27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 17 — The Sangro River
The Sangro River
The convoy entered Taranto harbour on the morning of 9 October and at midday the troops began to disembar by lighter. They dumped their baggage and two-gallon water cans before marching in single file through the dirty, narrow streets. Their camp site, about three miles from the port, was on an old feudal estate covered by acres of olive groves. There had been rain a couple of days previously and it was good to smell damp earth again.
The advance party, Captain Aislabie and Sergeant-Major Quirk,1 who had left Burg el Arab at very short notice on 24 September, had marked out the battalion area and obtained some 44-gallon drums for ovens, firewood, and a 700-gallon tank for water. A Group's baggage party did not arrive before nightfall, so many slept in their greatcoats under the olives. Fortunately the weather was fine, but the mosquitoes were troublesome; proper precautions would have to be taken against malaria.
Bivvies, cookhouses and orderly rooms were erected next day. Italians came into the camp to sell sweet white grapes for about threepence (five lire) a pound, dried figs at a shilling a pound, and wine at four lire a pint—‘very poor stuff, rather sour and stains the teeth and tongue a bright blue.’
The guns arrived and training was started on the 11th, but was interrupted by rain. During a thunderstorm the lightning exploded many of the barrage balloons over Taranto; they flashed brilliantly before sinking in flames. A sudden, brief deluge brought water into many bivvies and set their occupants scurrying about in the mud diverting small streams. Another violent storm destroyed more barrage balloons; the lightning flashed and flickered, the thunder cracked, boomed and roared, and the torrential rain flooded the camp, washed out many bivvies, soaked bedding and clothing, and held up training for two days.
Platoons and companies went for route marches and long carries across country, among a network of low stone walls and through olive groves where the green wheat was shooting up page 355 among the trees, and sage and thyme scented the air. At the villages the marchers were followed by hordes of indescribably filthy children begging for cigarettes and matches. ‘We clattered through, hobnailed boots sliding on the greasy stones, scattered fowls and pigeons right and left…. Goats, dogs and pigs disappeared into dark doorways.’
Men visiting Taranto on leave explored ‘a maze of uneven cobbled alleys about twelve feet wide, which wind up and downhill and meander aimlessly among the buildings…. Over all there was that familiar smell which is a concentration of the odours of cooking, unwashed humanity, roasted nuts and sweetmeats, bedding, olive oil and general airlessness and lack of sanitation and drainage.’
Naples had fallen to the United States Fifth Army (which included a British corps), and in early November, when the New Zealand Division moved north to Eighth Army in the Adriatic sector, the German winter line stretched across the narrowest part of the peninsula from the mouth of the Garigliano River (north-west of Naples) over the Apennines to the northern bank of the Sangro River. The Division was to relieve 8 Indian Division near Atessa, which would allow 5 Corps to concentrate near the coast preparatory to forming a bridgehead over the Sangro. If the attack went well, the New Zealanders were to push northwards to Chieti, which would open the way for a westward drive on Rome, the objective of both Eighth and Fifth Armies.
The trucks were still trickling in from Bari on the 15th when 4 Company set out from Taranto. As soon as they were loaded, the trucks were sent away in groups to a staging area near Corato, beyond Altamura, and next day the complete company continued on through Foggia, which had received a battering, and past Lucera to join 6 Brigade at La Torre.
Most of the places passed on the way were ‘a mass of signs and numbers with arrows painted all over the walls and boards nailed up to posts and trees. Every unit,’ Second-Lieutenant Moss2 observed, ‘seems to have independently marked the route from Taranto to the front line with its own hieroglyphics and page 356 occasionally we had quite a job sorting out our own black diamond.’
Sixth Brigade had to extricate many bogged vehicles before it could get away on the 17th, and then made very slow progress on wet, narrow and crowded roads. The enemy had demolished the masonry bridges, and there were maddening delays at the one-way Bailey bridges erected in their place. After bivouacking for a few hours near Gissi (about five miles beyond Furci) 4 Company was away again on the 18th.
‘We are up in the hills now with clumps of oats dotted over the grassy slopes,’ wrote Moss. ‘After putting chains on the rear wheels of all the vehicles … our rate of advance is even slower than yesterday…. With the country getting steeper and more broken the roads are becoming tortuous and the gradients stiffer. Jerry demolitions are more frequent and in a couple of places where viaducts have been blown our engineers have constructed a diversion at the maximum grade, some trucks with rear axle drive only requiring to be winched up. This morning a few enemy shells were coming over onto a bridge which had been left intact, but now that battery seems to have been silenced. The gun trucks arrived at their destination [near Atessa, about 5 a.m. on the 19th] after covering about 20 miles since 8 the previous morning. They are on the forward slope overlooking the Sangro so they won't be able to move much in daylight.’
At dusk 6 Brigade moved into the line to take over part of 19 Indian Brigade's sector. Because of the state of the roads it was impossible to use vehicles and everybody had to go on foot; this was especially exacting for the mortar and machine-gun platoons, which had to carry their weapons five or six miles. The Vickers accompanied each battalion, 10 Platoon going with the 24th on the left, 11 Platoon with the 25th in the centre, and 12 Platoon with the 26th on the right; they were established along the line of the Strada Sangritana, the road which runs along the lower slopes of the hills on the southern side of the valley. The narrow river flat in front was thickly cultivated with olive groves, vineyards and orchards; the river itself, unbridged in this vicinity, ran swiftly in several channels between shingle banks; on the other side, beyond marshy ground, was another road, overlooked by steep hills and in places almost vertical cliffs.
The first shots by the New Zealand machine-gunners in Italy were fired by 10 Platoon in the afternoon of 21 November. It page 357 was too hazy to observe the result of 4000 rounds fired in half an hour at a hill across the river where patrols had located spandaus. The artillery was also in action, and the enemy guns retaliated. In the evening, when 12 Platoon did a shoot on selected targets, the sound, which echoed in the hills and gullies, could be recognised easily as Vickers fire but was very hard to locate.
Meanwhile the remainder of the battalion moved up towards the front, and 2 Company also came under 6 Brigade's command. It was intended that the brigade should cross the Sangro on the night of 23–24 November, but heavy rain had brought a rise in the level of the river and a 24-hour postponement was ordered. The water continued to rise until it was neck-high in places and so swift that men, while patrolling, were swept off their feet. The attack was cancelled. Fifth Brigade, with 1 and 3 Companies in support, was then brought into the line on the right (east) of the 6th.
The cancellation of 6 Brigade's attack meant that 2 Company could be used for another task: it was to cross the Sangro on 24 November to support 19 Indian Brigade (on the Division's left flank) in the Sant’ Angelo-Altino area.
Major Moore examined the approaches with Lieutenant- Colonel MacDuff. The only way for trucks was a road running parallel with the river as far as a blown culvert, where the German guns had knocked out half a dozen vehicles. It would be necessary to walk another 2000 yards to a large bridge upstream from the confluence of the Sangro and Aventino rivers. Half of this concrete bridge had been demolished and was lying in the water without being covered by it; the remaining spans had been knocked about by the shelling and the decking was about two feet wide in one place. The troops the machine-gunners had to support were on a hill about half a mile beyond the bridge, on which the German artillery was still dropping concentrations.
The OC and Lieutenant McLenaghin3 (5 Platoon) and Second-Lieutenant Macartney (6 Platoon) set off from the company soon after midday, followed not long afterwards by these two platoons. Their gear was ferried in jeeps as far as the blown culvert. The men, who had cut down their personal gear to a bare minimum—one day's rations and a waterproof cape— and distributed the loads so that each carried 60 pounds of page 358 equipment and ammunition, walked along the road in single file at good intervals.
‘As we started to scramble over the bridge,’ says Moore, ‘Jerry got to work, and threw unpleasantness of assorted types at us. … I was proud of those boys, many of them new reinforcements, but laden as they were with no show of taking cover, they calmly kept their distance apart….’ After crossing the rubble of the demolished spans they had to climb ten feet to the decking. There Corporal Dryden4 kept them moving between shellbursts and assisted them to clamber up. When Corporal Laurence5 and Private Mitchell6 were hit, he helped them to safety. His coolness in a situation that might possibly have led to panic earned him the MM.
‘When I arrived at the top of the hill,’ Moore continues, ‘I just about tripped over half a dozen Tommies and about twenty yards further on six Huns all stiff. So I wandered on up the track in the direction where the unit I was to contact was supposed to be. About a hundred yards further on came across another bunch of about twenty assorted corpses. Couldn't help thinking it would be nice to find someone who was alive and could tell you what was what. However found the unit [an Essex battalion] soon afterwards and proceeded to get settled in. The poor devils of Tommies had just about had it when we arrived, they'd done a grand job, but had been rather severely mauled.’
These two platoons of 2 Company were the first New Zealand troops to be established across the Sangro. They dug in on the hillside near Sant' Angelo, and next morning moved to less exposed positions, where they were shelled and mortared during the next two or three days. The rest of the company (including 4 Platoon), back at Perano, was also shelled and lost a vehicle or two. Carrying parties took rations and ammunition up to 5 and 6 Platoons at night.
‘In common with most other units this was to be the baptism of fire for over a third of 1 Coy,’ says Captain Gibson. ‘The Ruapehu Draft had taken all the veterans including most of the senior Section Comds and these had been replaced by reinforcements from 3 Div and New Zealand who had seen little action if any. In addition many of the NCOs in the Coy had been recently promoted and the Coy organisation had been so altered that it was anticipated that it would take at least one action to settle the Pls down.’
The crossing of the Sangro River, 27–28 November 1943
At zero hour, 2.45 a.m., the artillery began its covering fire programme, and 3 Company, reinforced by 4 Platoon, from positions forward of the Strada Sangritana, and 2 Platoon, from Monte Marcone, engaged enemy strongpoints and other targets in the hills across the river. The field-gun flashes illuminated the low cloud. The Vickers could be heard during lulls in the gunfire.
The infantry, followed closely by the supporting machine-gunners, took some time to climb the cliffs, and met their first opposition, mortar and small-arms fire, in the high country beyond. A spandau which troubled 3 Platoon while it was struggling up the slippery tracks was silenced by Sergeant Adair,8 a reinforcement NCO who was commissioned in the field a few weeks later.
On the extreme right 23 Battalion occupied the hill (Point 208) which was its objective. ‘To reach 208 & D Coy,’ wrote Second-Lieutenant Grace9 (1 Platoon), ‘we had to proceed … for 1200 yds, all up hill. The first 150 yds was just sheer & it was 2 hrs before the last man had got to the top owing to having to cross 2 deep ditches & make headway on slippery ground. At 0530 hrs we finally reached D Coy HQ & every man was exhausted…. Then followed frenzied digging in before first light.’
Grace was told that there was an infantry platoon on the right of Point 208 and another on the left, and agreed to send a section of Vickers to each to help beat off any counter-attack. He was also told that two Bren guns to the left of the church at the top of the hill and the mortars on the reverse slope could cover some dead ground in front.
By 6.45 a.m. No. 1 Section was dug in on the right of the church, where it covered the battalion's open flank, and No. 2 Section on the western (left) side with an arc of fire across the flanking 23 Battalion's front. When there was sufficient light to page 362 see the ground, Grace discovered that only two infantry pits were with No. 1 Section, which was on a forward slope, and the rest of the infantrymen were on the reverse slope ‘with a field of fire of anything up to 20 yards’; nor could the two Bren guns cover the dead ground in front. He immediately reported this to 23 Battalion's CO (Lieutenant-Colonel Romans), and it was agreed to move the Vickers section at dusk.
Captain Gibson had just reached 23 Battalion and was about 50 yards from the church on his way to inspect No. 1 Section when he heard a burst of firing over the ridge and half a dozen men ‘popped out of the church and charged down towards me yelling “counterattack”. I beat a hasty retreat over to the left where the other section was desperately trying to turn its guns around to face the threat, and then as the firing had stopped, moved further around until I could see across the forward slope, arriving there just in time to see the unfortunate [No. 1] section escorted by about four jerries disappearing into cover at the foot of the hill. No. 3 Pl [on 21 Battalion's right flank, with a good field of fire to the front and across a gap to the 23rd] then opened up on two of the patrol who were apparently covering the withdrawal. One of these appeared to roll over as they too disappeared but I could not say whether he had been hit.’
Corporal Harnett,10 one of the captured machine-gunners, says that Sergeant Baume,11 in charge of the section, had been under the impression that the church was occupied by an artillery OP and a mortar officer who would warn them of any threat from that quarter. The section had been troubled by machine-gun fire from some houses about half a mile in front. ‘We engaged a couple of targets & then there was odd firing … which we couldn't locate … while trying to do this we were surprised from the rear area that the house [church] was in so we could only conclude the OP officer & mortar officer hadn't arrived there.’
The German patrol had approached unobserved, rushed the infantry pits, killing three men and capturing one, and swept round from the left directly behind No. 1 Section. In the ensuing skirmish Privates Farndon12 and Aylwood13 were page 363 wounded, and they and ten others were taken prisoner.14 ‘It was a brilliant piece of patrol work,’ says Gibson, ‘and no doubt iron crosses were duly issued all round.’ Only one man escaped; utterly exhausted after the night's exertions, he had slept soundly in his hole right through the action.
Meanwhile 12 Platoon had gone into position with 26 Battalion on Colle Scorticacane, 11 with the 25th on a ridge between Castellata and the Gogna stream, and 10 with the 24th on Colle Marabella. To reach this hill 10 Platoon walked along the road, avoiding some S-mines on the way, and crossed the bridge over the Gogna. While the infantry were completing the occupation of Taverna Nova (south of Marabella), the machine-gunners captured seven Germans who were trying to escape: when Marabella had been cleared, they dug in on the eastern slope and fired a few belts at some Germans retreating up the Gogna valley and ‘gave them a hurry up.’
By midday, when 3 Company was ordered to cross the river, the engineers had erected a Bailey bridge (‘Heartbeat’ bridge), but the German guns and aircraft made it a place to avoid. The company's vehicles were withdrawn from the vicinity and unloaded, and the men began a long carry. Some of them crossed the bridge safely; the others had difficulty in fording the river with their guns and stores, and one gun was lost.
While reconnoitring for gun positions Lieutenant Campbell15 was killed, Sergeant Wood16 mortally wounded, Major Hume (OC 4 Company, also in the party) wounded, and Lieutenant Blue slightly injured by an S-mine explosion.
Captain Pleasants's wireless truck and Sergeant-Major Johnstone's ammunition truck, the latter loaded to capacity, set out to cross the river early in the evening, and after an exhausting struggle in the mud, eventually reached their destination before dawn. By midnight on the 29th, after the route had been altered and repaired, the gun trucks were also across.
The enemy had been able to see the Sangro bridges and direct his fire on them from the 1000-foot Colle Barone, west of page 364 Marabella, until the afternoon of the 29th when 24 Battalion occupied this hill. Towards dusk 10 Platoon carried its guns to the top and occupied a really commanding position, overlooked only by the snow-capped, 9000-foot Montagna della Maiella several miles to the west.
The 19th Indian Brigade was withdrawn from the Division's western flank on 30 November, and 2 Company was left holding the area that had been occupied by the Essex and Punjab battalions. In an infantry role 4 Platoon was brought across the river from Perano, and Lieutenant Titchener arranged his patrols and posts to suit 5 and 6 Platoons’ fire positions.
Early in the afternoon a patrol of eight men, with Titchener in command and also including Lieutenant McLenaghin, set out for Casoli. They wore no badges of rank and carried no papers that might give away information; they were armed with two Bren guns, four tommy guns and two rifles, plus two grenades for each man. Titchener had been told, correctly or not he did not know, that an Indian patrol had been captured in Casoli. ‘I might add,’ he declares, ‘that as we were Machine Gunners this patrolling business did not appeal very much…. Before we set out an Italian who spoke English, informed us that the Germans had vacated or were vacating Casoli, and he offered to take us there by a back-road. I accepted his offer and we proceeded. There were no enemy in the first village [Altino] so we moved to Casoli.’ The Italian led the way, with Titchener armed with a tommy gun immediately behind him, ‘waiting to deal with him if the whole thing was a trap.’
The patrol descended a steep hill and then climbed what McLenaghin describes as ‘an incredibly steep hill which we had to do in stages marvelling all the while at the untiring pace of our guide a short stumpy man…. At last on reaching the top we were greeted by a farmer and his family, offered chairs and given a glass of wine each…. We moved on again however, and, refusing further repeated offers of wine and food came within the environs of the town. We walked quietly down the main street—it is a big town of 9000 inhabitants—each of us covering the opposite side of the street with our Tommy Guns, and at first the people did not seem to realise who we were. Then suddenly it struck them. They rushed out, shook our hands and as we neared the centre of the town started clapping, cheering and many of the women wept. I felt damned embarrassed.page 365
‘We made our way through the ever thickening crowd … and finally arrived at the centre of the town…. After posting a sentry we climbed [a tower] and saw before us the Aventino and a tributary running across our front. The Jerry was apparently just across the river a couple of thousand yards away…. We suddenly heard the old express train of an approaching shell and a smoke went off over on our left front. Another struck our right front so we decided that there were too many of us up on the tower so leaving one man on watch we came down.’
The patrol went beyond the town and saw that a bridge on the road leading towards the enemy lines had been destroyed, but one across the Aventino and another across the tributary were still intact. ‘We could see about six German Engineers on the left hand bridge preparing to blow it up—kneeling down and placing the charges. We had a swift council of war and reluctantly decided that we could not afford to take the risk of making an attack against the engineer people in view of the local people's report of Spandau nests just above it. On reflection too we realised that the destruction of that particular bridge was of little importance to our advance so, after finding out as much as possible in the way of information about gun positions etc we withdrew to the town again. Here we decided to stay the night.’
Titchener sent Sergeant Wallace17 and two men back to 2 Company to bring up a wireless set, more men and an artillery OP so that the guns could shell the German working parties. Titchener's patrol was too small to prevent the enemy from re-entering Casoli. ‘I was informed,’ he says, ‘that the anti- Fascist inhabitants had been placed in jail. Through the Baron orders were given that these anti-Fascists were to be released and any Fascists to be put in Jail. The anti-Fascists were then used as patrols on the outskirts of the village. Exactly how all the weapons were produced I cannot explain nor did I enquire. These patrols continued until late in the night.’ Titchener and his men dined with the baron and his family.
Wallace returned with a message that the patrol was to withdraw immediately. ‘I had estimated that the patrol would be back by 1500 hrs,’ says Major Moore. ‘You can imagine my feelings when at 2100 Sgt Wallace brought me the news that they had gone as far as Casoli about 12 kilos away, and wanted page 366 me to reinforce them. I rang Div HQ and asked what I should do and was told to withdraw the patrol at once. I had previously found out from P.O.Ws and Italians that came in to us that afternoon that two villages to the north & west of us each had about 90 German paratroops. Our strength at that time was 90–100 across the river…. we were as thin as smoke on the ground we had to cover.’
Titchener's patrol, therefore, arrived back at the company in a very early hour on 1 December.
Later that day 2 Company was withdrawn across the Sangro. Some 5 Platoon men commandeered two handcarts to take their gear to the river. Unfortunately one of the carts ran over a mine and the explosion killed Private Hewlett18 and wounded four others.
The New Zealand infantry infiltrated farther into the hills north of the Sangro, and after each fresh position had been taken up, the supporting Vickers platoons were dug in and ready to fire at the earliest possible moment. This was a fairly easy time for 3 Company, which was used mainly in counter-penetration roles. Its platoons went into the gunpits vacated by the platoons attached to the battalion. ‘This saved our boys a lot of digging,’ says Captain Pleasants. ‘Also earned them some abuse from those who left the pits knowing they were to dig others the same night.’ By keeping in close touch with the battalion commanders, 3 Company was able to assist with some shooting. Lieutenant Barwick19 (9 Platoon) was severely wounded by shellfire.
Before dawn on 2 December 24 Battalion occupied Castelfrentano, and 10 Platoon was ordered to a position on the other page 368 side of the town. Moss arranged for the guns and ammunition to be taken in a captured German tracked vehicle, while the men went on foot. In the town the people ‘cheered and saluted and gave the V sign, and old ladies even kissed our hands … they brought out vino and plates of figs and apples and made us feel quite embarrassed with their attentions.’
The platoon went into position to support a further advance, which was unopposed, and later in the day was relieved by 7 Platoon. Meanwhile 11 Platoon had joined 25 Battalion, which reached Route 84 west of Castelfrentano, and 12 Platoon the 26th, which moved up to the outskirts of the town on the eastern side; after climbing a precipitous slope, 1 and 3 Platoons went into position with 23 and 21 Battalions on a plateau north-west of the town, and later 2 Platoon was brought up with the Maori Battalion to that locality; Battalion Headquarters was established in a house in Castelfrentano, and 2 Company also crossed the Sangro.
7 The officers of the battalion on 27 Nov 1943 were:
CO: Lt-Col J. L. MacDuff
2 i/c: Maj L. A. Joseph
Adj: Capt C. A. Newland
IO: Lt O. J. Hatton
QM: Lt R. L. McIntvre
Sigs: 2 Lt E. T. Couch
MO: Capt A. W. S. Ritchie
Padre: Rev. A. H. Finlay
OC: Capt C. M. H. Gibson
2 i/c: Lt D. B. Beard
1 Pl: 2 Lt M. P. Grace
2 Pl: Lt E. Y. M. Hutchinson
3 Pl: 2 Lt W. S. Nicol
OC: Maj I. S. Moore
2 i/c: Capt W. R. Aislabie
4 Pl: Lt W. F. Titchener
5 Pl: Lt H. E. McLenaghin
6 Pl: 2 Lt L. C. Macartney
OC: Capt G. B. C. Pleasants
2 i/c: Capt J. T. H. Halkett
7 Pl: Lt N. G. ‘Blue
8 Pl: Lt L. W. Campbell
9 Pl: Lt B. C. Barwick
OC: Maj K. H. Hume
2 i/c: Capt D. W. Farquharson
10 Pl: 2 Lt B. C. H. Moss
11 Pl: Lt A. R. Cramond
12 Pl: 2 Lt M. C. Sellars
att: 2 Lt M. K. Hanan, 2 Lt J. H. Jackson, 2 Lt I. R. Watson. Lt L. Morgan soon afterwards succeeded McIntyre as QM.
14 While the prisoners were being loaded into cattle trucks at Aquila on 8 Dec 1943 the RAF bombed the station. Sgt Baume and Ptes I. B. Anderson, C. W. Guinness, L. A. Hickman and C. Smart were killed. The others made off into the hills but were recaptured.