CHAPTER 12 — The Sangro and Orsogna
The Sangro and Orsogna
TheGerman High Command was determined to hold Italy, and when the United States Fifth Army landed on the beaches of the Salerno plain on 9 September, with its immediate object the occupation of Naples, it had been opposed by every enemy formation available. The Americans' situation was precarious until the Eighth Army, which had crossed the Straits of Messina on 3 September, linked up at Vallo and the German left flank was forced to swing inland. Fifth Army, pivoting on Salerno, then began to advance towards Naples. Eighth Army struck for the strategic road centre at Altamura and the vital airfields at Foggia, on the Adriatic coast. These were captured by 27 September, and the first phase of the conquest of the mainland was completed with the heel of Italy firmly held.
The main weight of the Eighth Army was henceforth to be on the east coast, with the next bound across the Foggia plains towards more difficult country that favoured the defence. There was very bitter fighting before the Biferno River was forced. The Germans had recovered from the embarrassment of having a new front thrust upon them, and had brought reserve divisions down from Northern Italy.
By this time the German High Command was prepared to stand on the historic defence line across the narrowest part of Italy—the Sangro River, through the mountains to the formidable country around Cassino, thence to the Aurunci Mountains on the west coast. In addition the autumn rains had indicated the close approach of another German ally, and it is likely that Wellington at Waterloo never prayed for night or Blucher more earnestly than did the German Commander-in-Chief for winter and mud.page 279
The crossing of the first river obstacle—the Trigno—was resisted with the greatest determination, and when the bridgehead was finally secured the enemy fell back step by step to the Sangro. It was then the second week in November and 2 NZ Division was ordered to move forward. On the west coast Fifth Army had crossed the Volturno River north of Naples, but Rome was still a hundred miles behind the German line.
The Eighth Army plan was for a swift surprise blow on a narrow front, with diversionary attacks on the inward mountain flank. The New Zealand Division, between the mountains and the coastal strip, was to cross the Sangro, extend the enemy front, and break through the defences. The main assault on the coast would be announced by the noise of many guns, whereupon 6 Brigade, with New Zealand tank support, would launch, in the North African tradition, a silent night attack with the bayonet.
The whole operation depended on the weather being fine for two days so that the Sangro could be forded and the armour could get off the few roads available. The weather was not fine for two days, and after several modifications the idea of a stealthy night attack was abandoned. Finally the whole concept of a deep exploitation to the Pescara-Avezzano road and the consequent outflanking movement through the mountains was modified. In its stead was substituted a deliberate frontal assault against the Winter Line by 2 NZ Division. And even that had to wait until the treacherous Sangro was low enough to wade.
The troops had reached their company areas by 10 p.m. on 24 November after marching an ‘army mile’ carrying their blankets, greatcoats and bivouac tents. How long an ‘army mile’ actually is has never been determined, but it was a long way that night. To many of the battalion it was the first experience of taking up a position after dark in real earnest, and they plodded through the muddy fields half expecting a German challenge from every patch of cover.
C and D were the two forward companies and were ordered to establish standing patrols on the river bank. The former desert campaigners chosen for the job were unconcerned, but the others took the task very seriously. Hands and faces were page 280 smeared with boot polish, rattles in equipment tracked down, and the drill for close-country fighting mentally checked over. This was it at last. A little sporadic shellfire during the night added emphasis.
After the standing patrols were established, the river was probed for a crossing place, but the water was too deep and fast to attempt a passage.
It was a curious 21 Battalion that took stock of the position after first light on 25 November. It found itself on the edge of a river flat two miles south of the Sangro, and was able to do a little exploring.
The bivouac area was behind and east of Monte Marcone, a hill that rose sharply from the river flats to a height of nearly 600 feet. It was covered with olive trees through which a track led to a farmhouse near the top. The troops were getting used to seeing houses situated in unusual positions, and all eyes looked to the north across the river. It was a typical Italian river valley. Two roads followed the river, one on each side, and scattered over the flats were stone farmhouses, clumps of bamboo, the inevitable olive orchards, and patches of closely-wooded country—a romantic setting for a war. The sun shone bright and warm, the smoke from a dozen chimneys went straight upwards, roosters crowed, and the Italians moved freely about their business. Overhead came the RAF, and not a single enemy plane was in sight. Their targets were too far away to see the bombs dropping, but clouds of black smoke billowed up, and later the rumble and thunder of explosions echoed across the valley. This was war at its best, with the other side taking all the punishment, and that decently hidden.
Regimental Aid Post on the north bank of the Sangro
A meal for a mortar detachment, south of Cassino
‘I’ Section group, south of Cassino
Aerial photograph of Cassino, taken before the bombing on 15 March 1944
An aerial photograph of part of Cassino. Route 6 is at the top and right of the photograph
The 23rd Battalion joined the 21st that night, and Second-Lieutenant Massey1 with a patrol made another attempt to cross the river. They tried for five hours, but were eventually swept off their feet and had to swim for their lives. They were lucky not to be drowned, and did in fact return with one man missing, but he came in later after being carried downstream some distance. It was clear that the enemy did not regard the river as his defensive line; nevertheless plans for crossing the Sangro were necessarily postponed until the water dropped sufficiently for the troops to be able to wade its several channels.
Other topics of interest were the return of Brigadier Kippenberger from furlough to command 5 Brigade and the crash-landing of an enemy plane in the Sangro. The pilot, who may have had engine trouble or been shot up in an air fight, skimmed the divisional area before he made a landing. He and his gunner were a little unfortunate in their choice of direction, for with the opportunity of moving north or south, they picked on 9 Platoon's patrol post. They thus distinguished themselves and 21 Battalion by becoming the first prisoners of war to be taken by New Zealand troops in Italy.
That night Major Bailey, with a small patrol, waded the river after a lot of trouble and reported that it would be hazardous to put men across without some assistance such as a rope to hold on to. Second-Lieutenant Maich2 led the only other patrol to get partially over. After several attempts he had crossed two channels and was about to try the third when he picked up an enemy party through his glasses. The enemy page 282 was probably trying to do exactly the same thing. Ordered to keep out of trouble, he returned forthwith.
The 26th was another fine day, and the river began to drop. A and C Companies probed across it after dark, tested routes up to the escarpment and returned safely. C Company's patrol, however, could have met plenty of opposition had its instructions permitted. Second-Lieutenant McGregor had trained in Australia as a commando before joining the battalion, and with Sergeant Bob Page3 had a thoroughly enjoyable time poking about in the enemy's lines. They went over the crest of the bluff, found the first house they came to occupied, and withdrew discreetly. A hostile post disclosed itself when its garrison was seen walking on the skyline, so the patrol dropped in on them. An empty slit trench was found nearby and the visitors wished they had learnt some German at school. They returned safely at daybreak, convinced that there were no enemy posts on the forward slopes of the area they had traversed.
Sergeant Peter Oates4 realised that he still had something to learn after one of these patrols:
On the way to the rendezvous we had to cross a creek over which a bridge had been blown, and a team of engineers were preparing to put in a small bailey. On the way back the bridge had been finished and I congratulated them on the job. Their reply was to ask us if we were the silly bastards who went through a few hours earlier and showed us a heap of shu mines they had dug out.
At the battalion conference it was agreed that a single rope would be satisfactory enough to show the position of the ford but too slow and cumbersome to pass a battalion across, and various other methods were discussed. The depth of the river was over four feet in some places and the current was swift. Roping the men together was dismissed, as a casualty would have been an embarrassment. It was decided to cut poles which a man could hold on to for support, or release quickly if he got into difficulties. All details were finalised during the 27th, with zero hour fixed for a quarter to three the following morning, page 283 by which time all the infantry were to be over the river and on the lateral road start line.
According to the battalion operation order the attack was to be carried out in three phases: the securing of the main lateral road and flat ground north of the river; the capture of the first objective, two features on the escarpment beyond the lateral road; and the capture of the final objective, which extended south-westwards from a feature about a mile north of the first objective to a bluff on the eastern side of a stream that was to be the left boundary, and southwards to Point 117.
In Phase 1 A Company, starting at 10.30 p.m., was to attack and clear of all enemy the lateral road and flat ground forward to the escarpment. In Phase 2 B Company (with a three-inch mortar detachment) was to capture and consolidate the right-hand feature of the first objective, and C Company (also with a three-inch mortar detachment) was to capture and consolidate the left-hand feature; this attack was to start from the lateral road at zero hour (2.45 a.m.) and the rate of advance was to be 100 yards in five minutes. D Company, Battalion Headquarters, and 3 Platoon 1 Machine Gun Company were to move to the lateral road. On receipt of the success signal from B and C Companies, A Company was to reorganise and carry on the attack.
In Phase 3 D Company was to pass through B Company and capture and consolidate the feature about a mile north of the first objective, and A Company was to capture and consolidate the bluff on the eastern side of the stream and Point 117. Battalion Headquarters and the machine-gun platoon were to move in the rear of D Company and establish on a reverse slope in the vicinity of B Company's objective. The starting time for the third phase of the operation, zero plus 75 (4 a.m.), was subject to alteration to suit 6 Brigade's plans. The rate of advance was still to be 100 yards in five minutes. On receipt of the success signal from D and A Companies, B Company was to become the reserve company and was to reorganise immediately. The machine-gun platoon was to remain with Battalion Headquarters until it was established and was then to take up a position in B Company's area.
The 23rd Battalion would be on the right of 21 Battalion page 284 and 26 Battalion on the left. The 21st Battalion's boundaries were to be two streams (described in the operation order as ‘river wadis’) running north-westwards from the Sangro. In addition to the platoon of 1 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion and a detachment of provost under its command, 21 Battalion would have in support A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment (less one troop), two field regiments on the divisional front, and another platoon of 27 MG Battalion. The battalion's supporting arms (mortars, carriers and anti-tank guns), on completion of their move across the river by bridge, were to carry on to the lateral road and then eastwards until the mortar carriers were in the vicinity of the third house, the carriers, including the company ammunition carriers, in the vicinity of the second house, and the anti-tank guns in the vicinity of the first house.
At the last minute the Signals officer, Second-Lieutenant McLean,5 reported that some of his equipment was still missing. Only the barest necessities had been packed on the first-line transport on leaving Egypt and, though expected daily, wirelesses and cable were still short. The wires to Taranto burned with urgent messages but did not produce the missing gear, and in the end the battalion had to borrow from the Maoris, who were in reserve for the first attack.
The troops had a hot meal at 4.30 p.m., a cup of tea with bread and cheese at nine, and at 10.45 p.m., laden with tommy gun or rifle, ammunition, grenades, greatcoats, gas capes, spare socks and 24 hours' rations, moved off through a dark and starless night to the river's edge.
The half-frozen men were changing their socks and reviving themselves with the contents of their water bottles—tea heavily page 286 tinctured with rum—when a shower of rain completed their discomfort, and they were not sorry to see the red, stabbing muzzle flashes behind them as the barrage opened. The enemy counter-barrage was quick to reply, but the German gunners had been outwitted and their protective curtain was wasted on the wrong side of the river.
At 2.45 a.m. the forward companies began to climb the slippery escarpment. On the right Major Hawkesby (B Company) led 10 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Massey), less one section, and 11 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Swainson9) up the right-hand side of a re-entrant, while 12 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Campbell10), plus the section from 10 Platoon, took the left-hand side. Both parties scrambled through grape vines and reached their objective without opposition.
On the left C Company was not so fortunate. Captain Horrocks sent 14 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant McGregor) and 15 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Maich) straight up the escarpment, while he, with Company Headquarters, 13 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Dale), and a section from 15 Platoon, moved up a gully to attack from a flank.
The arrangement was for 9 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Grant11) to lead A Company through C Company area, so on seeing C Company's success signal Grant immediately went forward. He met C Company headquarters and was told that Captain Horrocks had gone forward to reconnoitre a spandau nest that was holding up the advance and had not returned. Grant and Corporal Don Fraser12 went ahead to investigate and found Horrocks mortally wounded. The spandau was still spraying the area, and the two carried on to silence it but were themselves both wounded.
By this time the rest of A Company had arrived, and while Major Tanner was planning to deal with the situation, Corporal page 287 Perry13 (7 Platoon) stalked the spandau nest. The gunner was difficult to locate, but was eventually found literally underfoot in a grass-covered pit. That was the end of the spandau, and with the opposition removed, A Company leap-frogged through C Company and carried on up the gully to its objective on Point 117, about three-quarters of a mile inland, without further incident.
Second-Lieutenant Dale led 13 Platoon towards C Company's objective, Point 200, where he hoped to find the rest of the company. There was a house in the area, which was quietly surrounded and the occupants ordered to come out. Some movement was heard inside, but the enemy's reluctance to emerge was overcome when Dale fired a Very light through a window. Twenty-four prisoners were taken, including two officers carrying very compact radio sets. It was felt that the sets could be put to better use by 13 Platoon. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons arrived at this time. They had reached the objective without casualties, found a system of slit trenches but no occupants, and had come over to see what the commotion at the house was all about. The explanation for the empty trenches was found when some straw used for bedding burst into flame and disclosed that the floor of the house had been excavated and offered more protection from our barrage than did the open trenches. Second-Lieutenant McGregor took command of the company and consolidated.
At daylight the ground was found to be littered with S-mines, none of which had been exploded by the barrage or by the troops walking over them. Sergeant Bas Worthington, the company mine expert, made an examination and saw that the detonators had been wrongly fitted. The fact that the prisoners were mostly conscripted Poles and Czechs might have been the answer—sabotage on a small but acceptable scale.
D Company (Major Bailey), with the task of taking a hill forward of and between A Company on Point 117 and C Company on Point 200, ran into difficulty trying to climb the bluff which, in their sector, was almost a precipice. No. 18 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Ross14) was missing when Bailey checked page 288 up at the top but, rather than lose time waiting, he pushed on without them until fired on from a house on his left.
Second-Lieutenant Hill15 was sent with 17 Platoon to deal with the enemy post, while Bailey pushed on with the rest of D Company. They were within 200 yards of the company objective when they were fired on, and Bailey asked Colonel McElroy for reinforcements. B Company was ordered to help, and Second-Lieutenant Swainson set out with two sections of 11 Platoon, but the opposition was overcome before their arrival. It had been a difficult problem for one platoon, and it was largely owing to Sergeant Beaumont16 and Corporal Hinton17 that the objective had been so quickly captured. The flames from a burning haystack lit up the area and put the platoon at a disadvantage, but while Hinton with his section, from an exposed position in front, beat down the opposing fire, the rest of the platoon worked around to a flank. Hinton, after being beaten back three times, finally led his section in to capture the post. He then silenced three other posts, accounting for 20 enemy either killed or wounded. Swainson, hurrying across to the assistance of Major Bailey, fell in with 17 Platoon, which was still trying to close in on the house it had been sent to capture. The two platoons rushed it, capturing an anti-tank gun, a machine gun and nine prisoners; Swainson and one man were wounded by grenades.
A vigorous action was still going on around the company objective and there was some danger of being cut off. Fire was coming from both flanks and from the rear, but the enemy was cleverly concealed and could not be located. It was not until daylight, when the missing platoon and Hill's party arrived, that 14 hidden snipers were rounded up and the company consolidated.
B Company, behind them, had also missed some enemy posts in the darkness and were kept busy until after daylight. Corporal Tommy Sansom18 writes:page 289
I was digging my little hole when Brian Leach19 [sic] came along with a young Pole on the end of his gat. He told me he was doing the same as me when he spotted this bird with a rifle to his shoulder about to pot him. Brian did a few quick acts and wound up chasing him around a haystack and winning. We next rounded up a Jerry in one of the casa stables. He was behind the carcase of a freshly killed cow, so we had fresh meat for breakfast, and our cooks had the rest sent over to them very smartly. We then had a few rounds thrown at us from down hill a bit. By that time I had a spandau. I offered to give covering fire while some of the boys went down to see about the trouble. But the bloody gun jammed, so I galloped down with them….
The ‘trouble’ was two Germans and a spandau. They had emerged from a hidden dugout and were firing uphill into what had been their own headquarters. One of them was wounded by a lucky shot and was having a first-aid dressing applied when the B Company party arrived. The dugout produced three other Germans and, to everybody's surprise, Private Bill Harrington,20 a D Company stretcher-bearer. He had been going to the aid of a D Company man when he was beckoned over and captured. His only comment was: ‘They didn't seem bad chaps.’
In all 17 prisoners were taken by A and B Companies after first light, making a total of 74 at a cost to the battalion of six killed and 27 wounded.
The infantry of all assaulting battalions were on their objectives by daylight, and the troops looked alternately forward for counter-attacks and backwards for the support weapons, without which they were helpless if tanks came lurching down the slippery ground in front. They also knew that 19 Armoured Regiment of 4 NZ Armoured Brigade would come lurching up the slopes as soon as the New Zealand engineers got the Bailey bridge across the Sangro. (As a matter of fact the tanks did not wait for the bridge, which the enemy, with direct observation from Colle Barone up on the left flank, kept under constant fire while the engineers were building it.) Some tanks were across by daylight, and a bulldozer was hauling others page 290 out of the river or out of the mud on the side long before the completion of the bridge, on which the engineers had continued to work in spite of casualties.
The troops breathed more easily when the mud-caked mortar teams staggered into the area during the early afternoon, after manhandling their weapons and ammunition up the bluffs. Later some of the anti-tank platoon arrived, its guns being hauled and winched into position by bulldozers. The New Zealand gunners were putting down concentrations on request, and the RAF was not absent.
The stretcher-bearers had a terribly exhausting time getting the wounded down to the RAP under the bluff, but did not let up until the last man had been collected. The bridge was getting such a hammering that it was a long wait for the wounded, but as soon as possible jeeps raced over ‘Heartbeat Bridge’, as it was christened, collected their loads, and raced away again.
The defensive line was still further forward and 5 Brigade was ordered to probe in a north-westerly direction, establish outposts, and remain in occupation. Enemy activity was negligible and the operations invariably ended with every platoon comfortably occupying an empty house—‘casa’, in the new language the troops were acquiring. By the night of 29-30 November the battalion was spread around the village of Cotti, with B Company forward astride an old Roman road.
The Division was now in a position to round off the approach to the Winter Line by occupying the main lateral ridge and the small town of Castelfrentano sprawled over its top. It will be remembered that a road, Route 84, ran from Lanciano through Castelfrentano and Guardiagrele to the mountains. From Guardiagrele another road curved back to Orsogna and finally to the coast; this was the core of the Winter Line.
C Company and A Company were detailed to carry out 21 Battalion's part in the operation which was, in conjunction with 23 Battalion, to occupy the San Nicolino slope, the southern bastion of the narrow plateau east of Castelfrentano. The town itself was the objective of 6 Brigade.
C Company, bivouacked in the rear of the battalion area at Caporali, left at 1.30 p.m. and spread across a spur leading page 291 to the top of San Nicolino. Captain Harding,21 temporarily commanding the company, had disposed 13 Platoon on his right, 15 on his left, and 14 with Company Headquarters in the centre as reserve platoon. They were within 500 yards of their objective when 15 Platoon was fired on and forced to take cover. No. 13 Platoon was ordered to support it with fire and was itself fired on, whereupon Harding sent his reserve platoon in an outflanking move to the left of 13 Platoon. This move immediately brought down mortar fire, and the men were obliged to wait until dark before they could extricate themselves. The 23rd Battalion on the right of C Company was also held up and the brigade attack was at a standstill.
Meanwhile A Company, which had left Cotti at 3 p.m., reached B Company's area on the Roman road at dusk and found instructions waiting to go to the assistance of C Company. From the Roman road A Company's route lay along a ridge parallel with C Company, and the change in orders meant crossing a very deep ravine, passing through C Company, and attacking uphill. Major Tanner writes:
I was instructed to move through C Company commanded by Captain Harding and to capture the objective which they had been given. C Company had been subjected to very heavy machine gun and mortar fire and could make no forward progress. I decided to attack through C Company with No. 7 Platoon commanded by Lieutenant Jimmy Kirkland22 and to take Company Headquarters and 8 and 9 Platoons around the right flank of this position [between C Company and the left flanking company of 23 Battalion]. More by good luck than good management, our timings were simultaneous and Kirkland made a frontal attack at the same time as we came in from the flank. Much credit for this attack must go to Lieutenant Kirkland and Lance-Corporal Perry.
Incidentally both companies must have considered that Major Tanner deserved a little credit also, for they christened the spot ‘Tanner's Hill’.
Thirty prisoners were taken in this action, and both battalions were able to carry on the advance. Tanner directed his company on its original objective westwards towards Castelfrentano, page 292 with 9 Platoon leading, 8 Platoon in close support, and 7 Platoon in reserve with the prisoners. They had gone about a quarter of a mile and 8 Platoon had taken the lead from 9 Platoon when it was halted by fire from a post on its right. No. 9 Platoon came up in support and worked behind the opposition and rushed the post. Sixty prisoners were taken and Tanner found himself out of touch with Battalion Headquarters, and with more prisoners than he had troops. The prisoners were eventually passed on to 23 Battalion to take care of, and A Company dug itself in on the side of Route 84, with C Company 400 yards behind. Patrols were put out and a stand-to maintained until dawn, when it was found that 24 Battalion had entered Castelfrentano in the morning. In the afternoon 21 Battalion moved into brigade reserve in the Roman road-Cotti area.
Castelfrentano, normally a town of 6000 inhabitants but now considerably more on account of the number of refugees, was situated on one ridge and Orsogna on another. The two ridges joined at the village of Guardiagrele, four miles south-west of Orsogna, and while the Germans held Guardiagrele the Orsogna Ridge was impregnable from that side. Further east the Castelfrentano and Orsogna ridges formed the opposite sides of a wide valley with parallel spurs meeting at the bottom, where the little Moro stream would have to be crossed and supply routes built before further assaults could be launched.
Sixth Brigade made an attempt by way of a secondary connecting road between Castelfrentano and Orsogna to bustle the enemy out of the latter village, but was driven back by tanks and flame-throwers. Other attempts by 4 Armoured Brigade to get into Guardiagrele were also repulsed.
Meanwhile 21 Battalion reorganised and rested. Lieutenant Bramwell became Adjutant in place of Captain Abbott, who went to command C Company. The troops neglected the army rations in favour of poultry. Sometimes the chooks were purchased from the farmers who had not left when their fields became a battle-ground; sometimes they were gifts; sometimes —most times—they were merely acquired. When poultry was not on the menu, bully beef and soup acquired a new flavour page 293 with fresh onions, cabbage, and turnip tops gathered from the vacant gardens. Fried potatoes for supper were very popular.
Preparations went on and on 6 December the battalion moved up into support along the Castelfrentano road. The next day saw another move to closer support across the road to Corato Ridge, behind 28 Battalion which, with 6 Brigade on its left and 23 Battalion on its right, was making a full-scale attack on Orsogna. The attack failed. Sixth Brigade entered the town but was driven back by tanks and flame-throwers. The Maoris held on, but without Orsogna their position would have been hopeless in daylight, and they were withdrawn.
The 23rd Battalion, which had secured the brigade right flank by storming Sfasciata Ridge, stayed there under cover of the trees. The 21st Battalion moved from support into reserve again and suffered a day of shelling, but the only casualties were six women and children.
New plans were made by Divisional Headquarters for taking Orsogna. It was impregnable from the west and frontal attacks had failed, so it was decided to outflank it from the east, using 23 Battalion's Sfasciata Ridge as an approach. Again 21 Battalion waited while the engineers built tracks down to and bridges over the Moro stream for the passage of the armour and supplies.
The third effort was fixed for the night of 14-15 December and was to be undertaken by 23 and 21 Battalions, with the 28th in reserve. On the left 6 Brigade was to support the attack and on the right the British 17 Brigade, under command of 2 NZ Division, was also to assist with fire and movement. The intention was to cut the Orsogna road and prevent the tanks of 26 Panzer Division from moving to the coast, where 1 Canadian Division was to make the main thrust.
The battalion came forward after dark on the 13th to a lying-up position on the reverse slope of San Felice Ridge. The brigade plan was for 21 and 23 Battalions to attack north-westwards across the ravine and cut the road. If all went well 28 Battalion, with 20 Armoured Regiment under command, would then exploit westwards into Orsogna.
At seven the next evening the troops crossed the gully from San Felice to Sfasciata and were on the start line by eleven. page 294 Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy's plan was for D Company to secure the battalion right flank by consolidating on high ground short of the road, A Company to dig in on Point 332, where the road topped a rise, and B Company to cross the road. C Company was to stay near Battalion Headquarters in reserve. The air-line distance was about a mile, but the actual distance considerably more.
Waiting on the start line for the barrage to open is not usually a time for light-hearted persiflage, and this story of Corporal Jack Dooley23 and his pants is not meant to be funny except in retrospect. Captain Craig,24 who was a platoon sergeant at the time, vouches for it:
Jack Dooley was a good soldier and, on the start line before the Orsogna Road show, had so loaded himself up with Bren mags., grenades, Hawkins anti-tank mines and loose ammo in his trouser pockets that his two back buttons went. He came to me and said, ‘For God's sake Sarge, lend me a couple of nails, me ruddy pants are falling down.’
The barrage opened at 1 a.m. and half an hour later the attack went in. Major Bailey sent 16 and 17 Platoons to lead the company attack, with 18 Platoon in reserve. They were well up the forward slope of the gully when they were halted by mortar fire from beyond the road and were forced to lie low for two hours. Artillery concentrations eventually quietened the opposition and the company was able to continue. The forward platoons were close to the objective when enemy posts opened fire with small arms and grenades. No. 18 Platoon was thrown in and the extra fire power enabled D Company to take its objective. A patrol was sent out to the right to find 2 Northamptons, but did not locate them.
A Company met no serious opposition until near Point 332, when 9 Platoon lost several men in a mortar concentration. The company then swung to the right and moved parallel with the road until held up with grenades and spandau fire in 8 Platoon's area. Corporal Jack McCullough25 rallied his section page 295 and led an attack against the nearest post. This broke up the opposition and 30 prisoners were taken. By a quarter to three A Company was consolidating on its objective.
B Company also made good progress in the early stages, but moved too far to the left and passed through B Company 23 Battalion, which had been caught in the opening barrage and had suffered severely. Some strays from 23 Battalion joined B Company and remained with it throughout the action. The company was first fired on near the road, where 10 and 11 Platoons rushed through spandau fire and grenades and took some prisoners. The company carried on and reached the road about 400 yards to the left of its objective, so far with only one casualty. While Major Hawkesby made a reconnaissance to fix his position, Private ‘Hungry’ Hampton,26 an old campaigner from the Desert, found that one of the prisoners spoke a little English and, in a weird mixture of Italian, Arabic and English, the two had a heart-to-heart talk about old times. Both agreed that Italy was a lousy place to fight in—give them the Desert any day.
Hawkesby then led the company to its correct position and the platoons began to dig in, 10 and 11 on the far side of the road, between the road and the railway line that skirted it, and 12 Platoon on the near side. A Company was forward and to the right of 12 Platoon, and between them was a house which A Company was understood to have searched. The platoon was fired on from the house, so surrounded it. Corporal Bert Morris27 ordered the occupants to surrender. In all eleven prisoners, including four officers, came out with their hands up. One of them spoke English and said boldly enough, ‘Well, who is going to shoot me?’ Nobody obliged him, but he was taken into the house to see if the place was really empty and, if so, that there were no booby traps around. He showed a decided reluctance to leave again but was bundled out, and the platoon resumed its digging in. The position was then that D Company held some high ground on the right of A Company, which was also on top of a rise in the road and separated from page 296 D Company by a shallow gully. On the edge of the road ran the railway and beyond the line the ridge fell away again. B Company, on the left of the objective, had 10 and 11 Platoons over the road at the top of a re-entrant and on the only piece of level ground handy to a small railway station. No. 12 Platoon and Company Headquarters were on the rear side of the road, while C Company was in reserve near the start line. Further left again 23 Battalion was also on its objective. The night was bitterly cold and rain fell at intervals.
Within half an hour of what might be called the case of the reluctant prisoner, that is approximately 5 a.m., tanks were heard approaching from the north-east along the road from Arielli. The battalion was still without its support arms, and the forward tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment were still battling up the slopes through the mud. The situation was strangely similar to that in the Peneios Gorge in Greece and the infantry were almost as helpless. The tanks came on with their engines idling, as if anxious not to attract attention, and halted in the middle of B Company. There is a slight bend in the road that does not show on the map, but it was sufficient to be a definite corner, and, in consequence, B Company did not see them, and it was too late for the platoons on the far side of the road to follow the example of the rest of the battalion and fall back. The tanks halted fairly in the middle of 12 Platoon's area, but that platoon and Company Headquarters had already moved out. The leading tank went off towards the house that had yielded the prisoners, while the others milled around as if anxious to be moving again. The tank commander's anxiety was considerably increased when a Piat mortar failed to explode against his tank and a burst from a Bren disclosed the position of 10 and 11 Platoons. The tanks—there were two of them— and a troop-carrier turned their guns on the platoons, but luckily they were unable to depress their muzzles sufficiently, although the troops were almost deafened by the blast. The third tank returned after finding the house empty, and they all departed a bare 15 minutes before the first tank of C Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment arrived, whereupon the troops went back to their positions. No. 14 Platoon was sent up from reserve to A Company, and some three-inch mortars arrived.page 297
The mystery of the reluctant prisoner was explained at daybreak, for when the house was searched, besides maps and radio equipment, a telephone was found still connected to the German lines. It was obvious that the tanks had been called up when the house was surrounded and that the command post, for such it was found to be, was waiting for its troop-carrier when Corporal Morris intervened. By 7 a.m., in addition to the first C Squadron tank, there was a three-inch mortar with each company, as well as a second tank parked behind hedges in B Company's area.
The engineers, unknown to the troops, had performed miracles of endurance clearing mines and making tracks on to the ridge. The armour had not long to wait for employment, for at 9 a.m. D Company saw two enemy tanks approaching from Arielli with troops riding on them. D Company called for artillery fire and the forward platoon withdrew. The leading tank had got to the bend in the road past D Company when two shells from a Sherman knocked it out, whereupon the second tank and the surviving passengers of the first retired.
The previous owners of the derelict left behind some food parcels, evidently just received from home, containing cake. It was not very good cake by New Zealand standards, being too dry and sweet and short of raisins.
The block on the road was made good use of by planting Hawkins anti-tank grenades in the tall grass on each side of the obstacle. The troops improved their positions during the day under intermittent and at times heavy shelling, while 15 and 16 Platoons made up for their inactivity in reserve by ferrying water, food, and ammunition to the forward companies. Back at Brigade Headquarters preparations were being made for the Maoris, supported by 20 Armoured Regiment, to attack along the newly won road to Orsogna. The enemy was organising a counter-attack to regain the road, and the unusual situation developed of both sides attacking at the same time in the same direction.
A general enemy counter-attack against the whole 5 Brigade line began at 3.30 a.m. on the 16th. Both 23 and 21 Battalions' pickets reported movement, and artillery support was called for, which was immediately forthcoming and immediately page 298 answered. The 23rd Battalion was attacked by infantry alone, but the enemy made no progress against artillery concentrations and machine-gun fire from tanks.
The attack on 21 Battalion came from the same direction as the others, down the road from Arielli. Nine tanks, five of them flame-throwers, supported by three Italian assault guns, preceded paratroops hurried over for the purpose of pushing 5 Brigade off the road. Two Mark IV tanks came in ahead of the flame-throwers and met the fire of the battalion mortars and tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment. The tanks searched the darkness with their coaxially mounted machine guns and, when their tracer raised sparks from armour, fired armour-piercing and high-explosive shells.
The paratroops did not come on, evidently awaiting the result of the armoured battle which raged furiously for half an hour, by which time two enemy tanks had been destroyed. The leading flame-throwers had been systematically burning up every building near the road, but though D Company had occupied some of them during the day, it had moved to alternative positions after dark.
Of the flame-throwing tanks Major Bailey writes:
We reported these flame throwing tanks attacking [the battalion] objective and pouring flame into buildings on our [D Coy] front. There were none of our men in these buildings and we suffered no casualties as a result of this flame attack, except it was the most demoralizing thing we had struck in our experience. While it lasted it was ghastly and we could do nothing but hold in the positions we were in because every time the tanks spurted fire the area was lit up and any movement would have been fatal as German infantry were with the tanks. … D Company just stuck it out until our tanks came up and knocked out the flame throwers with some beautiful shooting.
The battle reached its peak at 4.30 a.m., when two flame-throwers had been hit; their 200-foot jets of flame died away like fire brigade hoses with the water turned off.
It was now the turn of the paratroops who had formed up on the reverse slope of the ridge. The remaining enemy tanks gave them covering fire while they deployed. Their first effort was along a gully on the open right flank of D Company, but page 299 artillery concentrations and the battalion mortars broke it up before it became dangerous. A second and fiercer thrust was made against the centre of the position, where A Company was dug in, but was met by an equally determined defence. A misty dawn was breaking when the enemy withdrew, carrying his wounded with him, but leaving four dead tanks and 50 dead men behind. Among the killed was the leader of the attack, a major who had served in Greece and Crete. He was one of a party which had nearly got past A Company's defences, but had fallen to Private ‘Snowy’ Munro's28 Bren. He was lying among his men with a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other.
By six o'clock the area was quiet again after two and a half hours of fierce encounter, in which the battalion casualties were astonishingly small—five killed and 15 wounded.
The anti-climax came when our tank crews examined the knocked-out enemy armour and found parcels of loot all neatly tied up for posting home. Thereafter the motto was: ‘Never trust a tankie after a battle.’
Fifth Brigade was now firmly across the Orsogna road, but the town itself was still in enemy hands. The day was quiet and the troops made themselves as comfortable as the sodden conditions would permit. Colonel McElroy forecast further attempts to push the battalion off the road after dark, but added that adequate support was assured. Soon after last light A Company patrols reported voices in front and sounds of tank movement to the north-east. A ‘stonk’ was put down and both voices and movement ceased until midnight, when B Company reported enemy digging in ahead and asked for protective fire. It was quickly supplied and had the desired effect, but by 3 a.m. D Company was standing to waiting for an attack to come in. This was also frustrated by artillery concentrations. Altogether it was a sleepless night, particularly for D Company, who had a tender open flank to watch. The 17th Brigade, or rather 2 Northamptons, the left flanking battalion, was not up, although it tied in the following afternoon.
The village of Poggiofiorito, a quarter of a mile east of the junction of the Orsogna road and a secondary road to Arielli, page 300 was in the Northamptons' area, and 13 Corps wanted to know if the Germans were still there. The job was passed on to Colonel McElroy, 21 Battalion being closest, and Second-Lieutenant Maich was ordered to take a patrol and accompany three tanks into the village. They left early in the afternoon and, preceded by Corporal Hughie Holmes29 sweeping for mines, cautiously approached Poggiofiorito. It was not occupied, but live shells, soldiers' packs, loaves of black bread, and tins of jam strewn around suggested a hurried departure. A 17 Brigade officer, with a patrol and three prisoners in tow, reported the area clear, but a sudden ‘stonk’ indicated that the enemy was not far away.
Further instructions were received to continue on to Arielli, but to return as soon as the presence of the enemy was established. As soon as the leading tank topped a slight rise 200 yards up the Arielli road, the patrol saw the muzzle flash of an anti-tank gun in a house ahead, followed by a direct hit on the tank. The tank was brewed up and the commander killed. The patrol withdrew under a shower of high explosive from the enemy gun and found shelter in a culvert under the railway line. Corporal ‘Jeff’ Jeffries30 was reported wounded and lying behind a wall, whereupon Sergeant Oates volunteered to go back and get him out. He also was wounded, and they were both brought out by the 17 Brigade patrol which saw the incident.
The rest of the day and the following night were quiet in the battalion area. Soon after breakfast on the 18th McElroy was instructed to feel across the Arielli stream with a patrol, but not to get into any fighting. The reception accorded the patrol showed conclusively that the first ridge in the Fontegrande area was strongly held and could not be occupied without a fight.
Corps thought otherwise, however, and the upshot was that 21 Battalion was instructed to send out a fighting patrol in conjunction with 28 Battalion and 2 Northamptons, and if the operation was successful the line was to be advanced the following day. C Company had taken the least punishment to date page 301 and was, in McElroy's opinion, the only company fit for more fighting. It was given the job.
The detailed instructions were for Second-Lieutenant McGregor's platoon to put a patrol on to the ridge, reinforce it to platoon strength, and extend to the right until it met 2 Northamptons. All patrols, each twelve strong, left an hour before midnight, and it seemed at first that 13 Corps' commander had been right, for they got on the objective without opposition.
What followed happened many times to patrols of both sides in the next eighteen months of the Italian campaign. The wireless messages from C Company while the men were worming their way forward in the darkness are self-explanatory:
0035: Patrol not quite on objective. Heard movement ahead. Waiting.
0055: Patrol on objective. Four enemy seen on left; going to engage them. Have not been observed ourselves. Patrol quite confident.
0115: Patrol observed three MG 34 nests about 80-100 yards in front. Attempting to take them.
0132: Patrol about to take on MG nest.
0158: Patrol has engaged first post.
0235: 2 Lt McGregor wounded; trying to get him out. Enemy holding fairly strongly. Tried three places and could not get through….
0240: … Another man wounded. Patrol nearly surrounded. Having to pull out. Told to withdraw but to try and get McGregor out.
0253: Two now wounded. Both on way back….
0301: Can't get McGregor. Patrol withdrawing….
0309: Having a lot of trouble getting patrol out. Being shot up from rear….
0312: Posts to rear of patrol blocking retreat. Ordered patrol to use fire and movement.
0356: All patrol back in B Coy lines. Think Sgt Page died on way in. Not sure yet. They have him with them.
0425: Sgt Worthington with McGregor both believed wounded and page 302 missing. Sgt Page died of wounds. One Cpl and one OR wounded and safe. Sgt Page went in with Sgt Worthington to get McGregor. Both were shot in rear by MG 34.
0448: Still four men in addition to Lt McGregor and Sgt Worthington missing, but sure they will turn up.
0730: Two men still missing.
0945: Two missing men have returned.
There was a pause for a few days in the usual shelling and mortaring across the valley. Orsogna, high up on the left, was covered in a haze of smoke from artillery and fighter-bombers. The Brigadier visited 21 Battalion on 21 December and later in the day the troops were told to make themselves as comfortable as possible, as the policy was to go slow for the time being. It was soon found that the term ‘time being’ was purely relative, for Eighth Army had decided on yet another attempt to break the enemy line before the winter snows put further campaigning out of the question. On the 22nd there was a free issue of cigarettes and a distribution of Christmas parcels. There were also company commanders' conferences, but as there were always such conferences the troops carried on trying to construct shelters against the cold winds, rains and approaching snow.
Operation orders were issued at midday 23 December. Fifth Brigade was to do a show with the help of 26 Battalion, and the job was to take the next two ridges. The 21st was on the right flank and was to cross Fontegrande Ridge, where the patrol had been shot up on the night of the 18th-19th, cross the Arielli stream, and consolidate on the next ridge. The 26th Battalion on the left of 21, and the 28th on the brigade's left, had objectives that would prolong 21 Battalion's line towards Orsogna. Fifth Division, on the right of the brigade, was to advance its line also, but so far had lagged behind and had left 21 Battalion with a tender open flank. After reorganisation the attack was to sweep forward to the Feuduccio and San Basile ridges, in which event the enemy was expected to evacuate Orsogna.
The battalion attack was to be in two phases, the first with D Company on the right and A Company on the left, after which the final objective, Point 340, was to be taken by B Company, right, and C Company, left. There was to be a barrage page 303 and tanks were to be in support. Zero hour was 4 a.m. on 24 December. The start line was along the road behind the forward defences and the troops were in position half an hour before the barrage was to open. Promptly on time the first shells rushed across the gully and D Company went in. The men scrambled down the gully and up the other side towards Fontegrande Ridge, where the paratroops were dug in. The Germans fought well and the only prisoners taken were those wounded by the barrage or in the fighting. By 6 a.m. the company was firmly established, but there were enemy posts just ahead and 5 Division had not made any headway. A Company had the unfortunate experience of having a number of shorts from the barrage falling in its area, causing some losses and disorganising the attack. When it was able to leave the start line it had lost the barrage but carried on without it. The company found the gully very hard to climb and veered right into D Company's area. Once on top of the ridge A Company turned left and fought its way along to its objective. It met opposition from well-hidden weapon pits and from houses, and again the only prisoners taken were wounded. The paratroops were tough, but they had met somebody as tough as themselves, and who, by the way, had not had a spell since 27 November. During this advance the company passed the bodies of Second-Lieutenant McGregor and Lance-Sergeant Worthington, who had been missing since C Company's patrol on 18-19 December.
By the time B and C Companies were due to move forward the battalion on the right flank had not got as far forward as the start line, and Colonel McElroy, already troubled about his open flank, kept B Company back in the original A Company position as a flank protection.
C Company, owing to the stiff climb across the gully in front of its start line, was ordered to go round the left flank through 26 Battalion and move across the head of the gully, then strike for its objective. There was some mortar fire, but the company made good progress until it crossed the Arielli stream between the first and final ridges. At this point 13 and 14 Platoons were sent forward to cross the spur and go on to Point 340, but as soon as they were over the crest and on the forward slope they page 304 were halted by fire from across the gully. No. 13 Platoon was ordered to engage the enemy frontally while 14 Platoon worked around the enemy's right flank, but the fire was too severe and both platoons were withdrawn to the reverse slope, where they dug in. Some men from B Company 26 Battalion joined them, but that battalion also did not get past the first ridge. Further left the Maoris had also been stopped short of their final objective, but had taken the top of the gully where the two ridges joined and so enabled tanks to get along a road on to Fontegrande Ridge in support of 21 Battalion. The tanks, a squadron of them, arrived with the dawn, and their fire soon quietened the sniping from the far ridge. In the meantime B Company, which had been held back as flank protection when 15 Brigade did not move up as expected, sent 10 and 12 Platoons to strengthen the front line, while No. 11 remained in battalion reserve.
The troops passed a miserably cold day, saturated by frequent showers, dead tired, and in need of a rest.
At midday Brigade rang through to say the battalion would be relieved that night by 25 Battalion. The relief was completed by midnight and the troops spent the rest of the night on Sfasciata. Early on Christmas morning the battalion moved back to Spaccarelli, where trucks of 4 Reserve MT Company met it and took it back to San Nicolino Hill, where it had stopped when Castelfrentano was occupied on 2 December.
The troops moved into houses, got fires going, and began to get rid of some of the mud that encrusted their clothes and arms. Christmas dinner was eaten that night, but there was no pleasure in it. Everybody knew that some men of C Company were under close arrest for failing to line up for the last attack. Such a thing had never happened in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force before and the disgrace hung heavily on the battalion. On New Year's Eve the snow began to fall. In the morning it was a foot deep, with drifts of three feet or more in places.
As far as Eighth Army was concerned, it was now a case of stalemate on the Adriatic. The weather had beaten the generals and there was no possibility of coming down on Rome from the north-east. As far as 2 NZ Division was concerned, it had page 305 fought itself out for the time being. The conversion of 4 Brigade to armour had left it with only six infantry battalions, and there is a limit to the number of times a formation can assault without a period to recuperate and reorganise.
On the night of 2 January 1944 21 Battalion relieved 25 Battalion again and settled into houses in the same sector. Static warfare had set in. It is interesting to consider how the more wars change the more they remain the same. In 1914-18 the opposing sides looked at each other from their trenches, left each other mostly alone in the day, and stalked each other at night. In 1944 in Italy each side lived in houses scattered over their positions, each side let the other's houses largely alone, and patrols roamed at will by night.
The snow continued to fall at intervals and snow capes were issued. A German patrol sneaked up to a 23 Battalion house during a snowstorm and tossed a grenade inside. A Maori post set a trap and killed five of an enemy patrol. Two men of 21 Battalion were killed by a direct hit on a slit trench. The Russians pushed the Germans back across the Polish frontier. A Polish general accompanied Brigadier Kippenberger on an inspection of the battalion area, and an agitated new hand, pointing to his unsoldierly looking snow cape, says, ‘Hell, do I have to salute him in this outfit?’
Defence was in depth and the forward companies were frequently changed. The troops experienced the new kind of war for a fortnight, and then returned to their old rest area near Castelfrentano after being relieved by a regiment of Punjabis. The Indians ploughed through the ankle-deep mud carrying their boots, socks, and pants in their hands and bulky loads of gear, including blankets, on their heads.
The battalion's casualties during the Orsogna campaign were 43 killed and 129 wounded.
27 2 Lt A. Morris; Kaingaroa; born England, 22 Dec 1920; Post and Telegraph Dept employee.