Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II
310 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence
General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence
I have the honour to report that the 2nd New Zealand Division has been in action in Italy. Your Division rejoined the Eighth Army in November and has just taken part in the offensive which forced a crossing of the Sangro and broke through the enemy's winter line.
In conditions completely different from those we were used to in North Africa, your Division carried out a most difficult operation in a way which showed that the veterans of the desert and the men who had not seen action before have become a well-balanced fighting formation, excellently equipped and trained for this campaign in Europe.
The preliminary fighting in the advance to the Sangro River, across difficult country in very bad weather, was carried out by an Indian brigade under our command, supported by our tanks and artillery. Fighting rearguard actions, to which the German Army is now well accustomed, the enemy contested each river valley and hilltop village through which the Italian roads wend their way. Not only had the enemy rearguards to be dislodged but demolitions on a grand scale had to be bridged; in some places vehicles were winched through one by one until firm ground was reached. Trucks slipped and got bogged in the sea of mud and at times it seemed impossible that the blocks in the mass of transport would be cleared. Neither weather nor enemy rearguards, however, stopped the advance and our whole force with all its transport, tanks, and guns was brought forward over the narrow mountain roads.
At the approaches to the Sangro River enemy resistance stiffened. British and Indian infantry of the Indian infantry brigade, supported by tanks of our 19th Armoured Regiment and by our Artillery, carried out a most gallant attack, crossed the upper reaches of the river, and captured the high ground from which the enemy had been able to observe our movements and bring down artillery fire.
South of the Sangro River our 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades under Brigadiers Kippenberger and Parkinson deployed for the next phase in the battle. Then heavy rain fell again, brought the river to flood level, and delayed our attack. Apart from the weather the operation was most difficult, as the wide riverbed is dominated by the commanding heights of the north bank. The plan was to carry out a night attack, and the troops were waiting ready for the river to fall. On 26 November the weather improved.page 280
The battle of the Sangro opened along the Eighth Army front on the night of the 27th, with the New Zealand Division on the left flank. Moving forward in pitch dark, our infantry crossed the river with the aid of ropes, formed up on the north bank at two in the morning, and assaulted the heights. This attack by the 5th and 6th Brigades under an artillery barrage on a front of 6000 yards was brilliantly carried out. The enemy was driven from all our objectives, leaving many dead and over 300 prisoners behind. In the riverbed itself the engineers worked all night and next day under intense shellfire, making tracks through and building bridges to get supporting arms and tanks across to secure the bridgehead. Until the bridges were completed only a few tanks could be got across owing to mud and quicksands, but before the enemy had recovered from the initial surprise the artillery was brought forward and the infantry again advanced. A daylight infantry attack on high ground took the enemy by surprise and Castelfrentano was occupied. By the capture of this hill town on the highest ridge overlooking the Sangro River, both the 5th and 6th Brigades established themselves astride Kesselring's much-vaunted winter line.
There can be no doubt that the enemy intended to hold his defensive system covering the line of the River Sangro. It was very strong, consisting of deep reinforced trenches and dugouts, a complete communication-trench system, and electrically lit living quarters, and the whole system was covered by extensive minefields and barbed wire. The men who stormed it would look back with satisfaction from this natural fortress of hills and skilfully planned defences and realise what they had achieved.
While your Division attacked along the high ground, other formations, supported by the powerful Allied Air Force, advanced on the coastal sector; the Eighth Army broke through the German line on a wide front. The battle of the Sangro is an important step forward, but the enemy is still fighting back hard, and I must warn the New Zealand Government that heavy fighting lies ahead before the enemy is driven north of Rome.
May I quote in this despatch a letter I have just received from the Army Commander referring to the part played by your Division in the battle:
I would like to congratulate the 2nd New Zealand Division on the splendid achievement of the last few days. Since the Division came into the battle line of the Eighth Army after a long absence, it has been faced with the forces of nature and by a determined enemy in strongly prepared positions. The Division has dealt with the forces of nature and with the enemy in a manner that is beyond all praise. The part played by New Zealand troops in the battle of the Sangro should make all those in the home country very proud of their soldiers serving in Italy.page 281
Please tell your officers and men how pleased I am with what they have done. Further tasks lie ahead but, having smashed through the enemy's winter line, we are now well placed to tackle the enemy in the open. Good luck to you all.
(Signed) B. L. Montgomery,
General, Eighth Army
I am writing this account in my office truck in the forward area waiting for the bombardment of another attack to open. The moon is full. It is a cold, overcast winter night. Conditions are hard, but everyone is in excellent spirits, and I am glad to report that in spite of strong enemy resistance our losses to date have not been unduly heavy.