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Infantry Brigadier

24. Italy: the Sangro

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24. Italy: the Sangro

The Division moved to Italy while I was on leave. I flew back as far as Egypt, having one most tiresome hop of twenty-eight hours in a Catalina from Perth to Ceylon, and then went by ship to Taranto. Two long days motoring on narrow slippery roads took me to the Division, where I reported to the General late on 24 November. There was a good feeling of being home again and a delightfully warm welcome. Next morning I took over 5 Brigade from Keith Stewart and was touched to find all C.O.s and company commanders gathered to greet me. McElroy now had the Twenty-first, Reg Romans had returned to the Twenty-third, and Monty Fairbrother had the Maoris, with Denis Blundell still Brigade Major.

Eighth Army was about to cross the Sangro and New Zealand Division was in the line on the left, close under the mountains. There were high hopes of a quick success, a rapid advance as far as Pescara, and thence a move on Rome through the Apennines. 5 and 6 Brigades were to attack abreast and my first day back was spent very busily reconnoitring and planning, with many interruptions to greet old friends. From Marconi Hill we had a fine view of the river flats, the bluffs beyond, and the spurs running up to Castelfrentano. The Twenty-third was in position here and I was greatly pleased as I went through its lines to hear one sergeant say to another ‘Kip's back’, and the other reply ‘Good show’.

My plan for crossing was simple enough. The river was about 100 feet wide and not often more than 4 feet deep. Several patrols had been across and had discovered that the enemy positions were all on the top of the steep bluffs which rose 300 yards beyond the northern bank. We had a strong picket line on our bank. I decided to cross with the page 323 Twenty-third on the right, Twenty-first on the left, under cover of artillery concentrations on the bluffs, form up on the road which ran along the flats, close up to the bluffs, and assault when the concentrations lifted. The actual crossing would be done by companies in single file, the men hanging on to ropes fastened to posts driven on either bank. Supporting arms would not be able to cross until the Bailey bridge to be thrown across in 6 Brigade's sector was completed, and, as it was highly improbable that the squadron of 19 Regiment's tanks under command would find a way over, there might be a difficult period. Another difficulty was that the bluffs were too steep and slippery to be scaled. It would be necessary to move up the tracks between and on the sides of the spurs and these were certain to be covered by enemy posts. Still something has always to be left to the infantry and we arranged for special concentrations on areas from which these tracks might be commanded. Brigade Orders were out in the afternoon, only a few hours after my return. During the night there was heavy rain and a German long-range gun shelled the road near my billet very unpleasantly.

Divisional conference on the 26th at 7.45 a.m., the General's favourite time. Once I got him to set it back a quarter of an hour, but he was obviously uneasy and soon reverted to the usual hour. The river was rising and the attack was postponed for twenty-four hours. We spent the day to advantage tidying up details and doing more reconnaissances and I was able to get round all the battalions and see most of the old hands. I had a long talk with Horrocks, one of the Twenty-first company commanders, who in Sam Allen's time, eighteen months before, had done a fine patrol near the El Mreir depression.

On the 27th the river was still high but falling, and at the divisional conference it was decided to go on with the operation on the following night if there was no more rain. I had a final orders conference in the afternoon and then moved Brigade Headquarters to the lee of Marconi. We amused ourselves by battering some houses on the bluffs with armour-piercing shot from two seventeen-pounders. To do this the guns had to be placed out on the flat in very exposed page 324 positions but the enemy evidently thought there was a catch somewhere and did not fire at them. Direct hits were scored on each house without doing any more damage than to make holes. The only result was that two men hurriedly emerged from one house, splashed across the river, and made straight for the guns. They were met and turned out to be an American and an Englishman, escaped prisoners of war. They were not fired on during this last lap of their escape and indeed the German artillery remained very quiet all day. I went down to the proposed site for the bridge, travelling in my Dingo, but was briskly chased back and machine-gunned by an American fighter-bomber which evidently could not read a map.

From my point of view the battle was much like any other. I had a few hours' sleep in the early part of the night, disturbed by the bombardment on the front of our neighbours, 8 Indian Division, who attacked earlier than we did. A little before midnight I had some tea, went out and saw the battalions moving forward, and then took up my post in the A.C.V. All went smoothly enough. Both battalions waded across, some of the companies shoulder deep in the icy water, and formed up unobserved on the road. The Twenty-third had no difficulty, found their objective lightly held, and got established with only ten casualties, including Angus Ross slightly wounded. The Twenty-first had some trouble in getting up the bluffs and at one stage McElroy asked me to order the Twenty-third to send him a company, which I refused to do. But the battalion was well handled and determined and before long it was safely on its objective with only twenty-one casualties, unluckily including Horrocks, killed. We had eighty prisoners of 65 Division. 6 Brigade were equally successful and took 130 prisoners with light casualties. The Bailey bridge was up and despite accurate shelling supporting arms started to dribble across during the morning. As expected, the tanks were unable to get across and several were left stranded in the river. Generally it was a satisfactory and surprisingly easy affair.

There was one curious little reverse on the Twenty-third's front during the morning. When the battalion dug in, a page 325 section of machine-guns took up a defiladed position well forward, with its front covered by three riflemen on a little rise twenty yards away. These three were tackled by some twenty Germans who came, unobserved, up a narrow wadi and after a stout fight were killed. The Germans then appeared above and on the flank of the machine-gunners who were helplessly taken prisoners and all thirteen marched away. Reg showed me the scene of this incident next day. The three riflemen still lay there and beside them we counted seven, ten, and four empty cartridge cases respectively. Reg pronounced their epitaph: ‘They were good men.’

During the 29th we made good our ground across the river and despite some accurate shelling the Bailey bridge was completed. It was not likely that enemy tanks would counterattack down the muddy spurs, but we got enough anti-tank guns over to feel secure. On the right 8 Indian Division appeared to be having trouble. Our right flank was not in touch with it and the enemy shelling on the river valley in their direction and beyond, towards Ortona, was heavy all day.

There was another divisional conference at 7.45 a.m. on the 30th, when orders were given for an attack on the Castel-frentano line that night. I had left the Maoris some ten miles back at Atessa, which was close enough under desert conditions, and now ordered them across the river in readiness to support or exploit. This brought down a blast from the G. 1 who had to provide otherwise-needed transport to get the battalion forward on the one congested road. We were naturally indignant, being quite clearly in the wrong, and Denis and I agreed that the G. 1 was getting tired and should take a holiday. I visited the battalions and ordered them to make ground by fighting patrols and make preparations for a formal attack, but at another conference early in the afternoon the operation was postponed another twenty-four hours.

The usual conference took place at the usual hour next morning: both brigades were to continue working forward with patrols and to attack at 3.30 a.m. on the 2nd. Brigade Headquarters and the Maoris crossed the river and the battalions worked steadily up the long spurs all day, having page 326 numerous little scraps but nowhere meeting stubborn opposition. The night was bitterly cold but dry and after dark the advance was continued by the forward companies so aggressively that a formal attack became unnecessary. Tanner's company of the Twenty-first, extremely well handled, made a fine advance and established itself on the top of the spur west of Castelfrentano, taking seventy prisoners of 145 Regiment with twenty-one casualties. The Twenty-third had little trouble in getting level with it on the right. During the whole three days we had been across the river 6 Brigade had been advancing step by step with us; and Den Fountaine, commanding 26 Battalion on its right, and Harry McElroy, with the Twenty-first, had worked together very skilfully. 6 Brigade got into Castelfrentano and the enemy fell back across the Moro to his ‘winter line’ Orsogna–Ortona.

The one 8 o'clock conference was held next morning, 2 December: 6 Brigade to push on and try to gate-crash into Orsogna; 4 Brigade, close under the mountains, to continue pressing towards Guadiagrele; guns to cross the Sangro; 5 Brigade to stand fast and prepare to take over the advance and exploit. We were feeling optimistic and visiting L.O.s from General Montgomery's staff spoke airily of Chieti and Pescara. I went into the town, still crowded with wretched-looking civilians, and watched one of Ike's 6 Brigade battalions trudging through, battle-stained and dirty but very soldierly looking. We had been told to nominate an officer to go to England for a staff course and I had selected Angus Ross. I called on Reg and found him and Angus holding an indignation meeting, so told them to think it over and I would decide.

6 Brigade infantry got into Orsogna, but were driven out by tanks and infantry with some losses before they could get settled. 4 Brigade had been trying to get round west of Orsogna in the steep foot-hills about Guadiagrele, but was also definitely checked and it became clear that we would have to prepare a full-scale attack. The task looked formidable. The little Moro stream was just big enough to be an obstacle and it ran at the bottom of a huge cleft. Only one page 327 road ran to Orsogna and it approached the town along a causeway. There was no possible approach through the precipitous country west of the town unless Guadiagrele was taken, and there, with perfect observation, the Germans were very firmly placed. East of Orsogna several parallel spurs ran down to the bottom of the valley. These were the only possible lines of approach, but to get on to one we should have to cut and metal a road down our side of the valley in full view of the enemy, throw a bridge, and then build another road close behind any advance up the spur. There had been much rain, movement of wheels on tracks off the metalled roads was already almost impossible, and snow was to be expected.