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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

II: The Lessons of Experience

II: The Lessons of Experience


War is an expensive tutor, and only folly pays for its lessons without absorbing them. Even before leaving the Orsogna front, the formations were asked by Divisional Headquarters to reflect on their experience and to summarise its lessons – tactical, technical and administrative – for guidance in future training and operations. Grown to maturity in the desert and transported to the rougher terrain and bitterer weather of Italy in winter, the Division on the face of it was an old dog set to learn new tricks. But the proverbial difficulty of its task was lessened by two facts among others: the dog was not wholly old (it had an armoured component for the first time and many of its men did not have to unlearn desert ways) and the tricks were not really new.

For here was the first lesson to be learned by all the fighting arms – the principles advocated in the service manuals were essentially sound in Italian conditions. After the mild tactical heresies that had paid rewards in the African campaigns, orthodoxy stood vindicated once more, and all commanders were agreed on the need for stricter adherence to ‘the book’, which had, after all, been written with continental warfare in mind. More thorough reconnaissance, for example, was shown to be necessary, not only by tank and infantry formations but also by artillery in deployment. Aerial photographs were widely praised as an aid to the preliminary study of the ground and they were sought in larger numbers for distribution down to company and troop commanders. Again, rigid traffic discipline had to be revived to prevent such a heavily mechanised division from choking the roads and immobilising itself from its very surfeit of transport. Large-scale movement was an operational matter, requiring careful control by the staff; but precise timings had proved impracticable owing to unpredictable delays in getting vehicles on to the roads from muddy ground and off again to disperse, and because of detours at blown bridges, interloping convoys and the like. Other commonplaces that had to be reaffirmed were the need in every man for physical fitness and skill in the handling of personal weapons and in every unit for greater self-reliance in the elements of field engineering, including the lifting of mines and booby-traps, in order to lighten the burden on the overworked sappers.

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Besides this general fund of wisdom, each fighting arm had its own experience to consult. Among the most costly and most profitable was that of 4 Armoured Brigade, fighting its first campaign as an armoured formation in conditions the reverse of favourable. At first the limitations of tanks in mud, on steep slopes, in close country and in fording rivers were not fully realised. If mobility was overestimated, vulnerability was underestimated. Casualties, however, soon demonstrated the hazards of sending tanks in to lead an attack, either alone or with infantry support, where there was no room for manoeuvre or where movement was confined to a single road. Anti-tank guns, well dug in and concealed, remained the greatest menace. They could be countered to some extent by the use of smoke and by the skilful fire and movement of tanks in mutual support, but the method best attested by experience was a covering screen of infantry. In other words, success was gained rather by infantry attacks with tank support than by tank attacks with infantry support.

The presence of tanks was shown to be indispensable to infantry consolidating on an objective, and for this reason they should have absolute priority on roads leading forward. At the same time, tanks should withdraw from the FDLs as soon as possible to allow their crews to rest and carry out maintenance. Hitherto, they had been detained forward unduly long because of the infantry's difficulty in bringing up their six-pounders. Once withdrawn into a defensive or counter-attack role, tanks should not be sited forward of battalion headquarters areas. Here and elsewhere they had found few opportunities for indirect fire.

Because tank movement always attracted fire, it was recommended that in a normal attack tanks should move by bounds on the flanks or in the rear of the infantry and not closer than 500 yards. Nevertheless, liaison could not be too close, and the wireless link was essential. The No. 38 set worked well, provided the tank aerial was kept vertical – a lesson learned in one action in which tanks and infantry had suffered as a result of the failure among trees and buildings of the horizontal aerial used in Egypt. In defence, armoured movement about the front was found to be safest in the half-light periods of dawn and dusk. By night there was the danger of bogging, by day of shellfire, and at all times of mines, which might be concealed in such seemingly innocuous places as standing crops and road puddles. Among the administrative problems of the armoured brigade, the supply of fuel was not the least. In this type of country the ‘worst average’ rate of consumption was estimated at two and a half gallons a mile.

The fate of infantry attacks made one conclusion inescapable – objectives should not be too distant. An advance of 2000 yards was page 168 set down as a maximum, with not more than one large natural obstacle on the way. The need for this limit sprang partly from the nature of the ground and partly from the depth of the enemy defences, which commonly stretched back 4000 yards. The Germans, it was admitted, were fighting stubbornly and with skill. Their outposts were held by troops few in numbers but strong in the fire-power of their automatic weapons and of supporting mortars. Then came the main line, where well-camouflaged platoon posts lay usually on the reverse slopes but increasingly on the tops of ridges; hence assaulting troops should aim to capture the high ground. This layout, together with the limited thrust of attacks, meant that it was impossible as a rule to breach the enemy line (or rather his defended zone) in a single operation. Infantry rarely penetrated deep enough to capture the enemy's mortars or to force him to shift headquarters and so disrupt his signals and network of command. Assuming that the initial assault would always be halted in the midst of the enemy defended localities, it followed that exploitation was work for fresh troops directed to clearly defined objectives. As pockets of resistance were likely to be overrun during an advance, especially by night, it was urged that battalions should attack with two companies up, each on a frontage of 300 or 400 yards, leaving one company to mop up and the fourth in reserve. The recommended rates of advance in fair going – three minutes for 100 yards by day and five minutes by night – were asking a good deal of heavily-loaded infantrymen.

At least in 5 Brigade, infantry commanders showed an overwhelming preference for attacks by night rather than by day. Silent attacks found little favour anywhere, but it was recognised that, however much the supporting arms might exert themselves, the men on foot must still expect to fight their own way forward. If enemy positions were accurately known, timed concentrations by the artillery were thought to give better results than barrages, particularly in broken country. During consolidation, the direct support of tanks should be supplemented where necessary by the defensive fire of artillery on prearranged tasks.

In defence, the infantry were invited to take a leaf from the German book by holding the FDLs with few men more heavily armed. Only so could frequent reliefs be made within battalions and sub-units and the necessary advantage taken of buildings that offered observation posts and shelter from the weather and enemy fire. Patrolling, infiltration, street fighting and camouflage were technical skills that would call for practice during training. Fighting in Italy made severer demands on the physical fitness of infantrymen than in Africa, where it had usually been possible to carry the infantry page 169 into battle on lorries. It was found, however, that leather jerkins and gas capes made it unnecessary to take the heavier greatcoats and groundsheets into action. Straw, usually plentiful round farmhouses, could be used to give extra warmth. Though mules were satisfactory supply carriers in steep places – seventy was the suggested scale for a battalion – infantrymen could still not neglect to carry hard rations, full water bottles and as much ammunition as possible.


The campaign taught the artillery the need for the early and detailed reconnaissance of gun positions, with a special eye to their accessibility. The gunners were aware that they had not been fully effective in neutralising the enemy during the attack and asked for more time in which to prepare their plans and for a delay fuse able to penetrate well-built defences before exploding. Apart from the disturbing effects of the weather, one of the main troubles of the gunners was the poor detail of the Italian maps, which handicapped observers and made map-shooting unreliable.

The Division was happy in its artillery weapon. By this time the 25-pounder gun-howitzer had outlived its novelty and proved its worth and was moving inevitably along the road that leads through familiarity to fame. Given the time that sanctifies, this lovable gun was clearly destined for a legendary prestige to be matched only by that of the French soixante-quinze. It had no rival for the loyalty of field gunners, who, a war and a generation earlier, had divided their devotion between the 18-pounder and the ‘four-five how’. Its very universality reminded the New Zealand gunners how many allies shared their craft. At any given time some layer would be centring the same bubble with the same deft anti-clockwise flick of the elevating gear, and reporting ready – in some strange tongue or accent. The furniture of the gun and the jingle of the drag-ropes as it bounced round the bend of a road made bonds of alliance. But the prime purpose of the 25-pounder was less to unite friends than to scatter enemies.

For this purpose it combined the usefulness of the gun and of the howitzer. As a gun, firing exceptionally at the highest charge, it could send its shell 13,400 yards, and a range of 11,000 yards was within its normal capacity. Since it was small enough to be sited and concealed well forward, its long reach could be used to harass crossroads or bridges or dumps far behind the enemy's front and to make life a misery for his supply troops. Perhaps even more advantageous in Italy was its ability as a howitzer to deliver a shell of lower velocity and higher trajectory. Problems of crest clearance almost disappeared. This in turn conferred a wider choice of gun page 170 positions, permitted the best use to be made of gun areas where batteries were often thick on the ground, and improved the protection of guns by enabling them to be tucked close in under the shelter of hills, which hid their flash and made them difficult to hit. The lobbing flight of the howitzer shell could find targets behind crests and in gullies that were inaccessible to the mere gun, and the steep angle of descent prevented the undue dispersal of the canisters thrown out by the air-bursting smoke shell – no slight asset in a country where the humid atmosphere in winter favoured the use of smoke, where the enemy's excellent observation often made it necessary, and where the deeply wrinkled terrain sometimes required smoke for ranging. The Germans deplored the 25-pounder high-explosive shell for its deafening burst and wide zone of fragmentation, and so high was the rate of fire that they occasionally mistook the 25-pounder for an automatic weapon. Experienced crews knew, indeed, that the five rounds a minute of the drill book was not a maximum. Normally it was an accurate gun, but rapid wear of the barrel in the long spells of firing that were not uncommon in Italy could cause rounds to fall short.

In this campaign the field gunners were not called on to kill tanks over open sights. It was therefore possible to dig the guns in or surround them with parapets of sandbags without much fear of obstructing a necessary field of fire. In more mobile operations the circular steel platform carried under the trail of the 25-pounder was a great advantage in the Italian winter, for it enabled the gun to be brought into action quickly and traversed easily on muddy ground. If the moral factor in war is as great as the gunner Napoleon thought, one other virtue of the 25-pounder demands mention: it possessed a shield. This thin plate of armour offered psychological reassurance and perhaps some real protection from flying splinters or bullets. More than that, it offered a flat surface upon which the gunners could inscribe the name of their choice, cocky or sentimental, homely or proud.

From this inventory of virtues, one subtraction must be made, and it springs from the fact that the 25-pounder was the weapon of a mechanised army. Its pneumatic tyres made it fast on the road or on firm ground, but in the mud of the fields it was not such a handy gun to manoeuvre as those carried on the old spoked, iron-shod wheels. Sweaty labours were often needed to manhandle it out of a pit or across sodden ground; the balance which made it easy to traverse on the platform also made it perilously easy to tip muzzle-down in the mud – the most humiliating of sights; the low trailers loaded with ammunition were particularly awkward to move and keep moving; and the winching gear of the gun-tower was not always equal to the page 171 strain, even supposing the tower could approach near enough to use it. Gun for gun, the 25-pounder was less well served in Italy by its petrol-driven ‘quad’ than the medium guns by their diesel-engined ‘matador’.


The machine-gunners ruefully contrasted the Orsogna country with ‘the limitless vistas of flat desert’. Now their work was extremely strenuous and, with its scope for indirect fire, technically exacting. But they had the satisfaction of knowing that, given the required man- or mule-power, the Vickers machine gun was more easily able to keep up with advancing infantry than other supporting weapons. Nevertheless, in such exhausting terrain men could not be expected to carry their guns more than 1000 yards without temporary loss of fighting efficiency. The usual practice had been to attach two companies of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion to each brigade, one company in close support of the battalions, the other under brigade command to provide harassing fire and support in depth. Machine-gunners in forward posts were wise to reserve their fire for the main counter-attack.

The engineers had so much to do on the Orsogna front that no sapper effort could be wasted. Two economies specially recommended were unit self-help and the direct control by the CRE of all engineer resources for as long as possible. Another realistic doctrine that served the same end was the rule that it was generally better to avoid the nuisance of mines and shellfire by constructing a new route than to court them by taking the obvious and topographically easiest crossing of an obstacle. Though the new heavy equipment had proved itself, experience brought to light fresh needs – the armouring of bulldozers, assault bridging that could be erected more rapidly than the Bailey type, and improved mine-detecting apparatus.

Despite the state of the roads and the weather, the New Zealand Army Service Corps was able on the whole to run a smoother supply service in Italy than in Africa. Distances to railhead and bulk issue depots were shorter, the divisional front was less mobile, and in country of such strongly-marked natural features it was less easy for convoys to go astray. The medical services were also able to bring the whole chain of evacuation posts closer to the front line. Indeed, they had no choice but to do so because traffic congestion often delayed evacuation, though ambulances took precedence on the roads. In view of the difficulty of bringing back the wounded from the front line, a return was made to the practice of having large stretcher-bearer teams in readiness before an attack, sometimes with as many as six men to each stretcher. From the regimental aid post casualties would be carried, usually by jeep, to the advanced dressing page 172 station, accommodated well forward in some suitable farmhouse, and thence by ambulance to the more elaborately equipped stations farther back. The primary lesson learned by the medical services was the need for flexibility in the handling of units.

The reports of the various formations were collated at Divisional Headquarters after the New Zealanders had left the Orsogna front. Comparison between the materials of the abstract and the abstract itself suggests that to General Freyberg daylight attacks were less repugnant than they were to most of his infantry commanders, and that he was by no means convinced of the unwisdom of attacks led by armour. He seems, too, to have been most insistent on the simple infantry virtues of physical fitness, discipline in camouflage and movement, and the skill-at-arms needed to obtain the maximum killing power from every weapon. This divisional stocktaking was carried out nearly always with thoroughness and sometimes even studiously. It was entirely characteristic of a division that appeared to observers to take a tradesmanlike interest in the craft of war.


But – perhaps because it fell within the terms of reference of none of the contributors – one salient topic was omitted from this review of experience: how suitable was the structure of the Division for campaigning in Italy? By January it was abundantly clear that in conditions like those of Orsogna two brigades of infantry were insufficient. Although the Division had had the assistance at different times of one Indian and two British brigades, it had still to improvise to find enough infantry to hold its front, as the mixed force of Divisional Cavalry, machine-gunners and anti-tank gunners in the Bianco–Barone sub-sector testified. Even then, they were weary infantrymen who came out of the line in mid-January. Was it to be the perverse fate of the Division to be under an obligation to others for armoured support in Africa, where the race was to the swift, and for infantry in Italy, where the battle was to the strong? It is just as easy for soldiers to be efficient in winning the last campaign as in winning the last war. ‘As a result of our experience in Africa,’ asked one commander in retrospect, ‘were we not magnificently equipped and organised for the break-out and pursuit phase, but lacked the strength and were overencumbered for the break-in and dog-fight battles?’1

The lack of a third infantry brigade becomes more significant in the light of the extremely heavy burden that falls upon the comparatively few men in contact with the enemy. Infantry strength is a subject sufficiently critical to warrant a resort to figures, but it is not a subject

1 Brigadier C. E. Weir, in a comment on the preliminary narrative.

page 173 upon which statistical certainty is attainable. Strength returns made during battle are never dependable. Some of the returns have not survived. Calculation is further confounded by the variety of the bases upon which the figures rest.1 Still, across a bridge of dubious assumption and arbitrary definition, it is possible to arrive somewhere near the truth and certainly to gain a general view of the problem.
About the time of the Sangro crossing, the posted strength of all New Zealand units in Italy was more than 19,000 and of the seven infantry battalions (including 22 Motor Battalion) about 5200. This last figure agrees closely with the field return of all ranks present with the battalions. By 18 December, however, the battalions had only 4600 men with them, of whom fewer than two-thirds could be counted as assaulting troops – perhaps 3000 in round figures. Thus, about the height of the fighting at Orsogna, a force of nearly 20,000 was devoting five-sixths or more of its numbers to supporting and supplying the other sixth. This proportion was by no means exceptional for British troops (or, it seems, for the Germans)2 but it must be borne in mind if the meaning of battle casualties is to be appreciated. Losses seemingly light – a few score men a day for a week – could soon blunt the cutting edge of the Division, for the losses fell on the fighting infantry with grave disproportion. The New Zealand casualties in the Sangro-Orsogna phase totalled about 1600. Of these nearly 1200, or 72 per cent, occurred among the infantry battalions, and overwhelmingly among the assaulting troops. If it were possible to break down casualty figures so as to show

1 Four main sets of figures are involved: (a) The ‘war establishment’—the number of officers and other ranks belonging to a unit, according to its type, when it is at full strength. (b) The posted strength—the number of all ranks which at any given time the official records show as belonging to a unit, including men on leave. (c) Strengths based on field returns or daily fighting states, giving the number present with a unit, including those attached to it. (d) The assaulting strength–the number who actually participate in an assault. This is sometimes defined to exclude all but the rifle companies. I have extended it somewhat to include the headquarters company. It is arrived at by subtracting from figure (c) for a whole infantry battalion, the strengths of battalion headquarters and the Regimental Aid Post, B Echelon and those ‘left out of battle’. The distribution of a battalion among these categories varied with the circumstances and I have taken the arbitrary figure of 65 per cent as a typical assaulting strength in a battalion. The divisional assaulting strength is the sum of the assaulting strengths of the seven infantry battalions.

2 Typical strength returns of German divisions in Italy are those for 2 July 1944, for which I am indebted to the Canadian Historical Section. They are as follows:

Ration StrengthFighting StrengthInfantry
29 Pz Gren Div12,8895,2171,734
90 Pz Gren Div11,8403,9541,339
356 Inf Div10,9093,9272,269
4 Para Div9,1614,0501,850

Establishments varied for the three types of divisions, but all normally had six infantry battalions. It appears that ‘infantry’ comprised only men fighting with personal weapons– rifles and light automatics. ‘Fighting strengths’ included tank, gun, mortar, and heavy automatic crews, engineers and signals personnel. The proportion of ‘infantry’ to ‘ration strengths’ varies between 11 per cent and 21 per cent and to ‘fighting strengths’ between 35 per cent and 56 per cent. This is very much the same as in 2 NZ Division at this time.

page 174 the losses of sub-units, the rifle companies would undoubtedly be found to have suffered losses very much higher than the 25 per cent or so inflicted on the infantry battalions as a whole.

The experience of a single battalion may serve to typify that of all. It so happened that on 28 November 23 Battalion's field strength coincided precisely with that of its war establishment; though slightly oversupplied with officers and undersupplied with other ranks, it had the regulation 783 all ranks. After a fortnight's fighting this figure had shrunk to 694, and when it went into the attack in operation Florence on 15 December it had about 670 men, of whom only about 400 can have taken part in the assault. On the 15th alone the battalion lost 100 men (28 killed and 72 wounded). It must be assumed, therefore, that its assaulting strength was reduced by about a quarter on this day and its fighting efficiency as a unit by far more. With two drafts of reinforcements, the battalion's field strength recovered to 759 all ranks on 8 January and then declined slightly in its last week in the line. Upon such narrow margins as this brief record reveals lived the infantry battalions, and upon the continued effectiveness of the infantry battalions depended the existence of the Division as a fighting force.

Conditions on the Sangro and round Orsogna made casualties among tank crews numerically much lighter than among the infantry. Weather and terrain usually prevented the armoured regiments from getting more than half their squadrons into any one action, and the crews often escaped unharmed from disabled tanks. Several individual battalions of infantry lost more than the 143 casualties of all three armoured regiments in this campaign. Yet casualties were severe enough, falling as they did almost solely upon the tank crews, who numbered perhaps two hundred men of the six hundred or so in a regiment. Take away fifteen or twenty of them, and a regiment had lost heavily in skill and leadership, since tanks were manned by highly trained gunners, drivers and wireless operators, with a very high proportion of officers and NCOs.

Apart from the infantry shortage, experience had shown other structural weaknesses. Some parts of the Division which had pulled their full weight in the desert were of greatly impaired usefulness in Italy. Reconnaissance, the raison d'être of the Divisional Cavalry, could hardly be carried out in armoured cars once the weather had broken and it devolved almost wholly upon infantry patrols. Line-holding as infantry and the guarding of vital points behind the lines became the occupation of the Divisional Cavalry in the latter part of the Orsogna campaign. Again, the anti-tank and and anti-aircraft gunners were equipped respectively with defensive weapons of a single purpose, and neither of these purposes was so
Fifth Army front, 6 February 1944

Fifth Army front, 6 February 1944

page 175 urgent as in Africa, on the one hand because large tank battles did not occur, and on the other because the Luftwaffe's visits were short and far between.

Whether the most economical use was being made of the fighting troops was thus a pertinent question. Though it was a question not formally asked or answered on paper at this time, the equipment and organisation of the Division were much in the minds of the senior commanders, and the shortage of infantry was discussed. Any substantial reorganisation, however, would have put the Division out of action for months at a time when the reinforcement of the armies in Italy was going so slowly as to cause Alexander concern. Besides, the Division's experience at Orsogna was partial and limited, and the opportunity might yet arise for using it in the pursuit role for which it was especially trained, equipped and organised. To such a role, indeed, it was now summoned.