the paratroops' effectiveness. A few were captured upon their landing, but their comrades proved very aggressive – perhaps even too much as several German prisoners were murdered in cold blood by their captors, a cruelty the Germans reciprocated in kind by killing some Italian prisoners as well as a few civilians. 16 paras surrounded by German forces and barricaded inside a farmhouse died - all but two - fighting to the last round. Other groups were more successful, inflicting heavy damage and suffering light casualties. Two F Squadron squads (18 men) seized two little towns, Ravarino and Stuffione, capturing 451 Germans and holding out until the arrival of Allied ground forces.
Operation Herring lasted over 72 hours instead of the 36 initially foreseen, but it turned out to be a success. With some help on the part of the local partisan groups, according to some sources 481 German soldiers were killed, 1,083 surrendered, 44 vehicles were destroyed and many captured including some tanks, armored cars and guns, 77 telephone lines severed, three bridges taken intact, an ammunition storage site blown up. The price the Italians paid for the success was 31 dead (including a British paratroops sergeant) and 10-12 wounded. An Italian lieutenant and a private were posthumously awarded the Gold Medal for Valor.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Operation Herring.|
- Squadrone F - Detailed website dedicated to Operation Herring (in Italian)