CHAPTER 12 — Maadi to Orsogna
THE 23rd began its move back to Egypt on 15 May and arrived in Maadi Camp on the 31st after following the main coast road practically throughout the journey. During this journey the troops had few problems and no serious responsibilities, since there was no urgency about getting into position in some battle area and no enemy air activity. Instead, they had the happy feeling of being tourists in good company and in receipt of pay from the New Zealand Government. They saw many places they had missed when engaged in ‘left hooks’, and others, better known, associated with memories of victories won and comrades lost.
Back in Maadi, the men soon heard the names of those returning to New Zealand on the Ruapehu furlough scheme. Those named included all the ‘original’ married officers and men and a high percentage of Second Echelon single men, chosen by ballot. They were to return to New Zealand for a minimum period of three months, but the majority did not return to the 23rd. When they left the unit on 15 June, the numbers of other ranks dropped from around 700 to 543. For the first time the 23rd had lost, not by the normal wastages of war but by an act of government policy, a large number of its men, including many of its best war-hardened veterans.
Unit records merely chronicle the marching out of the Ruapehu contingent on 15 June and the much smaller Wakatipu contingent at the beginning of September.1 The historian may only very tentatively attempt to assess the effect of this furlough scheme on the unit. ‘The 23rd will never be the same again,’ said many, without reflecting that the unit had been changing its membership, if not its character, from the first campaign in Greece onwards. Nevertheless, the degree of rate of change was accentuated. A hole was being made in the team which it would take time to repair: the continuity, the understanding, the trust and confidence that had been built up over the years were subjected to the severest of tests with the loss page 277 of so many stalwarts of the battalion. How could the 23rd be the same again without, for example, Dick Connolly as second-in-command? He had held that office for nearly a year after having been a company commander for a longer period. He knew all the cooks by their christian names, the ‘two-up kings’ and those who counted their drinks by the bottle. He knew the good men and true and more about most men than anyone else in the battalion. Could the 23rd manage without Harry Dalton as its Quartermaster? He and his staff had solved the problems of supplying meals and water in the desert so efficiently that the Q side of administration had come to be taken for granted. Percy Canham,2 as RQMS, and Bill Mason,3 as Ration Sergeant, had done great work in keeping the supplies up to the fighting troops. Dalton has paid his tribute to Les Carran4 and Jim Law,5 indispensable members of his staff. ‘I think my driver, Les Carran, was the best 15 cwt driver in the Division. Jim Law was our ration truck driver for the whole desert campaign. It was largely due to Jim's ability as a pathfinder and driver that we always delivered the rations on time’. Company Quartermaster-Sergeants such as Fred Blanchard and Gavin McEwen had played their part in seeing that their men were fed.
A similar tale could be told of other specialist sections. How could anyone possibly replace Harry Parfoot as Transport Sergeant? He had carried a load of responsibility at different times and had tended the unit transport as carefully as an owner tends a new and expensive car. He had organised moves into position and dispersion of vehicles in a most competent manner and had been the general handyman to whom anyone with transport problems automatically turned. Behind Parfoot were the mechanics who maintained the transport and saw that each truck and carrier was mechanically fit to reach its destination. How would this section survive without Sergeant Ned Trembath6 and Private Les Curtz7? But it was much the same page 278 throughout the battalion. In every platoon and in nearly every section, there was a man whose reliability or experience or wit or simple failings had led his comrades to regard him as a permanent member without whom the platoon would ‘never be the same again’. Now he was going. Perhaps he was an ‘old-timer’ like Angus Scott,8 already grown grey in the service. Such men would be missed in the unit and they, in turn, would miss the 23rd.
In any case, in war no man must be considered indispensable and a vacancy left by a good man is always filled, for better or for worse, by another. The 23rd went on and, although it took time to build up the team spirit and the close understanding between officers and men that had existed in the earlier campaigns, eventually added notable pages to its record as a fighting unit. To be relieved of those who were physically exhausted and had lost their enthusiasm and of those who were bitter about what was happening back home in New Zealand was a good thing, but, for the most part, the men from the 23rd went home with mixed feelings. The majority were elated and emotionally stirred at the prospect of returning to kith and kin in New Zealand, but they were also sad at parting with comrades who had accompanied them and helped them in the many phases of life in the army, comrades in one of the most tightly knit communities imaginable, who would always mean much more to them than the casual acquaintances of civilian life.
The loss of the older and more experienced soldiers would have been more keenly felt had the New Zealanders been returning to the desert. But the next operational zone was Italy, and the difference between mobile warfare in the desert and close fighting in a European country was so great that the changeover of officers and men was not as serious as it might have been. There were sufficient old hands left to ensure that the 23rd traditions would continue. Those original members and reinforcements left had been very completely indoctrinated with the 23rd's peculiar pride of unit. They provided a solid core of men who felt and believed in the spirit of the 23rd. Even the men of the 8th Reinforcements who had fought only in the Tunisian campaign were already intensely proud of belonging to the 23rd. They, in turn, had proved themselves to be first-class fighting material and had been fully accepted by the older men. One of D Company's best soldiers, Bill page 279 Smellie, paid tribute to this particular reinforcement after Takrouna: ‘That night they made a name for themselves which they maintained till the end of the war…. the older soldiers gave them the distinction of being “Just the Best”. Those boys had youth and virility and somehow they seemed to stand out wherever they were…. they must stand as the flower of youth in the N.Z. Division.’ Probably Smellie's tribute could be paid to the best representatives of all the reinforcements, but somehow the physical vigour and enthusiastic spirit of that particular reinforcement caught the imagination of those who had been bearing the heat and burden of the day in an under-strength unit in the rather grim days of 1941–42.
The summer of 1943 was spent in comparative luxury in Maadi Camp. A fortnight's leave to Cairo, Alexandria or Palestine was taken, according to a roster drawn up in each company, by all ranks in June and early July. For those in camp, swimming and cricket occupied most of the working day in that period. The cricket team eventually emerged second in the inter-unit competition. As success followed success, interest in cricket boomed and pride in the unit team grew and grew. The battalion scored no successes in the divisional athletic sports but that did not matter—cricket was the game.
Men from the 9th and 10th Reinforcements arrived to bring the unit up to establishment. Thus, 78 men joined it on 7 July, 126 on 9 July, and 124 on 1 September. They brought the posted strength to 32 officers and 796 other ranks. Many of these new men were desperately keen and anxious to learn all they could in the training programme, which passed from the somewhat boring squad drill and other elementary training to night manoeuvres with live ammunition and a brigade group exercise in the Bir Gindali area, where the employment of artillery, anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns and the like gave the training some semblance of the real thing. Of course, few could visualise the close country with its hedges, houses and obstacles of all kinds that they were told to imagine. The finishing touches to the training could only be applied in the theatre of active operations.
During this period, changes in command were of some importance. While General Freyberg was in New Zealand discussing the future of the Division with the Government, General L. M. Inglis had command.9 Similarly, while Brigadier Kippen- page 280 berger was away, Brigadier Stewart10 had charge of 5 Brigade. In the 23rd, Colonel Romans returned to take command on 23 August. As already noted, the arrival of Colonel Fairbrother had not been welcomed in the clannish 23rd, but his departure was regretted by many who had come to respect his efficiency and his qualities as a director of training at a time when reorganisation and serious training were necessary. Especially in respect to officer training and co-operation with other arms, the benefits of Colonel Fairbrother's regime were to be felt long after his departure to take command of the Maori Battalion. By the time the unit left Maadi for the last time on 19 September 1943, the only original officers still with the battalion were Colonel Romans as commander, Major Thomas as second-in-command, and Major Orbell as OC Headquarters Company. A few of the junior officers, such as Captain Robins, Lieutenants Edgar, Irving and Davis, were original members of the 23rd, while Lieutenants Kirk, Marett and Parker were originals of the 20th and 26th. The remainder were reinforcement officers, and most platoon commanders had not yet seen action.
The intensified training at Maadi was followed by a 99-mile march to the Burg el Arab locality. This march was designed both to toughen the men for what lay ahead and also to inform General Freyberg of the degree of hardening still required by his troops. From Burg el Arab, a divisional exercise saw 5 Brigade training with 4 Armoured Brigade in an attack on a mine-covered defensive position. This exercise, which ended on 1 October, marked the culmination of training in Egypt. Attention was now turned to preparations for the move to what practically everyone guessed must be Italy.
The end of the first week of October saw a ceremonial parade and an address by Brigadier Stewart. Anti-typhus injections and the taking of atebrin tablets were part of the embarkation preparations. On 12 October the battalion moved to a transit camp at Ikingi Maryut. Five days later the battalion, divided into three groups, each consisting of one-third of Battalion Headquarters and HQ Company and one platoon from each company, embarked on board the transports Llangibby Castle, Nieuw Holland and Letitia, one group to each ship. The march page 281 along the wharves at Alexandria was not easy. As a corporal's private diary indicates, the men were well burdened. ‘We have to carry big valise on our back, small pack on side. All army and personal clothing has to be put into valise or tied to it, then blanket roll of 4 blankets, greatcoat and jerkin has to be tied around valise. Besides this, we have rifle, tent (one per two men), mosquito net & 2 gallon water-can to carry. One can hardly stagger along…. They must expect us to be pack-horses.’ But stagger they did, right up the gangways on to the ships.
The Mediterranean crossing was uneventful and the troops disembarked at Taranto on 22 October. Although Taranto itself was not very impressive, the men were delighted with the green countryside, the pine and olive trees, the abundance of grapes, and the other items which marked such a pleasant change from the desert. Of course, the new surroundings also spelt rain and mud, but, at first, everyone was prepared to accept such things as part of life in southern Italy.
While the New Zealanders had been training in Egypt, the war had not stopped. On 10 July the British Eighth Army and the United States Seventh Army invaded Sicily. In the first week of September, some of the same forces crossed the Straits of Messina and began the conquest of Italy proper. Later, with the landing of the Fifth United States Army at Salerno and with the advance of the Eighth Army up the Adriatic coast, the war in Italy appeared to be progressing favourably. To resume its place in the fighting team of the Eighth Army, the New Zealand Division carried out training in the new close-country conditions, such as attacking among hills, trees and villages. At first, as the unit transport did not begin to arrive till the end of October, training was restricted to areas easily reached on foot. But the most serious drawback to advanced training, which should have included combined exercises in the new surroundings for infantry battalions and armoured regiments, was the late arrival of the tanks. They arrived too late in November for any such training to take place before the Division moved into action. This enforced lack of practical training under Italian conditions contributed to the failure of tank–infantry co-operation to measure up to expectations.
Heavy rains in the Taranto area, a report by Colonel Romans on the difficult conditions on the Eighth Army front, and operations in areas where the enemy could be expected to have perfect observation and sound defences led to a general antici- page 282 pation of tough fighting. Rain and mud, more rain and worse mud dampened the enthusiasm with which the green Italian hills had been greeted. Nevertheless, life was good and morale was high. Italians supplied two dixies full of grapes for one shilling and, later, nuts and figs were available. Wine, much better in quality than the ‘purple death’ secured in Libya and Tripoli, was also available. ‘Boys on the plonk tonight’ is a common private diary entry for this period. For a time it became necessary to defend some of the men against overindulgence in these heady wines. After two men were found unconscious and drowning in the mud into which they had fallen, the CO ordered that wine should be purchased by the battalion Quartermaster only and should then be on rationed sale through company canteens. Since leave to Taranto was not very exciting, the Padre, John Holland,11 organised inter-platoon football competitions, campfire addresses and inter-company quiz sessions.
Before October 1943 ended, the stubborn German resistance, aided by the close country, the hills and rivers, the wet weather and the difficulty of getting tanks and vehicles forward, had convinced General Montgomery that the Eighth Army needed more infantry if the advance on the Adriatic coast was to continue. Consequently, in early November, the New Zealand Division was ordered forward from Taranto. Fourth Armoured Brigade and Divisional Headquarters moved first, next came 6 Brigade, and on 18 November 5 Brigade began its move forward. This move was slower than anticipated, partly because the single road, often in a bad state of repair, could not carry heavy traffic quickly, and partly because the late arrival of ‘third flight’ transport caused delay. Thus, the 23rd's ‘third flight’12 vehicles under Lieutenant Bernie Cox13 did not rejoin the unit until the afternoon of 23 November. The Bren carriers, under Lieutenant Keith Burtt,14 and the mortar carriers, under Sergeant Eric Thomson, only caught up with the 23rd on 24 November, by which time the battalion was well north of Foggia and approaching Atessa.page break
5 Brigade begins the long journey westwards after the breakthrough at Alamein, 4 November 1942
C Company cooks serve Christmas dinner at Nofilia, December 1942
Another C Company meal as men wait to enter Tripoli
Takrouna from the start line
8 Platoon before Takrouna. The platoon had heavy losses. Third from right, wearing cap, is Lt C. C. Hunt
L-Cpl P. M. Kerr, Pte B. O'Hagan and Sgt C. F. Rose, Brencarrier platoon, at Takrouna
The battalion's cricket team, runners-up in the Division's competition, Maadi, 1943
Back row (from left): L. Southern, B. Donaldson, H. Jordan, D. Milne, N. Smythe, B. Wilson. Front row: G. Agnew, R. Bluett, A. Cresswell, P. De Vantier and R. Jaffray
14 Platoon after Cassino
12 Platoon comes out of the line at Terelle, May 1944
The journey north gave the troops an excellent view of the southern Italian landscape as they moved, first by the Taranto-Bari road and then by an inland route, through the villages of Locorotondo, Alberobello, Gioia del Colle and Altamura on the first day, and through the towns of Corato, Andria, Canosa and Foggia, and then through San Severo via the main coastal road through Termoli to the Furci staging area. Again and again the road wound up to the top of a hill and then down and round and up to the top of the next because the villages were built on the hilltops; it passed right through the villages with their narrow twisting streets, past the old and probably medieval church, through the square with its 1915–18 war memorial or statue to Garabaldi or some other hero of the Italian wars of unification, out past the cemetery with its stately cypress trees into the open country. Continuous rain, deep mud, and congestion of traffic slowed down the northward move and produced several traffic jams. The older men rejoiced that no enemy aircraft appeared to claim the harvest they might have reaped when hundreds of trucks were jammed nose to tail for miles. When the trucks of 2 Ammunition Company deposited the infantry of the 23rd on the ground—or rather in the foot-deep mud—and went off on a petrol-carrying mission, the troops crowded for the night into such trucks as were left, into straw stacks and nearby Italian houses and farm buildings. From this point onwards, sheltering in casas became the accepted practice.
On 25 November the battalion moved forward again in the trucks of 4 RMT to the village of Atessa. Here it was in sight of the River Sangro across which the Germans had withdrawn. Nearer the coast, 8 Indian Division had crossed the river, and it was already known that the New Zealanders were to attempt a crossing on their own front when the weather and the consequent depth of the river permitted. Already the 6 Brigade units had standing patrols on the south bank of the Sangro and reconnaissance patrols had crossed to the German-held north bank.
The Eighth Army plan involved the cracking of the German Winter Line which ran along the high ridge north of the Sangro, pushing on to smash the Chieti-Pescara line, and then switching south-west to Avezzano and, with possible aid from seaborne forces, joining the Fifth Army in the capture of Rome. Climatic and geographical conditions were to make the later phases of this programme little better than a pipe-dream, but page 284 the progress made in penetrating the Winter Line sufficed to keep German divisions in Italy which might otherwise have been transferred to the Russian theatre or to France, where a Second Front was to be opened in June 1944.
The New Zealand attack on the Sangro was to be made on a two-brigade front, with 5 Brigade on the right, next to the Indians, and 6 Brigade on the left, up-stream nearer the foothills which lay below the frowning mass of the Montagna della page 285 Majella. In 5 Brigade, the commander, Brigadier Kippenberger, just returned from furlough in New Zealand, decided to attack with two battalions, the 23rd on the right and the 21st on the left.
On the evening of 25 November, in preparation for this attack, the 23rd moved on foot into the trees, straw stacks and houses around Monte Marcone, the higher ground just short of the Sangro. That night the IO, Second-Lieutenant Tom Mackie,15 and two of his section tried to cross the river but it was too swollen after heavy rains. Next morning Colonel Romans took his four infantry company commanders, Wilson (A), Montgomery (B), Robins (C), and Ross (D), forward to a splendid observation post where, under good cover from olive trees, they could study the river valley, the opposite banks and Point 208, the unit's main objective. The postponement of the attack till 2.45 a.m. on 28 November gave the platoon commanders, NCOs and many of the men an opportunity to visit this perfect OP and view the sector over which they were to attack.
Meanwhile, other preparations had been made. On the night of 26–27 November, Second-Lieutenant Geoff De Their16 took a patrol of ten men from 2 Platoon, now the assault pioneer platoon whose men were organised and trained as snipers and infantry sappers, to reconnoitre suitable crossings of the river. De Thier and his men were responsible for stretching ropes across the Sangro to prevent any men from being swept downstream by the current. Second-Lieutenant Frank Coe,17 Eric Batchelor and Don McLean18 also reconnoitred the north bank of the river in order that their company might provide the protection of the starting point there for the advance of the other three companies.
On 27 November preparations for the first attack of the 23rd in Italy were completed. Ammunition, on the scale of 200 rounds per rifleman, 500 per Bren, and 200 per tommy gun, with one grenade per man, was issued. Bully and biscuits to carry the men over the twenty-four hours they were expected to be without hot meals were also issued. On the previous evening, Padre page 286 Holland had held an extremely well attended voluntary church service. Padre Henley gave Communion to the Catholics in the small church behind Marcone. Colonel Romans addressed the platoon commanders on their responsibilities and on the need to make every effort to live up to the traditions and record the 23rd had built up in Greece, Crete and North Africa. Morale was high without being so enthusiastically aggressive as before Alamein. Most men wanted to get started and find out what an attack was like and how one reacted to it. Sandy Thomas has recorded: ‘The 23rd was in great fettle when they formed up in the Taranto area. I felt myself that there was a new discipline and smartness afoot which had been lacking in the final phases in the desert. Perhaps we had not needed it there so much since each unit was on more of a family basis’. The official war diary added that: ‘morale was raised considerably with the arrival of a large mail from home’.
Meanwhile, to soften up the objective generally, two 17-pounder guns were moved into the olive trees, whence they fired 130 rounds across the river at selected houses, potential enemy strongpoints. No. 2 MG Company fired its Vickers guns in bursts at the same targets in the hope of catching the enemy who ran out of the houses shaken by the flying rounds of the 17-pounders. This fire, combined with the air sorties flown that day and the general shelling by the artillery, provided a grand demonstration of offensive fire power to encourage the 220 men of the 23rd who had not been in action before. Company commanders were also able to advise their men that the artillery had 250 rounds per gun to fire timed concentrations on all likely enemy positions during the attack. Everything was also ready for the construction of a Bailey bridge to enable supporting arms to cross the river and for a troop of tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment to join and support the 23rd.
At 7.30 p.m. De Thier and his men left for the river where, with the aid of stakes driven into both banks and ropes, they established a crossing. Two hours later C Company moved across. Captain Robins sent one platoon to the top of the steep and slippery cliff-like bank and held the other two on the river flat to cover the crossing. After a hot meal and a rum issue, the attacking infantry began crossing the Sangro shortly before midnight. Despite the cold and swift current in the middle of the river, they crossed without untoward incident. Most men were wet to the thighs or hips, some of the shorter ones to the waist, and a few who stumbled, to the neck. Then they floun page 287 dered through the sticky mud of the river flat before preparing to climb the cliff face. The plan for the three attacking companies was for A to move 600 yards down the Sangro and cover a sector about four to five hundred yards wide which would deny the battalion's right flank to the enemy, and for B to advance 900 yards, clear some haystacks and buildings of the enemy and provide a link between A and D Companies, while the last-named had the major task of advancing 1200 yards and taking Point 208, a conical feature with a building not yet recognised as a church on the summit.
Zero hour, the time when the artillery concentrations opened, was 2.45 a.m. on 28 November. By 2.15 a.m. the battalion wasassembled at the foot of the steep bank and the attacking page 288 companies then proceeded to climb this muddy, slippery slope. Battalion Headquarters was established in the mill house at the foot of the bank and C Company was ordered to remain in position to act both as protection for the headquarters and as a battalion counter-attack reserve. At 2.40 a.m. D Company on the left began its advance, with 16 Platoon, under Lieutenant Duncan,19 on the right, 18 Platoon, under Lieutenant Bannerman,20 on the left and 17, under Lieutenant D. Foote, in reserve. Five minutes later, the artillery and Vickers guns opened fire, and, at the same time, B Company moved off. A Company, with the shortest distance to go, advanced down river at 2.55 a.m. None of the advancing companies met any serious opposition. Some mortar bombs fell in the area but, in general, the enemy appeared to have withdrawn before the attack began. A Company was able to report its objective taken in less than an hour. A little later, D and B, in turn, reported they were in position. Each company exploited forward some 500 yards, with its reserve platoon acting as a fighting patrol while the other two platoons consolidated. During this period, 17 Platoon of D Company fired a few shots across the front of the figures they saw in the murky light and took nine prisoners on the reverse slopes of Point 208. These men were subsequently identified as belonging to 3 Company, I Battalion, 145 Regiment, a part of 65 Division which contained both Poles and Austrians who were not very enthusiastic about fighting.
Soon after first light, the FOO arrived and made preparations for directing fire from the church on the top of Point 208. Unfortunately, his wireless set broke down and no line communication was at first available. The Vickers guns of the machine-gun platoon under Lieutenant Pat Grace21 and two of the 23rd's 3-inch mortars also came forward to D Company's area. The mortars were soon dug in a short distance below the crest; the Vickers guns took up positions forward of the infantry on terraces which commanded long fields of fire. One section of these machine guns was with 18 Platoon to the left of the church and the other was slightly forward of 16 Platoon to the right. Immediately to the north of this latter section, the ground fell sharply away in a steep gully, which could only be observed by a man right on the lip of the terrace. Half an infantry page 289 section was moved closer to cover this machine-gun section but, mainly because the attack had been so surprisingly simple and enemy opposition so slight, little serious thought was given to the protection of the machine-gunners, who were left in a somewhat isolated position.
Not very long after daylight, the war warmed up a little: B and D Companies' positions came under both mortar and machine-gun fire while A's area also received a sprinkling of mortar bombs. About 8 a.m. some enemy movement was seen in and around the houses to the east of Point 208. A section of 16 Platoon investigated the area and returned with four more prisoners. But, while this section was away, much more enemy movement was seen farther east. Indeed, so cheeky and confident did the enemy appear to be in moving from one house to another in full view that Colonel Romans, who was then making his round of the forward companies, shouted out for all weapons, including MMGs and mortars, to engage the enemy. In fact, this enemy activity was a clever diversionary move to distract attention from the gully to the north of Point 208, where a raiding party of about forty Germans was then approaching. Well-directed Spandau fire from the north-east drove the artillery FOO and others near the lip of the terrace back into cover behind or alongside the church—at any rate so far back that they could not look down the gully. The enemy raiders were thus able to approach in ‘dead ground’ and completely surprise the section of machine-gunners on the terrace to the right of the hilltop by coming in from above and behind them. The Germans took thirteen machine-gunners and one member of the 23rd prisoner. The 16 Platoon men closest to the terrace opened fire with Bren and rifle, but they were outnumbered and Lance-Corporal Allan Rennie,22 Privates John Bathgate23 and Reg Walker,24 who had stood up to bring their fire more effectively to bear on the enemy, were shot down by the raiders.
A counter-attack force was quickly organised from 17 Platoon and Company Headquarters but, as it moved forward, artillery defensive fire, brought down on the call of Colonel Romans from B Company headquarters, landed on the top of Point 208, page 290 wounded the company commander and broke up the advance. By the time the artillery fire was called off, the enemy had got clear away. Less than an hour later, further heavy Spandau fire from the east and some movement between the houses led B Company to report that the enemy was preparing to launch a counter-attack. The artillery brought down more defensive fire and, if the enemy moved at all, it was towards his stronger defensive positions in the Winter Line between Lanciano and Castelfrentano.
Although anti-tank guns and tanks had the very greatest difficulty in crossing the Sangro and in negotiating the mudflats to the north of the river, the forward infantry were never seriously threatened with a counter-attack. No enemy tanks appeared and the clever raid on Point 208 was the only indication the enemy gave of any aggressive outlook. Twice in the morning and once in the afternoon, however, enemy aircraft bombed and strafed various parts of the 23rd area, causing two casualties. For the advance across the Sangro and the following day, this brought the battalion's total casualties to 3 killed, 12 wounded and 1 taken prisoner.
Although the New Zealand units to the west of the 23rd had higher casualties, they all took their objectives and the bridgehead over the Sangro was secure. The next few days saw all units patrolling forward and then occupying areas which the enemy found he had insufficient troops to hold. Thus, on the night of 28–29 November, Lieutenant Tuan Emery25 with 14 men from C Company provided the 23rd patrol to La Cerralina, a point about a mile north-north-east of Point 208. Emery and his men made a careful reconnaissance, found a minefield of S-mines and a straw stack which had been hollowed out as a cover for a German tank, but saw no enemy. Indeed, the Germans were already mortaring the area, thinking the New Zealanders must have advanced into it. On the following night, C Company moved up from reserve and occupied the area reconnoitred by Emery's patrol. Battalion Headquarters also moved forward.
On 30 November patrols from A and B Companies and a daylight reconnaissance by Sergeant Street26 of C Company proved that the enemy had again withdrawn. Consequently, at ten o'clock that evening, the whole battalion advanced, met no page 291 opposition and dug in around Caporali in heavy rain mixed with some German shelling and mortaring. Farther east, the Indians attacked and made some progress over the hills. While the rest of the battalion was consolidating, Lieutenant Emery and Corporal Harland27 were sent forward to discover the practicability of establishing a start line for a brigade attack on the following evening. In the event this attack was not needed. Emery was ordered not to fire or fight unless forced to do so. The success of a much larger operation might depend on the surprise factor, and silent reconnaissance was required. Thus, while Harland covered him, Emery investigated an isolated outhouse and had, as he says, ‘the frustrating experience of counting thirteen Huns asleep and, after toying with ideas of waking them either gently or with the 36 grenade I had in my hand, I obeyed my orders of “No noise!”, especially as there was movement at the other end of the shed … by the expected sentry.’
Next morning Colonel Romans sent patrols from A and C Companies forward to locate the enemy and, when they reported ‘coast clear’, pushed his companies cautiously forward. A and B Companies passed through and round Elici, and by 1.40 p.m. on 1 December an A Company platoon was in position on Point 240 overlooking Castelfrentano. Brigadier Kippenberger now required these forward companies to make contact with the enemy. Two small patrols again reconnoitred forward— with experiences detailed below—and then A and B Companies began to climb the steep San Nicolino ridge. These companies came under Spandau fire when about half-way up the slope. They halted till after dark and then B, C and D Companies moved forward another 500 yards to form a continuous line by 10.30 p.m. A patrol from D Company then went forward to the Lanciano-Castelfrentano road without encountering any enemy.
Throughout this advance, the 23rd had been keeping pace with the 21st on the left, closer to the mountains. Everything had gone relatively smoothly. Physical conditions had been scarcely pleasant but casualties had been small and progress steady. Of course, the advance had not been without incident. This can be seen most clearly from this extract from Second-Lieutenant Selwyn Jensen's28 private diary, which describes first the daylight reconnaissance of 1 December:page 292
‘Ian Wilson told me to go out and find where the Hun was … I was to take rations and a couple of men…. I went round a hill and advanced some thousand yards covered by my men. We were on a forward slope and took things fairly carefully. I saw 3 people dodging into a barn some 250 yards away. They were Jerries. At the same time, one of my men said he saw a Spandau just 50 yards on our left. As he called me, it opened up and the bullets fairly sizzled past, all around us…. I chanced it and scrambled across the road, drawing more fire…. I made my way back by fits and starts whenever he ceased firing. I saw Ian and Pete Edgar moved his platoon to cover the original crest…. Then I saw Tuan Emery…. He had Norm Street with him. I took Tuan to the top of the hill and we were edging round a house when the damned Spandau started again. We ran for cover and dodged into a Jerry mortar pit, but the b—must have ranged this, as once we got in, he kept spraying the pit…. We finally decided to make a break as we did not know his numbers nor whether he might come up and investigate. I went out with some 50 yards of open ground to cover and, of course, he started firing as soon as I appeared. I fell down after about 30 yards (whether from fright, exhaustion—it had been a tiring day—or intuition, I don't know) for he apparently thought he had scored a hit and ceased firing. Anyway, I scrambled up and made cover. Tuan said later that the bullets were kicking the dust up around my feet. Tuan and Norman moved out while he was doing me over…. We moved at 0600 next morning. No opposition and we started to dig in once again. There was the odd house about and the people, when they found we were English, welcomed us with open arms. I've never met with a more fervent welcome. We shifted after half an hour and dug in about a mile further on and then moved forward again. This made the sixth move and the sixth slittrench I had dug in 24 hours and we were completely tired out…. We have been in action now about a week and have had blankets only one night of these. The nights have been bitterly cold and I wonder we have not had some cases of pneumonia.’
When Jensen wrote up his diary on 3 December, the 23rd was just forward of Castelfrentano in positions on the road which ran along the east side of the Moro valley. During their march through Castelfrentano, the men received a great reception from the local inhabitants. Bob Stone, for example, says: ‘Italian civilians gave us a tremendous reception, tears ran down the women's cheeks, they had wine out for us as we page 293 passed.’ It was an emotional and cheering scene. Here were people glad to be liberated. Here were men proud to be liberators! The unit war diary reflects the cheerful optimism of those days: ‘With the Battalion now firmly established on the enemy's highest and most strongly defended ridge, it appeared as though the Sangro line had finally cracked and the enemy fled’. In general, the men had been given to understand that the Sangro and the Siegfried Winter Line beyond it would constitute a tough nut to crack. They had heard of the blood baths suffered by other divisions in earlier river crossings and of the general difficulties of fighting in close country, but here they were tasting the wine of victory in Castelfrentano after suffering very few casualties. No wonder Sandy Thomas wrote later: ‘The Battalion marvelled at its success and, as they pressed forward on the thrilling advance to Castelfrentano, their morale was so high that Col. Romans had to hold them in check.’
But, although the success was real, it was limited and the New Zealanders were soon to learn that a second and more important series of defences ran north-east from Guardiagrele, a village high up above the source of one of the Sangro's tributaries, through the town of Orsogna and along the road to Ortona, near the coast. The ridge on which this road ran was separated by the valley of the Moro from the road and ridge on which the 23rd had taken up the positions it was to hold for five days while 6 Brigade units, notably 25 Battalion, attempted to take Orsogna.
While in these positions west of Castelfrentano, the 23rd came under some heavy shelling and a few Luftwaffe attacks, deaths and casualties being suffered from both. D Company on the left, nearest the ‘Mad Mile’ which ran past the brickworks although on a different road, came under the heaviest shelling. On several occasions, trucks moving on this road were subjected to accurate and heavy shelling. More than once, Private Norman M. Christie,29 the RAP orderly attached to D Company, dashed to the rescue of the wounded, dressed their wounds and assisted in carrying the badly wounded to the refuge of the nearest house, all with a complete disregard for his own safety.
During the 6 Brigade attacks on Orsogna, prisoners were taken, and information secured from them and from other sources showed that the enemy had hurried 26 Panzer Division page 294 and some veteran paratroop units, now serving as infantry, into the line. This convinced General Freyberg that the enemy defence had hardened and that the day for platoon and company advances, with the enemy retreating ahead of them, was over. Tougher fighting lay ahead. But before a brigade or divisional attack could be launched, more information was required and patrols became the order of the day. The 23rd sent one of these patrols. Tuan Emery, by now something of a specialist in patrolling, took eight men out at 9 a.m. on 4 December and moved through 25 Battalion, then forward of the 23rd, in the general direction of enemy-held Poggiofiorito. Warned by members of the 25th of enemy posts on Sfasciata ridge, a large spur which ran out from the main ridge between Orsogna and Poggiofiorito, and then curved north-east to run nearly parallel to it, Emery led his men farther down the Moro before turning west towards the Orsogna-Ortona road, which was his main objective. Two members of the patrol lost contact in the late afternoon and returned to the battalion to report hearing movement of enemy guns and transport along the road towards Orsogna. The remainder climbed the slippery slopes to approach the road about a mile to the north-east of Poggiofiorito. Under cover of darkness, they approached within twenty yards of an 88-millimetre gun, but did not fire because the enemy infantry in their rear might cut off their line of withdrawal. Later, about 200 yards south on its journey back, the patrol surprised an enemy working party and shot it up. Without waiting to count casualties or to deal with enemy reinforcements, the patrol then moved back to the Moro. By 5 a.m. it was back in the 25th area and by 11 a.m. in the 23rd's, where Emery reported results.
The 23rd also assisted in protecting the right flank of the forward troops of 6 Brigade. Thus, on 4 December, the carriers took up fire positions on the right of the 25th, while, on 5 December, Second-Lieutenant Eastgate30 took 18 Platoon to the same sector to provide infantry protection for the Vickers gun crews there.
As preparations for the attack went on, morale in the battalion mounted. Those who had been wet, tired and cold after the Sangro crossing and the nights in the open were refreshed and now wanted to do something about the more or less continuous shelling to which they had been subjected. The issue of patriotic parcels by the YMCA and the arrival of a large home mail on page 295 6 December helped spirits to rise still further, as the following diary extracts indicate. R. A. Somerville,31 a reinforcement signaller, says: ‘Had our mail delivered. Sitting here quite forgot the background of guns while I read. Morale away up. I really needed this mail I believe…. Issue patriotic 3 gold flake choc issue Parkdrive.’ And Bob Stone wrote: ‘A bit off colour but much improved when mail arrived! 9 letters and airgraph for me…. Have been getting our meals regularly since we came here and all feel much better. Fr. Henley round in afternoon, heard Confession and gave Holy Communion’.
That the Padre should be so active on a Monday was an almost certain indication that action was near, and so it proved. On 6 December, too, Divisional Headquarters issued an operation order for the two infantry brigades to attack across the Moro, capture Orsogna and a one-mile stretch of the road to Ortona. While 6 Brigade was to advance up Brecciarola ridge with 24 Battalion, supported by 18 Armoured Regiment, 5 Brigade was to attack up Pascuccio spur with the 28th, while page 296 the 23rd took the greater part of Sfasciata ridge in order to safeguard the Maoris' right flank. Strong artillery support was to be provided and also an air blitz which, together with a zero hour of 1.30 p.m., made some of the North Africa veterans recall the Division's last daylight attack at Tebaga Gap, a day of happy memories.
These orders did not reach the 23rd on the morning of 7 December until after Colonel Romans and his company commanders, Wilson, Kirk (who had taken over B Company from Montgomery, evacuated sick), Robins and Ross, had gone on a reconnaissance of the front in the 25th FDLs. They returned with only just sufficient time to get their men moving to commence the attack at 1.30 p.m. from a start line on the crest of San Felice ridge on the near side of the Moro. The plan was for A to move first and to seize the centre of the ridge around the ‘Pink and White House’, B was to seize and hold the right flank, while C was to edge up the ridge towards its junction with the main Ortona road ridge, and D, in reserve, was to move later and fill any gaps in rear of A and B.
Sandy Thomas has left a vivid impression of the state of the 23rd: ‘The Battalion was fit, well officered, and as keen as mustard. They were at peak of morale and efficiency under Colonel Romans as they faced up to Orsogna Ridge such as they were not to achieve again until the later campaigns in Italy.’ Twenty-eighth Battalion was allowed to clear the 25th's area before the 23rd began to advance at 2 p.m. The supporting artillery and various weapons of the 25th filled the Moro valley with smoke. As Thomas says: ‘While we were waiting for the start of the battle Colonel Morten was laying on the finest example of inter-unit co-operation…. His battalion brought every possible weapon to bear on our objective to help us onto it…. 25 Bren guns alone fired 29,000 rounds of SAA onto the trenches in the vicinity of the Pink and White House … 25 Bn were indeed a great help.’
Drizzling rain reduced the supporting air activity and made the climbing of slippery slopes somewhat difficult, but A Company had no great difficulty in taking its objective. Indeed, all three attacking companies had an easy task since no infantry opposition was met. Either the positions on the forward slopes of Sfasciata were occupied at night only or the enemy who had repelled C Company of 25 Battalion on 5 December had withdrawn before the attack started, or as the artillery concentrations drew closer. In any case, by 3.10 p.m. the three attacking companies page 297 were established on the ridge. Battalion Headquarters was soon set up in the Pink and White House and D Company came forward to its reserve position on the right flank. While this company was coming forward, the valley of the Moro was heavily mortared and the 23rd mule train, composed of the unit pioneers and some Italian muleteers, came under fire as it brought forward the reserve ammunition, the 3-inch mortars and other heavier supplies. As the mules had to be held in case they bolted, some men were unable to dive for cover and three men, including one Italian, were killed and one wounded.
This advance on to Sfasciata had gone as well as the earlier advances from the Sangro. That the new reinforcements were being battle-inoculated in an eminently satisfactory way, as well as showing plenty of spirit, may be seen from this contemporary diary entry by Somerville: ‘… pack up for attack. Carrying 38 pack 18 set. Went across country. Then the road for 1 mile or so … sweating in the rain … then went over the top, down valley and up other side under terrific arty barrage.32 Writing just after objective is reached. Never knew before what thrills there were. Our guns point blank, filled both valleys with cordite smoke, could only see 20 yards. Fires from tracer everywhere. Mervyn Chick33 hit in leg in gully. Shrap near us…. Gave away a lot of lit Capstans. Shells whizzing over brow of this hill. Left at 12 so haven't had a meal yet. Wet through and covered with mud but enjoying it. Good getting mail! 7 p.m. Day gone quick. Dug in on sheer face. Got straw behind blazing house. Lukewarm tea came up by mules. Writing by moon as rain has gone. Boots off, tired out but if never worse shall enjoy it.’
Something of a similar reaction in a reinforcement officer is evidenced in this extract from Jensen's diary: ‘… Luckily we occupied the ridge without opposition, as we were exhausted on reaching the top. I placed the platoon and they started to dig in. His DF34 came down then, 88 mm and mortars and it was hell for a while. I was out trying to contact the platoon on the right and I met Reg Romans who was wandering round with a walking stick. A rather nasty shell landed about 25 yards away or less and he remarked that it was rather close and we wandered behind a ruined house. So far I have been rather amazed at my page 298 own attitude to shelling. Probably because this is new to me. I have had no fear whatsoever and even view the shelling in a dispassionate manner as though it couldn't affect me at all.’
That evening two patrols went out from the 23rd. Lieutenant Coe took a C Company patrol out to the left to establish contact with the Maoris but ran into enemy fire and was forced to withdraw. Lieutenant Dick Duncan took 16 Platoon forward towards the Ortona road with the intention of patrolling later to Poggiofiorito. After hearing tanks moving towards Orsogna, this patrol fired with good effect on an enemy patrol or working party. In the lively exchanges of fire which followed, Lance-Sergeant Toner35 was wounded but otherwise the patrol returned without loss. Lieutenant Don Foote's patrol from 17 Platoon, which went out at 7.15 a.m. next day to discover whether or not Poggiofiorito was still occupied, was by no means so fortunate. Apparently expecting that the enemy would be falling back as he had done on the slopes above the Sangro, Foote led his daylight patrol forward with more resolution than care and ran into an ambush. The Germans saw the patrol approaching, held their fire until it was cut off by Spandaus on both flanks and then pinned it down, forcing the leaders to surrender. Private Fastier36 was shot through the neck. Examined by two German soldiers, he was left for dead and later made his way back to the battalion, where he reported the fate of the patrol— 1 killed, 2 wounded, and 5, including Foote, missing believed prisoner of war. The enemy was obviously making a firm stand on the line of the Ortona road.
By this time, official word had reached the 23rd that the other attacking units, the 24th, who had entered Orsogna, and the 28th who had got across the road, had been forced to withdraw before daylight. They had no hope of getting tanks or anti-tank guns up to them and were being attacked by tanks, including flame-throwers. This meant that Sfasciata was the only territorial gain made, and that the 23rd was forward and somewhat isolated from the rest of the Division. The higher command decided to reinforce this minor success and to use Sfasciata as a route for bringing forward tanks and supporting arms which would enable the infantry to take and hold a bridgehead over the Ortona road. The danger of enemy tanks attacking down the muddy spur was considered a risk which page 299 had to be accepted. The enemy also appreciated the potential threat to his line of communication with Orsogna: he therefore shelled and mortared Sfasciata regularly and, on occasion, bombed and strafed it. Of course, the longer the Division took to complete its preparations for the attack, the longer the enemy had to perfect his defences. The fact that the attack was not launched until a week later meant that the enemy was fully prepared to deal with just such an attack as was made on the only possible axis of advance.
During that week, the 23rd continued to live on Sfasciata and to send out various patrols. Of course, the first requirement was a route across the Moro and up Sfasciata ridge which would suffice for getting supporting arms and tanks forward. After ‘recces’ by Second-Lieutenants Keith Esson37 and Tom Mackie, it was decided that an old cart track could be improved to serve the purpose. D Company provided infantry protection to keep enemy patrols away from the bulldozers, while a heavy fire programme by the Vickers and artillery was laid on to drown their noise. By the morning of 9 December, with the help of the engineers and their machinery, the 23rd had four six-pounders sited in tactically useful positions. No. 2 Platoon further strengthened the anti-tank defences by placing mines across the track in the western end of C Company's sector.
That the shelling was taking toll of the nerves of the infantry may be seen from Jensen's diary for 9 December, an entry which shows that the ‘dispassionate’ attitude to shells was passing. ‘This has been a terrible day. At lunch time the shelling started and continued till 1600 hours. All directed at my platoon which is on a forward slope and we lay in our slitties and waited for the worst to happen. C——cracked under it and went back behind the crest and —— had his trench filled in and had to leave too’. The other companies had their full share of this shelling with C, nearest the top of the spur, possibly having the most. That night, blanket rolls were brought forward by the mule train and the men were able to make themselves a little more comfortable. To reduce the number exposed to the shelling and to enable men to get their clothes dry and to get something hot to eat and drink, small pickets only were kept on watch in the forward areas and the remainder were withdrawn to houses. Appreciation of the resulting improved conditions is shown in Corporal Stone's diary: ‘10 Dec. page 300 Permission obtained to pull back and rest in house for day with a picquet on out in front…. had a wash and shave. What a relief to get out of holes and be able to keep warm during day. 11 Dec…. rain began at 1 a.m. blankets wet…. pulled back into house at dawn and spent day there. Rain ceased but very cold and muddy. A person sinks in mud when walking. Killed 12 fowls and cooked them. Helped us a lot.’ In D Company, Sergeant-Major Cecil Rogers usually had mulled wine ready for the men returning from picket duty or patrols. New Zealand initiative was making the war in the early Italian winter bearable.
The night of 9–10 December saw twenty-six tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment and the battalion's carriers move up, under cover of heavy artillery fire, into the 23rd area, where they were camouflaged behind houses and trees. Their arrival was expected to lead almost immediately to the attack, but this was postponed mainly on account of other Eighth Army plans. On or towards the coast, the Canadians and Indians were mounting more or less successful attacks. But, before the various attacks could be co-ordinated with maximum effect, the gap between 8 Indian Division and the New Zealanders had to be filled by bringing up into the line 17 Brigade of 5 British Division. Twenty-third Battalion patrols under Coe, Irving and Jensen continued to report enemy troop and vehicular movement. In Irving's patrol, Privates Cecil Hammond38 and J. Mathews39 got behind the enemy forward posts. Kerr,40 the resourceful sergeant of No. 2 Platoon, was cut off and taken prisoner, if only temporarily, while trying to locate where the enemy had laid mines at the top end of Sfasciata.
During the daylight hours, the forward companies continued to suffer from shelling and mortaring. C Company edged a house at a time closer to the Ortona road. This company was strengthened by the carrier platoon, under Second-Lieutenant K. Burtt and Sergeants Collett41 and Oates,42 whose Brens with page 301 other machine guns gave a welcome accession of fire power. The enemy reacted strongly to this policy, defended certain houses and sent a fighting patrol to drive the C Company men back. Thus, on 12 December at about 1.30 a.m., the Germans were engaged in a sharp stand-up fight by 14 Platoon, now under Sergeant R. J. Wilson since Lieutenant Emery had been wounded during the occupation of Sfasciata. Grenades were thrown by both sides and sub-machine-gun fire exchanged for several minutes. Bob Wilson took the initiative in advancing to drive the enemy off and, after they had suffered some casualties, the Germans withdrew, leaving tools, mines and a machine gun behind.
After daylight on 12 December, C Company took over another house which would give better observation of the road. This action stirred the enemy into great activity. So savage were German shelling and tank fire that the OP sent to this newly won house was forced to withdraw. That evening a D Company platoon joined C Company in covering what was now recognised by Germans and New Zealanders alike as vital ground. A protective screen was put out about 200 yards at night by C Company in an attempt to deny the enemy any observation of the build-up for the attack. German patrols or working parties engaged in laying mines were fired upon and defensive artillery fire was brought down on movement nearer the road. On the 13th a German reconnaissance patrol penetrated C's area before it was discovered. Its two members did not return—one was killed and the other, from 5 Company, 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, was captured.
Though the enemy shelling continued to cause casualties, the troops adapted themselves well to life in this muddy front line. Thus, at A Company headquarters, Somerville could write: ‘Had great lunch of marrow, spud, and cabbage we cooked in old tins, and rations as well. Great feed at night.’ In B Company, Corporal Stone wrote at the same time: ‘We cooked up a sheep down in gully, also some potatoes and had a grand feed. A full stomach makes a big difference’. These Napoleonic reflections show that the 23rd was in good heart, and Colonel Romans felt justified in telling the Brigadier that the battalion was fit to join in the assault.
On 14 December orders were issued for the attack to secure a bridgehead over the Ortona road. Fifth Brigade, with the 21st on the right and the 23rd on the left, was responsible for the main attack, but 17 British Brigade was to attack on the page 302 right of the New Zealanders and around Poggiofiorito and 6 Brigade was to guard the left flank, with the 25th advancing up Pascuccio ridge to join the 23rd at the cemetery on the Ortona road. In the 23rd, the attack was to be made from C Company's FDLs up Sfasciata and over the road and railway. C Company was to remain in reserve while B on the right, D in the centre, and A on the left made the attack under an artillery barrage. Zero hour was fixed for 1 a.m. on 15 December. The tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment were to support both the 21st and the 23rd against an armoured counter-attack and were to be prepared to exploit to the west.
As if warned of the shape of things to come, enemy shelling intensified in the afternoon of 14 December and two officers and two men were wounded. Captain Ian Wilson, OC A Company, was one of these. As there was not time to get the second-in-command up from B Echelon, Second-Lieutenant Peter Edgar, a well-proved fighting soldier who had been commissioned earlier in the year, took command. Somerville's diary gives the reaction excited in A Company by the loss of a popular commander: ‘… unexpected salvo…. Our boss was wounded while taking Mr. Tither43 up to RAP. Capt Wilson should have a row of medals. He is whitest man I know and all of us are cursing the bloody Hun. Our phone wires cut to hell and is suicide to go and fix them yet. We are attacking tonight. What a bastard the boss should be hit!’ By this time, the unit's total strength had been reduced to 26 officers and 645 other ranks, but the number of attacking infantry in the three companies to be committed was about 330.
By half an hour after midnight, the three attacking companies were in their forming-up places about 100 yards behind their start line. Battalion Headquarters had already moved into a house in C's forward area. Two of the battalion's 3-inch mortars were dug in directly behind the start line. Promptly at 1 a.m. the artillery barrage opened and the mortars joined in. As the barrage was to stand on its opening line for ten minutes, and as Colonel Romans had warned that some of the ‘mediums’ might have difficulty with crest clearance and ‘shorts’, the infantry took their time about approaching the start line. Whether supporting guns were firing short or whether the ten-minute interval sufficed for the enemy to bring his heaviest concentrations on to the top of Sfasciata, the infantry, still page 303 somewhat crowded together as they approached a short start line, came under heavy fire and suffered serious casualties. The fact that the crew of a 3-inch mortar, dug in on a reverse slope and therefore reasonably safe from enemy shellfire, was also knocked out might indicate that ‘shorts’ were the trouble, but it is obvious that the enemy had appreciated the vital importance of the junction of Sfasciata with the main ridge and the Ortona road. The opening of the New Zealand barrage was the signal for the German gunners to stand to their guns and concentrate the maximum amount of fire on the one sector they knew the New Zealanders had to take if they were going to get tanks and supporting arms forward to guarantee the holding of the ground taken by the infantry.
In a sense, the 23rd now paid the price for the delay of a week in moving forward from Sfasciata. German guns around both Orsogna and Arielli directed the maximum amount of fire on to the top of Sfasciata and therefore on the 23rd's start line. Some forty men, truck drivers, company storemen and page 304 clerks, had been detailed in advance to act as stretcher-bearers in this attack. Their services were called for before the companies began to advance and some of them were added to the list of casualties. Very soon it was obvious that there was too much work for the number of stretcher-bearers available. But the barrage was moving on and the attack went on. Above the noise of bursting shells, the voices of the leading officers and NCOs could be heard calling the men to shake out into their lines and then to advance.
On the right, B Company lost its company commander, Captain Dave Kirk, wounded at the start and Second-Lieutenant Fred Irving took command. Ably assisted by Bill Leonard,44 who took over as Company Sergeant-Major when WO II H. G. Greenhalgh was wounded, Irving got the company moving forward with little less than its customary élan. Corporal Bob Stone, in charge of the company's right-hand section, gives this description of the occasion in his diary: ‘Night fine but very dark. Guns opened up, instead of barrage beginning 300 yards ahead shells fell amongst us and caused many casualties before we even began attack…. 2 killed in 10 Platoon on S.L. Advance began but had to stop because barrage hardly lifted at all. Shells whizzing round our ears. A bit later able to continue. Coys on our left making better progress. Got in among a few Huns, most of them well down in holes. Reached the road and railway, crossed them and at last arrived on objective. Only 10 left in platoon now. Began digging. Hun counter attack began.’ B Company reported on its objective by 2.8 a.m. and very shortly afterwards the enemy made his first uncoordinated attempts to drive back the South Islanders.
As the company in the centre, D probably encountered the worst shell and mortar fire but the ground on its front enabled it to make good progress. The rate of lift of the barrage for the level ground was too slow at 100 yards in four minutes and, as at Alamein, the infantry went to ground when they caught up with their own barrage and waited for the next lift before advancing further. The leading sections killed a few enemy machine-gunners and riflemen as they advanced but the Germans encountered were not in the numbers expected. Some Germans lay ‘doggo’ in deep holes, covered and camouflaged with scrub bushes, or under corners of straw stacks, until the attack had passed. Then they emerged to shoot up signallers page 305 or others. D Company crossed the road and the railway in quick succession. Once these easily recognised features were crossed, the objective was quickly reached and the company reported back to Battalion Headquarters to this effect before 2 a.m.
On the left flank, A Company had its share of casualties but, led with determination by Peter Edgar, it advanced to the railway which, in its sector, ran through a small cutting with steep banks on either side. Reduced numbers and movement to the right meant that A was not so far south nor so close to the cemetery as had been intended. Jensen gives some account of A's experiences: ‘We left the S.L. under a very heavy barrage with Jerry's counter barrage mixed in—it was coming from all round the clock and things became rather chaotic—casualties occurred almost at once and by the time we reached our objective, after 1400 yards of absolute undiluted hell, I had lost 13 of my platoon’.
Young Somerville at A's headquarters confirms Jensen's impression and gives other graphic details: ‘The attack right from zero hour was Hell with the lid off. Was lost from time we left till 0500 when reached objective. Both barrages opened together with us in the middle. Smoke and flames. Near first ridge, wireless aerial blown off and I was knocked over with shrap in leg as shell exploded at my feet. Kept going. Chaps getting bowled right and left. Couldn't think. Peered in faces, asked way, finally got across road into railway cutting. Was giving Jerry prisoner a spell with my hole when got one between the eyes—right eyebrow gone! Dave yelled to shoot the prisoners as they came streaming in but they had their hands up and Harry looked after them. Got set going in time to get arty to break up first counter attack. Held on while waiting on tanks despite tough time. Just got out of cutting in time on to far bank and dug in before dawn. Tom Sloan's45 section stayed in it and all got wiped out.’ The railway cutting was a target on which the Germans concentrated their mortars and later, from much closer, their rifle grenades.
About twenty minutes after the attack got under way, Colonel Romans established a tactical headquarters in a house a short distance forward of the start line. The IO, Second-Lieutenant T. Mackie, and the signals officer, Second-Lieutenant H. Staton,46 and some of their men accompanied him. As they page 306 went to enter the house, someone mentioned that mopping-up had not been completed and Sergeant Garnet Blampied, the ‘I’ sergeant, therefore fired a few bursts from his tommy gun through a hole in the wall. Two Germans with a Spandau promptly emerged and surrendered. Other German prisoners arrived, and several of them were employed as stretcher-bearers and in the general evacuation of the wounded.
Not long after 2 a.m. the forward companies reported enemy activity on their respective fronts and apparent preparations for a counter-attack. Small parties of enemy approached and either set up machine guns to harass the 23rd infantry or tried to penetrate the freshly won area. Without exception, these probing moves were broken up either by infantry or artillery defensive fire. These enemy moves to exploit the situation before consolidation was complete were followed by a more fully organised counter-attack from the north in which tanks played a major role. Thus, three tanks from the direction of Arielli penetrated 21 Battalion's sector, and one of these moved farther down the road to where it halted behind B Company's 12 Platoon. Here Lance-Sergeant Ian Taylor47 had done a good job of reorganisation after the loss of his platoon officer. The tank made no attempt to leave the road but began spraying the area occupied by B and D Companies with machine-gun fire. For a moment it appeared that the forward infantry would be cut off by tanks. But Private Bob Clay,48 occupying a German mortar pit along-side the railway embankment with Frank Dawson,49 now proved the worth of the Piat as an anti-tank weapon as well as his own quality as a soldier. Taking careful aim when the tank was only 20 yards away but when its machine-gunner was firing across at D Company, Clay scored a direct hit, but without apparently doing much damage. The tank rolled forward another 5 to 10 yards, closer to Clay, who had the nerve-racking experience of having a misfire. The bomb simply dropped out the front of his gun. Clay therefore had to take the chance of being shot, but he pulled his Piat back and recocked it in the pit. His next shot hit the tank at the base of the turret, which apparently became locked. The tank quickly reversed and withdrew some page 307 distance to a bend, where it halted and was abandoned by its crew. Clay's action undoubtedly saved the forward infantry from being cut off and also ensured that no enemy tank was waiting to greet the Shermans of 18 Armoured Regiment when they crawled over the crest of Sfasciata about half an hour later.
The sappers of 7 Field Company, assisted by the 23rd's No. 2 Platoon, worked hard to lift the mines at the top of Sfasciata ridge. But the area was so covered by fire that their task was not easy and 18 Regiment's tanks were overdue when the 21st and 23rd infantry were being threatened by German tanks. As C Squadron, in the lead, pressed forward, its tanks suffered from a series of accidents. In the dark, the leading tank slipped over the edge of the track and down a steep bank. Two tanks burned out clutches trying to handle impossible conditions. Three more became hopelessly bogged and blocked the track. Colonel Clive Pleasants50 found a route round these for the remaining three tanks of C Squadron, but two of them also ran off the track. The sole surviving ‘runner’ from C Squadron halted on reaching the flat ground near the road and waited for A Squadron, which arrived intact just before daybreak. The C Squadron tank and one troop from A then moved into the 21st sector. The undamaged German tanks and a troop-carrier quickly withdrew and the enemy threat was at an end—at least for the present. Other A Squadron tanks moved down the road towards the cemetery on the left and took up positions in support of the infantry.
When he inspected the forward area immediately after first light, Colonel Romans found his troops rather thin on the ground. On the left flank, 25 Battalion had climbed Pascuccio spur and suffered casualties but there was no liaison on the ground with the 23rd. To remedy this, B Company of the 25th was placed under command of the 23rd to cover the gap between the two units and the head of the gully between Pascuccio and Sfasciata; it reverted to its own battalion about seven o'clock that evening, when other arrangements had been made for the 23rd's left flank.
The three forward companies of the 23rd completed their consolidation after daybreak. They cleared a few more houses and took a few more prisoners. Lieutenant Mick Tither brought page 308 up the 3-inch mortars and shot bombs into enemy-occupied areas. Individual tanks shot a few rounds into houses beyond the FDLs to discourage enemy machine-gunners, who were still annoying if not very active. The task of exploiting towards Orsogna was undertaken by 20 Armoured Regiment and the Maoris, but heavy fire from concealed anti-tank guns defeated their attempts to enter Orsogna.
The 23rd's casualties already numbered over 20 killed and 80 wounded. They were increased by shell and mortar fire during the day. Thus, at 2 p.m., Colonel Romans was moving back to his main headquarters when a shell burst beside him, giving him what later proved to be fatal wounds. Later in the afternoon Major Thomas came forward and took command. He inspected the company positions with Tom Mackie and later recorded his impressions. ‘The troops were still tremendously proud of their success…. On the right 2/Lt. Irving had the remnants of his company well organised and in contact with 21 Bn on the right. In the centre Angus Ross was well organised, on the left Peter Edgar was exposed on the flank so in conformity with a decision already taken by Col. Romans, I moved C Coy into position there. This left me with no reserve but with the build-up of armour in the area, I deemed it better to have a secure perimeter and rely on the tanks to deal with any threat.’
As usual, the battalion signallers did everything possible to maintain communications between the forward companies and the headquarters. The first line party to go forward came under unexpected fire from enemy who had remained concealed in a straw stack, and George Simpson51 was killed and others wounded. Later, Henry King, Feasey,52 Ron and Ernie Ritchie and others made valiant attempts to cope with the number of breaks in the lines. Eventually they established two complete circuits, which met at D Company's headquarters, and these preserved line communication from then on.
In the evening the Quartermaster, Captain Cliff Hunt, and his assistants, the company seconds-in-command and quarter-master-sergeants, got a hot meal up to the forward troops with the aid of the mule-pack train. Captain Don Grant took a party of fifty men from HQ Company to the cemetery area to give page 309 infantry protection to 20 Regiment's tanks. These men from the carrier and other support group platoons were relieved later by a company of Maoris.
The night of 15–16 December was quiet and peaceful until after midnight, when the men in the forward posts reported enemy movement in front. Artillery defensive fire tasks were brought down and although it was obvious that enemy troops had taken up positions, nothing further was heard until 3.15 a.m., when 21 Battalion and B and D Companies of the 23rd were attacked by tanks and infantry, preceded by heavy artillery concentrations. Nine tanks, five of them flame-throwers, supported by assault guns and paratroops acting as infantry, came in and shot up the area. In the main, the attack on the 23rd front was confined to infantry, but on the road close to B Company, two tanks and a flame-thrower approached close enough to cause concern. Although the major attack was centred on the 21st front, the 23rd men saw an unforgettable sight of belching flames, tracer bullets flying in wild profusion, flares and, eventually, burning tanks. About 4 a.m. Lieutenant Burtt and some Bren-gunners from the carriers arrived to reinforce the position in D Company. About the same time, Sergeant-Major Rogers secured the movement forward of a couple of 18th tanks to positions where they were able to fire with good effect on the enemy tanks. Eventually, after four enemy tanks, including two flame-throwers, had been knocked out and the infantry advances repelled, the enemy withdrew. By 5 a.m. the area was quiet again.
The battalion was relieved about twelve hours later by the Maoris. Overnight the unit had lost 5 killed and 6 wounded. This made the total casualties for the two days 28 killed and 88 wounded, the worst casualties the unit had suffered in a long time. Most of those killed lay thick near the start line. Eric Batchelor, a veteran of several campaigns, later wrote: ‘The scene after the battle was the most terrible I saw in Italy, the dead lay side by side in places.’ In his diary for 16 December, Somerville recorded: ‘Sandy Thomas said he had never seen so many dead on a battlefield. Initial attack was worse than Takrouna. The first shell that got me got two other chaps badly. They fell on each other, so she was tough when casualties were two deep…. May get my revenge when we are reorganised. C.O. badly wounded this afternoon. God! I'm dirty and literally covered in blood and mud.’ Of course, many of the dead on that battlefield were Germans. The battalion diary records that the page 310 attacking companies took eighty prisoners but no count of the German dead was made. That the number was high may be deduced from the report of Lieutenant-Colonel Berger, commanding 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment: ‘15 December had seen the regiment committed to the very last man. It had lost heavily in men and equipment. A large number of men were missing and it was considered that the vast majority must be killed or wounded.’
After dark, when the Maoris had taken over the forward posts, the 23rd infantry moved back to the ford over the Moro. In places on the track, the tanks had churned the mud into a quagmire three feet deep and many of the men staggered and fell as they toiled down the Sfasciata track. Once across the ford, they were picked up in RMT lorries and taken back to the houses which they had occupied in Castelfrentano before they began their daylight advance on 7 December. They had been away only nine days but it seemed an age.
For the remainder of December, while other units enlarged the bridgehead which the 23rd had established, the battalion remained in Castelfrentano. The troops worked on roadmaking and similar jobs for a few days, but normally they rested and recuperated, enjoying the hot showers that were now available and the parcel and other mails which arrived before Christmas. Over 130 reinforcements arrived during this period and the companies were brought back to correct numerical strength.
On 22 December all ranks were shocked to hear that Colonel Romans had died of the wounds received on 15 December. An original officer of the unit, he had earned the right to command his battalion for nearly eighteen months. He had also earned a secure place in the hearts of his men. He was a strong natural leader who inspired others with his own regard for the battalion. Many men who joined the battalion when he was the commanding officer will remember his address of welcome, in which he invariably traversed the highlights of the unit's history and insisted that the newcomers must make up their minds to maintain the traditions and the proud record of the 23rd. ‘In the 23rd,’ he used to say, ‘we play hard but we also fight hard’. With pardonable exaggeration, he would add, ‘And we always take our objective.’ Brave, almost to the point of foolhardiness, he never shirked what he considered to be his duty. Thus, he always visited every forward platoon on the morning after an attack. Wearing his soft SD cap and, after Takrouna, where his leg was injured, carrying a walking stick, he would arrive in page 311 the forward areas as nonchalant and as cool, apparently as happy and as carefree, as if he had come up to inspect the turf. The men were proud of him as their CO and his visits always seemed to revive flagging spirits. On the administrative side of his office, he frequently assigned tasks to the junior officers best able to execute them. In the idiom of the Central Otago sheep-men he knew so well, he used to say: ‘I don't keep dogs and then do the barking myself’. He delegated responsibility wisely, selected subordinates shrewdly and always backed up those executing the tasks he had allotted. In his day, the 23rd had two priceless assets for which he was largely responsible—a team of loyal, efficient officers and NCOs and a fighting spirit and esprit de corps admired by all who knew the unit. His personal courage and his devotion to the battalion were the outstanding characteristics of Reg Romans. As Dick Connolly, his second-in-command and successor, said later: ‘There wasn't a petty inch in him. Every thought and every action was for the battalion.’ He certainly gave the 23rd all that was in his power to give, especially in loyal devotion and courageous leadership. Those qualities made him make heavy demands of himself and of others, but they also inspired loyalty of a high order among his men.
In announcing the death of the Colonel to the companies, Colonel Thomas sent a typed message in which he said: ‘On the day prior to his death the C.O. wrote to me enclosing the following message to you:
“Officers, Non-commissioned officers and ORs. This will be the first time that I will not have been with you at our Christmas celebrations. Our first Christmas celebrations when the battalion was formed were in England, our second in Tobruk, our third in Nofilia and now our fourth celebrations in Italy.
“I can only wish you from the bottom of my heart that our fifth celebrations will be with our mothers, wives and families back in New Zealand.
“God bless you all.
R. E. Romans, Lt. Col.”’
The 23rd mourned the loss of a grand soldier. That afternoon Padre Holland conducted a short memorial service for Colonel Romans and for all members of the battalion who had fallen in recent fighting.
During this period out of the line, the Support Group was made into Support Company, separate from HQ Company and page 312 responsible for its own administration. Captain D. G. Grant became the first commander of this new company. As Major Orbell had become second-in-command, Captain Slee took command of HQ Company. Other changes included the promotion of Captain Arthur Parker to the command of A Company and of Second-Lieutenant Dan Davis, with the rank of acting captain, to that of B.
Despite the sadness inevitable after such bitter losses, Christmas Day was observed in traditional fashion. The Padre conducted carol services in the company areas. A and D Companies had their service in a stable with hay-filled mangers. Good food, including oyster soup, turkey, pork, and plum pudding, was served. As one private wrote: ‘Christmas dinner was so good, and my appetite so satisfied that when I came back to my slitty could only think “Thank goodness I'm home”.’ Actually, the majority were already living in houses at this stage. A few preferred sleeping out-of-doors to enduring bites from fleas or bedbugs, but bad weather, culminating at the end of December in a heavy fall of snow, drove even the hardy ones indoors.
On 27 December Colonel Thomas left for furlough in New Zealand and Colonel Connolly, who had just returned from his furlough, took command of the battalion. On 2 January he took it forward to relieve the 26th in a sector only a mile ahead of that taken by the 23rd on 15 December, so slow had been the advance in the bad weather. The 23rd remained in this area, with only internal reliefs of forward companies, until 15 January when 1 Royal Sussex Regiment of 7 Indian Infantry Brigade took over.
The fortnight in the line on and behind ‘Jittery Ridge’ was a far from happy time. Weather and ground conditions and, at first, lack of suitable equipment for these conditions made life in the forward area physically tougher than the infantry had experienced before. Equipped with snow capes and other white clothing necessary for night patrolling, the enemy took the initiative and, about 2.45 a.m. on 6 January, taught 18 Platoon a sharp lesson. It was snowing, but sentries kept watch on the house in which the remainder of the platoon slept. Sergeant Johnston and another picket kept watch at the front of the house nearest the enemy and a sentry mounted guard at the back door. Suddenly, out of the snow, an enemy raiding party approached the back door. They shot and wounded the sentry, who had apparently put down his tommy gun for a minute in page 313 order to beat life back into his chilled hands. Taking the sentry prisoner, they flung open the door and tossed in a couple of grenades, which wounded three men sleeping on the floor. Johnston and his associate doubled round from the front of the house, opened fire on the retreating enemy and appeared to wound two. The whole incident was all over in less than two minutes but the enemy had scored points.
A Company relieved D in this sector on 6 January. Jensen's account, written after five days in the forward area, gives a good idea of the strain: ‘… some of the reinforcements are not part of us yet and are inclined to get on the old nerves a bit. I sound quite like a grim dig! A Coy is on the reverse of a ridge forward of our troops and on the forward slope of this ridge are our friends the Hun…. In places he is 160 yards away and at night things are only middling…. I divide my Pl into two and Frank Fielding,53 my Sgt., with one half goes to an outpost about 150 yards left. Pl HQ and half the Pl is in a badly shelled house of two rooms and Frank's outpost in a similar house. We have a picquet at each corner of the house and with only 12 men in my outpost, there is not much sleep for the blokes. I get no sleep at all during the night as I change the reliefs every hour and also visit the other outpost every hour. The trouble is that there are so many stand-tos that everyone is becoming jittery and we now have more than half the pl as recent reinforcements; at least six of these are no use whatsoever and we would be better without them. They are so frightened that they won't stick their noses above the sandbags when on picquet and I have to keep constant watch on them. Re sandbags—when we took over this area, the house had no defences, but I have had deep slitties dug at each corner, all sandbagged…. The snow is still thick on the ground and I am coughing like the devil which is a nuisance because the Hun can hear every sound. We can ourselves hear him speak from his outposts the other side of the ridge. We are all fed up with this job and are becoming very nervy.’
Although the tacit agreement between the combatants that houses were needed for living in and therefore should not be shelled was generally observed, occasionally houses were shelled and mortared. On 7 January, for instance, a house in B Company's area received a direct hit. Lieutenant M. C. Tither, the mortar officer, was killed, and Lieutenant Dan Davis received wounds which later proved fatal. One other soldier was killed page 314 and four more, including three artillery OP men, were wounded. Although other casualties were sustained during this period, the losses on this occasion were the worst for the period in the Fontegrande area. Tither, who had been decorated as an NCO with the 26th in the desert, was a very able mortar officer. Davis had distinguished himself in Greece, Crete and North Africa and had, on being commissioned, quickly found himself in command of a company.
Of course, with Dick Connolly as commander, the 23rd was not always on the receiving end. Outposts regularly shot up any enemy patrols or dogs seen in the area, especially after it was gathered that dogs were being used to locate occupied posts. When snow clothing became available, patrols went out with aggressive missions. A Company sent the first of these out on 8 January. Corporal Rothera54 took five men from 8 Platoon, Privates Jim Craw,55 Leo Clark,56 John Davies,57 Sam Green-slade58 and Dave Spring,59 out at dusk to occupy a house known to be used by German patrols. No. 7 Platoon had watched the house all day without seeing any Germans but, soon after the patrol had left, the men saw eighteen Germans enter the house. Fortunately, Rothera took all precautions and, as a member of the patrol recorded later, ‘Leaving the others to give covering fire and watch the flanks, Jack, Leo and Dave advanced on the house. When about 25 yards from the house, we observed a German machine gun post in a barn and some quick shooting enabled us to shoot first and silence this position. The Jerries at the house immediately fired flare signals and an artillery and mortar concentration came down but away behind us. We continued shooting it out with the Jerries who fired from the roof and from the building. We succeeded in silencing all their fire. From the cries of the wounded Jerries, our patrol could be counted as being very successful, especially as our casualties were nil.’page 315
The revelation that the New Zealanders had taken the initiative, together with the clearer moonlight nights, put a stop to aggressive patrolling by the Germans. This experience of ‘static warfare’ under Italian winter conditions was not without its effect on morale. The weather and the impossibility of cross-country movement by the tanks had made a mockery of General Montgomery's early December message in which he had confidently claimed that ‘having smashed through the enemy's winter line, we are now well placed to tackle the enemy in the open’. Already the men in the battalion realised that the early talk of a mobile role and exploitation on the plains of Lombardy had been wildly optimistic and that only hard slogging lay ahead. The boundless confidence of the approach to fighting in Italy was being replaced by a grim determination and a realistic appreciation of the general situation, in which Italy was becoming of secondary importance.
The 23rd was more than pleased to be relieved by 1 Royal Sussex before midnight on 15 January. The move back to the trucks entailed a march down Sfasciata, which was in a worse state than ever before. When he wrote up his diary, Somerville gave up trying to find words to describe that night march: ‘It would be useless to try and make people understand about that march. 3 miles odd took 4 hours and was over knees in mud practically all the way.’ But this was the end of the fighting on the Adriatic coast for some time because the New Zealanders were soon to be switched to the other side of Italy, where it was hoped ground and climatic conditions would favour attacking forces more.
1 Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War, Vol. II, p. 222 et seq and p. 328 et seq deal with the furlough and the later replacement scheme.
9 From 6 June to 31 July 1943.
10 Maj-Gen Sir Keith Stewart, KBE, CB, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO I NZ Div, 1940–41; DCGS 1941–43; comd 5 Bde Aug-Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943-Mar 1944, 5 Bde Mar-Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) 1945–46; Adjutant-General, NZ Military Forces, 1946–49; CGS 1949–52.
32 No barrage was fired on the 23rd front, only concentrations.
34 Defensive fire.
35 2 Lt T. O. Toner; Balclutha; born Doyleston, 7 Nov 1914; driver; twice wounded.
50 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Hal-combe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn and Armd Regt Jul 1942-Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep-Nov 1944; 5 Bde Nov 1944-Jan 1945, May 1945-Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1949–53; Commander, Northern Military District, 1953–57; Central Military District, 1957-.
53 2 Lt F. Fielding; born 1 Apr 1919; clerk; wounded 15 Dec 1944.