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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Crossing of the Sangro

page 526

The Crossing of the Sangro

A German tank thrust across the Sangro under existing conditions was out of the question and there was little need for anti-tank defence. The anti-tankers, especially of 33 Battery, therefore provided working parties, mainly for dumping ammunition for the field guns. In the early hours of the 26th the four 17-pounders of Q Troop of 34 Battery left Casalanguida, reached a lying-up area below Atessa by dawn and stayed out of sight of the enemy until dark. Then Q1 under Sergeant McDonald15 and Q4 under Sergeant Carmichael16 moved forward to take up positions on the wide stretch of flat land which formed part of the bed of the Sangro, about 1000 yards from the river itself. Q1 dug in near a farmhouse on a corner where the road from Atessa joined another road running up the Sangro valley. The gun was in a grove of young bamboos and well camouflaged. Q4 was hidden among the farm buildings all that night and next day, about 400 yards to the right or north of Q1, with the gun barrel poking round a corner of the house, between it and a haystack.

These two 17-pounders really opened the attack across the Sangro. In the half light before dark on the 27th they opened fire. Their targets were houses or farm buildings which would probably harbour machine guns to oppose the infantry after the river crossing. The ranges, up to as high as 4500 yards, were mostly well above the limit on the range drums; but the fire was extremely accurate. Q1 fired 70 rounds in about 35 minutes, though with 11 misfires from faulty ammunition. Q4 fired about 60 rounds. Almost all of them were direct hits and the high-velocity solid shot did much damage. Their fire was augmented by that of Vickers guns firing from the hills behind. The tremendous blast of Q4, however, ruined the roof of the farmhouse alongside which the gun fired and by the time the crew ceased fire the large haystacks nearby had disappeared. Two escaped prisoners of war sheltering in one of the target houses were driven into the open and succeeded in crossing the river to safety.

Zero hour for the attack was 2.45 a.m. on the 28th. The artillery programme was not, by previous standards, particularly heavy and it could not include a creeping barrage because of page 527 the nature of the operation and the lie of the land. The three New Zealand regiments, the 3rd Field, RA, and the troop of the 8oth Medium all fired timed concentrations, each ending with smoke and followed by a 15-minute pause. In 46 Battery, for example, B Troop fired four tasks and E Troop three. They carried on until 6.15 a.m., like all the other battery programmes, and in the case of 46 Battery entailed the expenditure of about 205 rounds per gun. The guns A1, A2 and A4 of 41 Battery fired along their appointed lanes to mark the boundaries for the infantry, each firing one round a minute for about 100 minutes. Six guns of the battery, including A1 and A2, were deployed at first light to guard the Bailey bridge.

black and white map of river crossing

crossing the sangro river, 28 november 1943

Confined by the hills, the noise of the bombardment was in places deafening. To the FOOs, especially those of the 4th Field who were well forward in tanks intent on giving close support to the armoured brigade when daylight came, it was a spectacular night with vivid gun flashes, the flickering of the shell bursts in the hills, machine-gun tracers streaking in both directions, nervous defensive flares, and the occasional Bofors tracer.

page 528

Soon after dawn, when the situation was sorted out, calls for prearranged DF tasks came thick and fast and for two or three hours the gunners were busy answering them. Then firing died down and for the first day of a major attack it seemed at times strangely quiet. An FOO had gone forward with each of the five attacking battalions and three FOOs had gone with the armour; but few shoots were arranged through them, mainly because their wireless communications proved ineffective. An unlucky hit by an enemy shell put a pontoon bridge out of action, but the sappers, regardless of heavy shelling, continued their work on the Bailey bridge. It was ready for use at dawn, but boggy approaches greatly slowed the traffic across it. All three tank OPs of the 4th Field were across the river by 4 p.m., but the far side was thickly sewn with mines. Captain Gapes of 46 Battery in RB struck a mine and his tank shed a track. Already his crew had endured bombing, strafing from the air and shellfire, to say nothing of the water which seeped into the interior. Then, when the crew emerged from the crippled tank, they came under small-arms fire. By the end of the day the 4th Field had fired 5301 rounds of HE and 77 of smoke.

Bombardier Paris17 of 27 Battery had already distinguished himself in the fighting on the other side of the Sangro, when seven miles of telephone cable were laid under his direction in difficult country under almost constant fire. Paris kept this line working at a time when it was the only link between the forward battalion 27 Battery was supporting and its brigade headquarters. After crossing the Sangro in the course of this attack, he had to return in the morning with a maintenance signaller. He helped a wounded man back across the river; in midstream they were fired on by a machine gun and the signaller was wounded. Paris then carried the signaller to safety and returned to help the wounded man, regardless of the risk of getting hit himself. For these actions Paris earned an immediate MM.

FW190s made several swift raids on the Bailey bridge or the tanks and the Bofors engaged them. A4 claimed to have shot down one of them in flames; but a Spitfire seen in the neighbourhood might have had something to do with it. By the end of the day 41 Battery had fired 564 rounds.

The main action on the 29th was a series of linear concentrations fired at 12.30 p.m. by the 5th and 6th Field and the 3rd Field, RA, in support of a tank and infantry attack. All the page 529 effort was wasted, for the enemy had flown. On the 28th and 29th the two 17-pounders, Q1 and Q4, continued their fire at houses far beyond the river and excellent results were reported.

On the 30th Tac HQ and the three field regiments crossed the river by way of the Bailey bridge, and the 6th Field, from a muddy flat behind a low hill, fired in support of infantry advancing towards Castelfrentano. A fire plan worked out to support a larger attack was not needed, the little town being taken without fighting on the 2nd.

15 Sgt D. G. McDonald; Wanaka, Central Otago; born NZ 14 Apr 1911; warehouseman; wounded 15 Jan 1943.

16 L-Sgt W. E. Carmichael, m.i.d.; Maramarua; born Te Aroha, 6 Apr 1917; dairy-farm manager; wounded 6 Apr 1943.

17 Bdr J. H. Paris, MM; Dunedin; born NZ 29 Apr 1918; bootmaker.