Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: The Pursuit to Sora
II: The Pursuit to Sora
The valley of the Melfa ‘was bright green, cut by the silver ribbon of the river weaving its way through a carpet of blood-red poppies.’1 From the far side of the river near Atina a road led northward through San Donato to join Route 83 at Opi, in the upper Sangro valley; another led north-westward to join Route 82 at Sora, in the upper Liri valley. Routes 82 and 83 continued on through the mountains to Alveo del Lago di Fucino, a large oval plain reclaimed from a lake in the nineteenth century. Route 5, which crossed the peninsula from Rome to Pescara, was joined on the northern edge of the Fucino basin by Route 82 at the town of Avezzano and by Route 83 farther east. Other roads led northward again.
After 51 Mountain Corps' withdrawal on the night of 26–27 May, 1 Parachute Division, on the southern flank, blocked the junction of Routes 6 and 82 at Arce; 44 Division held a line which extended north-eastwards to the Atina-Sora road below Monte Morrone, and 5 Mountain Division continued this line across the Atina-Opi road to make contact with 114 Light Division.
Although 1 Parachute Division had checked the British advance towards Arce, 51 Corps anticipated a heavy assault on this flank, and as it had few anti-tank weapons and considered the present line unsuitable for prolonged defence, requested Tenth Army's permission for a further withdrawal. Army replied by directing the corps to extend 5 Mountain Division towards the Sora-Balsorano valley (part of the upper Liri valley through which Route 82 passed on the way to Avezzano), so that 44 Division could release reinforcements for 1 Parachute Division. The corps therefore ordered 44 Division to pull out two battalions and send them to 1 Parachute Division, which ‘would leave a wide gap in 44 Div's FDLs, but that could not be helped.’2
The first of the brigade's troops crossed the Melfa River during the night. Patrols from C Company, 21 Battalion, reconnoitring north of Atina, discovered an easy crossing place—it was only a shallow stream—near the wrecked bridge, and after midnight the whole company took up a defensive position on the far side. A small patrol sent to investigate a side road leading towards the village of Gallinaro ran into small-arms fire and withdrew.
The engineers working under 7 Field Company opened the Sant' Elia – Atina road for tracked vehicles early on the 28th, and during the morning Staghound armoured cars of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, under 5 Brigade's direct command, reached Atina. Later in the day, when further work on the road made it usable for trucks, 28 (Maori) Battalion motored through from Sant' Elia in a platoon of 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company's trucks. The convoy drove past Atina to disperse near the river. ‘The sun shining on the lorries' windscreens heliographed the arrival of the column to the observant enemy. A sighting smoke shell was followed by high explosive and there were a dozen casualties… before the troops scattered.’2 Several vehicles were hit.
The engineers constructed a ford over the Melfa, which was passable by armoured cars and tracked vehicles by about 6 p.m. on the 28th, and began work on an 80-foot Bailey bridge, which they completed during the night; in addition their mine-clearing parties began sweeping the road towards Sora. The 21st Battalion concentrated just beyond the river in preparation for resuming the advance, which did not get under way until late afternoon. Four tanks of the Divisional Protective Troop and armoured cars of C Squadron of Divisional Cavalry followed when the ford was ready, but were hindered by demolitions.
B Company of 21 Battalion, which took the lead, had as its objective the village of Vicalvi, on the southern slopes of Monte Morrone, about half-way between Atina and Sora; A Company was directed on Alvito, a mile or two east of Vicalvi; D Company was given the task of getting on to Monte Morrone, which rose to a height of 3000 feet behind the two villages.
B Company met a German rearguard after crossing the Mollo stream, just beyond the Melfa, and took 17 prisoners. The company continued along the Sora road until it came under shellfire shortly before reaching the road which branched off to Alvito. The men took to the fields, ‘where they had to push through shoulder-high wheat crops,’1 and spent the remainder of the night in a large building. A Company halted below Alvito while a platoon reconnoitred to the outskirts of the village without meeting opposition. D Company was pinned down for an hour by shellfire near the turn-off to Alvito, and later headed towards Morrone along a track between Vicalvi and Alvito.
1 Cody, 21 Battalion, p. 342.
In the afternoon D Company's troops on Monte Morrone were counter-attacked by about a company of Germans and, as they were running out of ammunition, were obliged to withdraw. Artillery fire was laid on the crest and reverse slopes, but as the enemy appeared to be in strength in a valley north of Alvito, no attempt was made to retake Morrone. Four tanks of the Divisional Protective Troop accompanied B Company into Vicalvi, and a troop of B Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, followed A Company into Alvito. A few tanks and Staghounds covered an advance by this company, reinforced by a platoon from D Company, to occupy high ground above the village. At dusk, however, the enemy had not been cleared completely from houses north of Alvito.
On 28 and 29 May 21 Battalion had taken 39 prisoners from units of 5 Mountain Division and 44 Division, and had sustained 16 casualties, including three killed. Divisional Cavalry had lost three armoured cars on mines, without casualties to their crews.
General Freyberg decided to switch 5 Brigade's attack to the left to bypass the opposition at Monte Morrone. The enemy could not be expected to hold this isolated position once his withdrawal route to Sora had been cut. Brigadier Stewart therefore ordered 21 Battalion with its supporting tanks, a section of Vickers machine guns and 5 Brigade's heavy mortar (4·2-inch) platoon to establish a defensive line from Alvito to Vicalvi while 28 Battalion was brought up to its left to continue the advance to Sora.
The topography at Sora bore some resemblance to that at Cassino: the town was overlooked by a hill capped with a castle, behind which rose a 3000-foot mountain (Colle Sant' Angelo); and through it passed the main road (Route 82) and the railway at the southern entrance to the steep-sided valley of the upper Liri River.
While 5 Brigade was occupying Atina and thrusting along the dusty road towards Sora, 6 Brigade continued its slow progress towards Atina from the east. The 25th Battalion paused at San Biagio while the road was cleared of demolitions to permit the tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, and the supporting arms to join the infantry. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel page 62 Hutchens1) moved up from the Volturno valley and assembled at La Selva, where on 28 May it relieved 5 Parachute Battalion of responsibility for its sector. The parachute battalion returned to its own brigade, which was no longer under New Zealand command.
From the rocky hilltop on which San Biagio was situated the winding road descended steeply into the valley of the Mollarino stream, which flowed into the Melfa near Atina, about eight miles distant. The enemy had obstructed the road in so many places by destroying or damaging bridges and culverts, blowing craters and laying mines, that it would take the sappers (parties from 8 Field Company and 572 Company, RE) several days to clear, even with the assistance of other troops from 6 Brigade. General Freyberg suggested that, as the road was so badly damaged, the brigade should move back through Casale and Acquafondata and use the Sant' Elia – Atina route. After some discussion this idea was abandoned because the San Biagio road, when cleared, would be a valuable alternative route, and because the engineers estimated that it would be cleared in less time than it would take 6 Brigade to go by the other route, which was already in full use by the transport supplying 5 Brigade and might also be wanted for 4 Armoured Brigade.
Pleasants Force, which no longer served a purpose, was disbanded on 29 May: its headquarters staff and 22 (Motor) Battalion returned to 4 Brigade's command, and 1/5 Essex went to reserve under 2 NZ Division's command. Fourth Brigade had been ordered the previous day to bring all its available units forward to Sant' Elia. Arrangements were made for 534 Tank Transporter Company, RASC, to operate a shuttle service over the long and difficult route from Pietramelara, and by dusk on the 29th most of the tanks of 19 and 20 Armoured Regiments had arrived. The 20th Regiment (less A Squadron with 6 Brigade) was ordered to join its B Squadron under 5 Brigade's command, and by the morning of the 30th had accomplished the move through Belmonte and Atina.
1 Lt-Col R. L. Hutchens, DSO, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Paris; born Hawera, 26 Nov 1914; civil servant; CO 27 (MG) Bn Feb–May 1944; 26 Bn May–Jun 1944; 24 Bn Jun 1944–May 1945; wounded 21 Jul 1942; High Commissioner for New Zealand in Singapore, 1959–62; NZ Ambassador to France, 1965–.
The Prime Minister spent a week with the Division, during which he visited all formations. On 31 May he called at Divisional Headquarters, by that time well beyond Atina, ‘changed from a jeep to a staghound and with a protective troop went forward with the GOC towards Sora which is now in our hands…. Prime Minister spoke to Maoris in the forward area and was within 400 yards of a shell-burst. The last armoured car in the protective troop fired its 2-pdr in error just as the party started off. Fortunately it was pointing skywards.’2
On 28 May the British thrusting up the Liri valley threatened to overrun 1 Parachute Division near Arce and roll up 51 Mountain Corps' southern flank; the continuous bombing of German supply routes and the destruction of bridges caused traffic jams which prevented the delivery of ammunition; tanks were reported to be appearing north of Atina, and a push on Sora was expected.
The threat to the line of communication across the front between Sora and Arce necessitated a change of command in Tenth Army: the formations on the southern flank, including 1 Parachute Division and a large part of 44 Division, were transferred to 14 Panzer Corps, which left 51 Corps with only the troops covering the withdrawal routes through Opi and Sora. At first Tenth Army wanted to put the whole of 44 Division under 14 Panzer Corps' command and to make 5 Mountain Division responsible for 44 Division's sector covering Sora and the valley to the north, but General Feurstein managed to get this altered so that 51 Corps kept HQ 44 Division and a few of its units; nevertheless he had to release the units already in 14 Panzer Corps' sector and a regimental headquarters and another battalion in addition. To defend the Sora-Balsorano section of the upper Liri valley, through which Route 82 passed on the way to Avezzano, 44 Division retained the headquarters and one battalion of 134 Regiment, one battalion of 132 Regiment, a light battery and an engineer battalion.
1 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Bde 1914–19 (CO 3 Bn); comd 4 Bde Jan 1940–Aug 1941; 2 NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr–27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces, Aug 1941–Dec 1945.
2 GOC's diary. Divisional Cavalry, p. 342, says somebody accidentally fired the 37-mm. gun of a Staghound.
Although Army Group C and Tenth Army were continually laying down lines on the map which were to be held at all costs, 51 Corps could only pretend that it was holding the latest of these lines or admit that it had already withdrawn behind it. The troops opposing the New Zealand advance probably were equivalent to one New Zealand brigade; they had few if any tanks (in any case, if they had tanks, they would have had to keep them well back to avoid getting them cut off by their own demolitions); they were short of anti-tank weapons, transport and ammunition, and were spread over a wide front in positions which often could not give mutual support.
Field Marshal Kesselring probably did the corps less than justice in a conversation with Vietinghoff and Wentzell in the evening of 29 May. ‘I get very unhappy,’ he said, ‘when I think how poor a fight 51 Mtn Corps has put up…. If the enemy is already getting trucks through past Atina, the demolitions there cannot have been thoroughly carried out. In that case I am afraid he will simply barge straight through at Sora and Alvito…. That sector must be reinforced more….’2
Tenth Army issued orders on the 29th for 14 Panzer Corps to prevent a breakthrough in the Sacco valley towards Frosinone and for 51 Corps to prevent a breakthrough in the Sora valley. The latter corps was to hold a line running north-eastward from Castelliri (near the Liri River) across the Atina-Sora road to a point north of Alvito, and then eastward across the Atina-Opi road towards the Sangro River. The 5th Mountain Division was given control of the mountains on the eastern side of the Balsorano valley, and the adjoining 44 Division was astride the valley south of Sora.
The commander of 5 NZ Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Stewart) gave orders in the evening of 29 May that 21 Battalion, with the support of the tanks, mortars and machine guns it already had, was to hold the Alvito-Vicalvi line; 2788 Field Squadron, RAF Regiment, was to relieve 23 Battalion in the Atina area and the 23rd was to concentrate north of the Melfa on the Atina-Sora road; and 28 (Maori) Battalion was to pass through the 21st and continue the advance towards Sora.
The Maori Battalion moved forward in the morning of the 29th to positions astride the Atina-Sora road south of the Alvito- Vicalvi line. After conferring with the Brigadier, Colonel Young gave instructions for the resumption of the advance in the evening: on the right C Company, followed by A, was to get on to Colle Monacesco, the high ground north of the bridge over the deep, silent Fibreno River, which crossed the valley two miles south of Sora; on the left D Company, followed by B, was to cover the bridge itself, which was known to have been blown up by the enemy, and occupy Colle Mastroianni, between the village of Fontechiari and the Fibreno. A troop of B Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, armoured cars of Divisional Cavalry, and sappers of 8 Field Company were to accompany the battalion.
When it was sufficiently dark on the evening of the 29th the Maori Battalion advanced towards the Fibreno River with C and A Companies along the main road and D and B travelling across country and along the road north of Fontechiari. By dawn on the 30th they were almost on their objectives. Men of C Company, who had met some slight opposition after passing Vicalvi, waded the waist-deep river and took up positions immediately north of the bridge; the other companies covered the south side.
The enemy had blown an 80-foot gap in the Fibreno bridge and a 60-foot gap in a bridge which crossed a stream at the junction of the roads from Atina and Fontechiari just south of the Fibreno. A bulldozer which had been working on the road through Fontechiari (where a cavalry patrol had been investigating an alternative route from Atina) came up to help on the Fibreno bridges, where work began as soon as reconnaissance proved that there were no suitable fords for tanks or trucks along this stretch of the river. As the daylight improved the bridges came under mortar and machine-gun fire, which made it difficult for the engineers to lay out their bridging equipment.
Headquarters 28 Battalion was set up at the road junction south of the river, where the tanks and other vehicles assembled to wait for the completion of the bridging. About 7 a.m. six aircraft with page 66 United States markings dive-bombed the assembly, causing damage to some of the vehicles and wounding two men. This incident was remarked upon with satisfaction by the enemy: ‘In the absence of German aircraft, our hard-pressed troops received support from Allied fighter-bombers, which attacked British troop concentrations in the Vicalvi area. Direct hits and fires were seen in tank and MT concentrations.’1
As it appeared that the passage of the vehicles across the Fibreno would be delayed until the enemy posts responsible for the mortar and machine-gun fire were driven back from the hill to the north (Colle Monacesco) and from the nearby village of Brocco, Colonel Young directed C and D Companies to clear this area while A extended to the west on the southern side of the river and B protected the headquarters area. C Company gained possession of the hill without opposition, but shortly after midday observed an enemy force forming up as if to counter-attack. About 30 or 40 Germans approached the company but ‘a volley from rifles and automatics mowed them down; very few escaped.’2 Obviously they had not expected to find hostile troops in the vicinity.
D Company, which was on the southern bank of the Fibreno some distance west of the bridge, was unable to find a passable ford, but borrowed a flat-bottomed boat from an Italian and ferried its men across. The company advanced towards Brocco ‘over stone terraces, through half-grown grape-vines, and around scattered houses. Fire was heavy but wild….’3 The Maoris suffered a few casualties, but the resistance died away and they entered the village to find that the enemy had left hurriedly.
By 2 p.m. the enemy fire on the bridges and elsewhere had almost ceased. Reports from patrols and civilians gave the impression that the Germans were withdrawing. The sappers (8 Field Company) were able to make fast progress on their bridging and hoped to be able to get the tanks over the river before nightfall.
1 War diary, 51 Mtn Corps. Maori Battalion, pp. 382–3, says that nearby houses were set on fire. ‘Aircraft recognition signals only seemed to annoy, [the aircraft] for they came back and fired some more houses before they left for home.’
A patrol of C Squadron, after negotiating some small demolitions near Alvito, drove along the lateral road linking the Atina-Sora and Atina-Opi roads and entered the outskirts of San Donato in the morning of 30 May. The cars were halted by a demolition in a street and experienced some mortar fire. From a few captured Germans and civilians it was learned that the enemy had left San Donato earlier in the day on the road to Opi. An artillery stonk was called down on an enemy position north of the town. A platoon from 21 Battalion, a few tanks, and machine guns and mortars in trucks were sent to San Donato in the afternoon, but when German infantry were reported to be infiltrating back into Posta early in the evening, 21 Battalion was told to withdraw these tanks and troops and concentrate on defending Alvito.
Fifth Brigade's plan for the continuation of the advance was for 28 Battalion with B Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, in support to advance through Sora along Route 82 to where a track led off to Campoli. A force of 20 Armoured Regiment's tanks was to go up this track and was to be joined by infantry from 23 Battalion who (after having taken over the position vacated by the 28th) were to cross Colle Monacesco direct to Campoli. In the next phase 23 Battalion and the tanks were to proceed from Campoli to Pescosolido, another hill village about a mile and a half distant. The Maori Battalion was to assist the tanks up the main road and was to advance until about level with Pescosolido.
Fifth Brigade's advance was to be supported by 6 Field Regiment and 2 Army Group Royal Artillery (with 74, 102 and 140 Medium Regiments under command), which were to fire stonks covering Route 82 and the side roads to Campoli and Pescosolido. The medium guns were very suitable for support of this nature; they could leapfrog forward in fewer but longer bounds than the Division's field guns. Seldom if ever was the infantry without artillery support during the whole of 5 Brigade's advance.
Towards nightfall on the 30th A and B Companies of 28 Battalion crossed the Fibreno River to assemble on the Sora road. D Company was to hold Brocco until relieved by a company of 23 Battalion; C Company, in reserve, was to follow A and B. B Company was page 68 caught by mortar fire while making for the starting line, and had a few men wounded, but re-formed and had begun to advance with A when it was ordered to stop. On learning that the engineers were having more difficulty than expected in bridging the Fibreno, Brigadier Stewart sent urgent orders to 28 Battalion to hold the advance until the supporting arms could cross the river. A and B Companies, therefore, waited where they were on the road, while C, on Colle Monacesco, guarded the right flank.
Working in waist-high water and under intermittent shell and mortar fire, the sappers were unable to complete the Fibreno bridges until nearly 11 a.m. on 31 May. When the tanks began to cross to the northern bank, Stewart sent word to the Maoris to begin their advance. By midday 24 tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment, together with the carriers and supporting arms of 28 Battalion, were following close behind the infantry. The vehicles were stopped by a demolished culvert just short of Sora, and while this was being repaired by the sappers, again working under fire, the leading infantry entered the town.
A Company, despite mortar and machine-gun fire, pushed on into the streets; B Company met stronger opposition, including anti-tank guns, at the railway station. D Company moved across country to the right to cut the Balsorano road beyond the town. Tanks of C Squadron, which accompanied the Maoris into Sora, fired on numerous targets indicated by the infantry. The Germans manned some self-propelled or anti-tank guns until the last moment. One of the New Zealand tanks was lost to them before the combined action of tanks and infantry disposed of two guns. By late afternoon A and C Companies were in the town, C across the Liri River in its western part; B was to the north with the task of covering the junctions of the Sora-Balsorano road and the side roads to Campoli and Pescosolido, and D was a short way up the road to Campoli.
The Germans, who overlooked Sora from the hills, shelled the town and its environs spasmodically during the afternoon and until dark in spite of many counter-battery tasks fired by 6 Field Regiment and the medium guns on observed or suspected gun positions. Much information, most of it accurate, was obtained from civilians who claimed to be partisans working for the Allied cause; they assisted the observers to pinpoint gun positions, observation posts and enemy movement.
The advance to Sora had permitted Divisional Cavalry to be used in its proper role, as ‘the ears and eyes of the Division’, instead of acting, as had been its experience most of the time since arriving in Italy, as infantrymen to thicken up the defences. The Staghound page 69 armoured cars were suitable for leading an advance and reconnoitring the side roads and tracks: when one ran over a mine, it might lose a wheel but otherwise would suffer little damage, and its crew probably escaped injury. When a Sherman tank exploded a mine the damage usually was more extensive and the crew badly shaken. On 31 May C Squadron remained in San Donato, which the cavalry patrols had been first to enter, A Squadron was responsible for holding Posta until relieved by 2788 Squadron, RAF Regiment, and B Squadron, overcoming numerous demolitions, worked its way down Route 82 from Sora to Isola del Liri, where it made contact next day with troops of 8 Indian Division who had come up from the south.
While concentrating in a wheat field, where the vehicles were crammed together, near the Atina-Sora road, 23 Battalion was shelled for about an hour on 30 May. Two men were killed and several wounded, and 20-odd trucks, most of them 4 RMT's troop-carrying three-tonners, were damaged. The battalion moved to a less exposed position and that night drove up to the Colle Monacesco-Brocco area. Next day, about the time that 28 Battalion was entering Sora, the 23rd had begun to advance across country on Campoli.
The advance was hampered by lack of communication between the infantry and the supporting tanks of B Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, which were to work up the road from Sora. A Company claimed that it reached the road west of Campoli, but did not make contact with the tanks, which in turn reported that they could find no sign of the infantry. D Company also reported that it gained the road (on the right of A Company), and in doing so had taken 10 prisoners from 134 Regiment. A possible explanation of the inability of the infantry and tanks to join up may be that the tanks, proceeding in a compact bunch, had passed before the infantry reached the road.
Early in the advance the leading troop of B Squadron had been halted short of the Campoli turn-off on the Sora-Balsorano road by a German anti-tank gun firing down the line of the road. This and another gun were silenced by the combined action of the tanks and a party of Maoris, but the leading tank was disabled. Subsequently another two anti-tank guns were found abandoned on this stretch of road. Told by Brigade Headquarters that 23 Battalion's men were approaching the Campoli road and needed tank support, page 70 B Squadron sent up another troop (7 Troop) which, under smoke from the rest of the tanks, rounded the corner and continued up the Campoli road until held up towards dusk by a small but determined enemy post about a quarter of a mile from the village. The tanks spread out and brought concentrated fire to bear on this post, which the enemy abandoned, leaving six men to be taken prisoner. As darkness was falling and more enemy appeared to be ahead, 7 Troop withdrew a short distance to laager. The tank crews, being without infantry protection, provided their own pickets and a guard for the prisoners. The remainder of B Squadron tried to reach the high ground south of the Campoli road, where it could support 7 Troop, but could not negotiate a gully in the failing light and therefore laagered overnight near the Balsorano road.
Meanwhile C Company, 23 Battalion, directed on Campoli, came under some shellfire and was opposed on a hill just south of the village. Civilians informed the company that a strong force of Germans was entrenched ahead of it. Artillery and machine-gun fire was laid down on observed and reported positions before the company resumed the advance after dark. It was engaged on the hill south of the village by small-arms fire and grenades, which wounded two men. By this time it was midnight, and as the men were feeling the strain of the hard going over steep slopes and gullies, the company commander decided to halt and rest until contact could be made with the tanks and a concerted effort made against the enemy.
Because of the uncertainty of the tank support Colonel McPhail ordered C and B Companies to withdraw before dawn on 1 June. The tanks, accompanied by 23 Battalion's carriers, which had joined them during the night, resumed the advance at dawn, overcame some opposition just outside Campoli and entered the village about 9 a.m. They collected altogether about 30 prisoners. When this news reached Battalion Headquarters, D Company was told to follow immediately and occupy Campoli. The company arrived about midday and the tanks then withdrew to firing positions south of the village.
For the next stage of the advance the infantry was accompanied by tanks of B Squadron, which used tracks from the Campoli road to Pescosolido. No opposition was met, except some long-range shellfire, and in the afternoon the tanks and D Company occupied Pescosolido. After a patrol had ascertained that the nearby village of Forcella was unoccupied, A Company entered it in the evening, and B Company took up a position on a hill near Pescosolido.