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26 Battalion

Chapter 13 — The Battle for Orsogna

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Chapter 13
The Battle for Orsogna

WHILE 24 and 25 Battalions advanced west towards Orsogna and Guardiagrele, 26 Battalion assembled in Castelfrentano. C Coy moved into some houses in the eastern end of the village and A Coy occupied some empty dugouts. The rest of the battalion trudged up the steep slopes of the ridge to join C Coy. During the afternoon the unit transport and the balance of the supporting arms arrived. B Echelon also moved forward. The villagers, poorly clothed and hungry, gave the troops a warm welcome. Many of them had been forced by the Germans to work on the extensive fortifications in the vicinity. Rows of deep and elaborate dugouts capable of housing hundreds of men ran along the ridge. These had received special attention from Allied aircraft and over thirty German dead were found. One of Padre's Scott's first tasks on arriving in the village was to bury these men. Mail and parcels were distributed and wet clothing changed; beards were shaved off and everyone had a good clean up. There was scarcely any enemy shelling during the early part of the day, but late in the afternoon his gunners began firing on a section of Route 84 west of the village, the famous ‘Mad Mile’. C Coy reported one man wounded by shell splinters. Enemy planes flew overhead on a number of occasions, but they did not attempt to attack the village and were usually driven off by the ever-present Spitfires.

Sixth Brigade's next objective could be clearly seen from Castelfrentano. Only four miles away Orsogna, perched high on a steep-sided hill, towered over the surrounding countryside, giving the enemy a commanding view of the deep valley which divided the two ridges. North-east of the town several spurs and ridges extended from the main ridge into this valley. A narrow clay road, known as the Roman road, crossed the valley. It branched off Route 84 at a point about half a mile west of Castelfrentano, descended sharply into the valley, crossed the Moro River, and climbed the steep slopes of a ridge linking Orsogna and Lanciano.

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By nightfall 25 Battalion, moving west along Route 84, had reached a point about two miles beyond Castelfrentano; 24 Battalion had crossed the valley via the Roman road and advanced to within two miles of Orsogna. Both battalions had encountered slight opposition and had dug in to await the arrival of supporting arms. The 19th Armoured Regiment, driving north-east up the Moro valley, had overrun several enemy positions. The tanks had no infantry with them and some of the enemy troops were able to escape. A blown bridge about a mile from the Roman road brought the armour to a stop and the tanks were unable to link up with 24 Battalion. Interrogation of the prisoners revealed that the 26th Panzer Division, one of the best German formations in Italy, had been moved in to support the battered 65th Division. Everyone knew that future advances would be hotly contested.

During the evening orders were issued for 25 Battalion to attack and occupy Orsogna at dawn the following morning, 3 December. The 26th Battalion, in reserve, was to leave Castelfrentano at daybreak and take up a position between the Moro River and the ridge which linked Orsogna and Lanciano. So while the men of 26 Battalion slept in reasonable comfort, 25 Battalion retraced its steps down Route 84, crossed the valley and the river (in reality only a small stream), and climbed the ridge. Tanks joined 25 Battalion and at dawn the assault was launched on the town.

The artillery was still firing at 7 a.m. when 26 Battalion set off on foot down Route 84, the machine-gun, mortar and anti-tank platoons accompanying the rifle companies. Although the men were marching along a road in full view of the enemy gunners there was little shell or mortar fire, probably because the enemy was occupied with events nearer at hand. The Roman road was steep and muddy, which made it difficult for those carrying the heavier loads to keep pace with the others. No difficulty was experienced in crossing the stream in the bed of the valley. As B Coy in the lead neared 24 Battalion HQ, word was received that 25 Battalion's attack had failed. The tanks had been unable to move far along the crest of the ridge and the assault had been made by one company, which had suffered heavy casualties before it was forced to withdraw. Colonel page 313 Fountaine ordered his companies to disperse until the situation was clarified. Later in the day, with the position unchanged, the men dug in, A Coy on the reverse slope of the ridge on the left of the Roman road, B Coy and Battalion HQ on the right of the road, with C and D Coys behind them on the lower ground. Some of the platoons occupied houses.

During the afternoon a working party from 18 Platoon was sent back across the stream to unload 75-millimetre shells and carry them through a narrow defile, where a Bren carrier was waiting to take them forward to the Shermans with 25 Battalion. Unluckily, soon after the party got started enemy gunners fired several heavy concentrations on the road. Before the platoon could scatter two men had been killed and another wounded. The driver of the carrier was fatally injured. The unit transport, which was supposed to be following the infantry, had also been unfortunate. After being delayed in Castelfrentano by heavy shelling, the column had set out along Route 84. The slow-moving vehicles drew enemy fire, and before the trip was abandoned one truck had been hit. One man was killed and two others, including Padre Scott, wounded. B Echelon had also had its share of bad luck. An Italian woman had been wounded on a mine, and two men who went to assist her were killed. Both were veterans of Alamein and their loss was keenly felt. Towards dusk shelling and mortaring increased and three men were wounded, one fatally. This brought the day's casualties to ten, including six killed. At dusk a jeep raced across the valley with a hot meal for the forward troops.

After the setback to 25 Battalion, plans were made to launch a full-scale assault on Orsogna and the ridge (Cemetery Ridge) running north-east from it. Several days elapsed before preparations were complete, and during this period supplies were built up and the engineers worked hard to repair and build roads which would allow tanks and guns to come forward to support the infantry. Rain on the 4th and light showers two days later caused the Sangro to flood, and traffic was temporarily dislocated. The rain also limited air operations and made the task of the engineers much more difficult. The sappers worked most of the time in full view of enemy gunners. Gains were made on both flanks. On the right Lanciano was captured. Several at- page 314 tempts were made to reach the Guardiagrele-Orsogna road on the left flank, but although some ground was gained the road remained in enemy hands. The 2nd (British) Paratroop Brigade came under command and took over the left-hand sector, enabling General Freyberg to concentrate his Division along a narrower front.

During this lull the battalion remained in its positions on the reverse slope of the ridge. Wherever possible platoons occupied houses or barns, manning trenches at night. An outpost of platoon strength was maintained on the right flank of 24 Battalion. The men, accompanied by a detachment of Vickers gunners, dug in along a spur in full view of the enemy but were not seriously troubled by hostile fire. Enemy gunners concentrated more on the roads, and all traffic moving to and from Castelfrentano had to run the gauntlet of heavy fire. Drivers wasted no time, speeding past danger points. Whenever tanks or bulldozers began moving about in the vicinity, the battalion sector was heavily shelled and mortared; one man in B Coy was wounded. On the evening of the 3rd sufficient blankets were brought forward to permit the issue of one to each man. Mail was also distributed.

Several reconnaissance patrols were sent out to try to find a track by which tanks could bypass Orsogna. On the 4th a party from A Coy, accompanied by tank officers, examined tracks on the lower slopes of the ridge leading to Orsogna. They found plenty of cover for infantry but nothing suitable for tanks. Two days later a larger party moved through the valley as far as the hill on which the town was built but found nothing suitable. Four men from C Coy tried again that night but had to admit failure. No enemy troops were encountered, although some of the houses entered showed signs of earlier occupation by troops.

By dusk on the 6th plans for an assault on Orsogna had been completed. Three battalions, two from 5 Brigade and one from 6 Brigade, were to take part. They would be assisted by an aerial and artillery bombardment, the weight of the former depending on the weather. The 24th Battalion was to make a frontal attack on the town, while the Maoris on the right moved up Pascuccio Spur to gain a foothold on Cemetery Ridge. To create a diversion and protect the right flank of the Division, page 315 23 Battalion was directed to Sfasciata Ridge, one of the spurs running down into the Moro valley to the right rear of the Maoris' objective. By seizing part of the Orsogna-Ortona road the New Zealanders would prevent the enemy reinforcing his troops in Orsogna by this route. Should 24 Battalion's attack fail, the ridge could be used as an approach for further attacks which would eventually isolate the town.

To provide a firm base in the event of any enemy counter-attack and be in a position to exploit any gains made by the assaulting troops, 26 Battalion was to move forward and occupy 24 Battalion's sector after the attack had begun. The Signals Platoon of 26 Battalion was also given the responsibility of maintaining communications between 24 Battalion and Brigade HQ. As the bombardment was not to begin until 1 p.m., the troops had plenty of time to prepare for the move. Early on the 7th the skies clouded over and little was seen of Allied fighters and bombers during the morning. At 1 p.m. the 25-pounders opened fire, and they were still hammering away three hours later when 26 Battalion began to move forward. A Coy, in the lead, swung over to the right to occupy the forward slope of the Brecciarola Ridge, only 1600 yards from the town. D Coy was a short distance to the rear and nearer the road. B and C Coys remained in reserve about 200–300 yards behind the leaders. Battalion HQ was set up in a house near C Coy. Tank movement behind the sector drew heavy fire on the battalion, one man being killed and another wounded.

Up-to-date news of the struggle for the town was being received from the assaulting battalion. The road leading to the town was under fire, and tanks and troops could be seen moving about near its entrance. The maintenance of the line to 24 Battalion HQ was in the hands of Pte Officer,1 who went forward several times to repair the breaks caused by the heavy shelling and mortaring. Largely due to his efforts an almost constant link was kept with the assaulting unit, and this enabled the supporting arms to give the maximum assistance to those fighting in the town.

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The struggle continued through the afternoon into the night. At one time it seemed the town would fall. The 24th Battalion infantry reached the square but the enemy counter-attacked, using flame-throwers and tanks, and drove them back. Almost every house was occupied by the enemy and many of the doors and windows were booby-trapped. The Shermans had not been able to get past the entrance to the town because of demolitions and mines. As a result the infantry had to fight on their own. Late that night they withdrew, the assaulting companies going behind 26 Battalion's sector and the other two to a position several hundred yards in front of A and D Coys. On the right the Maoris had captured their objective on Cemetery Ridge, but the failure of the frontal attack on the town, combined with heavy ground conditions which prevented tanks and supporting arms from reaching them, compelled their withdrawal. Like 24 Battalion they had suffered heavy casualties. The only redeeming feature was 23 Battalion's capture of Sfasciata Ridge.

After this failure frontal attacks on Orsogna were abandoned. Instead preparations were made to isolate the town by extending the gains made by 23 Battalion. A fortnight went by before 26 Battalion was called on to take part in these operations, and during this lull the companies continued to hold positions on the Brecciarola Ridge. Heavy rain on a number of occasions immobilised the armour and caused widespread flooding. The bad weather made conditions in the forward sectors very unpleasant. On the 8th B and C Coys relieved the forward companies of 24 Battalion and were compelled to man trenches day and night. Being only about 1200 yards from the town and under observation from Cemetery Ridge, they were not able to move around much in daylight. For them the rain meant wet clothes and little protection from the cold winds. Wherever possible the rest of the battalion occupied houses during the day and trenches at night. Although enemy shelling was never very heavy, the CO arranged for the reserve companies to take a turn in the forward sectors every day or so. A roster system amongst platoons was introduced to man an outpost on the Pascuccio Ridge; its purpose was to prevent any attempt by the enemy to penetrate between the Brecciarola and Sfasciata positions.

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A constant watch was kept on movement in Orsogna and along Cemetery Ridge. Almost every night patrols were sent out to examine the road leading to the town or find a route for tanks to bypass it. Orsogna and the surrounding areas had been divided into artillery fire tasks, and the heavy mortars and 25- pounders were frequently called on to fire one or other of them. Enemy guns were seldom silent but, like their planes, they concentrated more on the rear areas. Jeep drivers who brought hot meals, mail, and supplies forward from Castelfrentano continued to run the gauntlet of heavy fire. They did not always escape unscathed. Major Horrell was wounded at the notorious Hell- fire Corner and the battalion lost its only ‘original’ officer. Despite these dangers meals arrived regularly, and one evening Mr. Gray came forward with an issue of chocolate and cigarettes.

Patrolling was an unpleasant task for it had to be carried out during the cold of the night and generally along a route covered by enemy gunners. A patrol of three men, which set out to locate a route to bypass Orsogna along the southern slopes of the ridge on which the battalion was stationed, met trouble. Led by Lt Morrison,2 the party scrambled down the steep sides of the ridge into the Moro valley and, following a rough track, circled around the town and approached it from the rear. Just as Morrison, in the lead, rounded a corner a grenade or mine exploded. Flares lit up the area and voices could be heard close at hand. Unable to find out what had happened to the platoon commander, the remaining members of the party retired quickly and later returned to the lines. Morrison was posted missing. Every night, and sometimes twice a night, small parties were sent out to ascertain if the enemy was remining the road on the outskirts of the town. During the unsuccessful attack on the 7th, sappers had lifted many mines and had partially filled in one of the large demolitions which had blocked the passage of the Shermans. By the 20th details of this stretch of road were well known to most of the men. On the roadside was an abandoned dump covered with branches and containing enemy ammunition and equipment; closer to the town was a page 318 demolition with an abandoned Sherman nearby; and beyond it and past some houses were two other large road craters which together barred the passage of armour. Although working parties were heard, the patrols were seldom fired on and no mines were seen.

Four events of note occurred during the period and the battalion was directly concerned in three of them. On 9 December, the day after 24 Battalion moved into reserve, A Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment moved past C Coy and shelled Orsogna. The enemy quickly retaliated, and C Coy men crouching in their trenches listened apprehensively as shells crashed down all around them. One tank was hit and the company lost three men. For an hour, long after the tanks had withdrawn, the enemy continued his bombardment. Six days later, on the morning of the 15th, the assault on Cemetery Ridge was resumed by 25 Battalion and 5 Brigade, with armoured support. All objectives were taken after prolonged fighting, but exploitation by tanks and infantry was prevented by stubborn defence and enemy counter-attacks. The troops encountered were of a different calibre from those who offered a token resistance earlier in the campaign. Anti-tank guns, cleverly sited, took a heavy toll of the Shermans. Nevertheless the gains were held and one of the enemy's main supply routes, the Orsogna-Ortona road, was blocked.

The attack and enemy counter-attacks extended into the 16th but by nightfall the battle had quietened down. The following day an artillery OP at the entrance to the town reported no sign of the enemy in the vicinity. Colonel Fountaine was ordered to send a company into the town to ascertain if the enemy had vacated it wholly or in part. Two squadrons from 20 Armoured Regiment were to accompany the infantry. D Coy, which was chosen for the task, was on its way by 9.30 a.m., 18 Platoon leading, followed by 16 Platoon. Three Shermans were nearby. An hour later the company was at the demolition and Maj Molineaux reported no sign of the enemy. No. 18 Platoon crossed over to the right-hand side of the road into better cover and began to approach the town itself. The first few houses were empty, and the men were beginning to think that the enemy had really left when they ran into a minefield. Several page 319 ‘S’ mines shot into the air but failed to explode. Sobered by this escape the platoon began to move more carefully through the field, when a German was seen in the doorway of one of the houses. He yelled to someone inside the house and the platoon raced to cover behind a haystack.

To the surprise of the men crouching behind the haystack the enemy concentrated his fire on 16 Platoon, which was still coming up the road. Within a few minutes the road was empty save for the three tanks held up at the demolition. Sappers and infantrymen had disappeared from sight, some to a pink house and others to whatever cover was nearest. One man, a platoon sergeant, had been wounded. While this was going on 18 Platoon had been digging in. Some of the men had to lift mines to do this, so thickly had the enemy laid them. Before the task had been completed the enemy was firing heavy concentrations on the road and the ground to the right of it. Two of the tanks were hit and communication lost with the remainder. No. 18 Platoon's haystack was set on fire—a fortunate occurrence as the smoke from it allowed some of the men to withdraw to safer ground.

Unaware of what had happened to the forward platoons, 17 Platoon was moving along the road accompanied by a second troop of tanks. They, too, came under heavy fire and were forced to take cover. The tanks attempted to run the gauntlet but one by one they were hit or disabled on mines. Matters reached a stalemate. Neither side could move without showing himself to the other, but the enemy had the advantage of knowing approximately where the New Zealanders were. Colonel Fountaine, not certain of the exact location of his company, could not call down close artillery support. Instead, 6 Field Regiment laid a smoke screen over the town in an effort to neutralise the enemy fire, and also fired heavy concentrations on known gun positions. The company survived the afternoon without further casualties and at dusk withdrew from the town into reserve. A strong party was left at the demolition to guard the disabled tanks.

Two days later the battalion was relieved by 24 Battalion and moved into reserve. The companies moved off after dusk and marched to Castelfrentano, where they occupied comfortable page 320 billets. It was a cold night for marching and the hot cup of cocoa provided by the YMCA was welcomed. Cold, wet trenches were soon forgotten as mail was opened and accumulated parcels distributed. Eighteen casualties had been suffered during the fortnight. The eight killed or mortally wounded included two platoon commanders—Lt Morrison, who was believed killed, and Lt Lindsay,3 who together with several other men in his platoon had been hit by a shell from a 25-pounder firing short. Following the evacuation of Maj Horrell, Maj Ollivier had become second-in-command and Capt J. R. Williams had taken over C Coy. Capt D. C. Piper commanded A Coy.

* * *

The spell was very short. After dusk on the 21st the battalion returned to the line, relieving 25 Battalion in a reserve sector on the right rear of 24 Battalion. The seven-mile march from the village was long and tedious for many of the men were suffering from diarrhœa, the after-effects of rich food and potent wines. The companies were deployed along the crest of the ridge forward of the Lanciano-Orsogna road, with A Coy on the left and the others at intervals to the right. There had been some heavy rain during the previous few days and the weather had become much colder. Fortunately, being in a reserve sector the men were able to occupy the barns and houses in the company areas. In these they sought shelter and warmth but had to put up with fleas, lice, and rats. Italian peasants still occupied the houses and, despite shelling and mortaring, showed no inclination to leave their possessions. They were poor and almost destitute—the Germans had robbed them of their livestock and food—but they gave freely of what they had. Even hardened soldiers who had fought Italians in the desert could not withstand the mute appeal of the hungry, barefooted children.

Everyone had given up the thought of spending Christmas Day in any other place than the front line but took comfort in the knowledge that the new sector was a reserve one and seldom troubled by enemy gunners. However, unknown to the men page 321 plans to extend the Cemetery Ridge salient had been completed, and for the first time in its history 26 Battalion was to take part in an attack under the command of 5 Brigade. Three battalions, the 21st, 26th and 28th, were to take part in the assault, which was scheduled to begin before dawn on 24 December. A platoon from C and D Coys, plus a skeleton Battalion HQ under the command of Maj Molineaux, set out after dusk on the 22nd to relieve D Coy 28 Battalion. After an exhausting three-hour march over hills and gullies along tracks often knee deep in mud, the party reached the Maoris' sector near the Orsogna-Ortona road.

The Maoris moved out and the troops occupied the empty trenches, which they manned for the next 24 hours until the rest of the battalion arrived. It was a cold and miserable wait. The German lines were in places only a short distance away and strong pickets had to be maintained. This meant that each man had to remain on duty twelve of the twenty-four hours. Sleep, even in off-duty hours, was impossible. The cold was intense and the silence was broken many times by the rattle of a spandau or the crash of an exploding shell. Those few who had brought greatcoats were much more comfortable. At dawn movement was practically impossible. The day was fine but heavy clouds kept the Allied fighters and bombers on the ground. Free from the danger of air strafing, enemy gunners were on the alert for any movement and they made conditions very uncomfortable for the advanced party. Early in the afternoon a thick ground mist enveloped the ridge and increased the danger of an enemy counter-attack. There were no houses in the vicinity and not even a hot cup of tea could be brewed. Although the advanced party did without sleep and shivered with the cold, the men in it were perhaps more fortunate than the rest of the battalion, who had to march over the same track in pitch-black darkness and go into action almost immediately after their arrival at the Orsogna-Ortona road.

Orders for the proposed attack had been given. It was being made in accordance with the policy of remaining on the offensive during the winter to keep the enemy from consolidating and building a strong chain of defences. Fifth Brigade's commander, Brig Kippenberger, had decided to attack with 21 Battalion on page 322 the right, 26 Battalion in the centre, and the Maoris on the left. The 5th Brigade battalions had been almost continuously in action since the battle for Orsogna began, and 23 Battalion had been withdrawn because of heavy casualties. The objective of the brigade was the Fontegrande Ridge, west of the Orsogna-Ortona road, and another unnamed ridge beyond it. Roads ran along the crests of both these ridges, and their capture would open the way for further exploitation to complete the encirclement of Orsogna. Although a barrage would be fired, the infantry would have to capture their objectives without help from the armoured regiments because of the state of the ground. Not until the Maoris had taken their objective would the tanks be able to move along the roads on the crest of each ridge. Both ridges were likely to be hotly contested. The 65th Division had been reinforced and the German commander had brought in fresh and aggressive troops, the 334th Division, to which were attached some parachute training units.

The battalion was to form up behind the Ortona road and the railway line which ran parallel to it and advance on a front of approximately 1400 yards to the objectives, 1000–1500 yards away. Reconnaissance of the area had not been possible but maps and intelligence reports indicated that the attack would be difficult, particularly should the night be dark. The 26th Battalion was further handicapped through not having seen the ground in daylight.4 From the road and the railway the ground sloped up fairly sharply towards the first ridge. It was broken and heavily cultivated country containing several steep-sided gullies covered with brush. On the crest of Fontegrande Ridge were many vineyards, each row of vines supported by wire fences—an obvious place for the enemy to set booby traps. A narrow, steep-sided gully divided the two ridges. Through this gully ran the Arielli stream, the width and depth of which was unknown. The second ridge was not unlike the first and con- page 323 tained two fairly prominent hill features, both likely strongpoints. One of these, Pt 387, was in the battalion sector and was B Coy's objective.

The attack was divided into two phases: first, the capture of Fontegrande Ridge and, after a pause, an assault on the second ridge. Because of casualties and sickness the rifle companies were below strength; to cover the sector adequately Col Fountaine decided to commit all four to the assault, each moving from different start points. C and D Coys, the former on the left, were to follow directly behind the barrage and consolidate on Fontegrande. A and B Coys were to follow and continue through to the final objective. A Coy, on the left, was to capture a group of houses on the extreme left flank and extend across to B Coy on Pt 387, about 300 yards to the right. As it was not possible to point out landmarks, each company commander was given a fixed distance to travel and a compass bearing to follow. Twenty-five minutes would separate the departure of the first company and the last, and as each one would be following a different route, it was unlikely they would encounter one another until they reached their objectives.

Strong artillery support had been promised. Heavy concentrations were to be laid on known enemy strongpoints and a full-scale barrage would be fired. The battalion three-inch mortars were to be manhandled onto Fontegrande to support the two companies dug in there. No. 12 Platoon 27 (MG) Battalion, which was still with the battalion, was also to move forward. The problem of getting the anti-tank guns onto the ridge was much more difficult. The Carrier Platoon was likely to be fully occupied bringing supplies, etc., from the Orsogna sector and would not be able to tow the guns up the slope. To overcome this some carriers from 28 Battalion were made available. The Anti-Aircraft Platoon was to assist the sappers with the important task of clearing mines so that the tanks could get through to all four companies before daylight. It was expected that some difficulty would be experienced with wireless sets in such rugged country, so linesmen were detailed to follow the leading companies and lay lines to the first objectives.

Generally before an attack of this nature, company commanders are given an opportunity to study the ground to be page 324 covered and the troops a chance to freshen up. In this instance this was not possible. Instead the battalion had to complete a gruelling march on the eve of the assault. The men set out from the reserve sector at dusk along the circuitous tracks which led to the 5th Brigade area. By midnight the leading platoons had reached Maj Molineaux's party. The remainder were clambering up the steep slopes of the Sfasciata Spur, along muddy tracks left by jeeps and tanks. The former were making heavy weather of the journey, and many times drivers had to climb out and, with the assistance of passers-by, push their vehicles out of the morass. The troops were heavily laden, but they did not have to overcome the difficulties faced by the Mortar, Signals and Machine Gun platoons. Only by herculean efforts were these platoons able to reach the start line before the barrage began. Weakened by diarrhœa and exhausted by the approach march, all ranks felt more like resting than forming up to take part in what promised to be a difficult action.

Shortly before zero hour everything was ready. A signal link with the battalions on both flanks had been established and the companies were deployed in the vicinity of the railway, the start line for the attack. Major Molineaux's party had broken up and the platoons were back with their respective companies. Misty rain was falling as the weary men waited for the guns to open fire. It was noticeably quiet, ominously so. A few reinforcements had joined the battalion during the afternoon and they reported that civilians in Castelfrentano had wished them luck in the attack. This news was disquieting, for if the civilians knew of the attack so probably did the Germans. Opposing the battalion were part of 65 Division and some parachute troops.

Sharp at 4 a.m. the guns began firing. Flashes of orange flame stabbed the darkness and the ground trembled as shell after shell crashed down and exploded. Fifteen minutes later D Coy crossed the start line and headed for its objective, 900 yards away. C Coy was the next to move, and it was followed at short intervals by the other companies. All was well at 5 a.m. Company commanders reported they were advancing against light but ineffectual machine-gun fire. Soon afterwards, judging by the few messages received at Col Fountaine's headquarters, the situation changed. Not only were the companies meeting page 325
Black and white photograph of an attack

Attack on Fontegrande Ridge, 24 December 1943

stiffer opposition but tangled undergrowth and broken ground were also slowing down the advance. The almost impenetrable darkness forced platoons to bunch up and move more cautiously to keep their line of advance.

At 5.10 a.m. the linesmen attached to C Coy arrived back at the Ortona road. In the darkness they had lost contact with the company. An R/T message was sent to Capt Williams to send back guides, but hours passed before they arrived. C Coy was steadily approaching the crest of Fontegrande Ridge in the face of much heavier machine-gun fire. As the leading platoons, Nos. 13 and 14, neared the road they were fired on from a group of nearby houses. No. 14 Platoon was caught in the open and the platoon commander, Lt Humphries,5 and several others were hit. Two of the enemy posts were silenced without much difficulty; the third, stationed in a house about 100 yards from the platoon, continued to fire. Piat bombs were fired through page 326 the windows but they failed to explode. When it was obvious the bombs had misfired, Pte Tombs6 stood up and yelled: ‘Let's charge the bastards!’ As one man the platoon followed him, bayonets fixed, yelling with excitement. This was too much for the Germans, who set off in the opposite direction. An enemy flare silhouetted them against the skyline and the platoon opened fire, wounding all four.

No. 13 Platoon, on the right, encountered similar opposition and during the fighting became separated from the rest of the company. Lieutenant Frampton, the platoon commander, was wounded charging an enemy post which was quickly cleaned out. Later, unable to find the company, the platoon consolidated on the crest of the ridge. Unaware of this, Capt Williams reported at 5.37 a.m. that he had two platoons on the high ground overlooking the gully and the Arielli stream. Half an hour later they were astride the track running along the ridge. There was no sign of A Coy, and Capt Williams thought he was possibly too far to the right. Patrols were sent out to locate D Coy on the right flank. As dawn approached hostile machine-gun and mortar fire increased considerably but by this time the men were safely under cover. Contact was made with the missing platoon at daylight.

On the right flank D Coy had reached its objective at 5.13 a.m. No opposition was encountered but sections and platoons had found it extremely difficult to maintain contact. During the scramble across gullies and through a thickly cultivated stretch of country one platoon had gone missing. Later Maj Molineaux reported by telephone that the missing men had turned up and the company was dug in along its objective. Two Germans had been taken prisoner. The left-flank company of 21 Battalion had crossed into the battalion sector and was moving through D Coy to get around an obstacle.

A and B Coys both met trouble. A Coy, advancing along a line slightly to the left of C Coy, did not encounter serious opposition until after it had passed the first objective, although enfilading fire had forced the men to take cover more than once. Because of the darkness the platoons were closely bunched, and page 327 this lessened any likelihood of meeting part of C Coy. By 5.35 a.m. the leading platoons had reached the first objective and there was a fairly wide gap between the two companies. When 8 and 9 Platoons attempted to descend into the gully which divided the two ridges, the enemy lit up the area with flares. A few seconds later the troops came under fire from spandaus and mortars sited on the second ridge. The enemy fire increased in volume and the two platoons were forced to take cover.

At 6 a.m. the situation was unchanged except that the mortar fire had become much heavier. Spandaus were also firing from the right and right rear, indicating that C Coy had either bypassed some enemy posts or had not reached its objective. On the left flank contact had been made with the Maoris, who were also held up. In view of this and the unlikelihood of capturing the second ridge before dawn, Capt Piper wirelessed the Battalion Commander for permission to dig in along the crest of Fontegrande. This was granted and the company consolidated as best it could under heavy fire, houses being occupied wherever possible. Nos. 8 and 9 Platoons remained forward of the track in positions overlooking the gully and the second ridge, while the rest of the company dug in some distance to the rear. The hostile fire did not decrease at dawn and snipers made movement particularly dangerous. For this reason it was 8 a.m. before a reconnaissance party made contact with C Coy.

By 7 a.m. the CO had received details of the positions of A, C, and D Coys. Nothing was known of B Coy, and the absence of news was causing some concern. D Coy had not sighted it and was unable to make wireless contact. The situation became worse when it was learned that the left-flank company of 21 Battalion had been driven off the second ridge. As it seemed certain that the company had continued past Fontegrande Ridge, there was every possibility that it might be isolated on its objective. To the great relief of those at Tac HQ on the Ortona road a wireless message was received from the missing company at 7.30 a.m. It had met heavy opposition on the crest of the second ridge and was consolidating on the reverse slope. Major Smith had been wounded and was still missing. Later in the morning fuller details of the company's misfortunes were received

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The company had set out with 12 Platoon in the lead and No. 11 in support. Company HQ and 10 Platoon followed, the latter carrying tank mines. Moving in close formation, the platoons struggled across gullies and through the undergrowth to reach the first ridge without sighting anyone. No. 12 Platoon was close behind the barrage and the shell holes were still hot and smoking. After a short pause the company moved down into the gully, crossed the small Arielli stream, and climbed the second ridge. Enemy guns were silent. The men of the company, initially cautious, became more confident and advanced boldly towards the crossroads on the crest of the ridge. A lone spandau held up progress for a while, but Pte Oram7 crept forward and silenced it with a grenade. Unfortunately Oram was wounded by the explosion.

It was almost dawn by the time the company reached the crossroads. Major Smith called to the leading troops to pull back behind the road and dig in. Suddenly the enemy revealed his presence. Spandaus began firing at close range on all sides and the troops scattered. A house from which the bulk of the fire was coming was cleared at heavy cost, almost half of one platoon becoming casualties. The Company Commander shouted to his men to move back onto the reverse slope of the ridge. Spandaus were now firing from behind the company, and three of these posts had to be cleared before the running men could get back. More casualties were suffered and Maj Smith was seen to fall. On the reverse slope 2 Lt McClean, nearest to Coy HQ, assumed temporary command of the company. The men dug in under heavy fire and then waited for the enemy to follow up his advantage. Daylight revealed that the company had veered to the right of its objective and was dug in on both sides of a cleft on the lower slopes of the ridge. Under observation from the crest of the ridge, the company was not in a very secure position, but it was some comfort to see a company of 21 Battalion only a short distance away.

The advent of daylight and the reassuring news of B Coy gave a clearer picture of the gains made during the night. Both 21 and 26 Battalions were firmly astride Fontegrande Ridge page 329 although the supporting arms, except for Vickers gunners, had not reached them. On the left flank the Maoris, after suffering heavy losses, had wrested the vital road junction from the enemy. It was now possible for tanks to move along the crest of Fontegrande in support of the infantry. Only two companies, C Coy 21 Battalion and B Coy 26 Battalion, had succeeded in crossing the Arielli stream. Neither had been able to hold the crest of the second ridge but both were dug in along the reverse slope. B Coy was only 58 strong and C Coy 21 Battalion could muster scarcely a platoon. The Brigade Commander was in favour of withdrawing them from their exposed positions, but General Freyberg decided they should hold their ground. In view of this B Coy was ordered to move to the right and establish closer liaison with the 21st Battalion troops.

On Fontegrande Ridge A, C, and D Coys had established contact with each other, and they reported heavy shell and mortar fire. Every few minutes spandaus would open fire and snipers also were very active, restricting movement particularly amongst the forward platoons. Shortly before 8.30 a.m. several tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment reached A Coy. They attracted heavy fire but no casualties were suffered from it. A characteristic action by Cpl Smail won admiration. He climbed on a Sherman and stood there for some time directing fire on a number of enemy posts that had been troubling his company. Later the tanks moved north along the crest of the ridge engaging targets pointed out to them by the infantry. One tank remained with D Coy for the rest of the day, giving B Coy added protection but drawing heavy fire on D Coy.

Although the enemy was obviously holding the second ridge in some strength, the opposition on Fontegrande had not been as heavy as expected. The battalion's casualties had been fairly light; they totalled 30, including four killed. B Coy had fared worst, losing twelve men, including the four killed. Major Smith had been mortally wounded and his body was later recovered. A Coy reported six men wounded and one missing (later confirmed prisoner of war) and C Coy four wounded. The remaining casualties had been suffered by the specialist platoons. Twenty-two prisoners had been taken, more than half of them by B Coy. They were identified as belonging to 65 Division and page 330 a parachute training unit. About half of them were wounded and their evacuation, together with those of the battalion's wounded, presented quite a problem.

Because no suitable place could be found nearer at hand, the RAP had been set up in a house about a mile from the Ortona road. This meant a long and tiring trudge for stretcher-bearers even after they had left the firing line. B Coy in its exposed position could ill afford men to evacuate its own and enemy wounded. As some of the casualties required urgent medical attention, the acting Company Commander sent a few men who, assisted by the German prisoners, managed to evacuate them all early in the morning. The forward platoons of A Coy were also under close observation from the second ridge and the evacuation of their casualties was most difficult. In all cases the medical orderlies and stretcher-bearers responded splendidly and, despite the heavy mortar fire, evacuated wounded with a minimum waste of time. They were assisted by a light fog which for a time cloaked their movements. The fog also aided the linesmen trying to link the companies by telephone. Mortar fire was heavy and lines were constantly being cut. In such rough country breaks were difficult to detect and the linesmen's task was very unpleasant.

Although the tanks reduced enemy fire, they could offer no relief from the penetrating cold. Few of the men had worn greatcoats into the action and others bitterly regretted their lack of foresight. Those who could warmed themselves by digging their trenches deeper. The fog lasted all morning, giving way after midday to dark clouds and then to heavy showers Christmas Eve 1943 was not a pleasant one. Those men not in houses cursed the weather as they sat shivering in their open trenches. Later in the day most of them were able to move into houses to dry out. In between showers a few fowls and rabbits were caught and cooked to supplement the hard rations. No. 14 Platoon went one better. A noise was heard in one of the empty dugouts not far away, and Pte Tombs moved quietly across with rifle and bayonet fixed expecting to collect another prisoner. He was very surprised to find that the dugout's sole occupant was a medium-sized pig tethered to a stake. Pork was served the next day.

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During the day mules carried the three-inch mortars onto the ridge. Immediately they were in position company commanders gave them fire tasks. With tanks, mortars and Vickers in support, the rifle companies were more secure. B Coy was having a trying time, exposed to the weather and continually harassed by snipers and mortars. A patrol sent out during the morning to make contact with the Maoris about a mile away encountered heavy machine-gun fire near Pt 387 and was forced to turn back. At B Echelon Capt Joel8 and his staff were busy sorting heaps of fowls in a barn. Despite the difficulty of supply, they were determined that Christmas Day should be celebrated with a special meal. Getting this forward to the men was a problem, but one which the QM staff had become used to facing. Jeeps were to carry it as far as a forward B Echelon established not far from the RAP, and mules the rest of the way.

Shortly before dusk enemy gunners shelled the Orsogna-Ortona road. For ten minutes shells fell all around Tac HQ without hitting anybody. On Fontegrande shells and bombs were exploding in all directions. For a while it was thought the sudden increase in the firing was a prelude to a counter-attack, but nothing happened. Counter-battery fire quietened the enemy gunners who, however, repeated the dose at intervals throughout the night. As dusk fell B Coy received some good news. The 25th Battalion was relieving 21 Battalion on the right flank and would also take over B Coy's position. About 9 p.m. D Coy 25 Battalion moved past Tac HQ on the way to relieve the forward troops. Half an hour later mules crossed the Ortona road carrying a hot meal to the companies, B Coy's being held at Tac HQ. Greatcoats and a few accessories also carried by the mules were eagerly claimed by their owners. During the night slight adjustments were made to company positions and these enabled more of the men to occupy houses. A patrol covered the ground between A Coy and the Maoris.

In comparison with the 24th, Christmas Day was quiet and peaceful with desultory exchanges of fire during the morning. Late in the afternoon 8 Platoon reported that the enemy had moved forward. Pickets had sighted troops only 200 yards away. page 332 A heavy mortar concentration was laid down on the area and no attack followed. After dusk Capt Piper was evacuated to hospital and Capt A. J. Fraser assumed command of the company. The responsibility for the sector had passed to 6 Brigade which retained the Maoris under command. All plans to continue the assault were abandoned and the line remained stationary throughout the rest of the battalion's stay in the area.

* * *

Rain fell at frequent intervals during the next few days and company commanders did everything possible to get their men into houses or barns, which were manned as strongpoints. Picket duty, whether outside in trenches or upstairs in houses, was a cold, unpleasant task, but it was much worse for the men on patrols. In addition to the small party which kept an all- night vigil on the left flank, patrols were sent on two successive nights to the crossroads where B Coy had been checked. The first one, comprising three men from D Coy, went out on the night of the 26th. They examined the road but withdrew quickly when they heard voices nearby. Twenty-four hours later four men from 14 Platoon, following a similar route, found the enemy more alert and were forced to retire before they reached the road. No more patrols were sent along this route. Instead an outpost of seven men was established in the vicinity of B Coy's old sector to protect the left flank of 25 Battalion, which was still holding the Arielli stream salient. Each morning when the seven men were relieved and returned to the lines, they had little to report except that they had been almost frozen during their night in the open. The section chosen for this duty on New Year's Eve probably never spent a more unpleasant night

Enemy shelling and mortaring continued as before although not as severe. On occasions the sector would be subjected to a heavy pounding, and during some of these bombardments casualties were suffered. Sergeant Menzies, a veteran NCO highly regarded by all who knew him and who had seen service in all the desert actions, was amongst those listed as killed. When a line was reported broken late one night Menzies and another signaller volunteered to repair it. A search party later page 333 found the sergeant dead and the signaller desperately wounded. Until the 29th C Coy's sector was singled out as a target for very heavy mortar fire. The battalion mortars and the 25- pounders fired concentrations on enemy mortar sites and at length succeeded in quietening them. The nervous strain and hardships of the past weeks were having an effect on the health and morale of the troops. After Christmas Capt Fletcher and his staff became busier than ever as more and more men were evacuated to hospital with various ailments, chiefly attributable to the conditions under which the troops had been and were living. A night seldom passed without some sort of scare: the sound of shells exploding close by or an alarmed picket blazing away at the snapping of a twig or an imagined shadow. The slightest noise was sufficient to bring down enemy mortar fire. There was always the fear of an unexpected attack by the enemy, dug in only a few hundred yards away.

To ease this strain and enable the men of one company to get an occasional night's sleep, sectors were interchanged, the fourth company going back to B Echelon for a rest. As each company moved into reserve, the cooks provided a belated Christmas dinner which was none the less welcome. B Coy, under the command of Capt D. P. W. Harvey, returned to the line on the 26th and relieved A Coy. C Coy went out on the 28th and D Coy on the 30th. On the left flank 24 Battalion relieved the Maoris.

Thirty-two reinforcements who joined the unit at this time eased the burden of those who had been compelled to do almost continuous picket duty. Three officers were also posted to the battalion and they took over platoons which until this stage had been commanded by sergeants. On the 29th Col Fountaine left to return to New Zealand on furlough after commanding the battalion for over a year. His sudden departure gave the troops no opportunity to show their appreciation, but he carried with him the unspoken good wishes of all ranks. Major Molineaux assumed temporary command of the battalion but handed over to Lt-Col E. E. Richards the following day. Major Richards, as he was known to those who had served in the desert, had been on furlough, and everyone welcomed him back to the unit.

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On New Year's Eve it snowed. By morning the ground was covered with a white mantle a foot deep, with drifts three to four feet deep. A bitterly cold wind was blowing and nobody wanted to venture from their houses, but new lines had to be laid to all companies, a task made more difficult because all shell holes and dugouts were hidden under the snow. Tracks had disappeared overnight. Patrolling became even more unpleasant. Advice was received that the enemy had started using white clothing for patrol work and pickets had to be doubly on the alert.

By 2 January everyone was thoroughly fed up with the slush and mud all around. Tempers were getting short and nerves frayed. News that the battalion was being withdrawn for ten day's rest caused a remarkable change. Smiles soon replaced scowls and by nightfall everyone was impatiently waiting for 23 Battalion to arrive. The relief was completed without incident, and not long after dusk the troops were cheerfully marching back towards Castelfrentano, unmindful of muddy tracks and snow-filled shell craters. Lorries met the battalion and carried the men through to the village. By midnight everyone had bedded down in good, clean quarters with all thoughts of pickets, Germans, and shells banished.

The relief brought to a close the battalion's activities on the Sangro-Orsogna battlefront. The fighting had not been as severe as the ground conditions and the weather, which were perhaps the worst encountered by the unit overseas. For a large number of the men it had been their first action and a severe test. Casualties from fighting and sickness had reduced the rifle companies to approximately half strength. Thirty-three men had been killed, 74 wounded and two taken prisoner, a total of 109. Although spirits had been low at times, the knowledge that the enemy was undergoing the same trials was not lost sight of, and at no time did any man lose confidence in the final outcome of the battle.

1 Cpl A. H. B. Officer, MM; Drummond, Southland; born Ringway, 19 May 1906; farm labourer.

2 Lt G. O. Morrison; born NZ 18 Apr 1908; industrial chemist; killed in action 9 Dec 1943.

3 Lt D. P. Lindsay; born Wellington, 12 Nov 1906; schoolmaster; killed in action 12 Dec 1943.

4 Appointments on eve of attack were:

5 Maj P. J. Humphries; Tanganyika; born Southampton, 11 Nov 1921; student; wounded 24 Dec 1943; Brigade Major 6 Bde 1945.

6 Sgt W. Tombs, MM; born NZ 7 Sep 1919; labourer; twice wounded; killed in action 8 May 1944.

7 Pte J. T. Oram; Mount Hutt, Rakaia; born Ashburton, 28 Dec 1921; clerk; wounded 24 Dec 1943.

8 Maj M. Joel; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 3 Sep 1911; barrister and solicitor; DAAG 2 NZEF 1945.