Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
I: Probing for Resistance
I: Probing for Resistance
ORSOGNA is a town for the military manuals rather than for the guide-books. A stranger to beauty or fame, it became for half a year after the New Zealanders first saw it a byword far and wide for stubborn resistance – a Stalingrad of the Abruzzi. Of all the hilltop towns of this region, none is of greater natural strength. To the south and east it is aproned by rough slopes, rising steeply from ravines perhaps seven hundred feet in as many yards. It stands upon a watershed ridge, the highest of the parallel ridges that separate the rivers and streams draining the Majella massif into the Adriatic. Rather deceptively – for it is no towering eminence – it commands a broad prospect over the surrounding countryside, which watercourses have deeply engraved.
Along the ridge a good road runs north-east down to the coastal town of Ortona and south-west up to Melone and Guardiagrele. North-east of Orsogna it is possible to approach the road from the east by comparatively easy slopes, but round the town itself and southward to Guardiagrele the heights are forbidding and form a veritable rampart. The only other road into Orsogna is the track from the east along Brecciarola spur, but this is little more than a causeway. Possession of the town would give the New Zealanders use of the Ortona road and would permit them greater freedom of movement in the forward areas by depriving the enemy of the best point of vantage. Sooner or later it would have to fall if progress was to be made on this front.
Seen from the east, Orsogna was a line of grey stone buildings crowning a long ridge. From the centre rose a tall church tower, and even a fugitive glance – and glances sometimes had to be fugitive – caught an impression of scarred walls and arcaded foundations surmounting a cliff. The sight was to become familiar to New Zealand eyes.
Thinking and speaking like men habituated to success, to whom military stalemate was almost contrary to the natural order, the page 97 senior officers of the Division, and the Army Commander himself, were reluctant to interpret the rebuff at Orsogna as more than a slight flicker of defiance from an enemy intent on escape to safety. The discovery round Castelfrentano of very deep dugouts, an elaborate system of communication trenches, wire, minefields and large amounts of abandoned material left no doubt that the winter line had been pierced, and it was too early to conclude that a second line would be held along the Moro. Late on the 3rd, General Montgomery thought that the Germans were retreating to Pescara, leaving rearguards consisting mostly of tanks – an appreciation that General Freyberg qualified only so far as to think that they were holding on long enough to destroy the roads. That afternoon, after Brigadier Parkinson had voiced the same opinion, aircraft and guns were directed on to the Ortona–Orsogna road to harass an enemy believed to be evacuating stores and equipment. Patrols that night were instructed to occupy Orsogna if the opportunity arose.
Little by little, however, the truth was pieced together, and within two days of the first sally into Orsogna the evidence revealed unequivocally that the town and the ridge on which it stands would be yielded only to a large-scale onslaught. Two more days were needed to redeploy the Division, to repair the line of supplies to the forward troops after its interruption by a flood in the Sangro, and to open tolerable road communications to those supplies and to supporting arms. On the afternoon of the 7th the attack opened, disconcertingly soon for the reckoning of the Germans, who had employed every hour of the preceding four days in making ready to repel it. Thereupon the experimental skirmishes and the probings for position gave way to a contest of massed force. The battles for Orsogna began in earnest.
After the clashes at Melone and Orsogna on the morning of the 3rd, both sides tacitly acknowledged the importance of the occasion by redoubling their gunfire and air activity. In its anxiety to safeguard Orsogna, 26 Panzer Division not only despatched a company of engineers there to form a reserve for counter-attack, but also took the advice of 76 Panzer Corps to bring heavy artillery fire on to the approach to the town by way of the Roman road from Castelfrentano in order to hinder the arrival of our tanks and other reinforcements. Because of this shelling, 26 Battalion's transport could not that day reach the fighting companies, which had moved forward into the Moro valley south of the other two battalions of 6 Brigade; and a party from 26 Battalion working on the steep crossing of the track over the Moro became a target for several German batteries. Even the less exposed battalions of 5 Brigade, page 98 facing north-west in the area of Castelfrentano, were harassed by gunfire. Three times during the day enemy aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the forward troops, but not without retaliation, in the morning from hovering Spitfires and in the afternoon from the Division's light anti-aircraft guns, which shot one and possibly two raiders out of the sky. So lively was the German reaction that Freyberg expressed concern for Montgomery's safety next morning on the road to Main Divisional Headquarters, a few hundred yards north of the Sangro, and there was jocular talk of sending ‘less important people as experiments’.
The New Zealand gunners meanwhile were engaged on a full programme in which enemy gun positions and the roads beyond Orsogna received special attention. With the arrival of Headquarters 6 Army Group, Royal Artillery, and 1 Air Landing Light Regiment came the first flight of a substantial reinforcement of British artillery. The generous allowance of air support was concentrated on Orsogna and Guardiagrele and on the gun positions of the panzer division, whose artillery regiments complained of incessant raids by fighter-bombers.
Intimations of the enemy's plans continued to flow in on the 4th, though the tactical situation was still regarded at Divisional Headquarters as generally uncertain. Widespread artillery fire, which fell with special severity on Castelfrentano, and frequent sorties by aircraft presaged a dogged resistance. This hint was strengthened by the patrol reports of all three New Zealand brigades. Two patrols from B Company 24 Battalion, exploring the German defences round Orsogna on the night of 3–4 December, saw machine-gun posts east of the town and, at the western end, two guns firing towards Guardiagrele and heard vehicle movement. An A Company section returned from daylight reconnaissance of the Sfasciata ridge on the Division's right flank with the news that it was being held in strength for about a mile east of the Ortona–Orsogna road. It had left behind in a farmhouse one man wounded in a brush with Germans manning a post on the ridge. Private Williams,1 an orderly of the regimental aid post, volunteered a work of mercy. He went up alone and, hidden in the house from enemy patrols, tended the wounded man and stayed with him until after nightfall, when a stretcher party brought him back. From C Company a patrol eleven strong approached the very walls of Orsogna from the east, closing to within fifty yards of an enemy tank before being fired on, but it gave as good as it received and escaped unharmed with a report that the town was very strongly defended, with posts dug in about fifty yards in front of the houses.page 99
The southern defences of the town were tested on the night of 4–5 December by a D Company fighting patrol, which was greeted by bursts of machine-gun fire in exchange for its hand grenades. The expedition was enough to eliminate the gully to the south as a possible entry into the town, for the going was rough and steep.
Though the north-eastern approach to Orsogna by way of the broad Sfasciata spur was known after 24 Battalion's patrol to be defended well forward of the town, it was left to 25 Battalion to discover just how far the enemy had extended his posts in this direction. When, after a day's rest, the battalion returned to the line on the evening of 4 December, occupying San Felice ridge on the right of the 24th, C Company was instructed to establish a standing patrol on the more northerly parallel ridge of Sfasciata, about a thousand yards north-east of the enemy post attacked by the 24 Battalion patrol. Its coming was heralded by artillery and Vickers gun fire on the area from 10 p.m. The company (less one platoon), under Major Webster,1 made its way along the Moro bed before turning left about 3 a.m. to scale the precipitous eastern face to the top of the ridge. Enemy mortars and machine guns, firing from the forward slopes by the light of flares, harried the advance, but it was not until the company drew near the crest that it was finally halted at 4.30 a.m. Webster ordered a withdrawal to the battalion's right flank on San Felice. Since the broad back of the Sfasciata spur was the best approch to the Ortona–Orsogna road, the enemy's presence in strength near the top of the ridge where it drops into the Moro was a significant pointer.
A further tentative on the right wing was made by the Divisional Cavalry, sent to find routes to the main Ortona road in the sector held by 8 Indian Division, but again the result was negative. While armoured cars of a troop of B Squadron met a patrol of 6 Lancers and Canadian tanks in the village of Frisa, a party from A Squadron reconnoitred on foot an old Roman road running westward to Poggiofiorito from the Lanciano–Frisa road, but turned back half a mile before the track crossed the Moro at the north-east extremity of Sfasciata ridge. The next morning, the 5th, the squadron returned to the area in its cars, shelled an offending enemy machine-gun post into silence and forded the Moro; but mud and shellfire compelled a withdrawal.
The same disappointment repaid the efforts of another Divisional Cavalry patrol reconnoitring for a route even farther north. With some Canadian tanks, it reached a blown bridge over the Moro no more than four miles from the mouth. Here the river could not be forded and the patrol retired under shellfire after an engagement with German infantry, who were numerous in the locality. Each of these patrols yielded three prisoners from 90 Panzer Grenadier Division. Yet, though they had searched far afield and well beyond the divisional sector, neither had found a practicable route whereby vehicles might skirt Orsogna from the north.
Nor was it otherwise in the south. Fourth Armoured Brigade, whose bid for the Melone road fork and Guardiagrele beyond it had been challenged from the outset, found enemy vigilance unrelaxed. On the 4th an early morning testing of the German defences by a patrol of 3 Motor Company 22 Battalion, following up an artillery concentration on the junction, drew mortar fire, and gun and machine-gun posts were observed on Martino hill, west of the junction, with concrete works north of it on the road to Orsogna. Similarly, an attempt by 5 Field Park Company to employ its bulldozers in repairing the gaping demolition in the road about a mile east of Melone was frustrated by instant enemy shellfire. Not content with treasuring up this old crater, the Germans a few hours later blew another in the same road. It was presumably this party of Germans which a patrol of 22 Battalion saw returning to Melone in the early hours of the 5th.
The 22 Battalion patrol was the first of two which found the road page 101 junction unoccupied that night. This discovery encouraged the battalion to try to seize it after daylight. For the third time, however, the battalion's infantry was foiled within a few hundred yards of the objective. Despite support from artillery and from tanks of B Squadron 18 Regiment posted on a nearby hilltop, two platoons of 1 Motor Company, as they got to within 300 yards of the empty road fork, came under a storm of fire from mortars and machine guns on the Martino feature. They had no choice but hasty retreat. Eleven men left behind in the rout made their way back to the battalion after dark. All tank movement started the German artillery into action. The paratroops defending this salient were clearly determined to stay there.
From 5 Corps, on the Division's right, came news to confirm the enemy's stiffening resolve. Though the capture of San Vito and Lanciano on 3 and 4 December completed our control of Route 84, the Moro, which lay midway between it and the parallel Ortona– Orsogna road, was being defended, and it was not until the night of the 5th that 1 Canadian Division, which had replaced 78 Division in the coastal sector, made a crossing. Opposition to the Canadian and Indian divisions composing 5 Corps was now in the firmer hands of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division. On coming into the line a few days before, this division had been told that, as a pure German formation, it was expected to give a better account of itself than the hapless 65 Division, which had shed less of its mixed blood than its casualty figures seemed to warrant.
By this time there was no mistaking the import of the evidence: nothing less than a measured blow with the gathered resources of the Division would loosen the German grip on Orsogna and its ridge. At the 7.45 conference on the morning of the 5th, the Divisional Commander initiated planning for a two-brigade attack on Orsogna.
Long before the detail of the plan was determined and even before the need for a full-scale effort was finally recognised, preparations for a resumption of the advance went on. The opening of supply lines to vehicles was a prime condition of progress. It entailed a struggle to overcome the obstacles thrown by the enemy across the path of his retreat and by nature contriving an awkward combination of weather and land forms. The diligence and almost sardonic ingenuity of the German sappers had free play, and within the competence of their equipment they missed few opportunities of balking their pursuers. In the war diary of 26 Panzer Division under the date 2 December there is a little compendium page 102 of destruction that will serve to typify this kind of mischief-making:
In the course of the withdrawal 93 Panzer Engineer Battalion had blown 65 demolitions during the last two days, destroyed or mined 52 military installations in the intermediate line, blown eight power plants, laid 1600 booby-trapped mines and blown up several hamlets.
The weather, which for the most part had been mercifully fine, if cold and bracing, since the crossing of the Sangro, took a turn for the worse on 4 December. Draining into the river and melting the high snows inland, a steady warm rain caused the Sangro to rise in spate, in places by as much as six feet. Shortly after dark the folding boats of LOBE bridge were torn from their moorings, washed some 400 yards downstream, and stranded on a gravel bank. The sturdier TIKI bridge alone on the Army front remained undamaged and in place, but the swirling waters swept away part of the northern approach. The Sangro was therefore impassable.
By three o'clock the next morning the skies had cleared and the river had fallen sufficiently to allow a platoon of 7 Field Company to begin repairs. The flood water was dammed back from the approach to the bridge, the track was remade and at 11 a.m., after only sixteen hours, the flow of traffic over the river was restored. Lobe bridge was fit only for salvage. It was dismantled and the parts were taken back for repairs in the workshop. Consequently all vehicles crossing the Sangro from the north and from the south had to use TIKI bridge until another route was provided. Work had already begun on such an alternative – the reconstruction of the blown bridges over the Aventino and Sangro a few hundred yards upstream of the confluence. The Archi bridge over the Sangro was built by 8 Field Company and the northern bridge carrying Route 84 across the Aventino by Canadians of 10 Field Squadron. Despite the delay caused by the flooding and by the need for removing mines and rubble from the sites, the route was in use on the 7th.
In the right-hand sector of the fighting zone before Orsogna communications were peculiarly difficult. This was a sparsely roaded stretch of country, and off the roads wheeled movement at the best of times was impeded by the maze of ridges and gullies that formed the watershed of the Moro; now, with the surface soft and greasy from rain, to drive trucks and tanks across country was to invite trouble. Yet this ground had to be traversed and won before the Division could gain the secure communications of the Ortona road. The Roman road leading on to Brecciarola ridge was quite impracticable as a supply route, if only because of the steepness of the Moro crossing; and from the 5th, when 5 Field Company bridged the Moro a mile or more north of the Roman road, traffic going page 103 forward left Route 84 west of Castelfrentano, travelled north over the hills known as Corato and Taverna as far as the Lanciano– Orsogna road, and thence turned west through the hamlet of Spaccarelli and across the Moro by Hunter's bridge to San Felice ridge. Large convoys were not permitted west of the road junction, where they swung right and returned by way of Lanciano. This system of communications sufficed, but it became tenuous at the extremities, especially when fighting developed in the broken, roadless country north of San Felice ridge.
The Sangro flood might have caused more serious dislocation and delay but for two facts. One has been suggested – the speed of the sappers in making repairs and replacements. The other was the foresight of the Army Service Corps in beginning on 3 December to establish dumps north of the Sangro against just such contingencies as the flood presented. That day and the next stocks of petrol, oil and lubricants, and of ammunition were transferred to areas near Route 84 north of the river and, though the lift was interrupted by the flood, within a few days all units except those south of the river were drawing their petrol and ammunition from the new dumps. Rations and other quartermaster's supplies, being less bulky, were brought up more slowly. The divisional supply point came forward in two stages, first to Atessa and then, in the middle of December, to an area near Archi station, still south of the river. These moves reduced the need for vehicles from the fighting units to use the Sangro bridges and, at least in the short term, the dependence of these units on the moods of the river.
On 3 December 26 Panzer Division ordered IV Alpine Battalion to send fighting-reconnaissance patrols east and south-east from its mountain zone, and when next day Germans were reported at Casoli and villages to the south Freyberg was content to send a fighting patrol as a token of his vigilance. Men of the Divisional Defence Platoon and a troop of B Squadron Divisional Cavalry in armoured cars joined forces for the expedition. They spent a wakeful night at Casoli, alert for 200 Germans said to be in the locality, but neither that night nor the next day did they sight the enemy, though they heard demolitions which seemed to confirm civilian reports that the enemy was systematically destroying villages. Aircraft of the Royal Air Force therefore dropped bombs on Torricella, the village suspected of housing the headquarters directing this work.
More regular provision for filling the gap between the Division's left flank and 13 Corps' right and for protecting the Division's supply route had been planned before these alarums and excursions showed the need for it; but it was not until the evening of 5 December that 2 Independent Parachute Brigade (Brigadier C. H. V. Pritchard), which had been placed under New Zealand command, was able to move in. It relieved the New Zealanders at Casoli and promptly set patrols to work hunting the enemy. Fourth Parachute Battalion, in the east astride the Sangro, and 5 Parachute Battalion, farther west under the lee of the Majella, despatched long-distance patrols which scoured the country and had skirmishes with enemy parties at widely scattered points. The vigour and watchfulness of the British paratroops freed the Division from the anxiety on its left and allowed it to give undivided attention to Orsogna.