Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
Kesselring had issued an order late on 30 May that ‘the enemy must be prevented at all costs from breaking into our positions towards Sora and entering the valley.’1 Next day, however, 51 Mountain Corps had to report that the enemy had brought up fresh forces to the Sora sector and ‘launched a 4-battalion attack between Sora and Colle Allino [north of Colle Monacesco], supported by tanks and artillery. Many of our A Tk weapons were destroyed, and towards evening 3 battalions of the enemy, plus 15 or 20 tanks and some armoured cars, forced a break through just east of Sora, losing heavily in men and weapons in the process. By 1930 hrs the foremost enemy troops were on the line 2 km north of Sora and 1½ km SW of Pescosolido. About a battalion of the enemy crossed the Liri NW of Sora.
By this time the three divisions of 51 Corps, reduced to a third or less of their normal strength, were known as Battle Groups Ortner (44 Division), Schrank (5 Mountain Division) and Boelsen (114 Light Division). Schrank Battle Group was ordered to leave Monte Morrone (which the New Zealand Division had passed without capturing) and keep in close contact with Ortner Battle Group on its right. Most of the guns of Schrank Battle Group and some from Boelsen Battle Group were to be moved westward to points where they could be used in Ortner Battle Group's defence. Ortner Battle Group, which had no reserves and was reported to have had heavy casualties, intended to hold until dusk in the Sora area and then fall back on the blocking line south of Balsorano, which was being manned in the meantime by an engineer unit and an anti-aircraft battery.
General Feurstein advised Tenth Army in the evening that he had ordered the entrance to the Balsorano valley to be held ‘to the last man. After that we must not expect Ortner Battle Gp to be fit for any more fighting.’ The group received permission from Corps on the morning of 1 June to make a fighting withdrawal to the Balsorano line and to ‘hold it to the last man. Commanders to stay in the FDLs.’3
The battle was approaching the stage when the Germans would be obliged to evacuate the country north of Route 6. The roads through the mountain valleys still open to the enemy offered easily defended positions where small but determined rearguards could block the pursuing forces. In the New Zealand Division's sector, for example, on the axis of the Atina-Sora-Avezzano route, the nature of the terrain limited the operations to the road and its vicinity; there was little or no opportunity for manoeuvre, and a headlong attack might have proved more costly to the attackers than the defenders.page 73
Beyond Sora Route 82 ran for 20-odd miles close to the eastern side of the Liri River through a valley enclosed by two 6000-foot mountain ranges, the Serra Lunga on the east and the Monti Simbruini on the west. The railway crossed and recrossed the river several times. At the narrowest part of the valley, near Balsorano, a small town some six miles from Sora, an abrupt escarpment on the eastern side overlooked the approaches from the south and was ideally situated for the enemy's purpose of blocking pursuit.
General Freyberg had advised 5 Brigade on 30 May that, except for light forces which were to probe forward and keep in touch with the enemy, the main body of the brigade was not to proceed beyond the 49 northing, about two miles past Sora. The General's policy had been to leapfrog the battalions of 5 Brigade until each had had some action, then to bring in 6 Brigade. By the time the Division had reached Sora, 5 Brigade's battalions had all had some share in the little fighting that had occurred.
In the evening of 31 May 6 Brigade, on the GOC's orders, warned its units to concentrate in the area immediately east of Atina in readiness to move forward next day. Divisional Headquarters issued instructions that, after 6 Brigade had assembled, the Division was to advance towards Balsorano on a two-brigade front, 5 Brigade on the eastern side of the valley and 6 Brigade on the western side, each with tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment in support.
On 1 June 24 Battalion (Major Aked1) relieved 28 Battalion in Sora and began to advance west of the Liri, and shortly after midday occupied a small hill just beyond the town without opposition. A strong patrol was sent to Colle Sant' Angelo, where, according to civilians, the Germans still maintained observation posts and some mortar posts. An enemy party, estimated at 200 strong, was seen withdrawing north of Colle Sant' Angelo and was engaged by the artillery and 4.2-inch mortars as well as by some of the tanks on the other side of the river. The patrol was recalled, and B Company, given the task of searching and occupying Colle Sant' Angelo, by dusk had found no Germans but evidence of their recent hasty evacuation of several positions.
1 Lt-Col E. W. Aked, MC, m.i.d., Aristion Andrias (Gk); Tauranga; born England, 12 Feb 1911; shop assistant; CO 24 Bn 4–8 Jun 1944; CO 210 British Liaison Unit with 3 Greek Bde in Italy and Greece, 1944–45.
In Sora, where the enemy had blown two bridges, 7 Field Company built a 160-foot Bailey bridge over the Liri. Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the river, 28 (Maori) Battalion advanced along the axis of Route 82, with three tanks of B Squadron, 20 Regiment, in support, and in the late afternoon, having met little opposition except mortar fire, halted about two miles north of Sora, roughly in line with 23 Battalion on the high ground to the right.
Fourth Armoured Brigade, less 18 and 20 Regiments, was given the task of protecting the Division's right flank in the Monte Morrone-Alvito area against the possibility of enemy infiltration from the Opi area, where he was thought to be in some strength. On the morning of 1 June 22 (Motor) Battalion took over the defence of the Alvito-Vicalvi area from 21 Battalion. Apart from a brush with a small party of enemy on Monte Morrone, 22 Battalion's patrols met no enemy but found recently abandoned positions.
Under divisional command, 25 Battalion stayed in rear of 6 Brigade to protect Atina against infiltration from the north and north-east. Two companies covered the road junction north of Atina and sent out patrols, but were replaced on 1 June by armoured cars of 12 Lancers, which became responsible for the route through San Donato to Opi. The 25th Battalion was then recalled to 6 Brigade and moved to the vicinity of Sora.
The 24th Battalion resumed the advance up the western bank of the Liri River early on 2 June. A Company, on the right, supported by tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, had to contend only with long-range shelling and machine-gun fire; B Company, starting from Colle Sant' Angelo, had a strenuous clamber over steep country. Learning that 28 Battalion was advancing to another bound, A Company pushed on past Le Compre and came under machine-gun fire from Germans in caves in the escarpment near Balsorano. The tanks fired on these caves and also on movement in the vicinity of Balsorano.
An escaped South African prisoner of war, who had been hiding in this region for some time, came into the lines and gave detailed information about the enemy positions ahead. He said that the Germans were preparing a strong defensive position at Collepiano, across the narrow valley from the escarpment near Balsorano, and as late as that morning had been carrying ammunition into these page 75 positions. This information proved to be correct. A Company was brought to a halt by small-arms and mortar fire when about a mile from Collepiano. The battalion's carriers and D Company went forward to give support, and Major Aked ordered D to pass through A and engage the enemy with fire only, in the expectation that he might retire under pressure. By midnight A and D Companies held a line about half a mile from Collepiano, with C in immediate reserve and B south of Le Compre. The tanks laagered in rear of the forward companies.
The Maori Battalion advanced steadily all day on 2 June, meeting only light and spasmodic mortaring of the road, and by late afternoon was approximately opposite Le Compre. Although hindered by the demolitions on the road, the tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, were up with the forward troops by evening. They accompanied patrols to a major demolition about a mile ahead of the battalion's main position and not far from where 24 Battalion had halted on the other side of the Liri.
By the end of the day the Maoris were feeling the strain of continuous marching in such steep and broken country. When Brigadier Stewart was discussing a resumption of the advance, Colonel Young drew attention to the fact that his men were footsore and weary. The Brigadier then directed that next day 28 Battalion should take up positions on a line which its patrols had reached, while 21 Battalion came up overnight and passed through to continue the advance. Arrangements were made also for 23 Battalion to follow the 21st.
During the night 24 Battalion's forward troops improved their positions and gained some ground, but at daybreak on 3 June were shelled and mortared. Confirmation having been gained of the enemy's strength at Collepiano, Brigadier Parkinson arranged for an attack supported by fire from the artillery and heavy mortars and from the tanks on both sides of the Liri. Twelve 4.2-inch mortars were sent up to 24 Battalion by 6 Brigade for the purpose, and liaison was established with 5 Brigade's supporting tanks, which had a clearer field of fire across the valley than had those with the 24th. The day was spent in preparation for the attack, and towards dusk patrols went out to study the ground, but as 5 Brigade was also held up at this stage, the operation was postponed and later cancelled. During the next two days, when heavy rain hampered cross-country movement for vehicles, 24 Battalion watched and engaged the enemy on Collepiano and around Balsorano. Fire from the tanks and 4.2-inch mortars caused several explosions, thought to be ammunition dumps.
On the night of 2–3 June 21 Battalion embussed from its bivouac page 76 area near Sora and drove up the road in rear of 28 Battalion, whose carriers and tanks, covering the sappers who were working well forward at that time, were transferred to its command. Mortar and machine-gun fire had been coming from German positions on the escarpment south-east of Balsorano, and snipers were covering the demolitions on the road ahead of the Maoris, which made the engineers' work on this section of the road practically impossible. The first bound of 21 Battalion's advance was just beyond the escarpment, and obviously the battalion's major task would be to clear out the defences along this escarpment.
C Company of 21 Battalion debussed shortly after midnight, set off up the road on foot and then turned off into the hills with a point at the eastern end of the escarpment as its objective; D Company, which followed, turned off on a track leading to the hamlet of i Ridotti, and then made north towards the escarpment, which both companies reported they had reached before dawn. Meanwhile a party from B Company relieved the Maoris covering the engineers on the road, and with tanks of C Squadron in support, advanced beyond the demolition where they had been working. They met heavy fire, however, and were forced to fall back. As the light improved the hostile fire also compelled the withdrawal of a bulldozer which had been brought up in the darkness to the demolition.
D Company made its way to the top of the escarpment and found itself among German defences, but appeared to be getting the better of close fighting until other posts in the vicinity opened fire. The company then fell back with the loss of two officers and three men wounded and two men missing, but with some 20 German prisoners. It was ordered by radio to break contact with the enemy and return to the battalion.
C Company, which was out of wireless touch with the battalion for most of the night, also reached the top of the escarpment and (according to a company report) got within a quarter of a mile of Balsorano; but as the light improved the company came under fire from posts ahead of it. It tried to get around the right of these defences, but was forced to ground in inadequate cover.
When he heard of the determination of the German defence, Brigadier Stewart asked General Freyberg whether he could prepare a set-piece attack on katipo (the codename for the bound just beyond the top of the escarpment). The GOC, however, did not give an immediate decision because he felt that the enemy resistance was only temporary, but permitted Stewart and Parkinson to start planning for a concerted attack by the two brigades. When these plans were prepared the General still withheld his decision. page 77 The brigades therefore had to be content to continue with small probing attacks.
In the evening of 3 June D Company, 21 Battalion, with A following, led the way back to i Ridotti, and shortly before midnight A passed through D in an attempt to get around the eastern flank of the defences on the escarpment, while the artillery shelled the positions which had been observed during the day. A Company met men of C Company about 3 a.m. and, acting on their report of the strength of the enemy defences, both companies returned to i Ridotti.
On 3 June the three New Zealand field regiments were taken to a comparatively flat piece of ground on the floor of the valley about two miles north of Sora where, it seemed to a machine-gunner, they were too audacious in digging in so far forward in daylight. ‘A troop of guns is about 100 yards behind us and nearly stun us when they fire…. A Jerry shell collapsed a wall and killed five out of six [artillerymen] standing behind it.’1 The 6th Field Regiment, which was worst hit by the German shellfire, was ‘bombarded with accurate and heavy concentrations’.2 The field and medium guns shelled enemy guns and mortars, which had observation posts well forward on the commanding heights, and the fighter-bombers also attacked some of these targets, but the New Zealand regiments were blitzed mostly by mountain guns which had been manhandied or mule-packed into the ranges by Schrank Battle Group of of 5 Mountain Division.3 Altogether the Divisional Artillery had over 100 casualties, including 11 killed, during 3–5 June.
3 A report by 5 Mtn Div claims that on 3 June its artillery ‘fired heavy concentrations of observed fire in support of Ortner Battle Gp. Results were seen to be very good. Among other things, 2 troops of enemy guns were hit by very destructive fire as they moved into position. Supply traffic as far back as Isola del Liri engaged. 40 trucks immobilised, 10 guns in open firing positions silenced, ammunition dumps exploded. A concentration of 100–120 MT was thrown into panic stricken confusion….[Next day] 18 guns silenced, 1 gun immobilised….’ These claims, probably exaggerated, can not be substantiated or disproved by New Zealand records.
Meanwhile 25 Battalion, which had just moved into Sora, sent B Company, with Italian guides, mules and muleteers, to search for German troops reported by the Italians to be on the high ground on the western side of the valley. The company climbed 3500 feet in an approach march of about six miles along narrow tracks, and on the way was drenched by a thunderstorm. A dawn patrol on 5 June captured four Germans who were still asleep. The company attempted to encircle an enemy party, but a German gave the alarm. Three of the enemy were killed, eight including an officer were caught, and an estimated dozen escaped. On the way back to Sora another German was added to the company's prisoners.
The New Zealand Division had been brought to a halt on 4 June. Fearful of an outflanking movement on his left, the enemy kept up his fire around i Ridotti, without doing much harm to 21 Battalion, which was in the vicinity. His shelling, mortaring and sniping of the main road prevented the engineers from clearing demolitions and patrols from working farther forward. Fifth Brigade's 3-inch and 4.2-inch mortars fired on the escarpment and paid special attention to a strongpoint from which most of the fire on i Ridotti seemed to come. Close liaison had been arranged between the tanks with 6 Brigade, which had the clearer field of fire across the Liri on the escarpment, and those with 5 Brigade, which had good observation on Collepiano.
The two brigade commanders expressed their opinion at a midday conference that the enemy showed no sign of falling back, and suggested that their plan for an attack on Balsorano should be timed for that night (4–5 June). The plan was abandoned, however, because news was received that the Americans had entered Rome, and a message came from 10 Corps directing 8 and 10 Indian Divisions and 2 NZ Division to form a pursuit force under its command. As soon as he received warning of this plan the GOC ordered 5 and 6 Brigades and the armour to withdraw from the Balsorano front and concentrate in readiness for the new role.
The artillery, tanks, mortars and machine guns all participated in a programme of harassing fire on observed enemy posts on the escarpment at Balsorano and on Collepiano during the night of 5–6 June, and after daybreak the tanks laid another concentration on the defences while a patrol from C Company, 25 Battalion, accompanied by armoured cars of A Squadron and by carriers, probed along Route 82. The infantry entered Balsorano unopposed on 6 June, but the numerous demolitions prevented the vehicles from getting into the town that day. D Company, 24 Battalion, found that the enemy had vacated his heavily mined defences on Collepiano.
General Ortner (commanding 44 Division) claimed on 4 June that the Balsorano line ‘was laid out in the most favourable position possible, tactically well sited, and adequately prepared beforehand. The division… brought all its persuasion to bear to instil into the troops the idea that this was to be the final and only line on which the enemy was to be halted indefinitely. Our obstacles forward of the line and our rearguards took the edge off the enemy drive for long enough to organise the defence of the Balsorano line thoroughly. This preparatory organisation, the … insistence on the policy of “holding firm”, were the cause of the troops' splendid achievements in this line…. So far they have beaten off all attacks despite the terrific shellfire accompanying them. Unfortunately, heavy casualties have been suffered…. Even in the pauses between attacks, the troops have been exposed to continual shell and mortar fire on their positions and supply routes…. The position on the Army's right seems to make another withdrawal inevitable.’1
Sixty parachutists were dropped behind the enemy's lines on 1 June with the object of compelling him to withdraw through the Sora-Avezzano valley so quickly that he would be unable to complete his demolitions. The force was to come under the command of the New Zealand Division on landing, with orders to continue operations until joined by land forces or to infiltrate back to Allied lines.
The men chosen for this undertaking were drawn from 6 Battalion (Royal Welsh) of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade; they included signals and medical detachments and were equipped with two wireless sets linked with sets at HQ 2 NZ Division, HQ 2 Independent Parachute Brigade, HQ Eighth Army and HQ Allied Armies in Italy; they also had eight pigeons to carry messages. The parachutists were dropped by three of 11 DC47s, escorted by Spitfires; the other eight DC47s released dummies in the vicinity of the dropping zone, which was about half-way along the road between Collelongo and Trasacco, in a valley south of the Fucino basin and separated from the upper Liri valley by the Serra Lunga range.
New Zealand troops saw the aircraft pass overhead in the evening of 1 June, and later that night the Division was in wireless communication with the parachute force, which reported that the drop had gone according to schedule. Next day, as a result of the change in 10 Corps' plans, the Division advised the parachutists that it was discontinuing its operations north of Sora. The instructions seem very casual: the parachute force was to act on its own discretion and was expected eventually to join the Division.
The commander of the force (Captain L. A. Fitzroy-Smith), with another man, walked into the Division's lines on 6 June, when the New Zealanders were cautiously entering Balsorano. He had watched from cover while German motor-cyclists ignited fuses to demolitions on the road, but had been unable to prevent them because at that stage he had no arms or ammunition. He reported that his force, after landing, had been attacked and scattered by what was estimated to be a company of Germans. Some of the parachutists had been brought in on the evening of 4 June by 22 Battalion's patrols in the Alvito area, and others were brought in later.
The German reaction had been prompt and adequate. As early as 1.50 p.m. on 1 June, 5 Mountain Division had reported to page 81 51 Mountain Corps that it had intercepted wireless messages indicating the likelihood of a parachute landing in the Fucino basin. The corps had ordered the preparation of ‘alarm units’ and the siting of anti-aircraft guns. The mountain division then reported that at dusk 200 parachutists had been seen dropping in the Collelongo area. Several straw dummies were found early next day, and it was assumed that only a few saboteurs had landed. By midday, however, Italian civilians had informed the Germans that 800 men had dropped and moved off to the north-west. According to another story, the force was 200 strong and had requisitioned mules and horses.
Patrols were sent out by the German divisions in the vicinity, and one of these encountered a party of about 30 parachutists and took two prisoners, who did not deny the Italian reports that 800 men had been dropped. Already Tenth Army had directed that an armoured car squadron be sent out to assist the patrols, but on receipt of a report that another 200 men had landed (or through confusion of the earlier reports), Army ordered 51 Mountain Corps to use its main reserve, a battalion of 3 Brandenberg Regiment, because the corps was apprehensive that its left wing might be cut off. As a further precaution a makeshift force was formed, apparently to protect the line of communication against airborne landings. In subsequent encounters with the parachutists the patrols from the German divisions and the Brandenberg battalion claimed a total of 33 prisoners, more than half the original force. The Brandenberg battalion was recalled to the main road to act as rearguard for Ortner Battle Group, whose retreat from Balsorano was covered by demolitions, which it had been the object of the parachute force to prevent.
The failure of this enterprise was a bitter disappointment for the parachute brigade, which had waited long for employment in the role for which it had trained.