18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 26 — The Brick Wall—Guardiagrele
The Brick Wall—Guardiagrele
By20 November 1943, 6 Brigade was all set to attack, but the rain and the river took a hand, and everything was put off for forty-eight hours. The Sangro, never a placid stream, was running high and swift, and even if the infantry had got across, it would have been a struggle to keep it there. On 22 November things were no better, the water was rising even higher, the crossing was again postponed, and 18 Regiment was ordered to lend a squadron to the divisional artillery to stiffen up the supporting fire when (if ever) the infantry did cross. Here at last was the 18th's first real job, though it did not seem to promise much excitement.
In the grey, damp, drizzly dawn of 23 November A Squadron left Casalanguida on its way up to the front line. It had only nine miles to go, but the move took all morning, for the tanks went forward one by one, ten minutes between each, so that the last one—there were twelve—moved off two hours after the first. The idea was to avoid traffic jams and shellfire on the road, but the men could not help thinking it a bit exaggerated, as only a few short stretches of the road were in Jerry's view, and visibility was pretty poor anyway.
The road wound down a spur to the Osento River, a nightmare spot where for days traffic had inched its way through a series of dreadful deviations that not all the engineers' skill could improve. Up again to Atessa, perched dizzily on top of a tangle of cliffs, in normal times a sleepy little market town but now a busy traffic centre, a mass of coloured signposts bearing cryptic numbers and initials under the familiar fernleaf. Downhill again, over and round a complicated jumble of hills and streams, and then by cart tracks deep in mud up a steep conical hill striped with olive groves, officially named Torretta, but from now on universally known in 18 Regiment as ‘Dicko's Hill’.
Coaxing the tanks up Torretta was a terrible job. ‘One by page 364 one,’ says Major Dickinson,1 ‘we wallowed up the ridge, each tank making the going worse for the one behind …. Four were immobilised, being bellied and run out of tracks, but had got close enough to the crest where indirect fire could be directed by the commander standing on top of his turret.’ By mid-afternoon the other eight tanks were in ‘hull down’ positions (that is, just behind the crest of the hill with turrets and guns poking up over it), nicely hidden behind a hedge and blanketed under their camouflage nets, looking straight across the Sangro valley to the hills north of the river.
The Sangro certainly looked formidable. Across the wide river flat meandered the water, sometimes in one stream, sometimes broken into three or four channels with mud and shingle banks in between. Beyond it rose the hills, rolling back higher and higher and meeting the sky in a long ridge topped by the church spire of a large town, Castelfrentano by name, later to page 365 become very familiar to the Kiwis. High above the left flank soared the jumble of snowy peaks—the Maiella—that had first been seen from Furci. It was a magnificent but rugged panorama. And there, on those hills that looked so close you could almost spit across to them, sat Jerry, doubtless waiting to let fly as soon as the Eighth Army ventured into his territory.
That was to be the same night, 23 November. Sixth Brigade was again poised for the attack, the artillery all ready to blast Jerry's positions. A Squadron's orders from the CRA (Brigadier Weir2) were to shoot only at opportunity targets that came into view—this would limit its usefulness to daylight hours, but Major Dickinson ordered a stand-to for 3 a.m., when the balloon was to go up. After the tanks were in position the men spent the little remaining daylight getting bivvies up and grumbling loudly that this Torretta could not provide a single decent casa to live in, then lay down to take things easy in readiness for their early morning call.
There was an unpleasant surprise ahead. Just at twilight a scattered salvo of shells came crashing round, puncturing bivvies, cans and blankets, one dud bouncing fair and square on the back of Lieutenant Cullinane's3 tank. For more than half the squadron it was the first time under shellfire, and they did not like it any more than the old hands did. As things turned out, these few shells were the only ones to come around in the five days A Squadron spent on Torretta—nobody could fathom why Jerry sent them over, unless somebody had carelessly shown a light—but that one experience was enough to dissuade the men from walking round too much in the open in daylight, and most of them took to sleeping under the tanks, where they had a little better protection.
Before all this happened, even before A Squadron was properly in position on Torretta, the attack had been postponed again, for it was still raining and the Sangro was swollen far above normal. It seemed as if this show was never going to page 366 come to anything. So the squadron had to contain its impatience and wait to see what the next day or two would bring.
Despite its drawbacks, front-line life on Torretta was not unpleasant on the whole. It was pretty free and easy, as front lines are when the fighting is slack. Apart from digging out the bogged tanks (which the boys succeeded in doing with no outside help) there was little to do except pickets. On the second morning a convoy of scout cars came up with a cargo of stores, and the limited supply of ammunition was more than doubled when some 22 (Motor) Battalion carriers brought up 3000 shells for the 75-millimetre guns. All this had to be lugged by hand up the slushy tracks from the foot of the hill, but it was worth the effort once the stuff was up there.
The food arrangements were the worst part. Major Dickinson comments:
We were … irritated by failure on the Q side to envisage tank life whereby each crew of five cooked and fed itself. Although Sqn Q did its best, tanks always had the problem of apportioning bulk rations into tank lots. At this stage we seemed swamped with dehydrated food, it was the devil's own job to divide bags of potatoes, carrots, cabbage (like hay), and minced meat into a dozen equal quantities when there were no suitable small containers or measures. We still had the worst part ahead, and that was to cook the stuff, which nobody liked anyway.
The best you could do was to heave everything in together to make stew, which was tolerable mainly because there was little else, and for breakfast to crush up biscuits with condensed milk into a thick sweet porridge. Luckily the water famines of the desert were past—in fact there was all too much of it—and tea and sugar were plentiful, so that at almost any hour of the day you could be sure to find someone with a brew of tea on hand.
The boys at Casalanguida fared better, for they could have such things as fresh meat and vegetables and bread, which were now appearing on the menu occasionally, but which could not conveniently be carted up to A Squadron. In this respect, if in no other, Italy had it all over Africa. Supply in the desert had always been a chancy business. Here, with not so far to go, with the Luftwaffe virtually out of the sky, and in a country that could grow things, the system was better organised and the food more varied. From 18 Regiment it was only a short daily page 367 run back to Gissi for rations. The luscious fruit of the Taranto days had disappeared with the approach of winter, but the villages and farms could still provide unofficial supplies of tomatoes (hung from the rafters to dry) and apples (stored for the winter in big treetop baskets of woven branches). It seemed quite likely, too, that the Kiwis would still be around when next season's crop came on.
The dream of an armoured dash across Italy to Rome was now fading fast. Any chance there might have been of gatecrashing Jerry's line had been drowned in the icy Sangro water. Now, since the latest postponement, the only likely method was a full divisional attack with lots of weight, delivered as soon as the river dropped far enough. From 24 November the traffic past 18 Regiment's roadside homes at Casalanguida and Gissi was much thicker than before, trucks sometimes nose to tail, as 5 Brigade went up into the line beside 6 Brigade. The 18 Regiment boys, watching this procession glumly, had some excuse for wondering what had been the point in training them and outfitting them with these great clumsy tanks that could not even move for mud. Here they were, very bored, very wet, the only part of the Division not in action, spending their time with picks and shovels mending the roads.
But on 25 November, after so many days of rain and disappointment, the sky cleared and the sun shone, with a fresh drying wind. It seemed too good to be true. And when the next two days passed without more rain, it looked as if the Kiwis' luck was on the turn. By 27 November the river had dropped to a reasonable level, the mud had become slightly less sticky, and the attack over the Sangro, so often postponed, was on at last. The main body of 18 Regiment had no orders yet, but was waiting, all stocked up with food and ‘ammo’ and fuel, ready to advance when it got the word. For the last two days the boys had eyed with approval the almost non-stop bomber service pounding Jerry's positions; on the afternoon of the 27th the hills beyond the river were half blotted out by bomb smoke. This was Crete in reverse.
At 2.45 a.m. on 28 November, exactly a week late, five infantry battalions attacked up the hills north of the Sangro, page 368 and at the same moment all the New Zealand artillery crashed into action, and the two-month-old wireless silence was at last lifted.
Even from many miles away, a full-scale artillery barrage inspires awe. At Casalanguida the regiment was close enough to get the full benefit of this one, the lightning display continuously flashing all over the sky, the drumbeat of the guns and the song of the departing shells so loud that sleep was out of the question. You could only watch and listen through the whole three and a half hours of it, and wonder how the poor devils up front were getting on.
The poor devils actually did very well, took nearly all their objectives with surprisingly light losses, built a bridge over the Sangro, got a few of 19 Regiment's tanks and a good strong force of supporting arms across, and set about strengthening their toehold on the heights before pushing on. Now 18 Regiment's turn was coming. At 5 p.m. on the 28th, after a day of scanty but encouraging news, the regiment was ordered up handy to the Sangro next morning, ready to cross during the day.
While the rest of the regiment waited impatiently at Casalanguida, A Squadron had ringside seats for the show, had been almost deafened by the guns behind and below Torretta, and at dawn had seen all there was to see in the valley, which was very little. A group of Shermans bogged in the marshy riverbed away to the right; almost straight ahead the Bailey bridge which had sprung up overnight, with jeeps and light trucks and anti-tank guns already crowding across it; an occasional shellburst here and there; but no sign of Jerry, which was a bitter disappointment to the squadron. The boys were longing for something to shoot at. One tank, under Major Stanford,4 had been detached to go over the river with 19 Regiment, ‘swan’ round and report targets back to A Squadron, but it bogged down like most of the 19th, and this promising avenue was closed.
But the squadron was not going to miss its shooting. By about 9 a.m. a few 19 Regiment tanks had arrived at the foot of the hills just opposite Torretta and were beginning to climb the slopes, and our infantry could occasionally be seen toiling page 369 uphill. So Major Dickinson, as disappointed as the rest, turned the guns on to targets—or what looked as if they ought to be targets—on the hills above the advancing Kiwis, partly to make his boys happy, partly for the benefit of a war correspondent who arrived up with camera just at that time. Under such unsatisfactory circumstances did A Squadron fire 18 Regiment's first shots of the Italian campaign.
The shoot turned out a ‘fizzer’. In such close, wet country it was very hard to see where the shots were landing; and A Squadron was evidently exceeding its orders, for Dickinson recalls: ‘the CRA … came on the air in a hurry to see if it was a counterattack or some good target we'd seen, and made us stop’. It was a very vexing day.
Next day started off sunny and clear, still with very little activity over the river except fighter-bombers wandering up and down. No more chance of any shooting. But the time was coming when the regiment would be going over the Sangro to follow up the attack, so the A Squadron crews set to work to get their tanks ready to go, pulled the bogged tanks on to firmer ground, and packed up their belongings, which naturally tended to get strewn round after a few days. At the same time the rest of 18 Regiment's tanks were moving forward over the hills from Casalanguida, down through Atessa, to the foot of Torretta, where they parked less than a mile from A Squadron. Nearly the whole regiment was in motion on 29 November, for B Echelon split up temporarily, part of it moving on to Casalanguida while the rest stayed in billets at Gissi.
The next afternoon (30 November) tanks and scout cars moved on again. So far nothing half as heavy as a Sherman had crossed the Sangro by the Bailey bridge, and there were those who doubted whether the tanks would make it. But the engineers who had built the Bailey were confident and reassuring, and they were justified, for tank after tank rumbled over in safety. The second half of them crossed in the dark, drivers straining their eyes to see the narrow road, commanders perched on the hulls in front to correct any veering off course. By midnight the whole regiment was lying up in fields and scattered buildings on the north bank, waiting for word to press on. Now that the hanging round was over everyone was in good spirits, and keen to ‘get stuck into Jerry’.page 370
Next day's orders, when they finally came through, were a bit of a let-down. True, the regiment was to push forward, plus a company of ‘motorised infantry’ of 22 Battalion, along Route 84, a good paved road leading northwards away from the Sangro and straight into Jerry's positions. But it was to be only a sideshow to draw Jerry's eyes and guns away from 5 and 6 Brigades, which would make the real main thrust across country towards Castelfrentano, dominating the main ridge. The tanks were not to get mixed up in heavy fighting— Brigadier Stewart,5 4 Brigade's new commander, probably knew very well what 18 Regiment was liable to do when he firmly cautioned its senior officers, ‘I don't want any cavalry charges.’
The night was quiet, with no shellfire near, but next day dawned freezing cold, with hail showers sweeping across the valley, the sort of morning when blankets call temptingly. But there was no lying in bed for 18 Regiment. In the half light of dawn it was off, moving out on to the road, the atmosphere quite eerie in the blue haze of exhaust smoke, everyone's breath a white fog. First two scout cars, with Second-Lieutenant Colin McGruther6 in charge, to look for mines on the road; then B Squadron, a troop at a time, in single file, 50 yards between tanks; then Regimental Headquarters; and C Squadron in the rear. A Squadron, which was not included in the advance meantime, watched rather enviously as the rest formed up and filed off.
Route 84 first climbed over a low saddle, then round the shoulder of a spur, where the 22 Battalion boys were waiting. Then on went the cavalcade, the tanks at not much more than a walking pace, the infantry riding on them, some 22 Battalion carriers with Vickers guns immediately behind B Squadron. It was after 8 a.m. now.
Less than an hour later, before C Squadron had even got under way properly, the first shells fell near B Squadron's leading tanks two and a half miles up the road.page 371
At first the fire was not heavy enough to worry the tankies, and the column pushed on at much the same pace, though the infantry lost no time jumping off the tanks and taking to the fields beside the road. Ahead lay a crossroads where a narrow road led off westwards, down a slope and steeply up the other side to the cramped little ridgetop village of San Eusanio; New Zealand patrols had already reported Route 84 clear as far as there, but what lay beyond nobody knew.
Now things began to go wrong. The scout cars reported mines at the crossroads. Second-Lieutenant Bill McHale7 took the leading tank forward to cover the mine-clearing party, but his appearance over a small crest brought down a burst of fire from somewhere ahead, including some big anti-tank shells that came down the road like express trains. The tank turned off the road for shelter, but only a few minutes later a direct hit damaged the turret, wounded both McHale and McGruther, and 18 Regiment had suffered its first battle casualties. This mishap held things up for a while, and nobody seemed very clear what to do next until Major Ferguson,8 coming up on foot to see what the trouble was, picked up the mines. There were not many of them—a row of big flat Teller mines, quite capable of laying out Sherman tanks, buried under the road metal, another clump down at the bottom of the gully on the San Eusanio road. With these out of the way the road was theoretically clear, but B Squadron's next attempt to get forward met with a storm of protest from the invisible enemy. The road from here climbed gently up the side of a spur to the top of the main ridge, two miles farther on; there was Jerry's main winter line, and he was plainly resenting these Kiwis trying to come in and take possession.
This finished the advance for the day. ‘I tried to push on a bit,’ says Major Ferguson, ‘but there was an 88 mm. A/tk. gun firing down the road and we couldn't spot him although his shells knocked out one of my tanks and damaged another…. The enemy shelling was pretty intense and we just stayed put and banged away.’ In this country of trees and bumpy hills Jerry held most of the cards. The leading troop of tanks, firing page 372 away all the time, got off the road as best it could, nosed its way in behind houses and carried on the duel. One by one the rest of B Squadron braved the fire and came up, until all its tanks were there, behind such scanty cover as they could get, belting away towards where Jerry ought to be. Darkness found both sides still at it, hammer and tongs.
While all this was going on, the rest of the regiment, farther back, had almost as unpleasant a time, for Jerry, thoroughly roused, plastered the whole length of Route 84 at intervals. Early in the afternoon disaster struck Regimental Headquarters, some 600 yards behind the San Eusanio crossroads, for Captain Thorley,9 the adjutant, was killed, and a little later Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants was slightly wounded. C Squadron spent some hours sitting on the road, its tanks nose to tail, behind the shelter of low ridges, until called forward to the crossroads in the afternoon to back up B Squadron.
There was not much daylight left when C Squadron arrived, and there was little that it could do, but its tanks spread out in an olive grove just on the left of the crossroads, and opened fire somewhat at random, in the same general direction as B Squadron. Then shells began to come back, and just about dusk the squadron was swept by a savage bombardment which shredded the olive trees and sent shrapnel splashing on the tanks. This ‘stonk’ seemed too accurate to be mere chance; from nowhere grew the rumour that Jerry had an observation post with a radio not far away, and dark glances were cast at the gaunt houses of San Eusanio, gazing at the crossroads from only 1000 yards away. A patrol from 22 Battalion had gone into San Eusanio earlier, covered by some of B Squadron's guns, had reported it clear and was now in possession, but nobody in C Squadron knew anything about that.
The first day in action could not be called a sparkling success, yet 18 Regiment could boast of having carried out its orders, kept Jerry busy and drawn his fire away from the infantry, who could be seen in the afternoon advancing steadily up the shaggy gullies on the right towards Castelfrentano, apparently with little argument. The tankies' good wishes went with them, for if Jerry was pushed out of that page 373 dominating position, the resolute gunners in front of 18 Regiment would probably have to clear out too. The cost of the 18th's help had been one killed and six wounded, one B Squadron tank knocked out and three damaged, one of C Squadron's disabled by a ricochet. Not as bad as it might have been, though heavy enough for one day.
Night brought only a little relief. B Squadron formed the best laager it could, tanks fairly well protected and their crews sleeping in houses. As soon as it was dark 2 and 3 Companies of 22 (Motor) Battalion moved up and placed themselves astride the road in front of the tanks, a very comforting buffer in case Jerry got any nasty ideas about counter-attacks. The shelling went on at intervals all night, several houses took direct hits, and nobody had very much rest. The New Zealand artillery was firing vigorously from back behind the Sangro, but 18 Regiment closed down for the night, as there seemed no point in any more blind shooting. Replenishment parties came up with tank fuel and ammunition, everyone managed to scratch up some sort of a meal, and in every house innumerable cups of tea were brewed. Back at Regimental Headquarters Major Green came up from B Echelon and took command.
Then 2 December dawned with everything quiet ahead. This was much better. There were no fresh orders from 4 Brigade, but Major Green directed B Squadron ahead up the spur to the main ridge, from which Jerry, unless he was playing possum, seemed to have gone. At 7.30 a.m., after a quick bite of breakfast, the tanks began to move out to the road, now a much more friendly place with no shells sizzling down it. The 22 Battalion companies were already on the move in the chilly morning light; the tanks, still wary and suspicious, moved on one at a time in short hops from house to house, covering one another and keeping an eye on the infantry. But they need not have worried, for Jerry was really gone. By 10 a.m. the leading infantry was on the ridge. B Squadron seemed doomed to frustration, for only 250 yards short of the top, at a spot where the tanks could not bypass it, Jerry had dug a deep wide ditch across the road, with Teller mines and barbed wire in front. Infantry parties set to work furiously with shovels filling in the ditch to one side of the road; Major Ferguson, who had been up in front directing his tanks' advance, removed the mines, which page 374 had been laid in a hurry and not very cunningly. Now the tanks could inch their way over the obstacle, but they were in no hurry to do it, for just past there the road topped the ridge and went over on to the northern slope, exposed to Jerry's shells. It seemed much more healthy to stay behind the ditch in the meantime. The tankies took the opportunity to brew up tea at leisure, to wander round a little and admire Jerry's defences, the deep dugouts with every comfort (even electric light), the well-sited camouflaged trenches, obviously representing weeks of work.
They were not to be left in peace here for very long. That morning, 2 December, all the Division from Lieutenant-General Freyberg down was jubilant and optimistic. The main German winter line on the Castelfrentano ridge had been burst wide open. Jerry had bolted with scarcely a fight, and seemed unlikely to stop again for a while. So the Division was urged on, with all speed, 6 Brigade from Castelfrentano and 4 Brigade from Route 84, westwards towards the hills, to the next group of ridge-top towns, Orsogna and Guardiagrele, the keys to the next roads north. Fourth Brigade's next stops were Guardiagrele (six miles away in a straight line, nine by road) and San Martino, two miles north of it.
Here was a rare chance for a two-pronged drive. Just over the crest from B Squadron the road forked, Route 84 turning east to Castelfrentano, a narrower road west to Guardiagrele and San Martino. The San Eusanio road also led that way, separated from the first by an impossible gorge, but curling round and joining it after four or five miles. All right, said Brigadier Stewart, we'll go both ways. Twenty-second Battalion on the northern road, with B Squadron, 18 Regiment, attached; on the San Eusanio road 18 Regiment, with 1 Motor Company of 22 Battalion attached. ‘Both parties,’ concluded the order, ‘to push on day and night’.
The B Squadron boys spent some hours in happy ignorance that these rush orders were on the way. It was 4 p.m. when the orders arrived, delivered direct by General Freyberg, who came dashing up the road in a jeep to see how things were going. By 4.30 p.m. the force was on its way, 2 Motor Company going first on foot on both sides of the road, then B Squadron, moving through the olive groves where possible. Much to page 375 everyone's relief, Jerry had stopped his shelling, and the show started off very quietly. The tanks on their way along put a few shells for luck into every house they came to, but there was no opposition anywhere.
Only a mile along the road Lieutenant Hawkins, leading his troop up a sunken track that cut off a big double bend in the road, had the first of the night's adventures. Major Ferguson tells the story:
Cliff Hawkins… found a huge shell or bomb crater blocking his further progress so he stopped…. Then suddenly a Jerry appeared out of a dugout… and wanted to surrender. Cliff couldn't switch his gun on to him because of the sunken road so he very diffidently fished out his pistol and pointed it at the Jerry. The Jerry spoke English and asked if he could return to his dugout to get his blankets. Cliff said ‘Yes’ so the Jerry disappeared again but reappeared followed by 14 other Jerries also carrying their blankets etc.
This, 18 Regiment's first close-range encounter, was a nice instance of the power that is yours when you have a tank. Not only does Jerry surrender to you, but you can even afford to be magnanimous about it. In the old infantry days you dared not let a prisoner go back to a dugout for blankets—that would have been inviting trouble.
Dusk was falling now, and soon it was so dark that the tanks had to take to the road, close up nose to tail and feel their way along, in some danger of taking a ‘header’ down the hill that dropped away steeply to the north. This was no sort of work for tanks, but ‘day and night’ were the orders, so they floundered on, well behind the infantry now, till a report came back from up front that there was a big demolition blocking the road.
From now on the story of B Squadron turns into the personal adventures of Major Ferguson, who went ahead on foot with the infantry, exploring for routes for the tanks and calling them forward when possible. The tankies sat and froze, cursing the tanks they had been so proud of, not knowing what was going on ahead but blackguarding their luck in missing the fun, with no idea that they were the important part of a spearhead that was penetrating Jerry's flank and causing him widespread panic. They only knew they were cold and bored, and could not even light a primus to make a cup of tea.page 376
But to the people up forward it was clear that Jerry was not expecting visitors so soon. After finding a steep, narrow track, barely possible for tanks, that got B Squadron round the crater, Ferguson hurried ahead in time to hear another crater blown just in front of him and then to see, a little farther on, a Jerry tank blown up on the road, its ammunition going off in all directions. With an old civilian as guide, the tanks were laboriously brought past these two obstacles by a stony lane winding in and out among the houses of a straggling little village; then Ferguson again went on and was present at an important moment when the leading infantry pounced unexpectedly on a young German officer and his two companions.
Up to now Jerry had been having a really bad time. Quite by accident 4 Armoured Brigade's thrust up Route 84 had found the boundary between his 26 Panzer Division on the west and 65 Division on the east, at a time when these two divisions were badly out of step, neither of them knowing just where the other was. The Panzer Division's main line lay along the Castelfrentano-Guardiagrele road, facing south, so the westward advance along this road by B Squadron and 22 Battalion threatened to outflank it entirely, and forced 26 Panzer Division to retire hurriedly to its next line, not built for winter comfort, but naturally very strong, along a commanding ridge from Guardiagrele to Orsogna. This withdrawal was carried out almost under 22 Battalion's nose. The tank in the village street was blown up by its crew because it was damaged and could not get away fast enough. And the young officer, captured while directing the withdrawal of his last rearguards, was 26 Panzer Division's ‘most capable and bravest’ battalion commander. For those few hours between sunset and midnight Jerry was truly unhappy.
But with this final kick the New Zealand luck ran right out. A little farther on, just past the saddle where the San Eusanio road came out, in a little wood of stunted oaks that straggled over a round hill, 22 Battalion met the first outpost of the Guardiagrele-Orsogna line, a determined little force which evidently planned to stay where it was for a while. Ahead of the tanks a regular duel flared up, Brens and Spandaus rattling, the occasional thud of a grenade. Then a sudden roar as another demolition went up, a beauty this time, 40 feet of page 377 road cascading down the hillside, and no way past for the tanks without crashing into 22 Battalion's party on the hill. There was nothing to be gained by trying to go on. Luckily there were plenty of casas round, for the straggling hamlet (Salarola by name, though very few ever got round to calling it anything but ‘the village’) extended nearly to the junction with the San Eusanio road, and was still comparatively whole. Here the tired tankies dossed down, ready to go on again at short notice if Jerry pulled out, but praying that they would have time for a few hours' sleep first. Back on the road behind them a party of engineers with bulldozers was already busy filling in the two craters.
All this time C Squadron and Regimental Headquarters had been inching forward along the San Eusanio road. Before dawn on 2 December C Squadron was on the road again, down into the gully and up the other side through San Eusanio, where, says Trooper Roy Hancox,10 ‘the Ities nearly went mad they were so pleased to see us. They were in the streets with wine bottles to give us a drink if we stopped …. We had crowds round us with wine & calling us comrades.’
Before midday 1 Motor Company and some scout cars belonging to Divisional Cavalry advanced west from San Eusanio. As soon as the ‘day and night’ order arrived Major Parkinson11 of C Squadron went forward to study the road and see how far his tanks could get, and then at 3.30 p.m. the whole squadron moved on up the ridge, finding to its dismay that the road soon degenerated into a rutted cart track, steep and slippery in places, snaking along the ridge with some sharp drops on either side. The country ahead looked all up and down, most of it covered with thick trees, with Guardiagrele straight in front glowering from the head of a great ravine. The Div Cav boys had reported trouble ahead, shellfire from the west, signs of Jerry to the north; but the tanks had no trouble for four miles, till they reached the grubby village of Bianco standing astride the road on top of the ridge. They could not see what Div Cav was so excited about. One or two fast shells came in from Salarola across the gully to the north, but they page 378 did not amount to much. The squadron had a brief shoot in return and demolished some houses in Salarola, and then night fell and C Squadron stayed where it was for the time being, while 22 Battalion patrols went on to cover the remaining two miles to the intersection with B Squadron's road. Major Green was up with the infantry, often indeed ahead of them, for Brigadier Stewart had again urged haste, adding that the tank column first past the junction of the two roads would have priority. The track past Bianco would be a tricky undertaking in the dark, but if it was clear the tanks would have to push on and take their chance.
It was not clear. A mile from Bianco, just where the track began to curve round the steep head of the gorge, Jerry had dug a ditch across it, not a very big one, but shrewdly placed where no tank could possibly wriggle round it. So while C Squadron waited at Bianco a bridging tank was urgently summoned from 4 Brigade Headquarters, came groping ponderously up the track, and before long had a folding bridge (‘scissors’ bridge in army lingo) across the ditch, a rough shaky bridge certainly, but enough for the tanks to get over. At 2 a.m. the tankies were roused from their rest and set off again, as B Squadron had done earlier in the night, tanks nose to tail, crawling along the track at a walking pace. Very few of the men, as they crossed the bridge over the ditch, realised what it was or how it had got there.
Soon after 3 a.m. the head of the column reached Salarola and stopped again, the leading tank just short of the road junction. The fighting on the hill above had died down by now. Major Green found Major Ferguson, heard B Squadron's story, and decided that till daylight C Squadron's column would stay were it was, parked on the side of the track in the lee of the hill. Then, if the advance was to continue, B Squadron would have the honour. Once more the weary men in the C Squadron tanks lay down to finish off their broken sleep.
At daybreak all was quiet ahead. Twenty-second Battalion's patrols came back with the good news that Jerry had gone from the hill, obviously in a hurry, judging by the masses of gear scattered round among the trees. It looked like the previous morning all over again. As soon as it was light B Squadron's tanks spread out back down the road from Salarola page 379 ready to carry on the advance, while the senior officers walked forward over the hill to see what they had to tackle next.
A mile ahead of the Salarola junction the road ran across another narrow saddle, with gullies dropping away on both sides, and then divided again, one branch running north-east along the high ridge to Orsogna, the other disappearing in a tangle of hills towards Guardiagrele. Just in front of this road fork was a tiny village, hardly worth the name, just a railway station and a handful of houses, called Melone according to the map. This humble little settlement, it was plain, had a tactical value out of all proportion to its size, for the Orsogna road looked down on the New Zealand positions, with Orsogna itself horribly prominent away to the right. Obviously a footing on the Orsogna ridge would mean a lot to 2 NZ Division. The force at Salarola was in a position to make a quick attack and unlock the door to the ridge, but Melone looked an awkward place to get at. You could approach it only by the narrow saddle, two hundred yards across at the most; and just behind the village, dominating the vital road fork, rose a vertical bluff with trees all over it, a perfect place for defence.
The reconnaissance party walked almost to Melone without provoking any sign of life, so it looked as if Jerry might not be there after all. Back at Salarola an attack was hurriedly organised, 2 and 3 Motor Companies to make for the road fork (which now bore the code-name of waiouru), B Squadron to go over the hill, dodging the big demolition on the road, and support the infantry from as far forward as possible. For a little while everybody had to rush round at top speed to get ready, and soon after 8 a.m. the show was under way.
Reunion dinner, Cairo, 1943
Here matters rested for a little while. Major Ferguson went forward to Melone and discussed the situation with 22 Battalion's company commander, but there was clearly no future in waiouru, so he took it on himself to call the attack off. The infantry was pinned down and had lost too many men, the fire was not slackening off at all, it was obviously useless to carry on. The tanks began to pull back to the top of the hill to look for better firing positions, and also to draw Jerry's shellfire so that the infantry might have a better chance of getting out of its nasty position.
New Year's Day at Castelfrentano
This move worked fairly well. Most of the shells moved uphill after the tanks, which stopped at the crest and blazed away at the bluff while the infantry withdrew. Four tanks were hit and disabled before they could get behind any sort of cover; the mobile ones went over hull down behind the hilltop and carried on the war from there. They hammered Melone and waiouru, they shot up whatever they could see on the Orsogna road.
Farther back at Salarola, also, Jerry was flinging shells about recklessly. Late that morning one fateful shell hit a tree above Major Green's tank, showered it with shrapnel, and mortally wounded him. When Hugh Green died even the hardest old desert campaigner, used to sudden death and apt to pass it off with a shrug, felt it a personal tragedy. Dapper, debonair, amiable, on friendly terms with everybody in the 18th, he could truly be called a regimental institution. ‘A marvellous chap’ is one man's tribute. ‘Loved by all, both officers and men,’ says another. He was a solid leader, completely dependable, never ruffled, and his infectious courage made you follow wherever he went.
Now Major Ferguson, back from his fruitless dash to Melone, took command of the regiment, and a little later ordered C Squadron back to Bianco, away from the congested Salarola junction, where it could not do much good and was only risking casualties for nothing. Jerry's reaction to the morning's attack had been much fiercer than anything he had turned on previously, and it looked as if the New Zealand walk-through might be over. The urgent need at Salarola was not more tanks, but more infantry, for 22 Battalion was down to a mere handful of men, and a tank attack on waiouru was clearly out of the question. So while B Squadron's tanks kept up their fight from the hill, C Squadron moved slowly back the way it had come through a storm of German shells. Three-quarters of a mile back, where a few roadside houses offered some shelter and living space, the tanks stopped, took up firing positions, and spent the rest of the day slamming shells into Melone, which was in plain view across a gully. Jerry did not stop his shellfire until the evening, but C Squadron, pretty well protected by the stout stone houses, could—for a little while anyway— thumb its nose at Jerry's shells.page 382
That evening the Salarola position was reorganised in a slightly more permanent fashion. Regimental Headquarters moved from its raw, damp hillside to the greater comfort and safety of the village. All the B Squadron tanks that would still run went back there too, to the envy of the crews of the disabled tanks, who had to stay, much against their will, on the cold hilltop with their steeds. After dark trucks from A Echelon came up with fuel, ammunition and food, and never were trucks more welcome. According to the rules, the tanks were to be replenished nightly with fuel and ammunition, but the previous night there had been no chance; now, however, the engineers with their wonderful bulldozers had filled one crater and made a deviation round the second, so that trucks had a reasonable road up to Salarola.
But the waiouru problem was still there, and the chances did not look bright. A 22 Battalion patrol that night found Jerry still in Melone and very alert. So no regular attack was ordered for 4 December, only an artillery bombardment at dawn, followed by another patrol to go in under the guns of B Squadron and test the opposition in daylight. What was to happen after that? Well, it depended on the patrol, but everybody was to be ready to ‘get cracking’ at short notice if Jerry packed up.
This was a most unsuccessful, disorganised excursion. The infantry patrol, as soon as it showed itself in the open, was driven to the ground by machine guns and mortars from the bluff, and B Squadron (with Captain K. L. Brown now in command) had to move fast over the hill to help. Captain Brown says:
There was no time for recce, just quickly gather all the running tanks—I think about 5 or 6—went flat out across the hill, down the other side not more than about fifty yards where I found about 25 22 Bn. fellows lying… in an open paddock being very badly machine gunned and mortared. I drove through the infantry with the tanks, and literally stayed in front of the infantry lifting the fire off them, and allowing the infantry to get out. I would say most of our tanks were hit by mortar fire…. It was most unpleasant. Once the infantry were clear, about 20 minutes, we withdrew back out to our safe side of the hill.
The mortar bombs chased the infantry all the way home, and B Squadron's hill was plastered periodically all day, even after page 383 the tanks had moved back over the crest. The tankies had a wretched day, aggravated by pouring rain which made the hill disgustingly greasy. One tank went over a bank and stuck there; the rest made their way back to Salarola with great difficulty in the evening. To the tankies, soaked and shivering, the warm Salarola houses, with fires going and perhaps a bit of wine that someone had found somewhere, were wonderful, even though shells kept crashing round most of the night. The solid stone houses were proof against any but the heaviest shells.
C Squadron took no part in the war that day. Away back on the Bianco road it was really too far away to give any effective help, and as it was getting shelled to no purpose, it was ordered farther back to a quieter place where it could maintain its tanks, keep them ready and in fighting trim. That evening it went two miles back to new billets in a tiny village called Ciommi, nicely situated on the safe side of a bulky hill, a very pleasant spot if the weather had not been so foul.
Even back here tragedy was ready to pounce. During the day Major Parkinson set out in a scout car for the RAP to have a slight wound attended to. Some hours later, not far back down the greasy road, his body was found under the overturned car. This was another bad blow—within twenty-four hours the 18th had lost two senior officers it could ill afford, both original 18 Battalion officers, both first-rate fighting men. ‘Joe’ Parkinson, who had in Greece and Crete earned a fine reputation as a subaltern, was a very different type from Hugh Green—quick, brilliant, lithe, active and restless, perpetually young in spirit, even somewhat frivolous perhaps. More than almost anyone else in the 18th, you just could not imagine him dead.
And so to 5 December and another attempt on waiouru. This time a night patrol from 22 Battalion went into Melone and saw no sign of Jerry, so a tentative attack was laid on—two platoons of 22 Battalion to feel for Melone early in the morning; the rest of the battalion to come forward little by little if things went well; B Squadron again to give support from the crest of its hill.
At 7.20 a.m. the tanks were ploughing their way uphill for the third day running. The rain had cleared overnight, but had page 384 left a legacy of deep mud into which the tank tracks gouged deep ruts as they lurched up the track. The war diary describes their day in the briefest, baldest terms:
B Sqn stayed on top of the feature in spite of heavy shell and mortar fire until most of their ammunition was expended and then retired again behind the crest.
The hill was beginning to look like a Flanders battlefield by this time, the mud churned up by shells, trees splintered and bare. In such conditions it was fatally easy for tanks to bog down or slip over banks. That evening B Squadron could muster only four on the return trip to Salarola. Littering the hill, with tracks off or with shell damage or stuck in the mud at drunken angles, were no fewer than seven.
All for nothing, too. Jerry was still clinging to waiouru with tooth and claw. The platoons who led the attack on 5 December came under fire as heavy as before, had to pull back as best they could, and the show petered out before it was well under way.
That was the inglorious end of the great dash for Guardiagrele. After pushing down houses of straw for two days on its way up from the Sangro, 4 Brigade had run against a brick wall and hurt its head. Twenty-second Battalion had lost heavily. Eighteenth Regiment, in spite of ten casualties on 5 December (mostly from one salvo of shells that landed fair in the middle of Salarola), had not lost many men, but its few days of fighting had reduced its ‘runner’ tanks from 37 to 26.
Next day, 6 December, a squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment, fresh into action for the first time, came up to the Salarola road and took over from B Squadron, which thankfully relinquished its place and moved back, with its four gallant tanks, to rest and refit near the San Eusanio crossroads, the scene of its first fight. The seven disabled tanks perforce stayed on the hill facing Melone until further notice, crews and all, with Lieutenant Brian Rawson12 in command.
These tanks were there for a whole month, a long-drawn-out month of rain and cold and boredom, their guns manned continuously in case Jerry got up to any tricks. The headquarters of this ‘bogged tank guard’ was in the ruins of a half- page 385 demolished casa. The tank crews scooped the ground out under the tanks, piled it high round them, and made dugouts to live in, cook in, and protect themselves from Jerry and the weather. During the day they had the hill to themselves, nobody caring to come and visit such a sticky spot, for Jerry, according to Lieutenant Rawson, ‘had the area pretty well taped and it was pretty obvious his O.P. was in our rear and was able to keep his evil eye on us most of the time. The shelling was pretty vicious at times.’ Picketing the tanks at night was a jumpy, nerve-wearing job, as patrols from Melone were apt to drop in, uninvited and unwelcome. To help deal with them the men took pains to lay out a defensive system, festooning the trees with burglar alarms made of empty tins strung on wires, taking the ‘lap’ machine guns out of their places low down in the hulls of the tanks and mounting them on the ground near by. There were even occasions when the German patrols got so close that hand grenades were used to persuade them to go away.
The first tank crews left on the hill were relieved by others on 18 December, and the second batch was there all through a wet Christmas and a snowy New Year. Their only contact with 18 Regiment was by supply jeep at night. They fed quite well, as Salarola could supply the occasional fowl to supplement the rations; but the real luxuries of life were few, and acquired only by great efforts, as when Sergeant Charlie Zimmerman13 and Corporal Jack Clough,14 egged on by sounds of alcoholic song from Jerry's lines, ventured into Melone in broad daylight and returned with a cargo of ‘plonk’. But for the most part they went without.
The saga of 18 Regiment at Guardiagrele finishes here. In the first few days of 1944 the unit's recovery section helped to dig the tanks out of the mire and snow, fixed up their tracks, got the engines going again, and successfully extricated six of them, dragging them out with a winch and a long steel cable. When the regiment left the Sangro valley the seventh tank had to be left behind, a permanent memorial to a gallant, useless struggle.
2 Maj-Gen Sir Stephen Weir, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944-Sep 1946; Commander, Southern Military District, 1948-49; QMG, Army HQ, 1951-55; Chief of General Staff 1955-60; Military Adviser to NZ Govt Sep 1960-.
3 Lt T. J. Cullinane; born NZ 18 May 1908; grocer; killed in action 31 May 1944.
5 Maj-Gen Sir Keith Stewart, KBE, CB, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917-19; GSO 1 NZ Div 1940-41; Deputy Chief of General Staff Dec 1941-Jul 1943; comd 5 Bde Aug-Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943-Mar 1944, 5 Bde Mar-Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945-Jul 1946; Chief of General Staff 1949-52.
8 Lt-Col J. B. Ferguson, DSO, MC, ED; Auckland; born Auckland, 27 Apr 1912; warehouseman; OC 7 Fd Coy May 1941; CO 18 Armd Regt Dec 1943-Jan 1944; 20 Regt Jan-May 1944; 18 Regt Jul 1944-Feb 1945; wounded 6 Dec 1943.