Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
II: Castelfrentano and Beyond
II: Castelfrentano and Beyond
December was only a few hours old when the first infantrymen stood on the crest of the ridge and in the heart of the prepared defences. Starting at 8.45 a.m. from its overnight position about 500 yards from the hilltop, D Company of 24 Battalion led the attack on Point 398. The men of 17 Platoon, working towards the north-east round the side of the hill and up a gully to Route 84, were harassed throughout the day by heavy fire and only one section reached the road, where, like the others, it had to lie low; but the enemy also found movement uncomfortable in this area, failing in four attempts to infiltrate down the gully.
The other leading platoon, No. 16, advanced directly uphill. On the way it disposed of two German posts, of which civilians had given warning, and on reaching the brow of the hill saw and page 79 occupied a large building near the main road and on the eastern edge of Castelfrentano. Since the approach to the town was swept by mortar and small-arms fire, the platoon was ordered to hold the building, which proved to be a hotel, as a fortress. Two prompt enemy attempts to gain admission were repulsed, but the little garrison, thinned by casualties, needed help. Help it received from 18 Platoon, dashing in under fire. Under Sergeant Kane,1 this force beat off a third and last counter-attack early in the afternoon. Thereafter until dusk the hotel became a target for the German artillery whose many hits on the building forced our men to abandon the vista of the upper stories for the ground floor. Between dusk and one o'clock the next morning machine-gunners of the German rearguard took up the ‘hate’. D Company lost three men killed and twelve wounded.
While 24 Battalion fought an action that was the presage of a more gruelling future, the rest of the infantry, closing in on Route 84, began the investment of Castelfrentano from the south. Coming up uneventfully on 24 Battalion's left, 25 Battalion posted its foremost platoons in a position to threaten Route 84 west of Castelfrentano and only 400 yards below the town itself, and between 24 Battalion and 5 Brigade 26 Battalion during the night of 1–2 December approached the railway station 1000 yards south-east of the town.
The success of 24 Battalion in getting a foothold on the ridge promised so well that soon after midday on the 1st the Divisional Commander cancelled a plan for a set-piece night assault on Castelfrentano with artillery support. The decision was justified not only by the German failure to dislodge the dogged defenders of the hilltop hotel and by the stealthy progress of the other 6 Brigade battalions, but also by the shock administered to the Germans by 5 Brigade's night advance, which expedited the enemy's withdrawal from Castelfrentano.
The success of the infantry brigades, backed up by the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, which kept pace on the right, had been made easier by the subsidiary thrust on the left, where the efficacy of armour as a magnet for shellfire was abundantly demonstrated. Eighteenth Armoured Regiment and 22 Battalion were despatched from the south up Route 84 on 1 December to the junction with the main road from Guardiagrele. The tanks were stopped nearly two miles short, however, by shellfire and mines and deployed near the junction with the minor road leading through San Eusanio to bring fire on to their objective. There they took considerable punishment from the artillery of 26 Panzer Division – eight tanks were put out of action – and no further advance up Route 84 was attempted that day. After dark a patrol of infantry and engineers found the road a mile from the main junction blocked by a demolished house, with trip-wires to signal for fire on the junction itself. Behind these delaying devices the right wing of 65 Division was preparing to withdraw.
By the morning of 2 December the omens were propitious. On the right, the two New Zealand infantry brigades imperilled the German hold on a long stretch of Route 84 on both sides of Castelfrentano, itself a bastion of the main defence line; on the left the diversionary attack was drawing near to the same line; and the Division appeared on the verge of hustling a much-perturbed enemy out of its sector of the Winterstellung.
Had the sore straits of the German command on this front been known to the Division, its expectations would have been more and not less roseate. The tattered 65 Division, stretched out from the coast to an area west of Castelfrentano, was in disgrace; one of its regiments had by this time yielded a thousand prisoners, both had had high weapon losses, and the Tenth Army commander was soon to order a court-martial inquiry into its conduct. Further, it had permitted 5 Corps on the New Zealanders' right to penetrate the Siegfried defences.
Secondly, an alternative had to be found for the original winter line running along the Sangro ridge, which could no longer be held in its entirety. The pith of Herr's plan was to stand firm on the Siegfried line in the mountainous sector west of Melone, a road junction a mile east of Guardiagrele, and on that pivot to swing back, holding the line of the Orsogna-Ortona road to the sea, behind the obstacle of the Moro River. Normally such a manoeuvre, even under pressure from troops elated by their capture of long-prepared positions, would not have been fraught with great peril; page 82 but the circumstances were not quite normal. To retract the line safely, it would be necessary to concert the withdrawal of the two formations holding it – one of them, 65 Division, gravely depleted, partly demoralised and thankful to fall back; the other, 26 Panzer Division, far less roughly handled, unbeaten and determined to retire in good order upon tactical necessity alone.
In the event, the withdrawal was not smoothly concerted. Confusion was thickened by the simultaneous effort of 76 Panzer Corps to shorten 65 Division's front by introducing 90 Panzer Grenadier Division and by side-slipping 26 Panzer Division to its left as it came back. The manipulation of slender and fluid resources was deemed to entail a copious flow of instructions from corps to the divisions. At a delicate phase of the operation, continual boundary changes and untimely reliefs unsettled the troops and provoked from divisional staffs a rumble of discontent which the war diaries echo. A study of these documents, it must be said, suggests the inexorable military sequence – order, counter-order, disorder.
The worst disorder occurred on the boundary between the two ill-matched divisions. It is now apparent that, by the night of 30 November–1 December, if not earlier, they were out of step in their withdrawal. That night, conforming with the rest of 65 Division, 146 Regiment pulled back into the Siegfried line where it ran through Castelfrentano, and it was II Battalion of this regiment that resisted the New Zealanders on the eastern outskirts of the town next day. The corresponding withdrawal of 26 Panzer Division's infantry – 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment and II Battalion 1 Parachute Regiment – brought the bulk of its forces into an intermediate position forward of the Siegfried line, with only about a third of them manning the main defences in continuation of the line already occupied by 146 Regiment. The panzer division, expecting a few days' comparative respite until the New Zealanders closed up to the Siegfried fortifications, was perhaps not unduly dismayed to learn, early on the morning of the 1st, that the paratroops in the advanced positions could find no neighbours on their left, but corps promptly ordered a retirement that night to the Siegfried line so as to regain contact with 65 Division.
The day's orders from corps inciuded instructions for a further withdrawal the same night to the final line from Orsogna to Ortona by 65 Division and for a leftward shift in the inter-divisional boundary; 65 Division's right wing was to rest on Point 341 on Colle Chiamato, and the paratroops manning the Siegfried defences round the village of Graniero were to extend their left to keep touch. These confusing orders, retiring the infantry division upon a new defensive line and the panzer division upon an intact part of the old page 83 (between Melone and Graniero), overstrained the junction of the two divisions. Here, on the morrow, 2 December, a grave fissure was to open, through which the New Zealanders might pass in pursuit of a fleeting opportunity.
Even in ignorance of their enemy's tribulations, our troops had cause to begin the 2nd in good heart, and the day's events, to right and to left, quickened their hopes. The capture of Castelfrentano was the first event in two days of decision. Heralded by strafing attacks from the air, troops of 24 Battalion entered the town at 7 a.m. They were too late to trap the Germans, who had slipped out overnight, quitting the comfort of billets and the safety of commodious dugouts for the bleaker hills east of Orsogna; but they were not too early to be greeted by the inhabitants with manifestations of joy and with the festive wines and pasta customarily pressed upon the liberators of Italian towns.
There was little time to savour the pleasures of minor conquest, for more significant conquests now seemed to lie within the Division's grasp. The palpable crumbling of the main winter line along the road from Guardiagrele to Castelfrentano and the tame evacuation of Castelfrentano itself were a spur to the instant follow-up that might tear an irreparable hole in whatever defensive system the enemy could improvise to the rear. The New Zealanders in the last four days had waded through the Sangro without having so much as a rifle-shot fired at them; they had brushed aside or into the prisoner-of-war cage a cowed enemy in their climb to the top of the ridge; and now the bastion town of Castelfrentano had dropped like a ripe fruit into their hands. In an exultant mood engendered by this retrospect, Montgomery and Freyberg agreed that the Division would be in Chieti in a couple of days. Orsogna–San Martino–Chieti was the axis of advance defined in the divisional orders that morning of the 2nd.
The main task of the day was allotted to 6 Brigade, with armoured support. While 5 Brigade consolidated in the area of Castelfrentano, 6 Brigade was directed to exploit on the right concurrently with 4 Armoured Brigade's diversionary thrust on the left. After a forward reconnaissance, Freyberg was urgent for a swift drive into what was, in fact, the enemy's final defence line. Parkinson, for 6 Brigade, was ordered to push on day and night to Orsogna, and Stewart, for 4 Brigade, to make with all speed for Guardiagrele and San Martino.
Since 4 Brigade's force was divided into two columns, the Division was pointing five aggressive fingers at the Germans' last line of resistance – a column of tanks and two battalions of infantry making for Orsogna from the east, and two mixed columns of tanks and infantry heading towards the vital road junction of Melone, whence they might threaten Orsogna from the south and Guardiagrele from the east. The simultaneity of their actions and of the actions of the enemy opposing them baffles the art of the historian, who, while he unfolds the battle in one part of the field, must stop the clock and freeze the fight in all the others.
For the tanks of C Squadron 19 Regiment, operating on the right flank, it was a day of promise never quite redeemed, and their influence on the day's events, like their physical position, was peripheral. Leaving Castelfrentano by the northern road shortly after eleven o'clock, they were checked about a mile out of the town by machine-gun fire. The stronger force then haled forward by the reconnaissance troop overran several enemy posts, but in the absence of infantry the rounding up of the victims was incomplete and some escaped. During the afternoon, however, our tanks and carriers tidied up the area west of the road. Meanwhile the squadron, firing merrily as it went, hurried north to the Lanciano–Orsogna road and then west through the village of Spaccarelli, but its career was abruptly halted a few hundred yards beyond the village by the demolition of a bridge across the Moro stream. Unable to find a way over or round the obstacle, the squadron had no choice but to prepare a laager for the night; it played no further part in the ensuing action except to subtract from the strength of the infantry, since a company of 25 Battalion was detached to protect it overnight.
The men on their feet advanced with less hindrance. Following the Roman road north-west from Castelfrentano, 24 Battalion descended the steep gully in which the Moro flows, crossed the stream, climbed to the Lanciano–Orsogna road and by mid-afternoon took up positions north of it, with the forward company hardly a mile from the eastern edge of Orsogna. A section sent out immediately to reconnoitre drew fire from light anti-aircraft guns on the outskirts of the town; it withdrew, leaving behind two observers. At 4.30 they reported that about seventy Germans appeared to be forming up for a counter-attack. Of this no more was heard. About half an hour later, towards dusk, the defenders of Orsogna were again called on to fire, this time against a working party of 25 Battalion. Moving to the left of the 24th along Route 84, 25 Battalion had dug in west of the road where it bears south, and at 4.30 had sent out a patrol to reconnoitre a route for vehicles to Orsogna across Colle Chiamato. It was the working party following this patrol that page 86 occasioned the second burst of fire as it approached Orsogna from the south-east. Its reaction was to send forward a fighting patrol, which returned unscathed with five prisoners.
These exploratory actions were more significant than the men of the two battalions realised. Interpreted as unsuccessful efforts to force an entry into Orsogna by surprise, the two slight skirmishes outside the town rang bells of alarm in the ears of an enemy already disconcerted by the day's developments. At 26 Panzer Division headquarters Lieutenant-General von Luettwitz had spent an anxious morning. From ten o'clock onwards his infantry in the Siegfried line running east from Melone were periodically reporting the minatory movements of 4 Brigade's forces, but an even more acute worry arose from the old trouble on his left flank. There his parachute battalion again reported itself as out of touch with 65 Division's right wing; he himself went to Point 341, the agreed point of contact, where 65 Division asserted it had troops, but he could find none, for they had left (so it was reported) at 9.30 without informing their neighbours.
With tanks and infantry battering away towards Melone in his front and with his left wing suspended in mid-air, Luettwitz became concerned for the security of the final defensive line from Melone to Orsogna, and at 12.45 he received permission from corps to call 26 Panzer Reconnaissance Unit from reserve to man the line as far as Orsogna, where it was to link up with 65 Division, until his infantry should be able to make an orderly withdrawal to the new positions. The summons to his reconnaissance unit went out promptly, but it took time to answer, and in the interval the menace to his left wing loomed larger. At 1.20 the panzer division's war diarist wrote: ‘All efforts by the division and corps to establish contact on the left … failed. A gap remained between the division and 65 Division, whose right wing could not be located’. Shortly after three o'clock the paratroops reported the enemy pushing round their left shoulder. ‘The enemy,’ says the diary, ‘had evidently found the gap and was taking full advantage of it. If the fire of our three batteries could not halt the enemy, it was likely that the left wing of the division would be outflanked’.
It was the men of 25 Battalion who thus happened upon the rift in the line; but on their right 24 Battalion had likewise found it, and it was the desultory cannonade before Orsogna about four o'clock that brought home to the panzer division the extent of its envelopment and steeled Luettwitz's chief staff officer, in the commander's absence, to issue at five o'clock an order for withdrawal to a ridge in front of the Melone–Orsogna road and to instruct the division's reconnaissance unit to take command of Orsogna and hold the page 87 town at all costs. But it was not until 6.30, long after dark, that the unit's first company reached Orsogna. There it assumed control from the remnants of II Battalion 146 Regiment who had observed the approaching New Zealanders before nightfall, marvelling perhaps, and certainly thankful, that they had not made more audacious use of their advantage.
By this time, as its dispositions showed, 26 Panzer Division was awake to the New Zealand Division's tactics of masking its main blow on the right by a feint, or rather a diversionary attack, on the left; the fact had been sufficiently announced during the afternoon. Yet until that time the progress of 4 Brigade might have appeared to the Germans as the most disquieting of hostile activities, and even later they appreciated the threat to the pivotal road junction of Melone, where the new defensive line joined the unbreached part of the old.
In its advance towards this point 4 Brigade was offered a choice of routes. Two lateral roads branched westward off Route 84, one a section of the direct road from Castelfrentano to Melone and the other leaving Route 84 two miles farther south, passing through San Eusanio, and converging with the first about a mile east of Melone. Resuming the previous day's advance from the southern of the two road junctions, B Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment, closely supported by B Company 22 Battalion, reached the northern junction by 10 a.m., just as 25 Battalion was setting out from Castelfrentano for this rendezvous. Opposition was confined to shellfire and a ditch across the road, which a bridging tank expeditiously filled in.
When he received his instructions to hasten on to Guardiagrele and San Martino, Stewart sent 22 Battalion, with B Squadron under command, westward along the northern road from this junction, and a second column comprising 18 Regiment headquarters and C Squadron, with 1 Motor Company under command, along the southern road through San Eusanio. Both columns were preceded by armoured cars of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment.
The German engineers had prepared four demolitions along the northern road, but it was not until they were half-way to Melone that the tanks, though under frequent shellfire, were delayed by cratering. It was by then nightfall, and the Germans who had held the line of the road during the day were falling back. Our own infantry followed hard on the heels of the German rearguards, who stalled off pursuit by a second demolition, by small-arms fire from the cover of village buildings along the way, and by blowing up in the middle of the road a lame tank which had been towed back page 88 from the main road junction. Near the village of Salarola three Germans tarried too long and fell prisoner. One of them, coolly directing the retreat of his rearguard, was the 27-year-old commander of I Battalion 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, by reputation ‘the most capable and bravest’ battalion commander of 26 Panzer Division. Still the men of 2 Motor Company pressed on in the darkness and they were nearing the junction of the two lateral roads when a third demolition was blown in their faces, making a hole about forty feet across. This in turn they skirted, only to find the enemy covering the road from posts sited in the prearranged delaying line before the Melone–Orsogna road. Not until next morning, the 3rd, did the company confirm the enemy's withdrawal from this position – a hurried withdrawal, it appeared, from the amount of abandoned equipment left scattered about.
By this time the two columns were reunited. The southern road had proved to be poor and steep, but it was not defended by infantry and the principal impediments were shellfire and a cavernous anti-tank ditch. The German artillery was eventually silenced by fighter-bombers called up to assist, and the ditch was eventually made passable by a bridging tank.
Stewart's force was now able to resume its drive for the next road junction. A few straggling roadside houses, hardly worth the cartographer's notice, gave it the name of Melone; a steep bluff behind it gave it defensive strength; and its position on the new line mid-way between Guardiagrele and Orsogna gave it tactical importance. It was a key to the Orsogna ridge, and here, if anywhere, the Germans, who had been spending ground lavishly since 28 November, must stand and fight.
An hour after daylight on the 3rd 3 Motor Company advanced to the assault on the Melone road fork while New Zealand artillery bombarded the objective for three-quarters of an hour. The sanguine temper of the New Zealand command at the time is manifested by Stewart's orders to a squadron of armoured cars to push through to the road fork on the right flank and then to exploit northwards to meet 6 Brigade emerging from Orsogna. These expectations died at once and on the spot. Heavily shelled as they approached along the road, the attacking infantry were discouraged from the outset, and the support of tanks which climbed a hill south of the road could not abate the fury of fire that started up in Melone as some of our men came within sight of it. An hour after their setting out they were recalled from the attack; they were now to hold a firm base for a fresh attempt that night. About midday instructions were issued to occupy the road junction when hostile fire slackened or after dark, and to exploit to Guardiagrele. In the late afternoon the page 89 battalion was ordered to occupy the position; otherwise no attack would take place. The waters of optimism were evaporating. That night a patrol ascertained that Melone was indeed defended, and more strongly than by day. The attack was therefore cancelled. On the left at least, affairs had reached a temporary deadlock, and one phase was ended.
Though falling back hastily, the enemy on the left had not been taken off guard; on the right it had been otherwise, and there the fortune of the day swayed uncertainly. During the night of 2–3 December both sides prepared to dispute possession of Orsogna. Dug in a mile outside the town, 24 Battalion was providing the base from which an attack might be launched on the morrow. By 10 p.m. it was strengthened by the arrival of its mortars and anti-tank guns, brought manfully up despite the difficulties of the Roman road, which crossed the Moro in a deep defile. The improvement of this road, which the Germans, with more realism, if less historical sense, called a cart track, was the task of a party from 26 Battalion, which set out after dark. It was a task well worth doing, since on the right our tanks were held up by the demolition beyond Spaccarelli and on the left they were soon to be stayed before Melone.
Between nine and ten o'clock, while these preparations were going on, Parkinson ordered 25 Battalion to attack at dawn through Orsogna. To him the town appeared at most as an intermediate objective, to be overrun in the course of a drive to the final objective, a track a mile to the west, whence the battalion was to exploit to San Martino. Thus at this time Orsogna was to Parkinson what Melone was to Stewart – an early stage of an advance that was expected to sweep far beyond it.
The intentions of these two commanders could not have been stated more succinctly than they were by Luettwitz, who a few hours earlier had made his appreciation: ‘Now that the enemy's flanking attack had succeeded in digging the division out of its positions in the Melone–Graniero line, he was expected to attack on 3 December, with main thrusts on Melone and Orsogna, in an attempt to force a break-through at one of these places and prevent us from forming a new line.’ His plan, therefore, was to withdraw to the Melone–Orsogna line and occupy Orsogna in strength.
Such was the opposition against which 25 Battalion advanced on the morning of 3 December. Leaving its positions at 1.30 a.m., it marched on foot along the Roman road and joined the Lanciano– Orsogna road on Brecciarola ridge, passing through 24 Battalion's forward positions. At 3.15 Lieutenant-Colonel Morten halted battalion headquarters half a mile from the eastern outskirts of Orsogna and ordered A Company into reserve to dig in. The two remaining companies, in wireless touch with battalion headquarters, deployed on both sides of the road and moved on slowly.
The road into Orsogna (to the military eye) was paved with premonitions, for at every step the defensive possibilities of the town were further unfolded. Brecciarola ridge, dotted with olive trees, vines and grey farm buildings, has a crest which is nowhere wide and which narrows as it climbs towards the town. Here the gentle, page 91 rounded slopes that rise from the Sangro give way to country more deeply gashed by valleys and ravines. To the left of the road, as our men advanced, was a place of plunging gullies, so steep near the town that the buildings appeared to hang on the brink of a precipice. To the right the land fell away less sharply, but the enemy, it was later discovered, had sown it thickly with mines. Manoeuvre was made more difficult by the fact that the houses of the town huddled together on the flat top of the ridge and barely stood aside to allow the road a furtive entry. In this narrow frontal approach lay much of Orsogna's strength.
By 6.15 the two companies had reached the edge of the town without awakening resistance. Here C Company disposed itself for all-round defence while D Company pushed on through the narrow gateway. No. 17 Platoon on the right and 18 on the left were directed straight through the town, and 16 Platoon was left to clear the enemy out of the buildings.
The leading platoons were more than half-way through the town before battle broke loose. They were then attacked from the rear by an armoured car that drove down the main street into the main square. In attempting to work round the southern side of the town, they came under heavy fire from infantry posts and took refuge in buildings. Here they were trapped by tanks and infantry coming into the town from the west and both platoons were captured complete. This counter-stroke was delivered by a company of tanks and a company and a half of infantry which formed up for attack in spite of shellfire from a troop of our tanks firing at long range. Then, just as three miles away to the south-west the New Zealand infantry attack on Melone had been abandoned, they swept into the town.
In the expectation that our own tanks would arrive, 16 Platoon was instructed to hold on in Orsogna; since they did not arrive, the seven survivors of the platoon chose to make good their escape as the German armour approached. Fired on at short range as they ran, they bolted down a street, threw themselves over a bank at the town's edge and scrambled down a gully to safety. C Company, having covered this breathless disengagement, itself had to scatter down another gully north of the town, and the crews of three supporting Bren carriers had to abandon them in their haste. By eleven o'clock both of the assaulting companies had withdrawn through 24 Battalion. Twenty-fifth Battalion's casualties totalled 83 – 4 killed, 26 wounded, and 53 missing, most of the last being prisoners.
Only now, two hours too late, did the first New Zealand tank make an appearance among the forward infantry. As soon as he heard of the unexpected trouble at Orsogna at seven o'clock, page 92 Parkinson, in the absence of other artillery, called on a troop of C Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment to fire in support, and from a position outside Castelfrentano three tanks engaged the Germans approaching Orsogna with their 75-millimetre guns. At the same time, the commander of A Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment was urgently ordered forward. The previous night he had been told not to expect orders before 7.45 on the 3rd, by which time 25 Battalion would be well inside Orsogna. His tanks, harbouring near Route 84 only a few hundred yards north of the Sangro, were eight miles or more from the scene of action, and they arrived to find Orsogna already in the triumphant grip of ardent panzer troops, with German tanks venturing out of the town towards them. One of these they were able to damage and the other to repel.
This was an inessential epilogue; for the contest of manoeuvre had been won and lost. Both at Melone and at Orsogna the Division had been sharply informed that it was no longer possible to scamper through the German defences. Again we may turn for prophecy to the war diary of 26 Panzer Division, under 3 December: ‘Intentions: Fortify and hold positions….’
In the perspective of the long, grim and futile campaign that followed, the events of 2 and 3 December in and before Orsogna have a wistful significance. They provoke questions. Was an opportunity missed? If so, why was it missed, and what were the consequences?
The facts suggest very strongly that Orsogna might have been taken cheaply at any time between dusk and midnight on 2 December. One battalion, the 25th, was within two miles and a half of Orsogna by three o'clock in the afternoon. Though wet and tired from the Sangro crossing and the climb to Castelfrentano, it had not been in heavy fighting, it had not set out until ten o'clock that morning, and it might reasonably have been asked to advance on Orsogna and put in an attack by dusk or dark. But the battalion was left to dig in, and it was only at ten o'clock that night that it received orders to attack at dawn.
Twenty-fourth Battalion, astride Brecciarola ridge scarcely a mile from the town, was within even closer striking distance as early as 3.30 p.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly was confident that the enemy had been caught off balance and that Orsogna would fall as easily as Castelfrentano. His opinion was confirmed when a German officer that afternoon rode a horse down the road from Orsogna, blissfully unaware that he was among enemies until a New Zealand page 93 rifleman fired at him, whereupon he departed rapidly uphill on foot. Conolly pressed Parkinson to allow the battalion to continue on to the capture of Orsogna, but he was instructed to dig in to provide a firm base for 25 Battalion. Even had it waited for the arrival of its support weapons, 24 Battalion might have been at the gates of Orsogna well before midnight. At any time before midnight, when the last elements of the German reconnaissance unit reached Orsogna, the attacker must have found the defences weak and unorganised. It is highly unlikely that prepared field defences then existed in any strength in and about the town. The spade-work of preceding weeks had been spent upon the Siegfried line, now an object of curious inspection by New Zealand troops.
No one can predict the outcome of a hypothetical attack, but if 25 Battalion (or 24 Battalion) had struck twelve or even seven hours earlier, it seems probable that they could have carried the town and established themselves on its western perimeter. Thence, with artillery support, they would have had excellent command over the counter-attack, and might have proved as difficult to evict as the Germans did once they had taken full possession.
If one opportunity was missed on the 2nd from lateness, was another missed on the 3rd from lack of weight in the attack? Three points are involved. The actual assault on Orsogna was entrusted to a single company of infantry. It was made without armoured support: tanks arrived too late to influence the action. It was made without artillery support: no field guns fired at the call of the infantry in the town. But whether these deficiencies meant the difference between success and failure is a question on which speculation must be very reserved. It is doubtful whether Orsogna, in the grasp of determined defenders, would have fallen to frontal attack by a battalion, even supported by armour and artillery – and no stronger bid could have been made at the time. If there is to be a verdict on the lost opportunity, it is ‘too late’ rather than ‘too little’.
Explanation must begin with a reminder of the buoyant spirits of the main actors. The New Zealand commanders believed the Germans to be on the run. They were quite correct in assuming that the defences which they had overrun around Castelfrentano were part of the enemy's main winter line; and if he did not stand in them, why should he stand immediately behind, where there was no natural depth and little or no artificial preparation? But the tactics of approaching a town by daylight, sitting down before it all night, and attacking it with inadequate support at dawn next morning could not be repeated with success. Having hit the enemy for six (in the Army Commander's phrase) at Castelfrentano, the New Zealanders played the same stroke at Orsogna – to a different ball.page 94
Freyberg certainly saw the critical importance of Orsogna. More than once on the 2nd he urged his brigadiers on, and Parkinson was under orders to make for the town ‘night and day’. Parkinson's pause on the afternoon and evening of the 2nd seems to have been a compromise between caution and optimism. He was cautious enough to halt 24 Battalion to form a firm base for 25 Battalion's attack and to delay that attack (perhaps to rest his tired troops) until next morning. But he was optimistic enough to expect 25 Battalion to take Orsogna in its stride as it moved on San Martino. The feeble counter-attacks against 24 Battalion on the afternoon of the 2nd showed that Orsogna was manned, if only lightly. Next morning it must have been held either strongly or not at all. Parkinson, as can be deduced indirectly from his plan of attack and directly from the language he held, thought it would be defended negligibly, if at all. In retrospect, he can be seen to have taken the German resistance too seriously on the 2nd and too lightly on the 3rd, but at the time the attack by the 25th seemed to him a perfectly normal action for a battalion designated as the advance guard to a brigade, which was in turn the advance guard to a division exploiting a break-in to a defended position.
1 Lt-Col H. T. W. Nolan, DSO, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 23 Jul 1915; sheep farmer; Adjutant, 5 Fd Regt, Dec 1940–Jun 1941; comd 30 Fd Bty Sep 1942–Dec 1943; BM NZA, Aug–Nov 1944; CO 4 Fd Regt Mar–Dec 1945; wounded Feb 1942.
If it is right to suppose that any battalion attack on the 3rd was predestined by delay to failure, the detail of its mounting and conduct is irrelevant to the question of lost opportunity – yet it sheds an oblique light on the mentality of the command, which is far from irrelevant. Considering that the operations were fluid and that it was in the interest of the Division, even at some risk, to keep them so, the propensity to think defensively as revealed by its layout, even in the prevalent mood of optimism, seems rather pronounced. Behind the company in Orsogna was another at the gates, ready to cushion the recoil. Behind that was the reserve company. All three were superimposed upon the firm base furnished by 24 Battalion. Sixth Brigade in its turn was resting on the firm base of 5 Brigade in the Castelfrentano area. Here was compounded reinsurance, defence in depth with a vengeance. For a lunge forward, there seems to have been disproportionate weight on the back foot. The firmness of the base far exceeded the sharpness of the apex. It was a disappointing action, and when all allowance is made for our inevitable ignorance of enemy disorganisation, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that optimism relaxed when it ought to have stimulated.
As to the consequences, no more than a guess at the probabilities can be attempted. The capture of Orsogna, especially in the fluid state of the battle and taken in conjunction with the progress of the 5 Corps offensive, must have made the Germans' new line behind the Moro untenable. Possession of the town would have conferred command of the ridge on which it stands and enabled our troops to roll up the Moro line from the flank and unhinge it at Melone and Guardiagrele. The enemy, then, must have fallen back along his whole front from the mountains to the sea. But his supply of defensible positions had by no means given out. Behind him lay a possible line which followed the Foro River until the northern foothills of the Majella offered firm anchorage at its western end. Farther to the rear was the broader stream of the Pescara. Even had the Eighth Army reached and forced the Pescara, the subsequent drive south-west towards Avezzano lay through a defile, where the hazards of advance in an Apennine winter would have been too terrible seriously to contemplate. If the opportunity at Orsogna on 2 December had been seized, the winter battles might have been fought a few miles farther north. Little else on the broad strategic map would have been changed.