19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
Chill blustering wind and driving rain
prevent my willing feet.
With the onset of winter the campaign in Italy, which had at first gone so fast and favourably for the advancing Allied armies, began to show signs of slowing up. On the Eighth Army’s front German resistance increased, and it was obvious that the enemy had established a strong line behind the natural barriers of rivers and mountains which, north and west of the Gargano peninsula, formed such splendid terrain for defence.
October and November saw the character of the campaign change from tip-and-run tactics, in which Allied air, armour, and artillery had dominated the pattern, to stiffly contested infantry engagements, in which the enemy, favourably placed behind well-contrived demolitions and minefields, had held off thrusts from both 5 Corps on the right and 13 Corps on the left as the Allies faced up to his new line, probed for possible weaknesses, and reconnoitred for fresh advances.
Already the mechanised army of the attackers had met obstacles which made caution a keyword for all vehicular movement. The enemy laid mines lavishly along all main routes and on the steep, slippery tracks which led up to his strongly held key points, while the commanding heights which he occupied gave him a clear field of view over the area where the attackers were forced to operate. In addition, the worsening weather entirely favoured the defence.
The assembly of 2 NZ Division in preparation for the new campaign had not been an easy task and its initial operational employment was bristling with difficulties. But General Montgomery, in a special order of the day issued to Eighth Army on the anniversary of Alamein, 23 October, page 330 had struck a note of confidence which echoed the prevailing sentiment of all ranks. ‘The end is in sight’ was the theme, and to this theme every man subscribed. The New Zealand Division, fresh and fit, went into battle confidently. Its presence in Italy had been kept secret.
The Army Commander’s plan was to breach the enemy line by forcing a narrow bridgehead near the coast and, fanning out from there, compel the Germans to continue their backward move once more. The 2nd NZ Division, by relieving 8 Indian Division, would allow General Montgomery to concentrate 5 Corps more closely on the coast and then thrust along the road north from Atessa to the Sangro.
By mid-November the New Zealand Division was moving into position for the first attack. On the 18th 19 Regiment successfully, though with difficulty, crossed the Osento River and worked uphill towards Atessa. Regimental Headquarters had just reached its destination when orders were received from the GOC for an attack on Perano to take place the same afternoon. It was 12.30 p.m. when an orders group comprising General Freyberg, the commander of 19 Indian Infantry Brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin received the briefing for the assault which was timed to take place two and a half hours later.1
The tanks were still on the move. They had been moving for four days. A Squadron was coming forward to a forming-up area near Perano. B Squadron was moving up from the riverbed, and C Squadron was concealed in a cemetery near Atessa. Wireless silence was still in force because it was decided that this comparatively small action could not be permitted to give away the Division’s presence by the sound of unmistakable New Zealand voices over the air. The area was under enemy observation and there was some shelling. Little or no time remained for reconnaissance, and the restriction on communications was therefore serious.
It was on faulty information of enemy strength that the plan of attack was devised and put into operation. The page 331 plan was that 19 Armoured Regiment and ⅜ Punjab Regiment, with the co-operation of NZ Divisional Artillery, would capture Perano ‘and so cause such a threat to the bridge over the Sangro River on the Perano-Picco Rd that the enemy would be forced to destroy it.’
The Regiment’s first action, Perano, 18 November 1943
Accordingly, it was decided that the assault would be made with four armoured troops only. Preparations were of necessity very hurried. Still, on the information given about the enemy, plus the fact that support was promised by the Divisional Artillery, the indications were that the attack would be an easy one. As events turned out, the action proved quite costly in both tanks and infantry.
A Squadron (Major Tony Everist), with No. 9 Troop from C Squadron (Lieutenant Don Kerr2), was briefed for the assault. The rest of C Squadron was to give the fourteen attacking tanks supporting fire from a position behind a spur near Monte Sentinella. A start line on the saddle south-east of this feature was taped, and the tanks moved uphill from the river area along the winding slippery track, got into position, and awaited zero hour.
The crews, eager and tense, spent a feverish few minutes testing all controls and mechanism, each man going automatically through the drill which had by now become habit yet for the first time took on an awful significance which no amount of peace-conditioned practice could hope to impart. Ahead was the enemy.
The squadron commander conferred with the battalion commander of the Indians, whose two companies of infantry were to go forward with the tanks, and troop commanders moved from Sherman to Sherman making doubly sure that nothing had been left undone by driver, gunner, or loader.
The starting time, at the request of the CRA, was delayed for half an hour while the artillery programme—twenty minutes of smoke on the slopes of Perano followed by thirty minutes of shellfire on the same area and then thirty minutes’ shellfire on the town itself—was arranged. At 3.30 p.m., as the concentration came down, the fourteen tanks crawled across the start line on their journey to their objective, Perano, approximately one unpredictable mile page 333 away. For the first time in history a New Zealand armoured force was in action.
The assault was made from two angles, two troops making straight for the town while the remaining two, going round Monte Sentinella, made for the Strada Sangritana and on towards the vital Perano-Picco bridge across the Sangro. The first forward movement drew enemy shellfire, most of which came from the Casoli area behind Perano. Then, as the right-hand troops gained the Strada, concealed self-propelled guns and anti-tank guns opened up at very short range from camouflaged positions in the ploughed fields north of the road where it runs east and west near Perano.
Now the communications weakness became fully manifest, and though commanders kept their cupolas open and valiantly tried to direct following or flanking tanks on to targets or away from trouble, casualties could not be avoided. Four tanks were soon knocked out, three of them burning. The infantry, too, was in trouble, and machine-gun and mortar fire was playing havoc in their ranks. Co-operation was virtually impossible, for communications, apart from a prearranged code based on bursts of Browning machine-gun fire, were non-existent.
The German shooting was well directed from an observation post found later in a house which flanked the start line. Ten minutes before zero a flare fired from that locality aroused suspicion at Regimental Headquarters, but wireless silence prevented the observation being checked back to the attacking force. The CO, too, was out of touch with the tanks immediately movement began, but with his adjutant and the CO of the Punjabis he watched the progress of the assault from a forward battalion tactical headquarters. This headquarters was soon picked up by the German gunners and was accurately shelled. The CO of the Punjabis was severely wounded.
When a further two tanks were knocked out the right-hand assault petered out, but it had not been without cost to the enemy, who had several of his anti-tank guns silenced by the gunners in the attacking tanks.page 334
In their direct assault on the town, the two left-hand troops, despite very difficult going, had better luck. All successfully crossed the riverbed at the foot of the steep slope in front of Perano. At 4.20 p.m. four tanks, two from the north and two from the south, entered the town itself, met on the south side of it and, taking effective action against machine-gun and mortar opposition, held it till the infantry took over at 5.10 p.m. Meanwhile the rest of this force had come to grief on the hillside, which was too slippery and steep to negotiate; four tanks bogged down in the attempt or suffered track trouble in the treacherous going.
Good shooting by C Squadron from behind the Sentinella spur gave the enemy something to think about, and though the squadron’s position was at times heavily ‘stonked’ by the German artillery, the tank gunners picked up the flashes of the enemy anti-tank weapons and engaged them hotly. Lieutenant Wethey’s3 tank, though disabled early in the attack and in an exposed position, also gave supporting fire and continued to shoot until it had exhausted its ammunition. The action continued in the failing light until silence from the opposite side indicated that the enemy had withdrawn.
The forward tanks, moving through the town, now got into position to command the bridge. It was blown at 6 p.m. and other demolitions followed, indicating that the enemy moving further back was making sure that his tracks were well covered. The mission was accomplished. The ⅜th Punjab Regiment, now under its adjutant, for its senior officers had all been killed or wounded, consolidated and the tanks turned to face Archi, which was still in enemy hands.
With the stabilising of the position Major Everist and Captain Kelly4 set about at once to reconnoitre the area, arrange for the recovery of bogged and knocked-out tanks, and care for the casualties. It was soon found that all the page 335 tanks immobilised on the right flank were covered by fire, and attempts made to bury those of their crews who had been killed were frustrated. The enemy, however, had obtained valuable information from these knocked-out vehicles or from the possessions of the dead, and now knew of the presence of the New Zealand Division in Italy.
A British soldier, who had been a prisoner and was left behind by his captors, reported in and told how the Germans, before blowing the bridge, had retreated over the river with two self-propelled guns, five anti-tank guns, two tanks, and a body of infantry. Our tank gunners during the attack had accounted for five anti-tank guns, and a self-propelled gun with muzzle-break fell into our hands after Major Everist and Captain Kelly, who were reconnoitring on foot, unexpectedly encountered this and another gun. During the confusion Kelly was wounded and one German unit which was mobile made off; the other, in a fixed position, was abandoned.
The CO, going forward to A Squadron, went round the area to assess the situation. At 11 p.m. he sent the following report to 19 Indian Infantry Brigade:
Tanks gained objective and handed over to your acting Bn Cmdr. Have surveyed the situation and advise 9 tanks from “A” Sqn are staging in arranged area NE of Perano in support of your troops in Perano.
Owing to presence of enemy A/T guns and one (more suspected) tanks, strongly recommend reinforcing NW corner San Marconi Hill with A/T guns (Ref 330905).
Our casualties 7 other ranks.
Wounded 2 officers 3 other ranks
Tanks out of action 9 (4 destroyed)
The CO will call at Bde HQs tomorrow morning.
By 2 a.m. on the 19th Colonel McGaffin and Sergeant ‘Wyn’ Gibson of the Reconnaissance Troop had walked round all areas in which the tanks of the regiment were located. It was a pitch-black night, the CO’s glasses had been page 336 smashed during the shelling of the infantry tactical headquarters from which he had been watching the attack, and the going was rough. Gibson, acting as the eyes of the party, did a good guiding job. When they returned to headquarters a signal was sent to 2 NZ Division stating that, despite losses, the action had been a success, and that the new position was secure. The GOC replied that his congratulations were to be made known to all ranks of the regiment.
After crossing the start line Sqn Hqs tagged along at the rear but as we were moving close to the barrage visual contact was soon lost with the three troops going out on the flanks. With wireless silence it was boring waiting for something to happen so I decided to cross the creek then try the tank up the steep incline in the centre which looked as though it had been consolidated by live-stock.
We took the slope all right and came out on to the road leading into Perano. This road wound round the hillside and was in full view of the enemy over and on the river flats, but as far as I am aware only two shells were fired at us. At this stage we were advancing quicker than the barrage and moved right into it.
The Punjabi Inf moved in sections in close support of the tanks and I admired their copybook style. They were having casualties but we were luckier and passed several Huns but as they were only in small groups they were left for the following inf to mop up.
Visibility was now poor and as we arrived on the outskirts of Perano we were met by two bursts of fire which fortunately had no effect. We went quickly along the main street, right through to the end of the village and here sighted Lieut. Morrin’s6 tank coming up the incline and prior to the brief period of recognition I pulled off the road to get my gun into action. After recognition we moved back along the main street until we were halted by a gesticulating group of Italians calling out ‘Tedeschi’ and pointing to a building. Jock McPhail,7 my page 337 gunner, and I off loaded smartly and kicked open the door. A large black cat leaped out and in the excitement received a full burst from the Tommy Gun!
After contacting the Inf and receiving sundry bottles of Vino from the Italians we returned to the RV to see how the rest of the Sqn had fared.
The day following the attack, carriers from 22 NZ (Motor) Battalion came up and took up positions in the Colle Comune area, while other units of 19 Indian Infantry Brigade were attacking Archi. A Squadron gave supporting fire for this attack, but it was a bleak wet day with a heavy mist obscuring the target and effective direct fire was difficult. That evening it was reported that the Indians’ assault had been successful, and at 7 p.m. the regiment came under command of 6 NZ Infantry Brigade and withdrew to a regimental harbour in the riverbed beyond the hill features east of Perano.
This first armoured engagement came under much critical discussion among the troops. The older members of the regiment, remembering grim battles and long casualty lists of infantry days, contrasted this action with others in which the 19th had played a part. The newer members, in action for the first time, though shaken by our own casualties were none the less convinced that, by comparison with those of the Indian infantry with whom the 19th was co-operating, our losses had been small. All were aware of the textbook shortcomings of the method in which the operation had been carried out, but it was nevertheless clearly established that the capture of Perano was in no small measure due to direct action by armour operating over the most difficult terrain and in the least favourable circumstances. It was, all in all, a good show, and Major Everist, who had led the assault, was later awarded the DSO.
Some brave and skilful work was done by all troops participating, and in the ill-fated No. 9 Troop Trooper Colin Farquharson8 did a particularly fine job. His troop commander reported on the incident as follows:page 338
Sgt Moody’s9 tank was knocked out by a direct hit from an 88 mm A/T Gun. The shot penetrated the left side of the turret exactly where the Wireless Operator Geof. White10 was sitting and he was killed outright. The projectile then hit Sgt Moody on the opposite side of the turret and then penetrated the right-hand side of the turret. (In one side and out the other.)
The Gunner Bert Tod11 was not wounded by this first shot and endeavoured to climb out of the turret through the top hatch. He was … [hit] by a shot which bored across the top of the turret, taking the complete periscope (cupola) ring and Tod with it.
My own tank and Cpl Fair’s13 had fired a few rounds at the tree and buildings in the vicinity of the bridge but pulled right back into the olive grove when we saw that smoke was coming from the turret of Sgt Moody’s tank.
Cpl Fair and I then ran across to Moody’s knocked out tank, looked in the turret and saw that nothing could be done unless the tank could be got back into cover of the olive grove.
Farquherson and Morgan were both under the tank, so I told Morgan to get back to my tank in the trees. Farquherson told me that the engines were still in working order and volunteered to get back into the tank and drive it out. I told him he stood the chance of getting himself shot up but he said he’d do it. He climbed back in and when the engines were going I yelled “go”. He started the tank in reverse and put his foot hard down.
As soon as the tank moved the Anti/Tank Guns opened up and in the 50 yards the tank had to go it was hit three more times [by anti-tank guns, and it was also under a hail of small-arms fire] but Colin didn’t stop and we finally made the cover of the olive grove.
Here we were able to take the bodies of Sgt Moody and Geof. White out of the turret and left them on the ground by the tank and they were buried on the 19th November.
Trooper Farquharson added further to his brave achievement by volunteering to take part in a dangerous recon- page 339 naissance that same night. For his work at Perano he was later awarded a well-earned MM.
On the afternoon of the 20th enemy activity had lessened, and the Padre, with a party of men from the assaulting squadrons, held a memorial service and buried the dead. The first names on the regiment’s roll of honour for the campaign in Italy were:
Sergeant R. E. (Dick) Moody
Corporal H. B. Lepper
Lance-Corporal M. Wilson
Trooper G. A. Glossop
Trooper P. Hyndman
Trooper H. S. (Bert) Tod
Trooper G. E. (Geoff) White
The ten days between the engagement at Perano and the launching of 2 NZ Division against the enemy defences on the northern banks of the Sangro River were hectic ones in 19 Armoured Regiment. Prodigious efforts were made to recover bogged and disabled tanks, replenish supplies, and in general maintenance. All this work demanded unremitting toil. The tracks into the regiment’s area were treacherous and wet, and the main routes to the supply points were congested. The lying-up area was overlooked by the enemy, and all movement had to be made after dark. Heavy and long hauls of fuel and ammunition were required to replenish stocks after the action, and the grand work of B Echelon during this difficult time was remarked on by all ranks. Squadron Sergeant-Major Tait,14 in particular, did yeomanly service in keeping our transport rolling.
On Monday the 22nd eight days’ hard rations were issued down to troop level, and warning orders of impending events resulted in conferences and reconnaissances by all commanders. At this stage B2 personnel added to the already high regard in which the men in the squadrons held them by not only bringing up essential supplies but also distributing Naafi and YMCA comforts—including one bottle page 340 of beer to each man. In this allocation was their own quota, which they had generously handed over to the forward troops.
With action impending, the riverbed where the regiment’s tank harbour was situated became hourly more and more crowded. In addition to 19 Regiment’s tanks and vehicles, sappers’ trucks and artillery transport arrived at an alarming rate. Dispersal—the do or die axiom of desert days—was disregarded here, but an instinctive uneasiness was manifest among the troops who had had so many bitter experiences in the past. The regiment was now all set to go again, and the general comment was: ‘The sooner the better.’
The 19th at this time was under the command of 6 Brigade, which was to do the assault when the New Zealand Divisional attack was launched. In preparation, squadron and troop commanders went forward on three successive nights to the forward infantry positions. Daylight reconnaissance was impossible, but every effort was made to discover every scrap of useful information about the river, its approaches and defences. The armour, determined to get the full story, did everything humanly possible to achieve this end. Captain Wilson15 forded the river to the enemy side in an attempt to select suitable crossings and routes out of the riverbed for our tanks.
Lower down the Sangro 78 Division had made some progress and had actually crossed in one place on the 21st. On the 22nd, however, its forward companies were driven back, and in the light of these reverses the New Zealand Division’s attack was postponed. Detailed air photographs of the country occupied by the enemy were issued and closely studied by all squadron commanders.
It was the 27th before 19 Regiment, with the rest of the Division, got into position for the frontal attack across the Sangro. At 3 a.m. on Sunday the 28th Regimental Headquarters, followed by A Squadron (Major Everist), C page 341 Squadron (Captain Parata16) and B Squadron (Captain McInnes17), left the laager area. An hour later they had crossed the Strada Sangritana and were feeling their way down the slippery tracks to the riverbed, finding unexpectedly grave difficulties in making progress over the soft, muddy ground in the pitch darkness.
For this operation the squadrons of 19 Regiment were to be divided: A Squadron was under the command of 5 Brigade on the right flank and B Squadron under the command of 6 Brigade on the left flank, while one troop, No. 7 (Lieutenant Wiseley18) from B was detached to Divisional Headquarters for protective duties on the left flank. The regiment was the only one with tanks forward of Bari and therefore had to be split up in this way.
After the night approach the plan was for A Squadron to lead the 19th across the ford and to go on in close support of 21 and 23 Battalions. Once across, the rest of the regiment was to advance south-west in close support of 6 Brigade. It was thought that all objectives would be attained in four hours. The full extent of the problem was not appreciated until the river was reached. At 5.30 a.m. the enemy added to the already tricky task of getting the slow-moving vehicles over the three crossings by shelling the area.
The orders issued to the squadrons for the operation were:
A Squadron under the command of 5 Brigade in a support role.
19 Regiment less one squadron with 6 Brigade.
B Squadron to support the infantry on Marabella and left flank from the western side of the Gogna River.
C Squadron to support the infantry on the eastern side of the Gogna River.page 342
After attaining the first objectives B Squadron, less one troop, with two companies of infantry, was to get onto the Barone feature, protect the infantry while consolidating and then exploit and shoot up two bridges across the Aventino River near Casoli.
The attack was to be preceded by Allied air bombing of key points and one squadron of Kittyhawks was to be on call if required for the Barone assault.
The Sangro, already swollen by late-autumn rains, was divided by an island at the point of crossing, while a tributary flowed into the main stream just above the area over the ford. The river banks were already badly cut up, and muddy, cultivated ground fringed the tracks and roadways leading down. Misty rain completed the dismal picture on that fateful morning, and before zero hour the 19th had lost three Regimental Headquarters’ tanks ditched.
The crossing of the Sangro River, 28 November 1943
C and B Squadrons, profiting by A’s misfortunes and benefiting by the increasing light, went further upstream before attempting to negotiate the area between the road and the river bank, and after a reconnaissance on foot found better going and got safely onto the highway.
By 7.30 a.m. Regimental Headquarters and C Squadron, with six tanks, were on the road and, turning west, made for Castellata and on towards 25 Battalion’s forward positions. The CO here joined the infantry commanders, and Regimental Headquarters’ radio was able to give 6 Brigade Headquarters the general picture of the forward situation. At 9.30 a.m. these tanks took up a gun role against enemy-occupied country north of the battalion position, and they were able to support 26 Battalion’s attack on its third objective. One prize which fell to our tanks was a German 88-millimetre gun and its ammunition wagon, which were destroyed in seven rounds’ gunfire. This gun was sited at a bend of the road on Route 84 and could have done much damage.
A Squadron’s three remaining runners, in attempting to get forward to support 23 Battalion, helped to clear an extensive minefield and filled in a blown demolition crater, only to run into another demolition which blew up the leading tank and completely blocked the road along which they were advancing. Though the squadron commander went forward and made contact with the infantry CO, none of the tanks got up to the forward troops that day.page 344
A member of the crew of A Squadron’s command tank has supplied the following account from a diary he kept at the time.
The infantry had to wade the river and the river was running fast. Being deeper than anticipated the rushing water washed off ration containers and water cans strapped on the front of our tank. Then the fun started with the bog! Until noon the only tank safely on the road was ours and at 9 a.m. while stationary waiting for the rest of the squadron we were strafed by six enemy fighter bombers and one bomb dropped 30 yards off the tank.
At last light 3 “A” Squadron tanks moved along the road to support 23 Battalion. A section of the road had been mined heavily and although the engineers had cleared some 100 odd mines there was a wrecked German staff car which had been booby trapped. Our tank tripped a wire and there was a terrific explosion. We now had only 2 runners in the Squadron.
During the morning B Squadron, by superhuman efforts, extricated three of its bogged tanks. These joined the three which had successfully crossed earlier, and at 2 p.m. assembled in support of 24 Battalion near Colle Marabella. These six tanks, with the two runners from 7 Troop (detached earlier to the Division’s left flank), now assisted the infantry to consolidate on their objectives. One troop, making a difficult climb over the hills from the road to Scorticacane, went on to 26 Battalion to give protection to the forward posts at Point 217 against possible counter-attacks.
No. 7 Troop had had a busy time on the left flank. Before reaching the Sangro it ran into a minefield and lost one tank. At daylight the crews lifted the mines and, despite a report of eight feet of fast-flowing water, crossed the first fork of the river successfully. From the island below Castellata the troop commander did a forward reconnaissance, and then the tanks crossed the remaining fork. Another minefield was encountered and, with the aid of an engineer corporal and some infantry pioneers, this was also lifted. The troop then moved on to 24 Battalion, two tanks reaching the infantry area and going on with the battalion to the second objective, where they were joined later by the rest of the squadron.page 345
Meanwhile, down by the river, the crews of the eleven bogged tanks worked feverishly, eager to get free and get forward. Lieutenant Strang’s19 tank, which was acting as rear link, having taken over this role after the Adjutant’s Honey was ditched on the way to the river, had suffered a direct hit from high explosive. The turret ring was completely blown away and the tank commander severely wounded. Though disabled and useless as a fighting vehicle, this tank did good work in towing and in assisting 5 Field Park Company’s bulldozer to pull the other vehicles out of the mud. The bulldozer itself eventually succumbed in the sloppy, ploughed field, and thereafter recovery efforts were confined to hard spade work by the tank crews, who desisted in their efforts only when enemy aircraft intent on bombing Heartbeat Bridge appeared over the area. As far as could be seen, the barrage put up by the bogged tanks did not score any direct hits, but the gunners had the satisfaction of seeing an RAF Spitfire bring down one Messerschmitt which fell in flames in the regiment’s area.
By mid-afternoon the regiment had sixteen tanks still mobile: the CO’s, three from A Squadron, and six each from B and C Squadrons.
The difficulties encountered during the whole of the 28th were a great disappointment to the tank crews, who had looked forward to doing a really good show in close support of their own infantry. As it was, all the battalions were on their objectives by 7 a.m. (except 26 Battalion, which was held up at Point 169), and the forward line was well defined and firm before the first of the armour arrived in the infantry area at 8 a.m. Once in position, however, the tanks in 6 Brigade’s area, which was on high ground dominating the Gogna valley and Route 84, found good gun targets and fired several times during the afternoon and evening at the request of the infantry. Those with 5 Brigade found no good targets on their front.
Altogether the regiment’s summary for 28 November had few bright spots. The 19th was over the river, however, and though the proportion of runners was lamentably low, these page 346 would more than justify their existence the following day in an attack on the Barone feature, from which the enemy had full observation of the Division’s routes and from which he was directing fire on the bridges across the Sangro. These vital bridges were assembled, erected, and maintained by the engineers, whose efforts in the whole of the concentration area had been of the highest possible order. Despite heavy casualties, they had completed their second bridge by the night of the 28th–29th and so established the main road communications to the forward areas.
The one reassuring feature about 19 Regiment’s work on the 28th was the way in which the signal system functioned. Lieutenant ‘Mush’ Arlidge, the signals officer, was able to report that full communication had been maintained throughout the whole regiment under the test of battle and stress of adverse conditions. Though the squadrons and their troops were operating over a very scattered area, the CO and squadron commanders were able to keep constant contact. The picture presented by the radio reports was nevertheless a doleful one. The mud accounted for more tanks than did the enemy’s minefields or his active opposition. The forward progress of the hourly diminishing number of runners was painfully slow, but this was no fault of the commanders or crews, who made desperate efforts to keep mobile and when bogged set speedily about the task of recovery.
Unsuitable terrain for armoured movement was the chief cause of the failure of the tanks to keep up with the infantry in their successful crossing of the Sangro and capture of the first objectives on its north side. The country fixed as the next objective appeared equally impossible, and this resulted in a postponement of part of the plan set down for 28 November. This plan had provided for 24 Battalion, with armoured and artillery support, to attack Colle Barone, and indications at the time were that the enemy was holding this feature in some strength.
Late in the afternoon of the 28th, when our armour was available, it was decided that the attack could not take place until suitable approaches had been chosen. Little daylight page 347 remained for reconnaissance or for organising effective armoured and anti-tank support. The infantry, too, was tired. The GOC ordered that the attack should now be mounted as early as possible the following day (the 29th).
Lieutenant-Colonels Conolly20 and McGaffin accordingly reconnoitred the position and drew up orders for an attack timed to start at 12.30 p.m. on the 29th. Early that morning a patrol from 24 Battalion went out and on its return reported that the enemy appeared to be thinning out from Barone and Guarenna. Further information received from local Italians during the morning indicated that Colle Barone was only lightly held. The plan of attack included support from the Divisional Artillery to screen the assaulting force as it crossed the start line and climbed the eastern slope of Barone and Point 300. In view of the reports received it was decided that the artillery programme would not be necessary. Nevertheless the commander of 6 Brigade decided to go on with the programme, and the barrage was therefore fired as arranged.
B Squadron (Captain McInnes) led the attack with one troop directed to Point 300, one on the main Barone feature, and the third to Verratti. One platoon of B Company 24 Battalion accompanied each troop, while C Company followed up to replace the platoon attacking Point 300 and Verratti and so allow them to go further forward onto Barone itself. D Company meanwhile occupied the knoll south-east of Verratti, and Colonel McGaffin, with C Squadron 19 Regiment, followed up the attack.
At noon the barrage came down, the tanks crossed the start line on Route 84 west of Colle Marabella, and the infantry followed up closely. By 1.45 p.m. all objectives had been taken, the only enemy opposition encountered being shell and mortar fire. There was no hostile anti-tank fire, and the only Germans met were a few stragglers. Having reached their objectives, our tanks during the afternoon engaged enemy transport and guns visible to the west.page 348
On 30 November the tanks remained in the areas selected the previous day until after a conference at 9 a.m., when Brigadier Parkinson21 outlined the plan for 6 Brigade’s advance towards Castelfrentano. The 19th, less A Squadron, was briefed to support the forward infantry closely. Situation reports gave reassuring news of the enemy’s retirement, and the advance went on steadily with Allied air support much in evidence. By nightfall, in spite of the rough country traversed, C Squadron was well up with the companies of 26 Battalion. The tanks had an unenviable task once darkness fell, for the lanes leading to Route 84 were in very bad shape. Lieutenants Don Kerr and Jan Suter22 both did good work that night in reconnoitring new routes and getting their troops up with the infantry.
During this advance B Squadron, with 25 Battalion, cleaned out the German posts around San Eusanio and by darkness was established close to the railway station ready for the assault on Castelfrentano. The regiment now had seventeen runners, including the three with A Squadron, still with 5 Brigade. These tanks took up a position with B Company 21 Battalion on 1 December. That day was spent consolidating, but it was by no means quiet. During the early morning the regiment reported the position of several German guns and at 8 a.m. C Squadron was shelled from the Colle Sambruno area. Artillery support was called for and by 9.28 a.m. the opposition had been silenced. Shelling broke out again from the same quarter about noon. page 350 This time our artillery support had a less happy result, for shells falling short among our own troops caused casualties. Lieutenant Kerr was wounded. Our tanks, answering calls from the infantry as required, fired at suitable targets during the day.
During the night of 1–2 December all battalions had tanks well up with them. At first light a troop from C Squadron moved into Castelfrentano just behind 24 Battalion, whose assaulting troops were in the town at 7 a.m. By 8.20 a.m. it had been completely cleared.
The German defences on the Castelfrentano ridge had broken down, and the Division was therefore ordered to push on as fast as possible towards Orsogna. The regiment accordingly assembled in the town at 11 a.m. and orders were issued which gave C Squadron the right flank. Its route was northwards along a minor road to a point east of Spaccarelli and from there westwards onto the Lanciano-Orsogna road. An order from the GOC received at 1 p.m., after the tanks had begun their advance, gave authority to push on as far as Orsogna itself. Infantry protection was provided by B Company 25 Battalion. The plan was to establish at Orsogna and from there send out light patrols to Guardiagrele and San Martino during the night.
At 12.45 p.m. the regiment, coming in from the south with a company of 26 Battalion, moved through Castelfrentano and exploited down the road to the west. The reconnaissance troop under Captain Reid ran into light machine-gun fire, and Lieutenant Stewart’s23 troop went down to clean up this opposition. The CO followed, but his tank was delayed on the way by a tempting target. Captain Caughley,24 who was acting as his gunner, got in some good shooting at a group of fleeing Germans in a valley on the left. Fifteen rounds of high explosive at a range of 2500 yards accounted for a number of the enemy, and the rest were effectively dispersed. Lieutenant Suter, also on the way page 351 down, captured some prisoners, and C Squadron (Major Parata), which came in on Route 84, reported a further bag of enemy, who could not be dealt with effectively until our infantry caught up. As a result, not all the Germans in the area could be rounded up and taken.
Our tanks went along the road with small arms blazing at every likely hiding place. The enemy posts were soon completely overrun and captured. To deal with the prisoners ten Bren carriers were hurriedly organised and sent forward, and these, with a number of men from Regimental Headquarters, soon disposed of this problem.
At 2.30 p.m. OC C Squadron reported that it had reached the Moro and found the bridge blown south of Spaccarelli. As the stream flowed in a deep gully and the gap at the bridge was thirty feet wide, there was no immediate hope of effecting repairs. A hasty reconnaissance failed to reveal any useable route which would allow the tanks to bypass the Moro, and no more headway could be made until the bridge was rebuilt. It was ironic that its destruction had been caused by our own bombs and that the enemy, who already had material on the spot to repair it, had been cleared out before completing the work.
At 3.5 p.m. a report from Brigade advised that six German tanks were approaching along the Lanciano-Castelfrentano road, and Lieutenant Stewart’s troop was sent back through the town to take up a position to counter this move and to guard the right flank. The enemy did not show up, but Stewart’s troop remained with 28 Battalion that night. The rest of the regiment laagered in the Spaccarelli area, and the infantry, taking up a position astride the road running north-east along the San Amato ridge, formed a protective screen round the laager area.
During 2 December A Squadron’s three tanks worked with 23 and 28 Battalions, and the Division prepared to resume its assault on Orsogna next day. The town was to prove a hard nut to crack. The prisoners taken that day included men from 67 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 26 Panzer Division, one of the best German formations in Italy.page 352
Daylight on the 3rd brought definite evidence of the enemy’s determination to hold out on the Orsogna line. Heavy shelling and mortar fire greeted the first forward movements by our troops, and a German counter-attack was broken up at its forming-up point by fire from C Squadron, which received an urgent call for support on 25 Battalion’s front at 7 a.m. The forward guns were out of range and, before the 5.5s could be brought to bear, the CO’s tank took up a position one mile down the road and got away twenty-seven rounds of high explosive on the reported enemy forming-up area. Lieutenant Suter’s troop came up and took over the task, and under Major Parata did map shoots at a range of 6500 yards on the roads north and east of Orsogna, where enemy movement had been observed. The 25th Battalion reported the tank fire as most effective and made only one correction (‘200 yards left’) during the programme. These shoots were a most convincing demonstration of the effectiveness of tanks in a supporting role. Those taking part moved one and a half miles into position and engaged the target in just on seventeen minutes after receiving the report.
The 25th Battalion got one company into Orsogna, but it was forced to withdraw when strong enemy forces, including tanks, were brought up. Later 24 Battalion assaulted the town unsuccessfully and was forced back by heavy and accurate shelling.
Allied air support kept the enemy armour under cover, 180 sorties being flown on the Division’s front that day. The enemy’s artillery and mortars were extremely accurate, however, and our infantry was forced to disperse and dig in. The 19th Regiment gave support as required, fired on all suitable targets, and reported others for artillery action. News of enemy tank movements was received several times during the day, but on no occasion did the German armour venture out beyond the town. That night infantry patrols probed the enemy’s forward positions and found them strongly held. The Division’s plan to occupy Orsogna immediately was conditional upon the enemy’s having thinned out. All evidence was to the contrary, and forma- page 353 tions now began to regroup in preparation for a further full-scale attack to gain the town.
The 19th was increasing its strength day by day, for as soon as disabled tanks became mobile again they made their best speed forward to join up with the unit, coming from as far back as the Sangro. B and C Squadrons were now relieved by tanks from A Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment. A Squadron was withdrawn from 5 Brigade, and tanks of 19 Regiment began to move back on 3 December to a rest area in the Sangro riverbed. By midnight the twenty-two remaining tanks were in the rest area, and next day (4 December) squadron positions were reconnoitred. For a week the 19th remained uncommitted but by no means inactive.
Recovering and refitting of vehicles kept all hands hard at work, while interior economy included dental overhauls and several greatly relished visits to Atessa, where the mobile bath unit was operating. A substantial mail, with distribution spread over several days, was another welcome event.
Several enemy aircraft passed over the rest area and were engaged by ack-ack fire. One Focke-Wulf was shot down in flames in full view of the regiment. As keen observers of all air activity, the New Zealanders derived considerable comfort from the fact that the balance of air power remained obviously very heavily in the Allies’ favour.
Meanwhile the pressure on Orsogna was being kept up and the Divisional Engineers were hard at work repairing and preparing routes along which the supporting arms could be moved into action with our infantry. The Germans, too, were obviously all out to improve their hold on the town. On 7 December they repulsed a further attack by 5 and 6 Brigades, which were hampered by adverse weather and by road demolitions and could not combat the armour employed against them. Nevertheless the New Zealanders gave a good account of themselves before withdrawing.
On 10 December the regiment moved to relieve 20 Armoured Regiment and on 12 December took over its task. C Squadron took up a position on the road midway between page 354 Guardiagrele and Castelfrentano and was available on direct call to 5 Parachute Battalion. This area was under enemy shellfire, and all moves had to be made at night. The rest of the regiment remained under the command of 4 Armoured Brigade, on two hours’ notice by day and four hours’ notice at night to move if required to Guardiagrele. There was no change for several days, but during the attack on 14–15 December 19 Regiment remained on call on an hour’s notice to push forward to Guardiagrele and San Martino when the way was clear. C Squadron’s tanks were moved off the road and the crews billeted. The weather was cold and wet, and the whole of the divisional area was a sea of mud. On 20 December C Squadron was relieved by A Squadron.
By the 23rd a corps’ attack was in progress, and 19 Regiment, in readiness for an exploiting role, moved by night in bad weather to a point on the road about a mile and a half east of Orsogna. A Squadron reverted to regimental command. No. 2 Motor Company came under the command of the 19th, and two officers each from 4 NZ Field Regiment and 75 Medium Battery, Royal Artillery, were attached as forward observation officers. The regiment was under orders, once the town fell, to exploit through and go on across country to several doubtful routes which ran along the high ground north-west of Orsogna. It was likely to be an extremely sticky job, for the weather was bad. The maps of the area were studied with some apprehension by squadron commanders. The terrain looked even more than usually tough, and as the regiment had already experienced the extreme difficulties imposed by movement on narrow muddy lanes criss-crossing steep slopes, the task was not relished. Once again it seemed that the armour was expected to manœuvre over country which would have puzzled mules and mountain goats.
This attack on 23–24 December did not break the Orsogna defences, and the 19th was therefore not required. In the struggle against the mud all mechanised movement came to a standstill, and on the 24th orders were received for the page 355 regiment to move on to Sfasciata Ridge in support. The tanks were to lie up and avoid any offensive action.
With Christmas only a day away, and with the arrival of a large supply of special fare for the occasion, this order to move was not greeted with the usual heartiness. The present surroundings were certainly not salubrious, but the route back to Sfasciata was bad going, and there was a general feeling that as the regiment was not wanted in the fight for the moment it might as well have stayed where it was.
However, in rainy weather, the move was made, and all vehicles duly arrived in the new area. The tanks with difficulty travelled under their own power, but the trucks had to be hauled up the ridge by D8 tractors. The crews worked with a will to construct shelters and dugouts against the weather. Attached troops now returned to their own units, and with each crew making itself as comfortable as possible, Christmas was celebrated in the traditional fashion.
Special services were held at Regimental Headquarters and in squadron areas, and parties braved the rain and chill winds to make calls and exchange greetings. An amazing array of food and drink had been accumulated, and a rum issue was added. All houses in the area were soon crowded with celebrating troops who shared their victuals with their bewildered but grateful civilian hosts and contrived a Christmas atmosphere which, despite occasional shelling and mortaring, soon blotted out all thoughts of war and weather.
From Christmas Day onwards it became apparent that the winter weather would make the employment of armour in an offensive role impossible. The regiment now settled into its new quarters. All roads were so badly cut up that only jeeps were allowed forward of the crest of the ridge, and strict traffic control was maintained on ‘Willis Street’, the main road into the area.
One member of A Squadron wrote in his diary on Christmas Day:
Felt glad to be a tankie today when we saw the poor old infantry, who had just been relieved, passing our tank. They had been living in the rain without adequate cover and looked really done in and miserable. We, at least, have food, water and page 356 the utensils to cook with besides being able to change into dry clothing when necessary.
A duty roster was arranged providing for half a squadron on call and sited for indirect fire and one squadron continually on one hour’s notice to move; the remainder took turns in a full twenty-four-hour off-duty break. The only operational employment was an occasional shoot into Orsogna or at houses on the outskirts. The tanks, deep in mud and cold, damp, and desolate, were dispersed among the olive trees and moved as little as possible. A few off-duty crews found shelter in the Italian farmhouses which dotted the area, the rest in well constructed dugouts. The position was quiet until the 30th, when the forward squadrons were heavily shelled and mortared from a position the enemy had evidently just occupied.
A howling blizzard ushered in the New Year, and dawn revealed the whole countryside thickly covered with fresh snow. Once more a rum issue supplemented other supplies as all ranks celebrated New Year’s Day. Forty-two reinforcements contrived to find space in the already crowded quarters, and the regiment began 1944 only two men short of full establishment.
16 Lt-Col H. H. Parata, DSO, ED; Dunedin; born Riverton, 9 Jun 1915; public accountant; 27 MG Bn 1939–40; squadron commander 2 Army Tank Bn (in NZ) Jan 1942-Jun 1943; 19 Armd Regt Jul 1943-Jun 1944; CO 19 Armd Regt Nov 1944-Mar 1945; CO 18 Armd Regt Mar-May 1945.
21 Maj-Gen G. B. Parkinson, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Christchurch; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1896; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1917–19; CO 4 Fd Regt Jan 1940-Aug 1941; comd 1 NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941–42; 6 Bde Apr 1943-Jun 1944; 2 NZ Div (Cassino) 3–27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Jun-Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; Quartermaster-General, Army HQ, Jan-Sep 1946; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946–49; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1949–51.