Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
I: Over The River and Up The Hill
I: Over The River and Up The Hill
WHILE all these preparations were advancing, the weather was making a mock of tactical planning. The Division was collecting its strength to strike a blow, but when would the blow be struck and what was to be its nature?
Proposed when the weather was dry, the river low and the German defences lightly held, the bold armoured dash by the Eighth Army for the Pescara–Chieti lateral was to begin on the night of 20–21 November. Simultaneously with 5 Corps on the right, the New Zealanders were to attack across the Sangro with 6 Brigade, which was ordered to capture heights north of the river and astride the axis road. At the same time the Indian brigade would seize the dominating ground between the two rivers on the left. It was intended that the tanks of 4 Armoured Brigade should exploit success.
Having issued these orders on the morning of the 20th, Main Divisional Headquarters moved forward to a position east of Atessa. Rain that day and a rise in the river forced a postponement of forty-eight hours on both 5 Corps and the Division. Fresh instructions from the Army Commander on the 22nd imposed a second delay until early on the morning of the 24th, but during the 23rd the Sangro was in spate – and the deluge bore with it a new tactical conception.
The frisk to Pescara by the armour gave way to a more methodical, step-by-step operation, making opportunist use (in the words of Lieutenant-General C. W. Allfrey of 5 Corps) of ‘whatever clubs were in the bag’. For the Division this meant the cancellation of 6 Brigade's attack in its old form and a pause for adjustment while the initiative was retained by intensified patrolling and the bombing of the towns of Lanciano, Castelfrentano and Casoli, and of German gun positions. In place of a stealthy advance by a single infantry brigade, followed by deep armoured exploitation, it was now necessary to plan a more massive and deliberate opening assault, powerfully protected by gunfire and designed to control the five page 63 miles of main road running north to the lateral road from Castelfrentano to Guardiagrele.
One of the first requirements of the new plan was to bring 5 Brigade into the line. The brigade moved into its sector on the right of the Appello stream in two stages. On the night of the 24th, 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy)1 occupied the high ground south of the Strada Sangritana, with the right-hand company on the forward slopes of Colle Sant' Angelo and the others on and behind Monte Marcone. Standing patrols were at once posted on the riverbank. The next night 23 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Romans)2 came in on the left, establishing itself on the reverse slopes of Monte Marcone. With the return of Kippenberger, who resumed command from Stewart,3 the early completion of the signals layout and the sending out of patrols, the brigade quickly settled down to prepare for the attack that was now only hours away.
The new orders for the crossing of the Sangro on the night of 27–28 November, issued by the Divisional Commander on the afternoon of the 26th, appeared in more favourable circumstances than the earlier. Two days of fine weather had caused the river level to fall and on the 26th all three bridges of 5 Corps were again in use. The ground was hardening. The sky was open to Allied aircraft. They flew four hundred sorties on the 26th and 483 on the 27th, the vast majority on 5 Corps' front. Opposite the Division, however, attacks by medium bombers and fighter-bombers on German gun areas reduced hostile shelling which of late had been vexing. Of the enemy aircraft that appeared over the sector on both of these days, one engaged in photographic reconnaissance paid the penalty. Shot down into the bed of the Sangro early in the afternoon of the 26th, its crew was taken prisoner by a standing patrol of 21 Battalion.
Among other preparations for the attack were the establishment of a Tactical Divisional Headquarters in the now populous area behind Monte Marcone, the final disposition of the machine-gun companies between the two infantry brigades, and the setting up of advanced dressing stations. When darkness fell on the 27th, the Division roused itself like a giant going on night shift and made busy on tasks that had had to wait until the last moment. Brigade signallers laid telephone lines and transported wireless sets to the proposed bridge sites, and parties of infantry, wading unmolested through the river at the chosen places, stretched ropes across to the farther side to guide and support their battalions.
The Division was to strike simultaneously with 5 Corps, which was ordered to advance from its already considerable bridgehead - the plainland lay north of the Sangro in its sector – to seize the villages of Fossacesia, Mozzagrogna and Santa Maria, nestling in the hills about three miles beyond the river. Unlike 5 Corps, the New Zealanders had a double assignment – first to establish themselves in strength across the river and then to exploit north and west, as far as possible step by step with 5 Corps, to force an entry into the glacis of the enemy's winter position, preparatory to breaking through the position itself. The first task, it was anticipated, could be carried out silently without enemy interference, and Freyberg's orders appointed as the infantry start line the lateral road north of the Sangro and, on the left for a few hundred yards, the south bank of the river.
The essence of the plan was a break-in of the infantry, preceded and protected by heavy artillery bombardment and followed by tanks ready to repel counter-attack. Advancing at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes, each of the two infantry brigades was set successive groups of objectives. Fifth Brigade was to take first Point 208, a round hill on the right, and a mile away to the south-west across a valley, Point 217, steep towards the summit; and, second, two heights a mile or so forward of Point 217 on the same feature. The objectives of 6 Brigade were arranged in three stages – first, heights on the lower slopes of Colle Scorticacane, about a thousand yards beyond the river, and the ground enclosed by the river, Route 84 and the lateral road, including an area known as Taverna Nova; then three points on or near the crest of Scorticacane and Colle Marabella overlooking Route 84; and finally Point 217, which lay forward along the Scorticacane ridge. Thence the brigade was to exploit still farther along the ridge to Point 207 and on the left page 65 from Marabella to Colle Barone, a prominent hill dominating the high ground west of Route 84. It was also to prevent the enemy from destroying bridges across this road and the lateral road. The deepest of the objectives, lying about a mile and a half from the start line, would be reached only after a scramble up the cliffs or up the gullies between them and then an arduous climb in clothing and equipment heavy from the river crossing.
Five battalions were to make the assault. Of 5 Brigade's objectives, Point 208 was allotted to 23 Battalion and the rest to 21 Battalion; 28 (Maori) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother)1 in reserve, was left rather far back at Atessa. In 6 Brigade, 26 Battalion was directed to the main Scorticacane feature, 25 Battalion to its western slopes, and 24 Battalion to Marabella. The third infantry brigade under New Zealand command, the Indian brigade, while taking no part in the actual advance, was to assist by firing on the enemy west of Route 84 after zero hour.
Weapons of many types and calibres were to supply fire support. One hundred guns – those of the three New Zealand field regiments, 3 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, and a troop of 80 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery – were to fire 250 rounds each in a bombardment lasting three hours and a half. Timed concentrations, lifting by prearranged stages on to deeper targets, with 15-minute pauses to indicate successive objectives, were aimed to neutralise enemy fire from areas such as those commanding the more obvious routes between the cliffs. The tracer shells of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment were to guide the infantry between their boundary lines on to their objectives. A Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment was to fire its 75-millimetre tank guns. One of the four Vickers machine-gun companies was allocated to 5 Brigade, two to 6 Brigade and the other to the Indian brigade, so that each New Zealand battalion might be accompanied over the river by a machine-gun platoon as well as its 3-inch mortars.
After fording the river on the right of the Division's front as soon as the infantry had left the start line, the tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment were to mop up and support the infantry on their objectives. Meanwhile, the armoured cars of the Divisional Cavalry would exploit towards La Cerralina on the right flank.
1 Brig M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde Jun 1942–Apr 1943; comd in turn 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr–Dec 1943; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun–Oct 1944; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944–Sep 1945; comd Adv Base 2 NZEF, Sep 1945–Feb 1946; Associate Editor, NZ War Histories.
The defences that would meet the New Zealanders as they toiled upwards from the floor of the valley had, as air photographs showed, been under construction for weeks past. In the Adriatic sector the German winter line (locally known as the Siegfried line) ran along the Sangro ridge from Fossacesia through Lanciano to Castelfrentano, along the road to Guardiagrele, and thence south and south-west along the foot of the Majella massif. The continuous system of trenches near the coast gave way in the New Zealand sector to more scattered strongpoints. These were most formidable along the road from Castelfrentano to Guardiagrele, where one heavily manned zone guarded the south-eastern approach to Castelfrentano and two others the two main road junctions – a hint of the impending struggle for control of the roads. A belt of wire along the road line linking the three zones was covered by machine-gun and infantry posts and guns had been sited and ditches excavated to defeat tanks. These defences, well dug in and camouflaged, were sited in depth (up to three kilometres in places) so as to prevent penetration at a single stroke and to expose assaulting troops, halted in their midst, to counter-attack. The approach to the main zone by way of Route 84 as it ran north from the Sangro was straddled by weapon pits on either side of the road. Ahead of them again were outposts close to the river, consisting of scattered trenches and weapon pits, many of them at the top of the cliffs, and mines were laid on the northern bank.
The potential strength of this elaborate defensive system, however, was never realised for want of troops to man it effectively, and eventually the line so long prepared had to be abandoned for one hurriedly improvised and by nature less strong but held with greater skill and stamina, and in weather more helpful to the defenders. page 67 Whipped along by Lieutenant-General G. H. von Ziehlberg's fierce energy, 65 Division had dug not as gardeners dig but with the intenser zeal of men whose continued welfare must be sought, if at all, below the level of the ground. Kesselring himself, who showed both his foresight and his solicitude by visiting the sector only a few hours before it was attacked, came away feeling that von Ziehlberg had prepared his positions wonderfully well and that everything humanly possible had been done to defeat an attack on 76 Panzer Corps. Von Ziehlberg himself thought well of his fortifications, and told Kesselring that he had greater confidence in them than in his men. But, as Nicias reminded his Athenians in their ultimate hour in Sicily long ago, it is men and not walls that make the city.
The four thousand front-line troops of 65 Division, which had been formed in Holland in 1942, were still raw and virtually untried in battle. Many of them were Poles, Lorrainers and other non-Germans; and it is probable that the 65th, like similar divisions, suffered in morale from complaints in the letters which the non-Germans received from home of ill-treatment by Nazi party agents. The division's equipment was scanty and it relied wholly on horse-drawn transport. It had only two regiments, the 145th between the coast and Castelfrentano and the 146th to the west.
On its right as the New Zealanders assembled for the attack, 16 Panzer Division was being relieved by Berger Battle Group, an ad hoc formation taking its name from the commander of its nucleus, 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the first arrival of 26 Panzer Division (Lieutenant-General Smilo Freiherr von Luettwitz). This last division, one of the corps d'élite of the German army in Italy, was being switched from the defences before Cassino and was arriving in small groups at long intervals.
These moves did not imply that the enemy was innocent of Allied intentions but rather that he was hastening to frustrate them. Kesselring substantially penetrated the strategic design, predicting an Eighth Army drive on Pescara to force the German Tenth Army to withdraw reserves from the western sector as a prelude to the advance on Rome of the Fifth Army. At least as early as the 24th, when the presence of a whole division of New Zealanders was suspected, Lieutenant-General Traugott Herr, commanding 76 Panzer Corps, was apprehensive of a three-division attack between the sea and the mountains, and on the evening of the 27th he appreciated that an attack was ‘very imminent’. This was a conclusion hardly to be avoided in respect of the 5 Corps front at least, in view of the obvious closing up of tanks and infantry towards the forward defended localities, the intensified air bombardment of Lanciano, the unusually heavy road traffic and the temporary lifting of the bad page 68 weather. Fifth Corps did not, therefore, attain tactical surprise. It is possible that the New Zealand tactics of a silent appearance north of the river in strength caught the Germans unawares; but since they knew that the New Zealanders were present in divisional strength and armed with tanks, and since three new bridges were suddenly to be observed on the Strada Sangritana in the Division's sector on the morning of the 27th, the probabilities are otherwise.
Like many operations of war, the Division's actual crossing of the Sangro held greater discomfort than danger. Eight men of 21 Battalion were killed or wounded by a mine south of the river, but the enemy, perhaps ignorant of the New Zealanders' quiet approach, made no challenge.
Before midnight the battalions filed out over the Strada Sangritana and along tracks leading across the Piazzano to the riverbank. Ahead went the reserve companies, whose mission it was to prevent enemy interference at the start line. Then followed the assaulting companies and their attached Vickers gun platoons. At 25 Battalion's crossing the wire snapped and another route was hastily reconnoitred nearby; otherwise no mischance occurred. Some men had cut staves for support against the turbulence of the river; some formed a chain, each man grasping the muzzle of the next man's rifle; others clung to the taut wire. Thus, weighed down with arms and equipment, two thousand New Zealanders waded through the chilly, waist-deep waters of the Sangro and silently formed up along the lateral road on the northern bank. Thence, at 2.45 a.m., they advanced under the shielding fire of artillery and machine gun. The German defensive fire came down promptly but harmlessly in the riverbed. The attack by 5 Corps had begun some hours earlier, on the left the Indian brigade made a demonstration, and now the gun flashes, shell explosions, and slow curves of tracer illuminated the valley from the Aventino to the sea. The advance went well. The climb up the bluffs was slow but it was not until they had gained the heights that the infantry came under the scattered fire of mortars and small arms.
On the right, 23 Battalion, brushing aside unconvincing opposition, was so promptly in possession of its goal, Point 208, that artillery concentrations on this hill had to be hurriedly cancelled. Before daylight three companies were dug in, with one in reserve, an observation post had been established in a church on the hilltop, the Vickers guns and two 3-inch mortars had been brought forward and nine prisoners had been taken – all at the cost of six wounded.page 69
The second battalion of 5 Brigade, the 21st, advancing on the left of the 23rd, was more stubbornly resisted, and at one stage the battalion asked that 23 Battalion should be ordered to send help, which the Brigade Commander refused to do. B and C Companies were unopposed in seizing the first objectives, Points 217 and 200 respectively, through which D and A Companies were to pass on their way to the final objectives, but the enemy was tenacious and two platoons of C Company, moving up a gully between the two heights, were held up by wire and small-arms fire from a machine-gun post skilfully sited in the cliff-face at the head of the gully. Captain Horrocks,1 commanding C Company, lost his life in trying to silence the machine gun from close range. Coming up under Major Tanner,2 A Company helped to break the deadlock. After a plucky solo reconnaissance, Corporal Perry3 located the Germans and directed two platoons along the gully and over the wire to a sharp encounter which cleared the way for a renewal of the advance. A Company then pushed on along the high ground to its objective. Meanwhile, on the right D Company had passed through B Company and was within 200 yards of its destination when fire from the front forced it to swerve from its course and made it glad of the assistance of a B Company platoon. In the darkness D Company had become dispersed, but when day broke the Germans on the final objective, finding themselves surrounded, gave themselves up. Five other enemy posts, bypassed during the night, were eliminated by B Company and a few remaining Germans in houses between the forward companies were taken prisoner. Six men of 21 Battalion were killed and 27 wounded, but its tally of prisoners was 74.
Like 25 Battalion, the 24th, on the left flank of the attack, made a successful double thrust. Waiting until Point 122 was firmly in the hands of 25 Battalion, two companies, of the 24th passed through, A Company on the road working westward and D Company south of it. After silencing a machine-gun post covering the road bridge over the Gogna stream, A Company continued along the road and then turned north to climb Marabella, a hill in the angle between the lateral road and Route 84. The defenders, having satisfied their military consciences by a formal display of ragged small-arms fire, capitulated as the infantry drew near. One platoon was left to hold Marabella while the rest of the company descended without delay to Route 84, in time to disconnect the charges beneath a road bridge and two culverts. Here the platoons dug in and threw back a small enemy counter-attack, evidently intended to blow the bridge. On the left D Company, followed by C Company, easily occupied Taverna Nova, the area bounded by the two roads and the Sangro, where enemy troops surrendered without a fight. The battalion took 106 prisoners at the cost of 4 killed and 12 wounded.
By dawn the effort by the infantry had put them on all their final objectives except that of 26 Battalion among the hills in the middle of the Division's front. Enemy resistance had been at best sporadic: the young troops of 65 Division showed but little stomach for the fight. Unnerved by the severity of the bombardment, with their wire defences smashed and some of their mines exploded by shellfire, many of them surrendered as soon as the New Zealanders got to close quarters. First Battalion of 146 Regiment, which had had to face the assault of five New Zealand battalions, was reported to have lost half its fighting strength in casualties.
The fortuitous advantage of feckless opposition does not diminish the merit of the night's work by the New Zealand battalions, which contained many men fighting their first action. Wet-shod and chilled from the Sangro, they executed almost to the letter a plan of some complexity, finding their way in the dark over steep, difficult and unfamiliar country and rapidly organising to hold their gains against page 71 counter-attack. As Lemelsen, commanding the Tenth Army, confessed, they had ‘got in amazingly soon’. But could the break-in be capitalised into a break-through? The answer to this question depended in large part upon the speed and effect with which supporting arms could be brought to bear in aiding the infantry.
Most welcome to the tired New Zealanders north of the Sangro would be armoured reinforcement, and the tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment were on the move towards the river within a few minutes of the opening of the divisional artillery bombardment. But between the men in their tanks on one side of the Sangro and the men in their slit trenches on the other lay the frustrations of mud and water.
An anxious passage in the dark over the soft soil of the Piazzano ended for the leading tanks of A Squadron when they entered the water shortly after 5 a.m. Of the squadron's tanks, all but one, which was stranded in the first stream, reached the northern side with the help of 5 Field Park Company's bulldozer, but only three forged a way through to the lateral road that morning. When daylight came eleven tanks were bemired in the ploughlands north of the river, and the bulldozer itself, like a doctor stricken with his patents' disease, rested helpless in the mud. Even the three tanks that reached the road were pursued by ill-luck; they were delayed by demolitions and that night had still not reached the forward troops of 23 Battalion.
Tanks of the other squadrons, with their commanders reconnoitring a route on foot, found a less treacherous access to the road farther upstream. At 8 a.m., by gingerly and patient manoeuvring, C Squadron had gathered six tanks on the road; they drove westward as far as Point 122 and then up over the hill of Castellata to 25 Battalion's forward positions, where they disposed themselves to fire on the enemy to the north. B Squadron also contrived, though not until the early afternoon, to get tanks forward to protect 26 Battalion on Scorticacane and 24 Battalion on Marabella – an enterprise made hazardous not only by the steep, slippery going but also by minefields, through which infantry guides picked a safe way. The armoured cars of C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment found the ford even less negotiable than the tanks. After all but one of the first troop had become stuck in the riverbed, the rest of the squadron was ordered to remain on the south bank.
The attempt to bring armour rapidly forward to enable the infantry to exploit the night's advance was defeated by mud - normally a more difficult obstacle to an army than water. By daylight not a single tank was present in close support of the page 72 infantry; by nightfall about fifteen were up with the leading battalions of 6 Brigade, but on the 5 Brigade front none had joined the forward troops. The large element of failure was inherent in the armoured weapon operating in such terrain at the end of a European November; the not negligible element of success was won by persistence and initiative. What stalwart effort could do had been done, and for the first time that day New Zealand infantry lay under the guardian guns of New Zealand tanks.
The 3-inch mortars accompanied, and the Vickers machine guns closely followed, the river crossing and the advance of the infantry battalions, and these weapons were ready for action at daybreak. Anti-tank guns and support vehicles, however, had to await the bridging of the river. As in the days of preparation, so now in the day of assault, the role of the engineers was pivotal. Their task and that of the infantry were mutually dependent – for whereas the engineers had to rely on the infantry to provide them with room to work in and to deny the enemy, as far as possible, a sight of that work, the infantry could not advance far until traffic coursed freely over the river. The fine margin by which Masséna and Lannes staved off disaster at Aspern and Essling with their backs to the Danube stands as a caution to all forces attacking in front of a river insecurely bridged.
At zero hour the working parties of engineers were waiting at the two bridge sites for the sixty trucks loaded with bridging equipment to approach along the taped and lighted tracks. On 5 Brigade's front, 8 Field Company set to work with a will about 4.30 a.m. and when, three hours later, German observers peered across the river through the lifting shadows of dawn, there was the bridge and traffic was passing over it. Planned to span 90 feet, this Class 9 Bailey bridge was found on being pushed out to be from 10 to 15 feet short, but ramps erected on the north side filled the gap satisfactorily. Yet no bridge is more useful than its approaches, and the soft and as yet unmetalled track to the lateral road beyond the river robbed this one of much of its value; all heavy trucks had to be winched or towed through the mud, and the rate of traffic across the bridge fell to eight vehicles an hour. From Colle Barone on the left the enemy could direct accurate shellfire on to the bridge and the fact gave stress to the name HEARTBEAT with which it had been endowed before birth. In spite of casualties to men and vehicles, most of 5 Brigade's support vehicles were over by 11 a.m. and with their battalions by the afternoon.
Misfortune befell the platoon of 6 Field Company detailed to build the folding-boat bridge for 6 Brigade. The recovery of trucks that ran off the track south of the river and the need for towing page 73 trucks through the loose gravel of the riverbed cost time and delayed bridge-building until 6.30 a.m., and the work had to go on in the embarrassment of full daylight. At 8 a.m., when only one bay had to be completed, a direct hit by shellfire sank several boats and killed nine and wounded thirteen of the working party. The task was abandoned until nightfall. By 9.15 that night LOBE bridge was open to light traffic. Meanwhile a few vehicles of 6 Brigade had been diverted across HEARTBEAT bridge.
For all that the engineers could accomplish many men had still to wade through the waters of the Sangro and tramp its stony floor. Though the lightly wounded were treated in regimental aid posts north of the river until they could be evacuated by ambulance or jeep, the more urgent cases had to be carried across by stretcher-bearers, who were stationed in teams at the riverbank. The one bridge could not be spared for the traffic in supplies on the 28th, and they were entrusted to the company of Italian muleteers. Reserve rations and ammunition for twenty-four hours, transferred from Army Service Corps trucks, crossed the river by mule train when darkness fell, and at the same time carrying parties bore to the forward troops containers heavy with the hot food that cheers. So much had to be committed to the continued good graces of the Sangro.
The enemy's reaction to the overnight offensive was less vigorous than had been expected. The fact was that the Germans, though not surprised, were still unprepared, in that their troop dispositions had been forestalled, and their resources were unequal to the mounting of a co-ordinated counter-attack. A fighting and disciplined withdrawal to the Sangro ridge, punctuated by spoiling jabs to slow down the pursuit, was the most that they could hope to achieve until fresh troops could be rushed forward to restore stability. Even if the communications of 65 Division had not been disrupted and if its infantry had been more numerous and less easily panicked, its endeavours to form up for a counter-attack would still have been frustrated by the weight of bomb and shell. Even if the German gunners had not been rationed for ammunition, and if the German tanks had been able to manoeuvre freely on the muddy hillsides, they would still have been largely silenced or immobilised by our aircraft and artillery. ‘We simply can't do a thing against his shellfire and aircraft,’ reported the Chief of Staff of Tenth Army to General Siegfried Westphal, Chief of Staff to Kesselring.
The German plight was made the more serious by the severe wounding that afternoon of Ziehlberg, ‘the heart and soul of the page 74 whole enterprise’, as he was called by Kesselring, who said later that had he not become a casualty his division would have stood up to the battering it received. Its recovery certainly proved too much for his successor, Colonel Ernst Baade, to effect, even though he was one of the most dashing German commanders on the Italian front. During the day, therefore, 65 Division pulled back three or four thousand yards up the ridge towards the heart of the winter position, and the New Zealand infantrymen were able to consolidate with little distraction, save from local gestures of defiance.
Infantry activity was most marked in 23 Battalion's sector on the Division's right flank. While our forward troops watched enemy movement round buildings to the north, a party of German raiders, in a bold sally made under the cover of a convenient gully, surprised and killed at their posts three men of the battalion holding the defiladed approach. They then suddenly appeared on the forward slopes of Point 208, above and on the flank of thirteen men of a machine-gun platoon, whom they marched off to captivity before a hand could be lifted in protest. Farther west, the men of C Company 26 Battalion were again involved in scuffles for a final objective which continued to elude them; well-aimed machine-gun fire sent them to earth for long periods and about 1 p.m. the artillery was called upon to cover with smoke and high explosive the withdrawal of nine of our men cut off in a house. On the left 24 Battalion also found work for New Zealand gunners. At daybreak enemy infantry debussing on Route 84 were scattered by shellfire and several times during the day concentrations were fired on a height west of the road and on Colle Barone, still farther west, both of which overlooked 24 Battalion's positions.
Compared with the active counter-battery and harassing fire of our own gunners, the German gunfire was light, except on the river crossings. Nor did any enemy tanks appear. For the first time, however, enemy aircraft attacked in the Division's sector but, whether directed against the tanks or the bridge, the three raids of the day were fruitless.
They did not disturb our forward troops in their work of reorganising and preparing measures against counter-attack. Except at the inter-brigade boundary – a stream flowing in a deep gully - where 21 and 26 Battalions were in sight of each other without having actual contact, a continuous divisional front was established, and on the right 23 Battalion was in touch with 6 Lancers, who were patrolling the gap between the Division and 21 Indian Infantry Brigade, the left-flank formation of 5 Corps.
As darkness fell on the 28th, the Division was secure on all but one of its objectives and presented a well-knit front to the enemy; page 75 behind it one bridge spanned the Sangro and another was nearing completion; a few tanks were forward with the infantry, the forerunners of many to come, and supporting arms and supplies were not lacking; the outposts of the German winter line had been partly overrun and the enemy, weakened by substantial casualties and stunned by the ferocity of our bombing and gunfire, was reeling back to his main defences on the Sangro ridge. In the twenty hours since the first battalion moved off towards the river, the Division had suffered about 150 casualties and had captured well over 200 prisoners, all from 65 Division.
Patrols from four battalions on the night of 28–29 November having probed forward unopposed, it was possible on the 29th to contemplate limited advances, though the reinforcement of the existing bridgehead with tanks, anti-tank guns and armoured cars remained a first claim on the Division's energies. The Bailey bridge, though under intermittent shellfire, gave passage to anti-tank guns, but the now too-familiar alliance of mud and gradient delayed their arrival with the battalions, some of which waited until nightfall for their reassuring presence. Typically, a bulldozer towed the guns over the last stages of the journey to 21 Battalion, which meanwhile had manned a captured 50-millimetre anti-tank gun and an 81-millimetre mortar. By early afternoon C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, by will and skill, had mustered all three troops on the lateral road, but demolitions checked it on its assignment of protecting the Division's right flank and maintaining liaison with 8 Indian Division. Air support was lavish but, in the well-grounded opinion of our troops, undiscriminating; for although towns, road junctions and enemy gun positions were named as targets for the day, bombs fell also among our own men on Colle Barone, and twice during the afternoon American fighter aircraft sprayed bullets at the Sangro bridge and on gun areas and roads south of the river.
The main advance of the day, on the left flank, was essentially precautionary. Just as the clearing of the delta of high ground between the Sangro and the Aventino was a necessary preliminary to the river crossing, so the capture of Colle Barone, a feature west of Route 84, which commanded the Sangro bridges, was an indispensable condition of progress up the slope north of the river. The fatigue of the infantry, the lack of armoured and anti-tank support, and reports that the hill was still held in some strength caused the attack to be postponed from the 28th to the 29th. At 12.30 p.m. three field regiments began their fire plan, in the shelter of which three troops of B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment, each followed page 76 by a platoon of B Company 24 Battalion, crossed Route 84 to occupy Colle Barone and two objectives north and south of it. Within little more than an hour the tanks and infantry had completed their tasks, in the face of only shell and mortar fire and the usual impediment of soft ground, in which some of the tanks had bellied down.
On this occasion, it could hardly be said that the Division fought ‘not as one that beateth the air’. As suspected, the artillery support was a waste of effort and ammunition, for the Germans had abandoned the area the night before, leaving behind only a few stragglers who needed no such incentive to surrender. So slight was the contact that the enemy believed the hill to have been captured by 8 Indian Division. This hill was, indeed, the guiltless cause of much misapprehension, for the false report that it had earlier fallen to the enemy prompted the commander of Berger Battle Group to withdraw his outposts more smartly than he would otherwise have done.
2 New Zealand Division's operations, 2 December 1943
The other battalions made less demonstrative but useful advances in the afternoon and during the night. Preceded by patrols which reported the way clear, they moved forward distances of more than a mile on 6 Brigade's front and somewhat less on 5 Brigade's, so that when the advance halted in the early hours of the 30th the line ran roughly in a crescent from the outskirts of the village of Caporali on the right, across country to the junction of the railway line with Route 84, and thence to Colle Barone.
The 30th was another day of quiet advances during which the infantry often found the upward lie of the land, the clogging mud and the mines sown in it more vexatious than the opposition of Germans. A tiring uphill slog brought the New Zealanders within striking distance of the main defences, into which 65 Division on the right was hastily, and 26 Panzer Division on the left more deliberately, withdrawing. Twenty-second Motor Battalion, moving in to hold the left flank, released 24 and 25 Battalions for a main thrust directly towards Castelfrentano by 6 Brigade. The brigade's axis, thus deflected slightly to the right, would leave the north-south stretch of Route 84 free for a diversionary attack westward by 18 Armoured Regiment and 22 Battalion. Fifth Brigade would support the Castelfrentano drive from the right, 19 Armoured Regiment would follow up, and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment would patrol as usual on the right.
In accordance with this general plan, the infantry battalions, accompanied by tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment, closed up towards the Sangro ridge. A northerly advance of a mile by 26 Battalion was virtually unchallenged, but 25 Battalion had to fight for San Eusanio railway station and a height north-east of it. Patrols had to clear both places before the companies could occupy them, the clash on the hilltop bringing in twenty prisoners at a cost of two killed.
The longest march of the day fell to 24 Battalion. It was withdrawn from its positions west of Route 84 and directed up the eastern bank of the Gogna stream to the lower slopes of Point 398, a hill overlooking Castelfrentano from the south and within a hundred yards of its outlying dwellings. The march of several miles up steep slopes and over sodden ploughlands ended soon after nightfall, when the leading company settled in across the Guardiagrele-Lanciano railway line where it runs round the spur of Point 398. A patrol found the crest of the hill wired and heard enemy movement. Signs that this part of the main (or Siegfried) line was manned – trip-wires, machine-gun fire, flares and the page 78 sound of military movement – were also reported by patrols of 26 Battalion exploring towards the main road east of Castelfrentano.
While 6 Brigade poised itself to begin a break-through of the winter line, 21 and 23 Battalions after dusk advanced the 5 Brigade front on the right in the steps of patrols that had reconnoitred well forward during the day without meeting the enemy. On the two wings of the Division vigilance was maintained, on the right by the armoured cars and on the left, far to the south-west in a quieter sector, by 2 Machine Gun Company, the successors in that area of 19 Indian Brigade.
Meanwhile, supporting arms steadily accumulated in a bridgehead that was by now outgrowing the name. This reinforcement was hastened by the opening on 30 November, beside HEARTBEAT bridge, of a Class 24 Bailey bridge (TIKI) strong enough for the use of tanks. Raised high above the waters by bulldozed approaches, the new bridge gave proof of its robustness on 4 December, when it was the only one on the Eighth Army front to survive the flooding of the river. All traffic going forward had to cross it and return, first by HEARTBEAT bridge and later by LOBE bridge. In spite of this one-way circuit, convoys still jammed at the crossing and made painful progress through the well-churned mud on the northern bank. Nevertheless, within a few hours of its opening an armoured regiment and the whole of the divisional field artillery had crossed the bridge and rearward communications were secure enough to give no logistic worries to those directing the operations four miles away on the lip of the Sangro ridge. To those embattled heights it is time to turn again.