18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 27 — The Brick Wall—Orsogna
The Brick Wall—Orsogna
While the rest of 18 Regiment was toiling in front of Guardiagrele, A Squadron was still away back by the Sangro. About lunchtime on 2 December word came back that it was now under 6 Brigade's command. It was very galling to have the regiment split up again—everyone was keen for it to shine in its own light, not in the reflected light of other units. In these early days there was fierce resentment of any suggestion that their beloved Shermans might become mere mobile artillery for the infantry brigades.
A Squadron was not called forward on 2 December; but at 7 a.m. on the 3rd, before most of the boys were out of bed, a sudden rush order came flying back that roused them into full wakefulness and sent them scurrying round to warm up the tanks, throw their gear on board and get going up Route 84, past Castelfrentano to 6 Brigade's forward position at Orsogna. This Orsogna was nothing more than a name to them yet, and very few could have spelt it right, though they had vaguely heard of it as ‘somewhere ahead there’. They had not yet come to loathe the very sound of the name.
On 2 December, after walking into Castelfrentano without a fight, 6 Brigade had set out across country for Orsogna, moving roughly parallel to 4 Brigade's push on Guardiagrele. For the Division Orsogna was a key point, standing square and solid on the skyline right in the middle of the New Zealand front, dominating its long high ridge and looking far out over the country north and south. At first 6 Brigade seemed likely to have no trouble there, for by the evening (while 18 Regiment was launching its thrust up the two roads to Salarola) 25 Battalion's leading troops, moving up a long narrow spur called Brecciarola, were right at Orsogna's eastern gate, and all was quiet ahead. At dawn next day 25 Battalion was to enter Orsogna and take possession; after that the tanks would come into the picture, move through and lead the gallop page 387 northwards. This was the optimistic plan on the evening of 2 December.
But next morning saw this plan come thoroughly unstuck. Jerry, recovering from his disorganisation, had hardened up his defences in the night, had brought into Orsogna every man and every gun that he could rush up, with the result that 25 Battalion's leading company, walking jauntily into the town at dawn, fell into a trap. Disaster struck before anyone could stop it.
18 Regt on the Orsogna Road, December1943
The rest of A Squadron, following after the first two troops at a slower pace, ran into bad trouble on the Roman road; it was savagely shelled from the time it left Castelfrentano, three tanks stuck in the mud on the way, and only two got up to Brecciarola. They went into position among the trees a little way behind the first two troops, and for the rest of the day joined in the duel, slamming shells into Orsogna while in return Jerry's shells stirred up the mud round them.
At dusk five of the foremost tanks (the sixth had shed its tracks and had to be left behind) pulled back a bit, as they had spent the day right out in front of the infantry and would have been sitting ducks there at night. After the morning's exertions the fun and games seemed to have died down, and 6 Brigade now had some infantry ahead of the tanks. The crews spent an uncomfortable night in their tanks, ready to go into action page 389 again if necessary, but apart from an occasional shell or two, nothing happened. A few jeeps and carriers loaded with fuel and ammunition groped their way up from Castelfrentano.
So matters stood for two days, 6 Brigade sending out occasional patrols to see whether Jerry was still there, A Squadron sitting quietly, not shooting or advertising itself at all, everyone wondering what was going to happen next. There was one stroke of bad luck when Lieutenant Maskew's crew was caught by a shellburst which killed Trooper ‘Slim’ Somerville2 and wounded Maskew and two others. On the evening of 5 December the squadron, except for Cullinane's troop, pulled back several hundred yards, as there did not seem much point in leaving all the tanks out in such an exposed place while the war was slack. The men parked very comfortably in a group of farmhouses sheltered from Orsogna by a shoulder of ground, where they could keep their tanks up to scratch, refuel and replenish supplies in comparative peace, ready for their next call.
That same day, 5 December, C Squadron (with Captain Deans3 now in command) had been summoned across from its snug billets at Ciommi to come under 5 Brigade's command facing Orsogna, on 6 Brigade's right. In contrast to A Squadron's daylight rush, this was a security move, done in the dark with no lights. C Squadron left at dusk with eleven tanks, and about 8 p.m. reached its destination with ten, the other having broken down on the way. The squadron came to quite a good area, a mile ahead of Castelfrentano, hidden from Jerry by a hilltop, nicely wooded and well equipped with houses. Tanks were run close to the walls and carefully camouflaged, blankets tossed on to the floor of the downstairs rooms, and C Squadron was all set. Hard on its heels Regimental Headquarters moved over to new billets near Castelfrentano, and the whole fighting part of 18 Regiment had now shifted across, except B Squadron, which was licking its wounds at San Eusanio.
This switch signalised a big change in 2 NZ Division's tactics. In the Eighth Army's overall plan the Kiwis were still to press Jerry hard and drive him back northwards; but the page 390 attack past Guardiagrele, after three failures, was now being abandoned as hopeless, and the Division's full weight was to come on Orsogna. Another full-scale divisional attack was in the air, 6 Brigade along Brecciarola to Orsogna, 5 Brigade up the next spur (Pascuccio by name) to the Orsogna ridge, both with strong support from artillery and tanks.
The support for 5 Brigade posed a nasty problem. Between C Squadron and the front line was the Moro River, only a dirty little creek, but with steep soft hillsides leading down to vertical banks on both sides. The old Roman road, after being carved up by A Squadron, was now unusable. Farther down the Moro a nice new Bailey bridge led to Brecciarola, but between Brecciarola and Pascuccio was a gully so deep, rough and wet that not even a jeep could hope to get across. So what was to be done?
Here the planners began to look still farther to the right. The next spur past Brecciarola and Pascuccio was called Sfasciata; it ran right down to the Moro, was flat-topped and steep-sided, and seemed likely to offer a reasonable way up to the Orsogna ridge if vehicles could get up on to it. But could they? On the evening of 5 December, while C Squadron was on its way over from Ciommi, two of its officers, Lieutenants Don Thomson4 and Charlie Passmore,5 went out on foot with patrols from the Maori Battalion to find the answer to this question.
Luck was against them. Before his patrol even set out Lieutenant Thomson was wounded by a stray shell. The other patrol went down a stretch of narrow road that later earned for itself the name of ‘Shell Alley’, through a tiny crossroads hamlet called Spaccarelli, down a farm track to the Moro River, with Sfasciata looming up ahead in the dark. But there on top was Jerry, shooting at everything that made a noise, and all they could see was a ford and a very steep place beyond. Tanks, said Passmore, could get down to the ford all right, but beyond that—no, not unless someone were to make a road up. So it looked as if the problem would have to be solved elsewhere.page 391
Finally a plan was reluctantly decided on, an awkward sort of plan, but the only possible one as things stood. All the support vehicles for both 5 and 6 Brigades would advance along Brecciarola, headed by the Shermans of A Squadron, which would help to clear Orsogna. Then 5 Brigade's vehicles, with C Squadron in the lead, would move through Orsogna and along the ridge road to meet the Maori Battalion, which by then should have fought its way up Pascuccio to the main ridge. This threw everything on to Orsogna—unless it were taken, 5 Brigade would get no support, and the whole operation would probably be wrecked.
Zero hour was to be 2.30 p.m. on 7 December. A daylight attack was quite a novelty, and many people did not like it much, but it suited the circumstances here, because the rough steep country would make movement at night practically impossible even for the infantry, let alone vehicles. The tankies were just as pleased, especially C Squadron, which after one experience had had enough of Italian mountain roads at night.
Both A and C Squadrons had plenty of time to make ready. Cullinane's tanks were the only ones in the firing line, and Regimental Headquarters had very few worries, as for the time being it had no squadrons to look after. On 6 December Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants came back, enabling Major Ferguson to go out and have some minor wounds seen to.
Then came 7 December, damp and foggy and dreary, but pleasing for the attackers, who could use the fog as a smoke screen. At 5.30 a.m., two hours before dawn, C Squadron very unwillingly left its warm billets and took the cold road that wound down from Spaccarelli, crossed the Moro by the Bailey bridge, and zigzagged up the slope to Brecciarola, where it went in behind A Squadron, out of sight of Orsogna, carefully camouflaged away beside the road. At 1 p.m. the artillery spoke up, heralding the attack. At 1.30 fighter-bombers roared low over the lines, and the watchers on Brecciarola had ringside seats as the planes dived on Orsogna to plant their bombs in the middle of the shellbursts. About 2 p.m. 24 Battalion of 6 Brigade began to form up on the slope where the tanks were hidden. At 2.30, dead on time, its leading companies moved off towards the low, rolling smoke which hid Orsogna from view. Half an hour later the reserve company followed, and page 392 hard after it came A Squadron, moving slowly along the road in single file, a party of engineers going ahead with mine detectors, a bulldozer following behind its first troop to deal with any obstructions.
By 4 p.m. the first tanks were at the entrance to Orsogna. As always, they had attracted a lot of shells on the way, and had consequently outstripped 24 Battalion's reserve company, which had to take to the ground from time to time. The leading infantry companies were now engaged in heavy fighting just inside Orsogna.
Now everything went ‘haywire’. Eighteenth Regiment's battle report speaks of the trouble and confusion that arose when A Squadron tried to push its way into Orsogna:
The leading troop of tanks… reached the outskirts of the village but were held up by a road crater mined on the far side. A second troop followed the leading troop but as the last tank of the second troop reached a point about 300 yds short of the demolition a second demolition was exploded in front of it and it ran into it and got stuck. A route was found round this second demolition and another two tanks made the detour and joined the five tanks in front. The tanks remained in this position until dark when the sappers came up and cleared the mines and filled the crater with the bulldozer. The tanks then proceeded towards the village. A Recce was made on foot and it was found that a Mark IV [tank] was sitting in the middle of the road firing on fixed lines down the narrow road lined with houses…. There was a great deal of enemy MG fire. The enemy tank lit a hay stack at the corner of the road which illuminated the only approach the tanks could make…. Until the enemy tank could be moved it was impossible for us to advance. Had the Mark IV been knocked out it would have effectively blocked the road itself. Sounds of other tanks were heard in the village and it was estimated that there were at least five other enemy tanks….
The infantry in Orsogna had been having a tough time, mixed up in heavy house-to-house fighting, and had lost a lot of men. Now a stalemate arose: 24 Battalion could get no farther forward without help from the tanks, A Squadron could not advance to help 24 Battalion because of the German tank in the fairway, the enemy could not counter-attack because of A Squadron's guns. There was no way round the flanks because the hillsides were far too open, and were probably mined anyway. And our infantry could not get at page 393 the German tank because it was well covered by Spandaus in the nearby houses. It was a messy situation, and there was no easy way out of it.
Twenty-fourth Battalion's reserve company now came into the story and tried to force its way into Orsogna while A Squadron put down a sort of minor barrage ahead of it. But this was only wasting good ammunition. Jerry's defensive fire was so thick that nobody could live in Orsogna's streets. There was nothing for it but to call the attempt off, pull in to form a close circle near the demolitions just outside Orsogna, and stay put for the night, the tanks side by side, their guns pointing at Orsogna, gunners with their fingers ready to ‘let her go’ at a moment's notice, what was left of the infantry in position round the tanks. Corporal Dick Aubin's6 tank was still stuck in the demolition, Sergeant George Hoare's7 had run off the road and broken a track, leaving eight good tanks in the squadron.
It was now hopeless to expect the attack to succeed. C Squadron, which was to have followed A through Orsogna, had not even moved from Brecciarola, and knew nothing of what was going on. The Maoris had made a magnificent advance uphill to the Orsogna ridge, but were heavily counter-attacked all evening, and soon after midnight were pulled back again to where they had started. An early morning conference between Lieutenant-General Freyberg and the commanders on the spot reluctantly agreed that 24 Battalion should do the same; so at 4 a.m., very quietly in the pitch dark, the remains of the infantry left Orsogna, followed by A Squadron, which returned to its quiet farm lane, leaving three tanks under Captain Jackson among the trees with the foremost infantry, half a mile from Orsogna. The two disabled tanks just had to be left where they were, out in no-man's land, empty and unguarded. Their crews came back on foot, carrying everything portable.
So all the sweat and blood expended at Orsogna seemed to have been wasted, and Jerry was blocking the way more firmly than ever. He did not try to counter-attack from the town, but page 394 that day the Luftwaffe was over in some strength, three lots of fighter-bombers dropping bombs apparently at random round Castelfrentano. During these raids the anti-aircraft machine guns on the turrets of the Shermans were used for their official purpose for the first time—but this was not a great success, as the .50-inch Brownings most of the tanks possessed were apt to swing sharply round on their mountings, making themselves more of a danger to the men behind them than to their targets.
For every Jerry plane there were half a dozen of ours in the air. The Spitfire patrol was on the job, and there were some good dogfights overhead, some so high up that you could see only twisty vapour trails. Better still, the little Kittybombers came over in swarms as long as the light lasted to ‘slather’ Orsogna. No sooner had one flight left than the next lot would swoop, and the dusty crash of the bombs among the houses would merge with the rattle of machine guns as the planes dived again to strafe. It was by far the best spectacle of the Sangro campaign so far. The sky seemed permanently mottled with little black ‘ack-ack’ bursts, through which the planes flew with no apparent regard for danger.
Evidently the ‘high-ups’ still had some hopes of Orsogna. On 9 December our fighter-bombers kept up their work of pulverising it, and at 11.15 a.m. A Squadron, now rested and replenished, again moved forward towards the town and proceeded to ‘give it the works’, spraying the whole place with machine-gun fire, knocking down the houses on its eastern edge with 75-millimetre shells. Jerry was not slow to reply. An armour-piercing shell knocked out Captain Burns's8 tank and killed Trooper Alex Hamilton,9 the driver. Several more of the tanks were hit by high-explosive shells, none seriously. This slogging match lasted till 2.30 p.m., when A Squadron packed up and went home, hidden under a smoke screen but followed all the way by shells. Everyone was a bit puzzled by this show, which did not seem to achieve anything; but anyway it proved that Orsogna was as strongly held as ever, and that there was no easy road through there. An expensive way of proving it, page 395 thought the boys—A Squadron was now down to seven good tanks, and three were left outside Orsogna with no chance of being recovered in the meantime.
That was 18 Regiment's last excursion on Brecciarola, and nobody was sorry. Orsogna, standing up there smug and unbreakable, had become an object of bitter hatred. Smashing it up with shells was a little relief to the feelings, but that was about all the good it did. Now, on 9 December, A Squadron came back to the reverse slope of Brecciarola to find C Squadron packing up to leave. At 5 p.m., as dusk darkened to night, the two squadrons filed back, nose to tail in the dark, down the hairpin bends to the Bailey bridge, up the other side to Spaccarelli, and there was B Squadron, newly called across from San Eusanio, waiting for them. It was good to have the whole unit together again, even though nobody had the faintest idea what its next job was to be. So far, though it had fought gallantly, it had not achieved much. At Guardiagrele, a mile or two of mud gained, a few prisoners, a few poor articles of loot. At Orsogna, not even that. Now the prayer of every man in the tanks was—let the third time be lucky.
One good thing had come out of the daylight attack. On 5 Brigade's right flank, in a sort of sideshow to the main attack, 23 Battalion had heaved Jerry off Sfasciata and was now firmly installed there. This became the centre of attention of 2 NZ Division. Vehicles could now get up on to Sfasciata's flat top except for the steep wet cliff up from the Moro, and the engineers could fix that. Anti-tank guns would be sent up to Sfasciata, tanks would follow, and on the night of 10-11 December 23 Battalion and 18 Regiment would attack up Sfasciata to the Orsogna ridge road, then push west along it towards Orsogna's back door. That was the plan. It seemed feasible enough, but terribly rushed considering all that had to be done first.
On the evening of 9 December the reunited 18 Regiment, on its way up to Sfasciata, got the full impact of this feverish rush. In only one night bulldozers had widened the farm track from Spaccarelli to the Moro, levelled a ford over the creek, and made a zigzag track up the cliff beyond; a mile of rough, gluey clay, for the tank drivers a mile of hell, sliding down the narrow page 396 track with eyes straining not to lose the tank in front, groping up the hill at a snail's pace in the blackness. The first tanks were lucky, for each one gouged the ruts a little deeper, so that the later ones (there were 28 in all) lurched from side to side, narrowly missed bogging again and again, and just beyond the ford had to hitch on to a tractor for the trip up the cliff. No wonder that the drivers on reaching the top found themselves bathed in sweat despite the chill of the night. Lieutenant Owen Burn, commander of the leading troop, recalls walking uphill ahead of his tank with a lighted cigarette in each hand to show his driver the way, ‘because’, he says, ‘two feet out and the poor beggar would have gone down the hill’. One C Squadron tank capsized at a bad spot, another one shed a track, a third had to stop with engine trouble.
From the top of the hill C Squadron's seven remaining tanks went on for another mile, flatter going but still tricky driving on the sodden ground, to 23 Battalion's forward troops. The new quarters were not bad. There was a good stout roomy house to live in, the tanks were parked in the yard behind the house and camouflaged with nets and olive branches. The rest of the regiment stayed at the top of the cliff, some of the tanks on the crest, some just below it—here there were not so many casas, and some crews had to dig slitties to live in, not much fun in this wet cold weather. During the whole move Jerry had shown no sign of hostility, and it seemed safe to believe that he did not yet know there were tanks on Sfasciata.
The tankies were not at all happy about attacking again the next night, as neither A nor C Squadron had had a chance lately to give the tanks all the little attentions they needed. So there was great relief when quite late on the afternoon of 10 December, the attack was postponed. It was still to be on eventually, but probably not for three or four days. In the meantime 23 Battalion was to spend its nights edging forward nearer to the Orsogna ridge road, while the tanks lay very low so as not to give their presence away. When the time came to attack, it was hoped, Jerry would not suspect they were there, and would be rocked off his feet when they suddenly materialised.
For four days things were held up. Rain deepened the mud and made it stickier, if possible. The engineers worked round page 397 the clock on the precipitous track up Sfasciata, with camouflage netting strung over it in places to hide it from inquisitive eyes in Orsogna; but its condition was so appalling that even jeeps with chains had a job getting up, and supplies for the tanks had to be manhandled from the Moro ford or brought up on mules. Luckily Jerry was not very active. He was holding the Orsogna road just at the top of Sfasciata, but was not trying any tricks, though he kept up a desultory shellfire, some of it coming pretty close to C Squadron. Worse than any shelling was a storm of rain on the night of 11 December, when everyone sleeping in bivvies was soaked. At Regimental Headquarters, the war diary records, ‘We had a lot of trouble with our line to 23 Bn being cut by jeeps. Awoke next morning in very wet blankets to find phone lying about 50 yards away almost buried in the mud, having been dragged there by a jeep.’ Life on Sfasciata had its trying moments.
If any of the experts who had planned the formation of 4 Armoured Brigade had casually read this entry in the war diary, he would probably have thought, ‘What on earth is the 18th doing with telephones?’ They had not been in the scheme of things at all. As the Signals Officer, Lieutenant Jack Greenfield,10 explains:
When the 18th converted to Armour, tanks were pictured as mobile radio stations with perfect radio communications at all times, and…. we had no establishment for telephones, exchange, wire, or telephone operators, no cable laying vehicles or equipment…. However, from the moment we were bogged down at the Sangro the facts of the case were very different from the theory…. There was always a need for many miles of telephone line and there were always breakages resulting from shellfire and vehicle damage.
The theory might have been all right in Africa, or anywhere where the war was continually mobile; but it had not envisaged this stationary war in a perpetually damp atmosphere which played havoc with radio reception. Here telephones and wire, plenty of them, were a dire necessity. Luckily, Jerry's Sangro River line had provided some of these, but not enough. At the moment this was the worst gap in 18 Regiment's equipment, and there seemed to be no way of filling it adequately.page 398
Then came the night of 14–15 December, a very memorable night indeed.
The final plan of attack was for 23 Battalion to advance from the top of Sfasciata, cut the Orsogna road and carry on down it to the Orsogna cemetery which crowned the ridge just above Pascuccio. Later it was to exploit past the cemetery, if all went well, and gatecrash Orsogna. On its right 21 Battalion would advance across the gully that bounded Sfasciata to the north, and join hands on the ridge beyond with British troops (2 Northamptonshires of 17 Brigade) who were to attack the same night. Immediately behind 23 Battalion were to come sappers with mine detectors, clearing a track for tanks right up Sfasciata to the Orsogna road, and hard on their heels would come 18 Regiment. First C Squadron, which on reaching the road would wheel to the right to support 21 Battalion; then A Squadron, which would go to the left with 23 Battalion; then B Squadron, which would stay in reserve at the top of Sfasciata.
This clearly would be no picnic. There was no road up Sfasciata, which meant that any track the engineers cleared would be rough and muddy; the tanks would have to advance across totally strange country on a pitch-black night. Worst of all, 23 Battalion on its nightly forays had come into pretty close contact with Jerry, had had some skirmishing near the Orsogna road, and had brought back some mines that Jerry had been trying to lay. This was a bad sign—it seemed to indicate that Jerry might not be as ignorant of the tanks' presence as he was supposed to be.
It was a gloomy overcast night, not yet raining, but soaking wet underfoot. After dark, when the tankies had put the finishing touches to their tanks and were trying to snatch a little sleep, the men of 21 Battalion appeared up Sfasciata's side, moving forward past the tanks to their start line. Then, after what seemed an endless wait with everything ominously still, it was 1 a.m., and the barrage opened with a roar. It was as heavy a barrage as the Division had ever put over, and on Sfasciata, with the shells whipping overhead and bursting in a long line half a mile ahead, the noise of it was bewildering.
Jerry was swift to reply. His defensive fire came back violently on to the top end of Sfasciata. Flares, thick and page 399 continuous all along his line, turned the night into glaring, fitful day; here and there along the dull red of shellbursts ran the twinkle of tracer. Old hands who had seen all the desert actions could never remember such a fireworks display. Up at the top of the spur 23 Battalion forced its way into Jerry's positions, and friend and enemy tangled together in savage, confused fighting. Behind the infantry moved the sappers, working slowly forward picking up mines and marking the clear track with white tape. And next came the tanks.
At 1.15 a.m., a quarter of an hour after the balloon had gone up, A and B Squadrons and Regimental Headquarters set out along the track up Sfasciata, and the head of A Squadron reached C Squadron's house a mile farther up the spur to find C Squadron just leaving. The regiment then carried on in single file, C Squadron in the lead, Lieutenant Passmore's troop going first.
Right at the outset it became clear that the tanks were in for trouble. Conditions were as vile as they could well be, with a bitter wind, and now and again sweeping rain showers. The track was indescribable—narrow, deep in porridgy mire, twisting round trees and over bumps and hollows. The tank commanders had to wade ahead through the mud, signalling the way and pointing out particularly bad spots.
Then the first misfortunes struck C Squadron. Only 500 yards from the starting point, Lieutenant Owen Burn's tank toppled off the greasy track and came to rest against an oak tree, which alone saved it from plunging down the slope towards Pascuccio. Half a mile farther on, where the track had been cleared through Jerry's minefield, Passmore's three tanks all bogged down in the same mud-patch. Sergeant ‘Snow’ Johnston's11 tank, trying a track farther to the left, hit a mine; Captain Deans's tank slipped off the track and capsized. The engineers tried again and cleared a slightly better lane, but this took a long time, the tanks had to sit and wait, those at the rear of the column had no idea what was going on, and up to the front came Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants to see what the hold-up was. He and RSM Richards, going off to find out what lay ahead, stumbled on some untamed pockets of Germans left behind in the first assault, and got in the way of page 400 their machine-gun fire. ‘Col. Pleasants,’ relates Richards, ‘was as mad as hell at having to bite the dust,’ and forthwith called up C Squadron's three remaining tanks with the avowed intention of ‘fixing these bastards’. It was now about 4 a.m., the shelling had slackened off, but the machine-gun fire was zipping about in all directions.
From this point on, continues Richards, mines were forgotten. Pleasants climbed aboard Lieutenant Ron Horton's12 tank, the only one to appear (the other two tanks of Horton's troop bogged down before they got through the minefield), and forward it went, its machine guns spraying trees and buildings and haystacks. The infantry seemed to have missed this little piece of ground, for there were Germans all over the place. With Pleasants still aboard, the tank reached the road, the only C Squadron tank still in the fight. Just across the road an anti-tank gun was firing; Horton's tank fired back in that general direction, and the gun was silent. ‘In the morning,’ says Colonel Pleasants, ‘the gun was found deserted, so we must have got fairly close.’ But the bad luck was not over, for only a few minutes later Pleasants, who had been hunting Germans and pumping his pistol down dugouts, was wounded by a pistol shot at short range. Horton and his crew, making the most of the nice smooth road, at once set off eastwards towards where 21 Battalion ought to be. The firing had stopped and everything was pretty quiet for the moment; after five or six hundred yards Horton found himself among 21 Battalion, and went gladly into position in an empty gun emplacement, covering the approach along the road from the east. Now dawn was beginning to lighten the sky. Twenty-first Battalion had just been counter-attacked by German tanks and was expecting the same again any time, so even one Sherman was greeted with joy by the infantry.
C Squadron's ill luck was A Squadron's gain. The A Squadron tanks, following slowly and laboriously up the track, were able to dodge the worst places, and eventually Captain Burns's troop, which was in the lead, scrambled through to the road and set off westwards towards the cemetery, where it was to rendezvous with 23 Battalion's left company. As soon as these tanks were clear of the taped track Lieutenant page 401 Cullinane's troop followed, but was met on the road by Major Dickinson (who was temporarily in command of the regiment) and told to ‘go like hell’ to 21 Battalion, which was crying out for more tanks. Cullinane's tanks, plus one stray from the rear, came forward to 21 Battalion to find everything quiet, and went into position on the right of the Orsogna road, not far from Horton's tank. Just ahead of them was a handful of 21 Battalion men, and 300 yards farther on, where the road took a slight curve and disappeared from view, was the limit of our territory. It was full daylight now.
A Squadron's third troop, starting out with only two tanks, was right out of luck. In the narrow lane through the minefield Lieutenant McLean's tank slipped over a bank and threw a track. Second-Lieutenant Phil Edmonds's13 tank, trying to dodge the first one, also went off the path, ran on to a mine and was a complete wreck. So daylight found A Squadron functioning as only two troops, a mile apart, facing in opposite directions, and out of touch with each other.
Captain Burns's troop from the time it reached the road was beset with worries. Everything was very quiet now, but there was not enough light yet to see much, and the tanks headed along the road towards the cemetery very cautiously, passing vague shapes of men flitting here and there in the murk, keeping on the alert for a tracer signal from 23 Battalion which never came. Actually 23 Battalion, weakened by the night's fighting and still engaged in a mixed-up battle all across the top of Sfasciata, had not been able to fan out far to the left, so Burns's tanks, without knowing it, went through a gap in our line, and when they reached the cemetery they were out in Jerry-infested country with none of our infantry anywhere within range. Perhaps they were only saved from destruction by the fact that it was not properly light. They went about a hundred yards past the cemetery before Burns, realising what must have happened, brought them back again to a large house just behind the cemetery, where at last they found a handful of 23 Battalion men. The tanks parked behind the house ready for whatever might happen next.
What happened next was quite a surprise. As the light grew stronger Jerry began to shell the house, which was a prominent page 402 target easily picked out from Orsogna; after a little of this shelling, out from the house issued a swarm of Germans, about a score of them, with hands raised. This was the sort of battle where the most unusual things were apt to take place.
Before long more trouble brewed up over at the other side on 21 Battalion's front. At 8.50 a.m., just as everyone was beginning to think the fight was over and to ponder the chances of breakfast and a sleep, the alarm was suddenly raised that two big German Mark IV tanks were coming along the road, not trying to conceal themselves, possibly not realising that the Shermans were on the premises. They soon found out. All the Shermans opened up with machine guns and armour-piercing shells; one Mark IV was set on fire by two shells, and the other, after vainly trying to take the Shermans on in return, beat a retreat back along the road. After the night's tribulations this was most encouraging for the tankies, who were beginning to think bitterly that they always seemed to come in after the fun was all over. The Mark IV, according to a C Squadron man, ‘burnt for 4 hours when the thing blew up, there were bits everywhere’.
About 9 a.m. Major Ferguson arrived up from B Echelon and took over from Major Dickinson. Twenty-first Battalion's front was still lively, but all was pretty quiet in 23 Battalion's area; Jerry's fire was slack except for scattered shellbursts, and there was no sign of any more counter-attacks, so it did not seem that any major changes would be needed in 18 Regiment's layout. Major Ferguson ordered a troop of B Squadron up to the Orsogna road to be handy in case of need. B Squadron had so far kept clear of the brawl on the Orsogna road, had spent the last few hours of darkness in some houses two-thirds of the way up Sfasciata, and then in the half light of dawn had moved on to the shelter of some olive trees just short of the minefield, still waiting for orders. Now, just after 9 a.m., Lieutenant Hawkins's three tanks took the suicide path through the minefield, not so perilous in daylight, but still soft and difficult. Hawkins, knowing nothing of the position on the road, led his troop past the house where Burns's tanks were waiting, and almost to the cemetery, where two Germans unexpectedly came up and surrendered. Hawkins seemed to have a genius for picking up stray prisoners. Not knowing what on page 403 earth to do with them, he took them back when his tanks retired—the last seen of them, he reports, they were with a stretcher-bearing party and not enjoying themselves at all.
Coming back from the cemetery, Hawkins's troop stopped in the best shelter it could find not far from Burns's tanks, and later in the morning the rest of B Squadron followed through the minefield on to the Orsogna road. The regiment now had twelve tanks on the road, and Regimental Headquarters' two tanks beside 23 Battalion Headquarters some way back down Sfasciata. These were all that were left in fighting order of the twenty-eight that had set out on the attack eight hours before.
It was time now to think of exploiting past the cemetery and bashing open Orsogna's back door. Eighteenth Regiment had left so many tanks in the Sfasciata mud that it certainly could not bear this burden itself. The fresh 20 Regiment was already on the way up to Sfasciata, but it would be well after midday before its first tanks could reach the ridge. About 11 a.m., with order restored on 5 Brigade's left flank, the time seemed ripe to press forward, so Brigadier Kippenberger ordered 18 Regiment to set the ball rolling with a ‘recce in force’ past the cemetery. The tanks were to avoid heavy fighting and to stop before reaching Orsogna—the idea was mainly to provide a flying start for 20 Regiment, which would follow through and push right round behind Orsogna, and still farther if everything panned out well.
At 1 p.m. Hawkins's and Burns's troops, under Major Dickinson's command, set off along the road towards the cemetery, to the accompaniment of the inevitable shellfire, which began to fall round the tanks as soon as they moved out into the open. The foremost infantry posts, short of the cemetery, were left behind, and the tanks were out alone and unsupported, heading for enemy territory. Had they known what lay just ahead, the crews would not have felt at all happy as they approached the cemetery and prepared to push on.
For just down the road tragedy was waiting, the grimmest tragedy yet to strike 18 Regiment. Out from the protecting cemetery walls the tanks were in flat country, thinly covered with trees, where, all unknown, German anti-tank guns were waiting. Hawkins's tank, coming across the sights of the first gun less than a hundred yards past the cemetery, was a sitting page 404 shot. An armour-piercing shell hit it fair and square and it burst into flames; Hawkins himself got out, but all his efforts to rescue his crew failed, and all four were killed. Hawkins, shocked and burned, had to be evacuated.
This stopped 18 Regiment's ‘recce in force’ before it had well begun. The tanks went in behind the cemetery walls and from there tried in vain to locate the anti-tank gun, which now, having done all the damage it could in the meantime, lay very low. Hidden machine guns were pouring bullets all around, and the tanks, though they fired back with everything they had, could not do anything constructive against this invisible foe. The exploitation was at a standstill until 20 Regiment's first tanks came up and passed through. Dickinson's three tanks then withdrew from the cemetery to their starting point above Sfasciata and took up position facing down the road towards the cemetery, ready for whatever might happen. Dickinson, who had been wounded earlier in the afternoon, was now evacuated, and Captain Brown took over the tanks in 23 Battalion's area.
What happened to 20 Regiment, how its leading tanks were knocked out one by one, perfect targets for the same anti-tank gun as they followed each other down the road, does not belong to 18 Regiment's story; but its effect on 18 Regiment was great. For the first time the helplessness of tanks in this close country was really brought home, not to 18 Regiment only, but to all of 2 NZ Division. On this 15 December the desert-bred conception of tanks dashing forward at the head of the advance, which had been tottering ever since the beginning of the Sangro fighting, finally died, and more realistic ideas began to dawn, less grandiose ideas, but far more useful. The lesson of 15 December was bitter, but it had to come.
2 Tpr T. G. Somerville; born NZ 19 Jun 1913; truck driver; died of wounds 5 Dec 1943.