18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 28 — On the Orsogna Road
On the Orsogna Road
Now that 20 Regiment was in the battle, 18 Regiment's attention swung away from the cemetery towards 21 Battalion's front, where the Orsogna road, taking a slight bend as it passed through the forward infantry, lost itself among vines and bare willow trees beyond the villages of Poggiofiorito and Arielli. A forbidding stretch of country, a place where you could imagine all sorts of mischief invisibly brewing among the twisted willow trunks.
In the early hours of 16 December mischief, and very ugly mischief, was indeed brewing there. At 3.30 a.m., quite suddenly, fast shells and long machine-gun bursts began to whistle down the road, jerking the boys rudely awake; the crews had hardly manned their tanks when round the road bend in front came German tanks, firing as they advanced. Their leaders, coming on in single file, pushed right through 21 Battalion's foremost troops and nearly up to our tanks; then the guns on the Shermans opened up with a clatter, the 25-pounders joined in, and for a little while the place seemed on fire with shellbursts. It was a bizarre kind of battle, both sides firing blind. You couldn't see the German tanks except occasionally as grey smears belching out shafts of orange flame, but our gunners swept the whole area with ‘co-ax’ machine-gun tracer, watching for ricochets and following them up with 75-millimetre shells in the same direction. This mixture of luck and skill paid dividends, for the first two enemy tanks were hit by armour-piercing shells and knocked out, effectively blocking the road.
The German tanks farther back had not been idle all this time. They turned off to the right of the road among the farmyards, and from them, as they cruised slowly round in the dark, suddenly shot long tongues of curling red fire. It took the spectators a few seconds to realise what this was—then to page 406 everyone's lips came the involuntary, horrified words, ‘My God, flame-throwers!’
Had luck not been on their side, the men of 21 Battalion could have suffered fearful casualties. Houses they had occupied during the day were smoked and charred, haystacks they had raided for straw were set alight. The air was full of a choking pungent smell. The German commander later wrote a vainglorious report of how his gallant flame-throwers had ‘smoked out enemy MG and rifle pits’, ‘crept skilfully up close to an enemy tank and set it ablaze’, ‘hunted out more enemy riflemen, killed them or driven them out with MG fire and bursts of flame’; but all this was imagination. By great good fortune, the spouts of flame singed not one single Kiwi hair. But it was a close thing.
It was some time before the Shermans could get into action against the flame-throwers, for they were occupied with their own battle two or three hundred yards down the road. But shortly after 4 a.m. their immediate front was clear enough for them to tackle the flame-throwers. The crews fought savagely, angry and at the same time shocked with horror, conscious that ahead of them, where Jerry was squandering his obscene bursts of flame, was the 21 Battalion it was their duty to protect. The flame-throwers, scuttling round among the haystacks and farm buildings, were difficult targets, and the best the tankies could do was to shoot at every jet of flame, praying that their shots would not harm any of 21 Battalion. Once again luck was on our side. Two flame-throwers were knocked out, and shortly after 4.30 a.m. the enemy gave up the fight and pulled back. His infantry kept up useless attacks on 21 Battalion for another two hours, but the 18 Regiment tanks, after seeing Jerry's armour off the premises, took no more active part in proceedings. Their help, while it had lasted, had been decisive. Two big Mark IV tanks and two flame-throwers was a good bag. Now 21 Battalion and the 25-pounders finished off the job.
It was 6.30 a.m., just getting light enough to see, when the German infantry finally departed. Then began what many Kiwis would regard as the main part of the whole proceedings. The Sherman crews, grabbing their chance with both hands, invaded the derelict tanks and removed everything of value before 21 Battalion could arrive. It was 18 Regiment's best page 407 haul to date. ‘The German tanks,’ says its battle report, ‘were well stocked with gum boots which were quickly transferred to our own tanks.’ with weather conditions as they were, no better loot could have been thought of.
The tankies once more settled down, their tanks camouflaged among the vines and hedges, their guns pointing forward along the road in case Jerry tried again. But he had neither the spare troops nor the inclination to do so. Apart from a few bouts of shelling the rest of 16 December was quiet, a real anti-climax after the early noise and excitement. The regiment now had eight tanks with 21 Battalion, for when the fighting was at its height about 4.30 a.m. Captain Burns's troop had moved over from 23 Battalion and gone into position about 150 yards behind the others, covering both sides of the road, ready and eager to help if needed, which fortunately it was not.
Throughout 15 and 16 December parties from 18 Regiment were working hard and honourably at an unfamiliar job on Sfasciata. The infantry units, especially 23 Battalion, had taken casualties that their own stretcher bearers simply could not cope with; so dozens of men from the regiment's bogged tanks joined a swarm of volunteers from the rear to relieve the swamped RAPs on Sfasciata and take the wounded back. On the 16th they were reinforced by thirty volunteers from B Echelon, who had come up during the night in response to calls for still more bearers. Besides the heavy carry over the clinging mud of Sfasciata, they had to take their patients down the cliff to the valley just above the Moro ford—a dreadful trip this part of it, the wounded sometimes jolted from side to side in spite of all care being taken. It was a harrowing job. Down by the ford, not far from the dressing station where most of the wounded went, ‘Doc’ Thompson ran a blood transfusion centre, surely as near to the fighting line as such a centre had ever been.
There was time on 16 December to think of replenishing the tanks and feeding their crews, who had gone pretty hungry on the 15th. Before the big attack 22 Battalion had lent the regiment a section of carriers to take supplies forward, and these did heroic work on the 16th. The 18 Regiment battle report goes out of its way to mention the struggle to keep up supplies:page 408
Our main concern now was replenishment; we got over the difficulty temporarily by unloading all ammo from the bogged tanks and establishing a dump [just beside the road above Sfasciata]; each troop then sent one tank to the dump and loaded it to capacity, redistributing its load amongst the other two tanks of the troop. Lt HART1 did excellent work with his carriers in carting ammo from dump [at foot of Sfasciata] and establishing a forward dump [in front of 23 Battalion HQ]; the track along the top of the ridge still being passable to tracked vehicles and jeeps only.
On 16 December, while transferring ammunition from one of C Squadron's bogged tanks, Troopers G. E. Stanley2 and Doug Berryman3 were killed by a shell; the tanks in the Sfasciata minefield were under pretty constant fire, and in fact the whole of Sfasciata was an unhealthy place.
With all the coming and going the Sfasciata track became quite impassable, even for carriers, later on 16 December, but by this time there was enough ammunition dumped at the top of the ridge to keep the tanks going for a while.
The war seemed to have settled down again now. Jerry and the mud had together ‘put the lid on’ any idea of exploitation, and 5 Brigade had consolidated its few hundred hard-won yards of sodden ground, content meantime with its narrow footing across the Orsogna road. The regiment's recovery section sloshed its way up to Sfasciata and made its first moves towards salvaging the many tanks on the upper reaches of the spur—with the help of the crews, who tied logs to the tank tracks to give a better grip, three tanks were dragged loose on 16 December, but there were still a dozen left, and a long, complicated job looming up ahead.
Though 21 Battalion's front seemed firm when 17 December dawned, the position on its right flank, farther along the Orsogna-Ortona road, was not too clear. There were vague reports that 2 Northamptonshires had taken the village of Poggiofiorito (‘Podgy’ for short) and was up to the road, but nobody knew for sure just where its foremost troops were Patrols from 21 Battalion had gone ahead of their positions in page 409 the early morning hours but had found the countryside apparently empty. So 18 Regiment was ordered to make a strong reconnaissance along the road towards Arielli to find out what was what, with the thought behind it that 5 Brigade's line would move forward if necessary. During the morning all the regiment's mobile tanks, thirteen of them, assembled behind 21 Battalion's front line, with Captain Brown in command, and at 11.30 a.m. the leading troop, under Lieutenant Burn, headed out along the road, with a platoon of 21 Battalion moving through the trees to the right of the road.
Lieutenant Burn describes this short advance as ‘a classic example of infantry-tank cooperation’. The two commanders were in touch all the time with their little ‘walkie-talkie’ radio sets. The tanks kept their guns trained to the left, towards Arielli; the infantry kept an eye on the right flank and reported progress to the tanks as they went along.
But, however good the co-operation at that low level, it seemed to be lacking higher up. A mile ahead of 21 Battalion's position was a crossroads, a good road leading off to the right to Poggiofiorito and to the left across a railway line to Arielli. Here Burn's men more than half expected to find Jerry, but instead found themselves looking down the barrel of a British anti-tank gun, whose crew told Burn grimly that he was ‘bloody lucky not to have got shot’. Their battalion commander, not very pleased to have New Zealand tanks charging across his front without warning, said that they had better get out of his way, as he had a battle on, and had just ordered an artillery ‘stonk’ on to the railway crossing 500 yards beyond the crossroads. His warning came too late. The ‘stonk’ arrived almost at once, and about the same time Jerry began to land shells here and there, damaging Burn's tank. Captain Brown with the head of the tank column had now reached the crossroads, and three or four tanks were already on their way up the side road towards Arielli, firing at everything in sight. Tommy infantry patrols could be seen among the trees on either side of the road, but the 21 Battalion platoon had disappeared.
Startling events began to happen very soon. The head of the column was about 200 yards past the railway line, with the first houses in Arielli staring at it straight ahead, and Sergeant page 410 Laird's4 tank had just taken the lead, when suddenly a gun opened up from the village. Second-Lieutenant Phil Edmonds tells of the action that followed:
We opened up on the houses with HE and Co-ax. The leading tank was then hit by an anti-tank weapon, which tore off the cupola ring, killing Sgt LAIRD. The rest of the crew bailed out successfully. The tanks that were on the road then retired and took up a hull-down position and shot up the houses and the road. A wounded man was reported a hundred yards short of the railway crossing. Lt. cullinane took his tank to rescue this man. His tank was bogged. He called me up to tow him out and… the towing bogged me.
Luckily, nothing more was heard from the gun that had done this damage, which was well hidden away among the jumble of buildings in Arielli and would have been almost impossible to dig out. But mortar bombs were still falling along the road, and more tanks were sticking fast as they tried to manoeuvre across the fields. So about 4 p.m. the advance was called off and the tanks were ordered back to 21 Battalion's lines. Laird's tank was recovered by Trooper Eric Brennan,5 its driver, who ran back to it and drove it off down the road, covered by fire from Sergeant Ron Sweet's6 tank. Cullinane's and Edmonds's tanks had to be left behind, locked down, with all portable gear removed. Others were dug free or hauled back on to the road, and the whole force filed back along the Orsogna road, still alert for trouble, which, happily, did not occur.
The remark in 18 Regiment's war diary that the operation ‘did not appear to have been very well coordinated with other Div operations at the time’ is quite an understatement. The show seemed pointless and clumsy. The tanks had not been able to achieve anything at all, one good man had been killed and six wounded, the regiment was down to ten fighting tanks. Nobody had even had any lunch that day. After the good work on 15 and 16 December this Arielli show seemed a pitiful anticlimax.page 411
The 18th generally was at a pretty low ebb now. Three-quarters of its tanks were scattered between Melone and Arielli, sitting at all angles in the mud. Since the shambles on Sfasciata there had been no attempt to keep the squadrons separate—the whole regiment had got well mixed up in an hour or two's fighting, and after that there had been, all told, only one good-sized squadron left in action. Running maintenance was badly in arrears. Since 5 Brigade's line had become more or less stable, Major Ferguson had hammered away at the infantry commanders to get their own anti-tank guns up into position so that the regiment could pull back and husband its few remaining tanks. Instead, they had had the useless, expensive excursion to Arielli. And now, as a crowning blow, word came through from Divisional Headquarters that the tanks were to leave 21 Battalion and go to Poggiofiorito under command of 17 Brigade.
This move had been organised on a high level—General Freyberg had promised to lend 17 Brigade tanks for support, and 18 Regiment was the nearest unit. Brigadier Stewart did his best to soften the blow by explaining what condition the unit was in, and extracting a promise from 17 Brigade that the tanks would be used only in defence, not in attack. They were also to be released as soon as 17 Brigade could get enough anti-tank guns up to the Orsogna road. Armed with this comfort, Major Ferguson went to 17 Brigade Headquarters and arranged that the tanks would move across after dark, most of them to 2 Northamptonshires, one troop farther east to 2 Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Northamptons' right. This troop was to pick up a guide a quarter of a mile past the Arielli crossroads that evening.
By 5 p.m., when dusk was falling, all the tanks were back from Arielli and had replenished their fuel and ammunition from a dump set up by the stout-hearted carriers close behind 21 Battalion's line. At the news of this fresh move, now generally known for the first time, everyone was thunderstruck and blasphemous. There was bitter cursing as they made ready and as the first troop, under Captain Burns, went forward again along the Orsogna road. Past the Arielli crossroads it went, the drivers straining their eyes to keep sight of the road. Then, as a fitting end to this infuriating day, the guide from the Royal page 412 Scots Fusiliers could not be found. Burns and his tanks vanished away ahead in the gloom, right out (though they did not know it) into no-man's land, until later in the evening Major Ferguson sent out after them to bring them back. Meantime the rest of the tanks had followed along the road, turned down past Poggiofiorito, and were now snugly tucked away on the reverse slope of a ridge just across a steep ravine from the north side of Sfasciata, with plenty of vines and trees to hide them, and good warm houses for the crews. Perhaps, the men decided, this move to 17 Brigade was not so bad after all. At any rate you did not have to sleep under your tank or in the ruins of a shattered casa.
Next morning the mix-up was straightened out. Captain Burns located his guide later on that night, went out again at daybreak and joined the Fusiliers some half a mile to the right of Poggiofiorito. Here there were no houses; you had to dig a trench behind your tank and string a tarpaulin over it to keep it dry. The two Regimental Headquarters tanks joined the others in 2 Northamptonshires' area, the tank crews sat round with nothing to do and really quite enjoying it, and on the upper level the struggle to get the tanks relieved began again. The battle report says:
Major ferguson was doing everything in his power to assist the infantry to get their A/TK guns in position. Eventually we had to recce the route from the ford and arrange to have the guns towed up the hill. The infantry appeared to be quite content with the tanks' support and were very lackadaisical about getting their guns up.
The lane back from Poggiofiorito, following another of those old Roman roads that seemed to abound all over the country, was a morass, impassable except to men and mules. The first night strings of patient mules came plodding up the hill with ammunition and food—the Italian and Cypriot muleteers were full of yarns about how long it took to load them, but it was very noticeable that up near the front line they were able to unload, load up again with gear to be taken back, and disappear in double-quick time.
Cassino railway station
A Squadron's ‘well-diver’. See p. 465
On 20 December, as soon as it was light enough to see, eight tanks went back along the Orsogna road and down Sfasciata (still littered with the debris of the big battle), and by midday they were collected on the crest overlooking the Moro ford, plus two or three more that had been hauled out of the Sfasciata mud in the meantime. Early in the afternoon, with the blessing of the engineers who were still toiling on the ford and the steep track, they crossed the Moro for the last time. Back at Castelfrentano A Echelon had managed to discover good billets, A and B Squadrons in an old Fascist headquarters, C in a group of houses just below the town on the north side. As the tanks came in they parked in the lee of the buildings and the crews gratefully threw their blanket rolls on the dry floors inside the houses.
A condition of the relief had been that two troops must stay with 17 Brigade for a day or two longer until its anti-tank defence was further improved. So six tanks were left up in the forward line to come back in their own time, three under Lieutenant Burn with the Northamptons, three under Lieutenant Grennell7 with the Fusiliers. Grennell's tanks left at dawn on 21 December and followed the regiment back to Castelfrentano; two days later Burn's troop was relieved by British tanks and took the same road back, moving out as their relief moved in. Then, except for the few men who had to stay with the bogged tanks in the battle area, the whole of 18 Regiment was at last out of action, back in peaceful billets, with cookhouses and hot showers and the YMCA canteen, just page 414 in nice time for a Christmas celebration before setting to work again with spit and polish on its ill-used tanks.
So far the story of 18 Regiment has been the story mainly of the ‘sharp-enders’, the tank crews, and how they were learning their trade the hard way. But in an armoured regiment they are outnumbered two to one by their supporting teams, whom the boys in the tanks are apt to classify sweepingly as loafers, but who in fact are kept pretty much on their toes keeping the tanks in the fight and their crews fed and supplied. The administrative set-up according to the book had been thoroughly organised and rehearsed in Egypt; but at the Sangro the regiment had to experiment and find its feet under active conditions, and ‘the book’ did not take into account the perpetual struggle with mud and overcrowding, which made life so difficult behind the line as well as forward.
There was, first, the small party called A Echelon, immediately behind the fighting squadrons, made up of people whose services were likely to be called on at short notice— the ‘flying fitters’, ‘Doc’ Thompson and the RAP, a few signallers, whose jobs regularly took them up forward if anything went wrong. Also Padre Gourdie, who seemed to be everywhere, touring the squadrons with gifts of tinned milk or chocolate or cigarettes.
Then there was B Echelon, a large body with many jobs, divided from 29 November into two parts.
The first of these, B1 Echelon, commanded by Major Allen,8 the second-in-command, crossed the Sangro early to be within reasonable reach of the front, its job being to keep all supplies up to the fighting squadrons. Every night a convoy of jeeps or light trucks went forward from B1, always with ammunition and water and tank fuel, every second or third night with food. Mud, crowded roads and shells gave these convoys some exciting trips, but unless conditions were quite impossible (as on the night of the advance to Salarola and during the fighting for the Orsogna road) you could bet on the supplies arriving safely.page 415
That was at night. Of course there was daytime traffic for all sorts of purposes between B1 Echelon and the forward troops, but before you set out you always paused and asked yourself whether it was really necessary, for the trip involved running the gauntlet of the ‘Mad Mile’, where Route 84 curled back on itself to climb the hill to Castelfrentano. Jerry had a fine view of this stretch of road and shelled it heavily and constantly, aided by a brickworks beside the road which made a perfect aiming mark. At each end of the dangerous stretch provosts held traffic until everything seemed clear, then released it a few vehicles at a time. And when you got the word ‘go’ you did not linger.
Several miles behind B1 was B2, the administrative echelon, with the orderly rooms, heavy baggage, and the Quartermaster, who drew stores from the bulk depots and sent them forward in smaller lots to B1. The first half of December B2 spent in an assortment of mud-holes south of the Sangro, and not till 21 December did it go over the river and rejoin B1.
This set-up sounds complicated, and it was complicated, and in practice not always easy to keep under control. At the outset it was realised that no hard-and-fast arrangement for B Echelon could be laid down; throughout the Italina campaign its organisation was in a state of flux, continually changed to suit circumstances. Often, even in action, it was convenient to concentrate B Echelon in one place. When it was split up B1.
This set-up sounds complicated, and it was complicated, and in practice not always easy to keep under control. At the outset it was realised that no hard-and-fast arrangement for B Echelon could be laid down; throughout the Italian campaign its organisation was in a state of flux, continually changed to suit circumstances. Often, even in action, it was convenient to concentrate B Echelon in one place. When it was split up B1 was as a rule four or five miles behind the line, usually under Regimental headquarters' direct control, so that it could be moved about and kept within reach of the tanks. B2, farther back and often under control of 4 Brigade headquarters, was a more static body, generally parked within reach of the depots from which it drew supplies.
Independent of B Echelon, but often living with it or nearby, was the LAD, the hospital for sick tanks that the ‘flying fitters’ could not fix. How much the regiment relied on the LAD can be very well judged by this extract from the daily ‘tank state’ for 5 December:
Tk No 151322 damaged 1 Dec taken to LAD and repaired same day
Tk No 146167 Repaired by LAD—OK & on road again.
Tk No 149622 Repaired by LAD—OK & on raod again.page 416
Tk No 145976 Drive Sprocket repaired LAD—out same day.
Tk No 146069 New bogeys fitted by LAD & motors synchronised. Out same day.
Tk No 149339. Hit 2 Dec. Repaired by LAD now on raod. Later in the month, and after the New Year as well, the LAD dealt with most of the tanks fished out of the front-line mud by the ‘tank recovery’ section.
On the Orsogna-Ortona road and elsewhere 18 Regiment left behind a lot of work for its recovery section. The fitters, who were usually on the spot almost as soon as a tank bogged down, could replace broken tracks and make engines go again, but that was no use unless the tanks could be disentangled from the mud. So it was usually all hands to the shovels, followed by a pull from a tractor or another tank until the derelict was back on firmer ground. A lot of the repair and recovery had to be done at night and as quietly as possible, for some of the tanks were still far too close to Jerry, who was jumpy and suspicious and reacted violently to strange nocturnal noises in our lines. Tank engines starting up also drew shellfire as a matter of course, so the fitters, even after they had repaired any of the farthest forward tanks, dared not start the engines unless they were certain that the tank could be pulled clear and driven away without a hitch at the first attempt. This called for accurate, careful work in the dark, in bitter cold, under nerve-racking conditions, and the team did splendidly to recover eight tanks by Christmas, with stalwart help for several days from Captain Andres and his tractor.
After Christmas the hardest part of the work still remained. Some tanks were out in no-man's land and simply had to be abandoned, but in January, even with soft snow lying thick on the ground, nearly all the others were successfully repaired and salvaged. Captain James, the Technical Adjutant, went to live at the Moro ford and worked tirelesly to supervise the recovery, travelling every night, on foot mostly, up and down Sfasciata, over to Orsogna, to the Roman road below Brecciarola. In the end, when the regiment left the Sangro district, only four tanks had to be written off, which was a very good end to a month of efficient, conscientious work by everyone concerned. Happily, never again in 18 Regiment's lifetime did its fitters and recovery section have to clean up such a mess.