Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
I: Operation FLORENCE
I: Operation FLORENCE
THE fascination which in static warfare a fortress often exerts over the attacker might well have tempted General Freyberg once more to pit his strength against Orsogna. The town had twice defied him, and among commanders he was the last to allow a contretemps to harden into checkmate; but he wisely refused to assault it again from the front. Not Orsogna but a way around Orsogna was the objective of the coming attack.
The divisional orders for operation Florence issued on 14 December proposed a renewal of the advance from the Sfasciata salient to cut the Ortona road and to prevent 26 Panzer Division from moving towards the coast to oppose 5 Corps' drive. The main task fell to 5 Brigade. Of its three battalions, the 21st was to attack north-west across the ravine north of Sfasciata and seize the ridge beyond, some distance short of the main road; 23 Battalion, advancing more speedily over less broken ground, was directed west along Sfasciata to capture a mile of the road north of the cemetery; and 28 Battalion was to remain in reserve. Once on their objectives, the assaulting battalions were to have the help of the tanks of 18 Regiment in organising against counter-attack and were to seize any opportunity to exploit to the west.
In support of this dash for a bridgehead across the road, 17 Brigade was to move forward south of Poggiofiorito and 6 Brigade was to guard the left flank, with 26 Battalion on Brecciarola and 25 Battalion on Pascuccio joining up with 23 Battalion at the cemetery. Barrages, timed concentrations and counter-battery fire by the artillery during and immediately after the attack, and air bombardment of approaches to the battlefield at dawn, were to help the infantry to reach and hold their objectives. Supporting fire was also ordered from 27 Machine Gun Battalion, whose platoons were reshuffled for the purpose, and the Maoris were to man 5 Brigade's 4·2-inch mortars.
Over 160 guns – heavy, medium and field – opened up at 1 a.m. on the 15th and soon afterwards the infantry moved forward in confusing gloom, for the full moon was obscured by cloud. Bitter cold and showers of rain made the night miserable as well as menacing. On the right, 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy) gained its objectives against appreciable but neither fierce nor very costly resistance. The stormiest passage was on the right, where D Company (Major Bailey) was twice held up by the fire of German posts and had trouble in keeping touch on its flanks. In the centre, A Company (Major Tanner) reached the road, swung right, and captured several enemy posts before digging in at Point 332, where the road topped a rise. Loss of direction and brushes with German machine-gunners delayed B Company (Major Hawkesby)1 for a while, but by about 3.30 it was settled in across the road on A Company's left.
1 Maj G. H. Hawkesby, DSO; Howick; born Auckland, 18 Apr 1915; manufacturer's representative; wounded 28 May 1944.
2 Maj A. Ross, MC and bar, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Greek); Dunedin; born Herbert, North Otago, 19 Jul 1911; university lecturer; BM 5 Bde Aug–Dec 1944; four times wounded.
3 Capt S. J. Edgar, m.i.d.; Tapanui;born Tapanui, 8 May 1913; farm worker; twice wounded.
4 Capt V. D. Kirk, DCM; Blackball; born Blackball, 17 Sep 1915; winchman; wounded 15 Dec 1943.
5 Capt. F. C. Irving, MC; Otautau; born Invercargill, 13 Aug 1918; sawmill hand; p.w. 1 Jun 1941; escaped 22 Jun; safe in Egypt 28 Aug 1941.
But ‘at the other side of the hill’ there was no less perturbation. Lieutenant-General Luettwitz, commanding 26 Panzer Division, was a worried man. He had four battalions in the line between Poggiofiorito and Orsogna, but his one reserve battalion had been withdrawn to stem 5 Corps on the coastal sector and his last tanks had also been ordered east, so that when the New Zealanders attacked he had none between Arielli and Orsogna and had to rely on a strong line of anti-tank guns just behind his forward troops. Nor was the first news very reassuring as it filtered in over severely disrupted communications. The full shock of 5 Brigade's attack fell on the three companies of II Battalion 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which were walled in by gunfire and then, fighting to the last in a tumult, were almost wiped out by the infantry who followed up. The forward German anti-tank and infantry guns and their crews were badly shaken by the bombardment.
Nevertheless, the enemy responded with such reserves as he could find. A few tanks, called up from Arielli, according to the German page 124 estimate ‘did not go too well in the dark’, but they caused some alarm to the New Zealand infantry as they bore down along the road from the north-east. D Company 21 Battalion was partly scattered, A Company retreated 300 yards behind the road, and most of B Company was temporarily cut off as the tanks moved along the road behind it, firing freely. As yet without anti-tank guns or tank support of their own, the New Zealand infantrymen lay open to the German armour, which swept the forward area with fire until nearly six o'clock, when it withdrew at leisure – and with discreet timing, as it proved, for shortly afterwards the first of 18 Regiment's tanks appeared. So sustained, the infantry companies used the respite to rally and reoccupy their forward positions. Two or three hours later D Company was again disturbed by a second wave of enemy tanks rumbling down from the north-east, but this time 18 Regiment's tanks were there to counter-attack, destroy one and drive the rest back.
1 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Halcombe, 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; Commandant, Northern Military District, 1953–.
2 Maj H. H. Deans; Darfield; born Christchurch, 26 Jan 1917; shepherd.
3 Maj K. L. Brown, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Greek); Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Nov 1915; salesman.
Still, the regiment was now too weak to undertake unaided the task of exploitation towards Orsogna. At 8.30 a.m., therefore, 20 Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel McKergow)1 was ordered to send a squadron to 5 Brigade. The route presented two difficulties which 18 Regiment, having set out from Sfasciata, did not have to overcome. One was the deterioration of the track above the Moro crossing; it was steep and slippery, but the bulldozer at the ford could and did keep it open. The other was that the approach road, especially at the descriptively named ‘Hellfire Corner’, was exposed to enemy observation from Orsogna and Poggiofiorito. These two points had to be blinded by the smoke shells of New Zealand guns, and it was mid-morning before C Squadron (Major Barton),2 fourteen tanks strong, moved off. The smoke cover gave the squadron untroubled passage. Soon after 1 p.m. its two forward troops were on the road with 23 Battalion. By this time the rest of the regiment (less B Squadron), with nineteen tanks, was on the way forward to reinforce the exploitation, masked by smoke already so dense that the gunners had no need to thicken it. Of the thirty-three tanks with which 20 Regiment set out, all but five reached the forward area. So much surer was the going by day.
1 Lt-Col J. W. McKergow; Rangiora; born England, 26 May 1902; farmer; CO 20 Bn Sep–Oct 1942; CO 20 Armed Regt Jun–Dec 1943; wounded 22 Dec 1943.
2 Maj P. A. Barton; Gisborne; born Gisborne, 29 Nov 1912; bank clerk; Sqn Comd 20 Armd Regt 1942–44; 2 i/c Oct 1944–Feb 1945; CO 20 Regt 19 Dec 1944–9 Jan 1945.
While the New Zealand command anticipated a loosening up of the defences and a mobile phase of battle, the Germans strove desperately to repair the damage done overnight. By midday the foremost German troops north of the cemetery had withdrawn across the first gully north of the road and were clinging to the next ridge. Holes, one of them a kilometre wide, between the remnants of II Battalion 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment and its two neighbours, had been filled by troops hastily scraped together, and the bending back of the line had enabled a continuous, if none too solid, front to be restored. The Corps Commander himself was on the spot, hustling all possible anti-tank guns up from the rear to fight the troublesome New Zealand tanks on the road.
Such, in brief, was the situation when, in the early afternoon, Major Dickinson set out with six of 18 Regiment's tanks along the road towards the cemetery. A few track-lengths beyond it, the leading tank was set aflame by a direct hit from an anti-tank gun. The road forward, save where it dipped into a shallow valley, was open to fire from Orsogna as well as from guns dug in among the olive trees on the right. The remaining tanks therefore took cover behind the high stucco walls that bounded the cemetery, where they replied in kind to the German machine-gun fire.
The main exploitation, by 20 Regiment, began about two hours later under cover of a smoke screen, with C Squadron leading the way. As soon as the first three tanks moved clear of the cemetery they fell to the same anti-tank gun that had already destroyed the 18 Regiment tank, two of them catching fire and one losing a track. The rest of the squadron continued to advance along an avenue of anti-tank and infantry posts, most of them sited in olive groves north of the road. When they reached the crest of the road several hundred yards due north of Orsogna, having broken through the right wing of II Battalion 146 Regiment, they were halted by the frontal fire of three German Mark IV tanks. Two of these were knocked out, but C Squadron lost another of its own in the encounter and a fifth which became stuck in trying to cross the railway line and had to be abandoned. With only eight tanks left, with no immediate prospect of the much-needed infantry support and with failing light to hinder it, the squadron was allowed to pull back to the cemetery. The withdrawal cost yet another tank, damaged by shellfire and abandoned. Fifty men from 23 Battalion, organised by Captain Grant,1 gave prompt infantry protection to the tank laager.
1 Lt-Col D. G. Grant, MC, m.i.d.; Invercargill; born NZ 29 Feb 1908; school teacher, CO 23 Bn May–Sep 1945; wounded Jul 1942; Rector, Southland Boys' High School.
The party was relieved by the first of the Maoris to arrive. Twenty-eighth Battalion had marched in stages the weary, muddy miles from well beyond the Moro ford. B and C Companies on arrival threw an arc of defensive posts around the cemetery, while A and D Companies, coming up before midnight, dug in below the road east of the cemetery, ready to exploit westwards next morning.
At this point, with Fairbrother and McKergow planning the morrow's attack, we may pause to take stock. Fifth Brigade, securely established across the main road for a mile of its length, had driven a shallow salient into the enemy's FDLs. Its right flank, though not wholly firm, was buttressed by 17 Brigade, which had battalions investing Poggiofiorito from both north and south. After the confused scrimmage of the morning, when 23 and 25 Battalions failed to link up satisfactorily and Germans and New Zealanders were intermingled in errant groups, the brigade's left flank was held by a connected line of troops. In the sector round the cemetery both sides had been at sixes and sevens. Thirty-six mobile tanks were in support – 13 of 18 Regiment in the north, ready to exploit towards Arielli and Poggiofiorito, and 23 of 20 Regiment in the cemetery area, under orders to advance again towards Orsogna in the morning. A semi-circle of defensive fire tasks gave further protection. Communications were working well. At the Moro the bulldozer – the most important single vehicle in the Division – was dragging more six-pounders across the ford, as well as speeding the transit of ammunition, supply and medical vehicles. More than a hundred prisoners had been taken. Three of the enemy's none-too-numerous tanks had been put out of action and five of his anti-tank guns captured.
On the other hand, the brigade had exhausted nearly all its reserves. In fact, two platoons of 21 Battalion were the only infantry not in the line or about to be committed. The tanks were running short of fuel and ammunition, for the state of the tracks made it impossible to maintain reserve supplies on Sfasciata, and there was concern over ammunition for the 25-pounders. Moreover, casualties in men and machines had been punitive, though not prohibitive. Twenty-third Battalion, about 130 under establishment when the battle began, had lost another hundred in killed and wounded, and 21 Battalion, hardly less under strength, had lost about thirty. Since these losses were almost entirely in the rifle companies, fighting strength was more than proportionately diminished. Enemy fire or ground hazards had put twenty-five Shermans out of the fight, page 128 though three were to be recovered the next day. The two armoured regiments had also lost nearly thirty men killed and wounded. Among the casualties were two commanding officers – Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants of the 18th (wounded) and Lieutenant-Colonel Romans of the 23rd, who died of wounds.
Despite these setbacks hopes were buoyant at Divisional Headquarters that night. The enemy was believed to be groggy and about to depart. Freyberg had a cheerful appreciation for Montgomery: Orsogna seemed ripe to fall and then the chase would be on towards Filetto and San Martino. For this purpose 6 Brigade was detailed as advance guard.
Such thoughts were far from the mind of the German command. There was no disposition to underrate the bitterness of the fighting. Lieutenant-Colonel Berger, commanding 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, left this record of the day:
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, as they had stuck to their guns for hours under terrible shellfire and had shot away all their ammunition. We had no men to pick up the dead and wounded, even if the fire had permitted it ….
The presence of the New Zealand tanks on the Ortona road roused alarm at all levels up to the highest, bringing Kesselring himself to the telephone with exhortations to employ every possible gun against the armour. Local counter-moves included the transfer of a company of mountain troops from 65 Division and of engineers to help seal off the New Zealand penetration; but this was not enough. Since 26 Panzer Division's plight was now officially pronounced worse than that of its neighbouring division on the coast, it was given first claim on the services of 6 Parachute Regiment, coming up from Army reserve.
Long before the paratroops could arrive the armoured thrust towards Orsogna had been beaten off and the Germans considered they had survived the crisis. The time had come, in fact, for a counter-attack, for Herr was adamant that it must not be delayed until next day, lest the New Zealanders should expand their bridgehead in both directions, north and south. To throw the paratroops into the counter-attack at the end of a long journey was not ideal and their committal would use up the Corps' last reserves, but these were disadvantages that had to be accepted. Orders were therefore issued for an attack from the southern edge of Arielli not later than 11 p.m. to restore 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment's old line. Eleven o'clock had come and gone when the first troops of 6 Parachute Regiment arrived after a long, tiring journey over wretched roads, and the attack could not be launched until 3.15 a.m. on the 16th.page 129
At that hour two battalions of paratroops, one on each side of the road, advanced with an escort of four Mark IV or Mark IV Special tanks, five or possibly more Mark III flame-throwers and three Italian assault guns, and under an umbrella of heavy artillery fire. For a while they went unchallenged, though the New Zealanders had notice of their approach in the noise of troop movement and simultaneous shelling and machine-gunning. The right-hand battalion, crossing 21 Battalion's front, closed to within a few hundred yards of the cemetery before encountering 23 Battalion's right. In the ensuing fighting the attackers, unaided by tanks, could make no headway against the fire of infantry weapons, the machine guns of 20 Regiment's tanks and the artillery concentrations. By 5 a.m. 23 Battalion, with three killed and three wounded, had cleared its front.
On 21 Battalion's front the engagement was fiercer, more spectacular and more prolonged. At first the German paratroops and tanks co-operated well. From the Arielli turn-off they advanced a kilometre or more, but as soon as they touched off the waiting page 130 opposition chaos ruled the scene. As the tanks approached A Company's position firing vigorously, the New Zealand weapons opened up. The two leading Mark IV tanks were hit and left blocking the road. The flame-throwing tanks, following up, were brought to a standstill and sought escape from the inferno of close-range tank and infantry fire either by withdrawing or by plunging south off the road among the lanes and farm buildings, where they shot curling billows of flame and smoke at likely targets.
There was now no pretence of cohesion in the German attack: the infantry had to fend for themselves and the tanks were exposed to the darting tactics of tank-hunting parties. The defensive fire of the New Zealand artillery, renewed and re-renewed almost a score of times, made terrible massacre among the paratroops. The tanks of 18 Regiment sprayed the area with machine-gun fire and when the Germans tried to infiltrate between A and D Companies, and later between the battalion's right flank and 17 Brigade, they were sent to ground or dispersed in disorder by artillery, tank and small-arms fire. Though at the peak of the fighting, when the infantry were at close grips, 21 Battalion urgently asked 18 Regiment to send more tanks, those already in support were masters of the field and had broken the back of the counter-attack before the reinforcements appeared. The approach over the rise at Point 332 favoured tanks sited defensively, and in the bright moonlight the gunners could see a target with comparative ease at 300 yards.
In the face of such spirited defence, the enemy's effort gradually flagged. As light began to break a second armoured thrust came in down the road, but the leading tank was again destroyed and blocked the road, and the improvised covering party of engineers melted away to safer places, while the regular infantry stayed in their holes. Before 6.30 a.m. the paratroops had admitted defeat. They were withdrawing, with their wounded, towards Poggiofiorito under a hail of fire. So far from restoring the old line, as they at first claimed, they had to be content to fall back as reinforcements on the new, makeshift line of 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment. At 8.30 the last of the tank commanders gave the order to retire to Arielli in small groups at long intervals.
While the action cost 21 Battalion five killed and fifteen wounded, the Germans left nearly fifty dead behind, some of them only a few yards from the battalion's positions. Among the four German tanks destroyed, two were flame-throwers. These weapons had proved of dubious value to the attackers. One German subaltern wrote for senior eyes a romancing report of enemy infantry scorched out of their trenches and of enemy tanks stalked, surprised and set ablaze, but the happily prosaic fact is that the 150 roaring orange page 131 jets of flame of which he boasted were one and all misdirected and harmless.
As the enemy's hostility spent itself and his pressure on the right wing of the New Zealand salient relaxed, the hour came for the drive to the left towards Orsogna and Melone which, it was hoped, would release the coiled energies of 6 Brigade. The detailed plans for this attack had been laid the night before by Fairbrother and McKergow in the discomfort of the battle-swept cemetery. Two squadrons of 20 Regiment's tanks were to advance at 7 a.m. on either side of the road – A Squadron (Major Phillips)1 on the right, C Squadron (Major Barton) on the left – followed at an interval of three or four hundred yards by 28 Battalion's A Company and D Company respectively. The other infantry companies were to give covering fire. The German counter-attacks during the night enabled the nineteen tanks at the cemetery to move on to firmer ground in comparative stealth but also raised doubts whether the attack should go on. Kippenberger, confident that the German effort would be beaten off, gave the word to proceed. Hence for a while attack and counter-attack overlapped, with New Zealanders and Germans a few hundred yards apart, both attempting to advance south-west along the Ortona road.
Once out of the shelter of the cemetery, the New Zealand armour was in sore trouble. The road to Orsogna suddenly became a bubbling, steaming cauldron of shellbursts, throwing up lethal fountains; overhead the sky was pocked with the grey puffs of air-bursting shells and rang with the wicked crack of their explosions as they rained down hot metal; and the strengthened line of German anti-tank guns fired furiously. The infantry, driven to cover, lost touch with the tanks and never regained it during the action. C Squadron moved on unaccompanied, strung out in line ahead along the road. North of the road German anti-tank gunners, concealed among the olives, had the squadron in enfilade, and as the tanks neared Orsogna they came within range of weapons in the town. Raked by this double fire, they could do little, and though they fought back at the anti-tank guns they offered a target rather than a threat. Two were hit and set on fire just beyond the cemetery. Another went up in flames farther along the road and a fourth had to be abandoned after being hit twice. The crews of the last two fell captive in trying to make their way back to the cemetery on foot.
1 Maj J. F. Phillips, m.i.d.; Lower Hutt; born Perth, Aust., 25 May 1913; company manager; three times wounded.
One tank managed to run the gauntlet as far as a bend in the road only two or three hundred yards north-west of Orsogna: the gesture was magnificent, but it was not effective war. It was necessary to reunite tanks and infantry, and since the infantry could not come forward the tanks had to go back. At ten o'clock Kippenberger gave the order for such a reunion, but on second thoughts instructed the tanks to withdraw right behind 28 Battalion, for it was now obvious that few gains were to be made west of the cemetery. The two squadrons turned and made their way back before the prearranged smoke screen could be laid and the withdrawal cost another tank. By noon the two forward infantry companies had straggled back to battalion headquarters area, leaving B and C Companies dug in round the cemetery, which was steadily and destructively shelled all day. Though ordered to do so by day if possible, B and C Companies had to wait for the merciful dusk before retiring a few hundred yards behind the cemetery to positions on the railway line and astride the road and in touch with 23 and 25 Battalions on the flanks.
Once again a plan to exploit success had gone amiss. The New Zealanders' attack broke on the same rock as that which had destroyed the Germans' – the failure of the men on tracks and the men on foot to think as one, to act in close mutual support and to strike with united force. Liaison was made difficult by the breakdown of the wireless link and perhaps by the absence of an artillery barrage to protect the follow-up of the infantry: the tank commander had not wanted one and 25-pounder ammunition was scarce. The tanks were unable to manoeuvre freely; the anti-tank defences had been thickened up at the urgent behest of the higher German command and they were sturdily manned. Between them the two units had lost ten killed, over thirty wounded, and four prisoners. With ten casualties that morning, 20 Regiment left behind fifteen tanks destroyed or damaged to give practice to the German gunners, who systematically shelled them until they were beyond repair.page 133
Yet all was not debit in the account of operation Florence. The enemy, never flush in men and equipment, had suffered heavily in both, and he had given ground on a defensive line that had always wanted depth. Dented by the armoured thrust, his line, while still embracing Orsogna, had been pulled back north of it to the next ridge beyond the main road, and the New Zealanders' firm grasp of the road gave them a jumping-off point for further attempts to turn Orsogna from the north. The German Corps Commander, indeed, was already contemplating a fighting retreat to the line of the Foro River, five miles to the rear; but at the same time he was instructing his divisions to remain in the existing line until forced out of it, to contest every inch of ground, and not to withdraw without imposing such delay and taking such forfeits from the enemy that he would have to pause before assaulting the Foro. Meanwhile, he was confident enough to announce no more counter-attacks. And the truth was that for the time being the New Zealanders had been fought to a standstill. Late on the 16th, 26 Panzer Division made an accurate appreciation: ‘The enemy's success yesterday and to-day in the Orsogna area had cost him heavily, and so he was not expected to attack again in the meantime, even though our withdrawal had left the road open for him’.
It was a pause of several days that preceded the next and (as it proved) the last major effort by the Division at Orsogna – but it was hardly a lull. For while readjustment and recuperation were necessary, relaxation was not possible. A first readjustment – one of command – occurred in the midst of the battle. At 6 a.m. on the 15th the Division passed from Army to 13 Corps, which, with 5 British Division also under command, assumed responsibility for the sector from Orsogna eastwards. Consequently, Corps took over command of 6 Army Group, Royal Artillery, from the New Zealanders. Fifth Division completed its move into the line on the New Zealanders' right on the night of 15–16 December and as soon as the German counter-attacks that night had died down 17 Brigade reverted to its own division. The New Zealand Division, however, preserved something of the international flavour that was typical of the Allied cause in Italy, since it retained command of a brigade of British paratroops, a regiment of British field gunners, three squadrons of Canadian sappers and a company of Italian muleteers.
For the hard-pressed 23 Battalion, now tired and dangerously depleted, rest was imperative. On the evening of the 16th its companies left the line for the Castelfrentano area, and 28 Battalion relieved it by extending D Company to the right to link up with page 134 21 Battalion. Of the two armoured regiments forward with the infantry, the 18th was now to support 21 Battalion and the 20th 28 Battalion. Using tanks and carriers as load vehicles, the two regiments replenished their fuel and ammunition. The track from the Moro crossing to the crest of Sfasciata remained a weak link in the chain of supply; it needed the constant attention of bulldozers and its use had to be severely restricted. The arrival of 37,000 rounds of 25-pounder and 4000 of medium ammunition lifted a worry from the minds of the gunners and permitted them to replace the heavy expenditure of the two previous days.
Though the Divisional Commander did not plan an immediate return to the offensive, neither did he expect a stalemate. He was still hopeful that the enemy would fall back from a sense of prudence, and on the 17th thought it a matter of hours before the enemy quitted Orsogna, but he would not risk heavy casualties in the meantime. The German command, on the other hand, while preparing a line of last resort on the Foro, was content to fight stiff delaying actions on its existing line and to remain there if allowed. The Germans were thus willing to sell ground, but only at a price the New Zealanders were not willing to pay. The discovery of this fact gives tactical meaning to the operations of the Division in the following few days, which must now be summarised.
For the two forward battalions of 5 Brigade, the night of 16–17 December was disturbed by the sound of enemy movement and digging and by the defensive artillery fire that was brought down on likely enemy forming-up places; but the real cause of the alarm was probably the relief of 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment by 6 Parachute Regiment. Reports next morning suggested a general German withdrawal. British troops were out of touch with the enemy on certain parts of the Corps' front; reconnaissance patrols of 21 Battalion found the area empty for 500 yards forward of their line; and 2 Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment, the flanking unit of 5 Division, believed that the Germans had left Poggiofiorito. All along the Division's front, then, the 17th brought probing movements to ‘test the market’. They were to show that it was as firm as ever.
On the right, a reconnaissance force of 18 Regiment's tanks and a platoon of 21 Battalion was diverted from Poggiofiorito, which had already been peacefully occupied by men of the Northamptonshire Regiment, to explore the road to Arielli with instructions not to go beyond the village or to persist against opposition. In a sharp encounter on the outskirts of Arielli the leading tank stirred up a hornets' nest. From an exchange of fire with an anti-tank post page 135 among the houses they returned minus two tanks, which had been bogged, with a third hit but recovered by the driver, and with the satisfaction of having destroyed the chief trouble-maker, an 88-millimetre gun. The evidence of patrols that the enemy had withdrawn beyond the Arielli stream, 800 or 1000 yards west of the main road, on 21 Battalion's front seemed to be confirmed farther south by the findings of patrols sent out by the Maoris. Four Maori patrols west of the main road went unaccosted, but two which were sent out in the evening to harass the movement of traffic were sent home by mortar and machine-gun fire before they could reach their destination.
Farther west, 4 Armoured Brigade and 2 Parachute Brigade were put on the alert to take advantage of any German weakening. A warning order to 19 Regiment and 22 Battalion to advance towards Guardiagrele along the northern lateral road was cancelled when it became obvious that the bid for Orsogna had failed. The Divisional Cavalry, given their first task for a week, patrolled the southern lateral, which they found blown at one point and from which they saw enemy movement. Confirmation that the enemy was still anxious to defend the approaches to Guardiagrele was forthcoming from the paratroops: a platoon of them sent to the road junction at Melone recoiled before heavy fire.
Ahead of 5 Brigade lay a closely cultivated area known as Fontegrande, flat to the distant glance but in fact wrinkled into a succession of ridges by the headwater gullies of the Arielli stream. These spurs, running parallel with the Ortona road, formed, as it were, the north-eastern spokes of the wheel that had high Orsogna as its hub. As we have seen, it was thought that the enemy had withdrawn to the second of the ridges, which lay behind the stream, but daylight patrols by the two battalions on the foggy morning of the 18th, all three of which drew a brisk fusillade from the wide-awake defenders, indicated that the Germans were holding ground forward of the main stream on the first ridge, with their FDLs probably on a track leading along it to the village of Arielli.
Against the protests of Brigadier Kippenberger, who rightly suspected that the feature was tenanted by fresh and ardent paratroops, General Dempsey, on a visit from Corps, maintained his opinion that it could be occupied without fighting and ordered an page 137 attempt to be made that night. The task was given to three patrols, each twelve strong, who were to advance silently without artillery preparation to establish a line of pickets on the ridge, after which they would be reinforced. The right-hand patrol, from C Company 21 Battalion, made its objective safely, only to find three enemy machine guns sited less than 100 yards away. Calling down gunfire to block the Germans' retreat, the patrol moved to the attack, but the Germans were lying in wait and opened fire, wounding the officer. The route back was found to be held also by enemy posts, and the patrol, now without either officer or sergeant, had to fight its way home. The centre patrol, from the Maoris' D Company, was no sooner on the track running along the ridge than it became the target for at least four machine guns dug in around it. Hand grenades were thrown in the fracas that followed, but there was no question of dislodging the enemy, who, on the contrary, hunted the patrol back to its own lines after wounding several members of it. The other Maori patrol, from C Company, was lucky enough to avoid being surrounded. While still short of its objective, it was fired on and it fell back before the all-too-obvious strength of the defence.
This ill-judged enterprise cost one officer killed, one sergeant wounded and missing, and seven other ranks killed, wounded or missing, and gave the enemy the maps and papers found on the dead officer. It served only to show that the Germans were in fact where they had been expected and to deepen the suspicion (not confirmed until Christmas Eve) that in this sector the New Zealanders were opposed by paratroops.
After a month's battle experience some concern was being felt in the Division at the rate of casualties among the tanks. On the 17th it was reported to Divisional Headquarters that the Division had forty-six tanks out of action through mechanical defects or bogging but still recoverable, and that of those actually lost only ten had been replaced. ‘We are losing tanks in every action,’ commented Brigadier Stewart. ‘Well,’ replied the General, ‘it is a desperate show’. With its tanks badly in need of maintenance and not fit for much movement, the apprehensions of 18 Regiment were by no means allayed by the General's decision to make its thirteen mobile tanks available to 17 Brigade in a stationary anti-tank role covering its new positions on the Ortona road. Twentieth Regiment was also affected, having to despatch five tanks to 21 Battalion to replace those of the 18th. After a few uneventful days under command of 5 Division, 18 Regiment's task was taken over by anti-tank page 138 guns and the regiment reverted to 4 Brigade's command and began to reorganise near Castelfrentano. It was also possible, by strengthening the anti-tank guns forward with the infantry and by laying minefields, to give relief to one squadron and regimental headquarters of 20 Regiment. Some measure of relief was secured for the infantry of 6 Brigade. As the first move in a scheme to give each battalion six days in the line and three days' rest at Castelfrentano, 24 Battalion relieved 26 Battalion as the brigade's forward unit on the 18th and 25 Battalion rearranged itself in the San Felice area to give added depth to the brigade's defences.
During these dull, overcast days the burden of the offensive on the Army's front was borne by the Indians and Canadians of 5 Corps, who by a series of premeditated blows were slowly drawing near to Ortona. It was no part of the Division's policy to let the enemy take his ease, but for the time being there were limited ways of keeping him disturbed. Low cloud saved Orsogna and the enemy gun positions from the full malice of our bombers, but raids were made on most days and on the 22nd bombs caused heavy casualties in a newly-arrived battalion defending the town. The Germans wrote in professional admiration of the perfect co-operation of artillery and air force. The guns fired green smoke just forward of the German positions, and the smoke was followed immediately by the raiders, who dropped their bombs accurately on the defences. On the ground the spasmodic play of artillery harassed the enemy, and infantry patrols continued to probe to the line of resistance. Reports that Arielli had been evacuated were shown to be premature, and a Divisional Cavalry thrust in that direction had to be cut short. Patrols of 5 Brigade prowled and listened, but were unable to discover any German withdrawal. By a kind of tacit agreement the cemetery was left vacant by both sides; being marked on the map, it was especially liable to predicted shellfire. Sixth Brigade trailed its coat before Orsogna, eliciting fire and the information that the town was still held. All this time 2 Parachute Brigade had been patrolling actively in the wide, open spaces on the left flank, where its comings and goings were occasionally varied by clashes with small parties of Germans. One night the paratroops found Melone road fork clear, but when a troop of the Divisional Cavalry's Staghounds reconnoitred to within a hundred yards of the fork next morning the outing was curtailed by a prompt burst of shelling and machine-gunning.
With bitter fighting in the streets of Ortona and Villa Grande farther east, the stubbornness of the enemy was now made manifest. It was obvious (to use language that passed muster with Montgomery's men) that the Germans, so far from declaring their innings closed on the Ortona–Orsogna line, had every intention of page 139 batting on – particularly since the weather could be confidently expected to handicap the attack more and more. It is true that as late as the 20th General Freyberg was still hopeful that Orsogna would fall without a push; but it was necessary to proceed on the assumption that it would not, and Freyberg's continued preference was for a circling move ‘north about’ with the Division's right. This in turn called for the construction of a route ‘to take up the wheels to maintain two brigades’.
From the 18th, therefore, 7 Field Company worked with a will, not merely on improving the track on the 5 Brigade axis but on converting it into a metalled two-way road for use in any weather. The stretch from Spaccarelli village to the Moro became ‘Armstrong's Road’, and thence up the steep face of Sfasciata and along the spur to the Ortona road ran ‘Duncan's Road’. Between them, to span the Moro beside Askin bridge, the engineers erected a Class 30 Bailey bridge, first named Tiko Tiko and then Hongi to avoid confusion with Tiki bridge. Reinforcements of Canadian sappers were sent up as well as detachments of infantry to wield pick and shovel, all the available bulldozers were engaged and double shifts were worked. At the height of activity 1000 tons of gravel were being scooped from the quarry, transported, and laid on the road each day. The Divisional Commander took a keen and well-rewarded interest in the road, which he hoped eventually to push through to Arielli. He looked to it to save hundreds of lives by allowing Orsogna to be by-passed.