Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
II: Operation ULYSSES
II: Operation ULYSSES
‘If you can make roads like that, they can't stop you,’ Dempsey told Freyberg. But pressure could not be relaxed while the road was being completed. No doubt the original Allied plan of a converging movement on Rome, with the Fifth Army approaching from the south and the Eighth Army along the passes from the north-east, was now incapable of fulfilment as the Italian winter deepened. But the need was as pressing as ever to employ Italy – Churchill's ‘Third Front’ – as a magnet to draw away forces from the First Front in Russia and the Second Front, which was already a strategic reality, if not a military fact, in the West. Translated into tactical terms of time and place, this need meant that the Eighth Army, already jabbing strongly with its right, would have to bring its left into play again as soon as possible, though skies were murky and the legs of tired infantrymen leaden in the clogging mud.page 140
The fortunes of the mere platoon, often (it may seem) thrown senselessly into battle, must be continually refocused against a background of grand strategy – a task much easier in the retrospect of the historian than it was to the men who, half-blind to the higher issues, fought from the habit of discipline and self-respect and builded better than they knew.
Montgomery planned to reach the Arielli stream throughout its length by 24 December. The policy of 13 Corps, as stated by Dempsey on the 21st, was to clear Arielli with 5 Division so that the New Zealand Division, with a secure right flank, might turn south-west to roll up the German defences. A corps operation order of the 22nd fixed 5 Division's attack for next afternoon and the New Zealanders' for 4 a.m. on the 24th. The tactical purpose of operation Ulysses was to split the enemy at the boundary between 26 Panzer Division and 65 Infantry Division and to turn the Orsogna defences from the north.
The assault was again entrusted to 5 Brigade, which, strengthened by 26 Battalion, was to advance with three battalions from the Ortona road to seize both ridges in the Fontegrande area. Thence it was to exploit with tanks and infantry north-west and west for a mile or more across another system of watercourses to the two ridges known as Feuduccio and San Basile. Twenty-first Battalion on the right and 26th in the centre were both given stretches of the first and second Fontegrande ridges as intermediate and final objectives respectively, whereas 28 Battalion was to take its objective, the important ridge junction north of Orsogna, in one bound.
Artillery support was on a lavish scale – 272 guns, including those of 5 Division and 6 Army Group, Royal Artillery, for 3500 yards of front, or a gun for every 12 or 13 yards. The field guns were to fire a creeping barrage, finishing with smoke to screen the exploitation, while the mediums were to bring down concentrations ahead of the objectives. After dawn Orsogna and the approach roads would be bombed. From its position on Brecciarola 6 Brigade was to help with the fire of its Vickers machine guns and mortars and was to be prepared to send a battalion into Orsogna if the Germans left the town.
Such plans time showed to be superfluous, for operation Ulysses began in doubt and ended in deadlock. The opening circumstances were far from happy. Though not exactly in low spirits, many of the troops were jaded after more than a month of hard and comfortless fighting with few and short periods of rest, and there was some bewilderment among officers as well as men that the offensive was being pressed so relentlessly when the commonsense course seemed to be to settle down for the winter. Regrouping for the attack necessitated some fatiguing moves by night, in particular that of 26 Battalion, which had an arduous approach march of several miles. It arrived weary to attack in the dark under a strange command page 142 over ground it had never seen. The night itself was cold, wet and misty and was not made any more cheerful by the thought that it was Christmas Eve. Though four or five hundred reinforcements had reached the Division a few days before, all three assaulting battalions were seriously under strength, the Maoris having only about 630 men out of an establishment of 800 and no battalion more than 670. In 21 Battalion, when zero hour drew near, fifteen men of one platoon refused to heed the call to action – a grim example of indiscipline without precedent in the Division's history.
There were also tactical worries. Since 21 Battalion's right flank was bent back, the barrage had to wheel slightly to the left and the infantry commanders' task of keeping up behind it was more difficult than usual. The two battalions on the right had a more northerly axis of advance than the Maoris, so that paths diverged. The 21st was concerned about a rough gully that lay across its advance and was disturbed about its right flank. The British division's attack on the afternoon of the 23rd was reported to have taken all its objectives – Arielli was found that night to be deserted – but its left wing had not come forward, as arranged, to the stream bed on 21 Battalion's right, and the battalion went into battle with one eye cast anxiously over its shoulder.
Twenty-sixth Battalion's plan also provided for a two-company attack on the first objective, with the other two companies to pass through to the second. D and C Companies (Major Molineaux1 and Captain J. R. Williams2), leading the way, became separated in the dark, but both reached the track which was their destination and there managed to assemble most of their men. B and A Companies (Major Smith3 and Captain Piper4) set off behind the leaders but were soon ‘out of the picture’ because of faulty wireless communication. A Company appears to have swung to the left of the route followed by C Company. When it was finally halted by machine-gun and shellfire and consolidated, it found itself on the same ridge and to the left. How B Company found its way forward remains, like much else in this action, wrapped in obscurity. For two hours and a half it was out of touch with the rest of the battalion, and when it regained touch with battalion headquarters it had lost its commander, was digging in on the reverse slope of the same spur as that occupied by C Company 21 Battalion, and was uncertain where it was. The one certainty was the unremitting hostility of the enemy machine-gunners. Before 8 a.m. the two companies of New Zealanders were in contact on this fireswept and all-but-beleaguered slope, which alone had been wrung from the defenders of the final objective.
5 Lt-Col R. R. T. Young, DSO; Richmond, England; born Wellington, 25 Jun 1902; oil company executive; CO NZ School of Instruction, Feb–Apr 1943; CO 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1943–Jul 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; wounded 26 Dec 1943.
D Company (Captain Matehaere),1 with the dual role of right-flank guard and mopping-up company, had to fight its way forward, clearing German infantry posts from its path. Before it could cross the head of the Arielli to reach its objective, it was held up and dug in along the line of the stream beside 26 Battalion's left-hand company. Meanwhile, in the centre of the Maori Battalion, the progress of B Company (Major Sorensen) was being hotly disputed among the olive groves a few hundred yards west of the cemetery. It, too, found itself checked as it reached the edge of the stream. On the left A Company (Captain Henare) had to battle its way slowly down the main road and the railway line. It succeeded in capturing the junction of the road with the track leading along the first Fontegrande ridge, but just failed to reach a second turn-off leading to Arielli by way of the second ridge and the feature known as Magliano. Indeed, the later stages of the company's advance were made possible only by the fire of all available arms – artillery, mortars (including 24 Battalion's) and Vickers guns – on to German resistance north-west of Orsogna, and smoke had to be fired to screen the company while it dug in.
The Maoris had thus worked their two right-hand companies, firmly linked, to within 300 yards of their objectives, and A Company, though still disorganised, was only 150 yards short of its goal on the left. At all points the battalion was hard up against the enemy defences.
For the infantry entrenched along the first ridge, even more for the eighty or so men thrust forward beyond the Arielli in the lee of the second, armoured help could not come too soon. The tanks of A Squadron 20 Regiment lost no time in following 28 Battalion into the area west of the cemetery, and though gunfire, mines and mud disabled four of them, the squadron manned all its tanks (disabled or not) in helping the Maoris to consolidate. The half of B Squadron under Captain Abbott,2 ordered to assist 21 and 26 Battalions, made a successful foray along the ridge, and by noon seven of its tanks were deployed in lively support of the two battalions. Their dash gave a heartening touch to a day that was dour and cheerless.
By early afternoon, it was clear that the battle remained tight and the enemy unbudging. ‘It is not a question of further advance,’ remarked the General. ‘It is a question of holding on to what we have got’. He had already issued instructions for the relief of the battered 21 Battalion by 25 Battalion that night and for 6 Brigade Headquarters to take over operational command from 5 Brigade Headquarters, with 28 Battalion under command. The two battalions on the first Fontegrande ridge were at close grips with the enemy, a training battalion of 6 Parachute Regiment, throughout the day, and though they had managed to make a solid line they were thankful for the help of 20 Regiment's tanks and for all the supporting fire possible.
The troops across the Arielli stream were precariously placed. The bridgehead was held by 27 men of C Company, 21 Battalion, and 58 of B Company, 26 Battalion, and their attempts to expand it were speedily suppressed. During the morning the men of 26 Battalion joined those of 21 Battalion in a cleft near the north-eastern end of the spur to form a composite company under 26 Battalion's command. Only 200 yards from enemy positions, they were at the mercy of German mortar fire. As casualties grew, Brigadier Kippenberger and both battalion commanders became convinced that the cost of holding the position outweighed any advantage it was likely to yield and orders were given to withdraw across the stream; but Freyberg, having listened to these opinions, reversed the orders and instructed the troops to hold firm until night, when 25 Battalion would relieve them. After a long approach march over muddy tracks, 25 Battalion (Major Norman)1 carried out the relief as planned, posting its D Company (Captain Hewitt)2 in the salient with orders to retire if attacked.
1 Lt-Col E. K. Norman, DSO, MC, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Levin; born Napier, 14 Sep 1916; theological student; served in Fiji Nov 1940–Jun 1941; CO 25 Bn Dec 1943–Feb 1944, Jun 1944–Apr 1945; wounded 23 Apr 1945.
Christmas Day came in quietly along the whole front. It brought the replacement of 5 Brigade by 6 Brigade in operational command and, as the event was to show, a new phase, in which mid-winter struck the offensive from the hands of men.
The name ulysses, with its overtones of far-travelled prowess, was a name that the results of the operation belied. For the Division never conquered its initial difficulties. The troops had lost their freshness and their first élan had been blunted. The weather was wretched during the attack, miserably cold, with low clouds and frequent rainstorms. The mischance which no planning can eliminate showed its hand in minor ways – one battalion lost the use of a wireless set when a mule fell into the Moro and another had to share its frequency with a commercial radio station. Twenty-first Battalion was distracted by concern for its right flank. In their assault the Maoris were troubled by the arrangement of the barrage: when it paused between two bounds on 26 Battalion's front they were exposed to devastating fire from their open right flank. On their left, the dominant buildings of Orsogna housed strong, well-armed detachments of Germans.
The Division's casualties in the attack numbered 119 – 22 killed and 97 wounded – about half of them in 28 Battalion. The figures are high, considering that none of the infantry battalions had more than 250 men in its rifle companies when the attack began. The enemy lost 38 prisoners, but the two German divisions admitted only eleven men missing in the evening report of 76 Panzer Corps on 24 December. It seems likely that the casualties reported at the same time – 5 killed and 32 wounded – understate their losses. They put five New Zealand tanks out of action at a cost of three anti-tank guns destroyed.
If territorially the operation was a disappointment, tactically it was a portent. Since the Division first launched itself at Orsogna three weeks before, it had discarded as impracticable a southerly outflanking drive and a frontal assault; it had gradually come to develop a movement ‘north about’, with the infantry penetrating or disconcerting the defences for the armour to exploit. But now the infantry had been brought to a halt with no more than slight gains; and perhaps more significantly, the plan of armoured exploitation had early to be jettisoned. In three weeks winter had closed in; snow, already lying on the heights, could be expected on the battlefield; ways were foul and the sky was being emptied of aircraft. After Christmas the Division, led, trained and equipped for mobility, had to reconcile itself to a static war of emplacement.