CHAPTER 12 — The Sangro and Beyond
The Sangro and Beyond
Amere handful of those men who had sailed for Greece in the spring of 1941 were still serving with the battalion in October 1943. The intervening period had seen the balance of military power shifting slowly but relentlessly in favour of the Allies, and if the first abortive invasion of Southern Europe was little more than a desperate gamble, the second was an operation born of calculated strength, already in the initial phases of success.
After a calm, uneventful voyage the convoy reached Taranto on the morning of 9 October. The troops landed by lighters and marched to their camping area a few miles north of Taranto, where they settled in—not very comfortably the first night, as neither bivouacs nor blankets arrived till the following morning. Swarms of Italian hawkers soon appeared on the scene, ‘vendors of everything from grapes to boot polish’.1 The proper attitude to be adopted towards the civil population presented the authorities with a problem of some complexity, for although the Italians were neither allies nor enemies, many of them were giving us whatever assistance lay in their power. Since the only solution of this difficulty seemed to lie in a compromise, the troops were ordered to be polite but not friendly.
At first Taranto was placed out of bounds; so were the wine factories of Masseria Tedesco and Giranda that lay close by the camp; but an arrangement was made under which wine was purchased in bulk by the Quartermaster and retailed through the company canteens. All drinking had to stop at 10 p.m., and after that an hour was allowed in which all those who had partaken freely were expected to quieten down.
In this country malarial precautions were essential. Atebrin tablets were taken nightly and exposed portions of skin protected by smearing on repellent cream. Each company had an page 199 anti-malarial squad whose duty it was to spray bivouacs every evening, and in general to see that all precautions were strictly carried out.
Training for close-country warfare took place in surroundings very different from those of the African scene. Inter-company and inter-platoon football matches were played on green fields from which the stones were gradually cleared away by a system of'emu parades’. Towards the end of October the weather broke; torrential rains brought lower temperatures, but for the most part the troops enjoyed excellent health, and sick parades were attended mainly by sufferers from football injuries.
A few changes in command had taken place since Enfidaville. Major Thomson2 had taken over B Company from Major Andrews, while Major Clarke commanded C Company in place of Major Seal. Major Aked was again in charge of A, and Captain Turnbull had Headquarters Company. Captain Howden3 was Quartermaster, and Second-Lieutenant Lendrum4 was Intelligence Officer until succeeded by Second-Lieutenant Jepson5 towards the end of November.
While 2 NZ Division lay concentrated near Taranto, 5 Corps had advanced beyond the plains of Foggia, crossed the Biferno and Trigno rivers, and reached the southern bank of the Sangro. On the coastal sector 78 Division had already established a bridgehead across the stream; 5 Corps was preparing to force the Sangro line and advance along the coast to Pescara when heavy rain, coming on in mid-November, reduced all roads to so deplorable a state that the original plan had to be abandoned in favour of a less ambitious design—that of securing as an immediate objective the dominating ridge lying along the Sangro's north bank. In order that 5 Corps might diminish the width of its front and concentrate nearer the coast, the New Zealand Division was ordered to move up on its left flank and occupy the sector held by 8 Indian Division.page 200
In anticipation of this the New Zealanders had already begun to move north from the Taranto area. The newly-equipped 4 NZ Armoured Brigade and Divisional Headquarters had arrived in the vicinity of Lucera when 6 Brigade started its journey on 13 November. The 24th Battalion staged at Altamura the first night and next day went on to La Torre, ten miles west of Lucera. There it remained for two days, starting off again on the 17th and moving towards the coast via San Severo. From the hill of Serracapriola the troops had their first view of the Adriatic. Beyond Termoli the winding, dangerous road was badly congested and the speed of all traffic was slowed down, chiefly on account of the numerous deviations made necessary by demolished bridges. At 11 p.m. 24 Battalion had not yet reached its destination and was obliged to halt for the night by the roadside near the village of Furci. To the west the snow-clad Maiella peak glittered coldly in the moonlight. The pace was still slower next day; besides having to cope with road deviations, the convoy came under shellfire near Casalanguida, as a result of which only 15 miles were covered in 14 hours. That night the men left their trucks behind and marched forward five miles to halt and camp in an olive grove. Another short march the following night brought the battalion close to the Sangro's bank, where it took position slightly forward of the Strada Sangritana, a road running parallel with the stream. In spite of sporadic shelling, bivouacs were pitched with B and C Companies forward on the right and left respectively, while A and D occupied similar positions in rear.
A memorable incident took place at one of the halts on the approach march when two men of the 24th, who had been captured at Sidi Rezegh, paid the battalion a visit, having escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in northern Italy and made their way back through the enemy's lines.
Sixth Brigade's three battalions were now in line facing the Sangro, with the 24th on the left, 25th in the centre, and 26th on the right. On the Aucklanders' left 19 Indian Brigade, supported by 19 NZ Armoured Regiment, was pushing steadily westward and had captured Perano and Archi.
In its upper reaches the Sangro River ran due north through page 201 mountainous country and debouched on to a narrow flat at its confluence with the Aventino. Thence it flowed north-east for ten miles through a narrow valley overlooked by high hills, before finally discharging its waters into the Adriatic. Numerous mountain streams joined it at intervals, and here and there it diverged into several channels over a shingle bed with an average width of some 900 yards. Below the Aventino junction, where 6 Brigade was aligned in position, a narrow alluvial flat extended some way along the river's south bank, while on the opposite side the flat ground was a mere strip which merged into rolling foothills or occasionally into vertical cliffs.
When 6 Brigade received orders to cross the Sangro on the night 21-22 November and seize the cliff summits on its farther bank, patrols from A and D Companies had already crossed the river opposite 24 Battalion's front. They reported it as being in five separate streams, running with a strong current and about 3 ft 6 ins deep—not fordable by motor transport. No enemy was encountered on the other side, but box mines with trip wires were found sown along the river bank. Heavy rain, however, caused the attack to be postponed, and indeed the succeeding week was one of continual postponements because of bad weather. During that time patrols from all three battalions of 6 Brigade crossed the river at least once every twenty-four hours, except at one stage when it rose too high to wade. It is unnecessary to describe the progress of each patrol in detail, but three of those sent out by 24 Battalion are worth mentioning.
At 8 a.m. on 21 November, Corporal Berry6 and two men of A Company crossed the Sangro. Arriving on the further bank Berry left his men behind and went on alone to the foot of a cliff, where he left his tommy gun and then, apparently, climbed the cliff unarmed. He did not return, and nothing more was heard of him till months later when his grave was discovered near Chieti.
Before dawn the same morning Second-Lieutenant Lea,7 of D Company, led a reconnaissance patrol across to Pylon Hill, page 202 close to where the Gogna stream joins the Sangro. The hill was found occupied, with enemy weapon pits on its crest; the night mist lifted at sunrise and the patrol was fired upon as it returned. Lea himself had a narrow escape and arrived back at Battalion Headquarters soaked and shivering after having remained hidden for some time half immersed in icy water.
After dark on the 21st an A Company patrol of twelve men accompanied an engineers' reconnaissance party along the Sangro's near bank. By a disastrous mischance three of these men were killed, including the sergeant in charge, and three wounded by an exploding mine.
Bogged roads and flooded rivers had dissolved all ambitious hopes of thrusting on through Lanciano to the Pescara line. Plan after plan had had to be modified in compliance with the appalling weather conditions till at length General Montgomery was obliged to content himself with an objective limited to the German Winter Line, extending from Fossacesia near the coast along a high ridge through Lanciano and Castelfrentano and thence to Route 84, following that highway as it turned south towards the Sangro-Aventino junction. While 5 Corps, on the right, attacked towards Fossacesia and Mozzagrogna, 2 New Zealand Division was ordered to thrust in a north-westerly direction with its left flank on Route 84. The initial part of this plan, so far as the New Zealanders were concerned, involved the capture by 5 Brigade of a high ridge immediately dominating the river flat, while 6 Brigade, operating on a three-battalion front, pushed out to the west until its left flank faced along the railway line running from San Eusanio to Casoli. On the latter brigade's right flank 26 Battalion had as its objective the Colle Scorticacane; in the centre, 25 Battalion, after taking Castellata, would go on to capture Point 171 farther to the north-west, while the 24th, on reaching its objective, would find itself on the Division's extreme left, facing westward from the slopes of Colle Barone.
The 24th Battalion had now carried out the first instalment of its task with little loss or delay. Its headquarters was established 100 yards north of Pylon Hill, and a white house close by was allotted to Captain Borrie as an aid post, but before being used for this purpose it had necessarily to be cleared of whatever booby traps it might contain. The minesweepers detailed to clear it found their electric torch too weak and decided to wait for daylight. This did not suit Borrie, who at once mobilised a small force consisting of himself, his sergeant, and two other men, one of whom was armed with a tommy gun. The party entered the house and searched some of the rooms without finding any booby traps, but one of the interior rooms was locked—a suspicious circumstance, as shots had previously been fired from within the house. ‘I then decided to open the door’, writes Borrie, ‘and gave it a mighty kick which made it fly open, human squeals piercing the air. I flashed on my torch, calling “Where is the man with the Tommy gun?” He was not about, but Sgt Thompson8 was beside me, though we were both unarmed. We proceeded across the room, shining the light into the eyes of two Germans. I took the officer on the left, and Sgt Thompson the private on the right. Both Germans now had their hands above their heads, and I heard our man with the Tommy gun returning. I bent down to pick up the officer's Tommy gun, which was still warm, while Sgt Thompson picked up a Luger. With the pioneer covering the two Germans I asked the officer how he unloaded his Tommy gun; he showed me, so as soon as I saw how it worked I rammed the magazine back and thrust page 206 the muzzle of the gun into the officer's back. He was now markedly afraid as he was not sure if it might accidentally go off, so checking that Sgt Thompson had his man secure, we marched the two POW down to Bn HQ, duly handing them over to the Sgt. Major.’
The 65th Infantry Division opposing the New Zealanders in this battle of the Sangro consisted largely of Poles with no great enthusiasm for the cause in which they fought, or of young Germans incompletely trained. It held a front of nearly 15 miles with two regiments only; its transport was horse drawn, and most of its equipment second-rate. ‘The enemy’, writes Major Aked, ‘were not up to the usual German standard we had met in Africa, and very many were found skulking in camouflaged positions on the crest [of Marabella]. They were scared stiff. One of them could have easily wiped out [A] Coy HQ. Right on the crest was a conical shaped erection. While waiting for my exploiting platoons to return I went out to this to investigate. I found it to be branches, and pulling a few aside, found myself looking into the muzzle of a spandau, complete with gunner.’9
West of Marabella and towering above it rose Colle Barone, directly overlooking the Sangro fords and bridges. At dawn A Company was fired upon from its lower slopes, and later an enemy platoon attempting to reach and demolish the Gogna bridge on Route 84 was driven off by machine-gun fire. Motor transport was then seen moving along the highway that led forward from the enemy's main position. As it halted south of San Eusanio for troops to debuss, a ‘stonk’ called for by Major Aked fell among vehicles and men, successfully dispersing the whole party. No more attempts were made in this quarter and the remainder of the day was more or less uneventful. Prisoners had been passing through Battalion Headquarters at intervals during the morning and now added up to a total of 106.
Provision had been made that, in case of delay in bridging the Sangro, rations and ammunition should be carried up by an Italian mule pack company. A Bailey bridge had been constructed and maintained on 5 Brigade's sector, but the folding-boat bridge further upstream had been demolished by gunfire. page 207 A carrying party brought up a hot meal for 24 Battalion on the night of 28 November, but next morning neither mule train nor porters arrived till 11 a.m., in consequence of which there was no breakfast.
Further progress along Route 84 was impossible until Colle Barone should be captured. From Marabella Aked's men had seen the enemy drawing back his lines on 28 November, and the following morning civilians reported that the position was only lightly held. The 19th Armoured Regiment had crossed the Sangro after the infantry, but many of its vehicles had got bogged in transit, and moreover, the river road was not yet cleared of mines. The tanks, therefore, were not immediately available for co-operation with infantry, but the regiment was soon reorganised and the road cleared. At midday on the 29th B Company 24 Battalion formed up west of Route 84, preparatory to climbing the steep slopes of Colle Barone under cover of an artillery barrage and accompanied by a squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment. A platoon of D Company moved forward simultaneously on the left, while the whole of C followed on 500 yards in rear of the forward troops. Barone was found undefended, but when more than half-way to the crest B Company was caught by mortar fire and suffered several casualties. The summit was reached at 1.45 p.m.; shelling continued for a while, but B Company was soon dug in and the men remained unmolested in their position, enjoying a magnificent view of the surrounding country. While this advance was taking place, a patrol from A Company moved up on the right and found the village of San Eusanio unoccupied.
Since the enemy was drawing back on to the Guardiagrele- Lanciano road, 6 Brigade was ordered on 30 November to move forward by a process of infiltration. The 26th Battalion, which had reached the hills beyond Colle Scorticacane, with 5 Brigade on its right and slightly in rear, was directed to occupy the bend in Route 84 west of Castelfrentano. The 25th Battalion lay astride the Lanciano-Casoli railway line where it crossed the main road, and from that position prepared to push on beyond San Eusanio. The 24th Battalion's task was to move up the east bank of the Gogna and plant two companies immediately in front of Castelfrentano, thereby transferring page 208 itself from the left to the centre of 6 Brigade. After relieving B and C Companies of 24 Battalion at Colle Barone, 22 (Motor) Battalion would advance along Route 84 in conjunction with 18 Armoured Regiment.
Colonel Conolly summoned his orders group at 8 p.m. and soon afterwards D Company left Marabella and crossed the Gogna, thence moving due north with A in close support. Over steep ploughed slopes the going was very difficult from the start, but the force pressed on without opposition till it arrived at the railway loop immediately south of Castelfrentano, where it halted for the night. A patrol from A Company reported that the track ahead was mined and blocked with fallen trees. The two remaining companies were moving up in rear with Battalion Headquarters. The 26th Battalion was in rear and to the right; 25 Battalion had reached San Eusanio railway station.
South of Castelfrentano, about 100 yards below Route 84, a hotel two stories high and built of stone stood on a small eminence facing the road. To the west of it a track led into Castelfrentano itself, and on either side of the track were several smaller buildings. Before any further advance could be made towards the village, it was essential that this hotel should be occupied.
On the return of A Company's patrol Major Aked and Major Dew discussed their plan of action and decided that D Company, supported by A, should attempt the hotel at dawn the following morning. Just before Dew's men moved off (1 December), Lieutenant Turbott10 arrived on the scene with two 3-inch mortars to support the infantry. During the previous afternoon's advance and throughout the night there had been no contact with the rear, but at 8 a.m. signallers brought a telephone line forward. Aked then spoke to his commanding officer, who instructed him, if possible, to avoid becoming heavily involved; but by this time D Company was already in action.
Dew sent 16 Platoon up the track leading to Castelfrentano and 17 Platoon to the right along the railway, so that they might converge on the hotel from either flank. No. 18 Platoon page 209 remained in reserve and moved along the track in rear with Company Headquarters. A warning was received from Italian civilians that two houses in front of the hotel were occupied by Germans. The warning was fully justified, and ten prisoners were taken when 16 Platoon captured the houses. In this attack Corporal Robertshawe11 was brought down by a wound in the leg, and though unable to go further, he continued to give supporting fire with his tommy gun. He then tried to escort the walking wounded and prisoners to the rear but got held up by machine-gun fire before going very far. Meanwhile 16 Platoon went on to seize the hotel. One of its sections, led by Corporal Southward,12 moved out to the left, but was fired upon from the main road. Southward had already twice been wounded, but he led his men on till receiving a third and fatal wound. The rest of the platoon had gone round the other side of the building and collected a few more prisoners from an outhouse. Since it was obvious that no more ground would be gained without heavy loss, the hotel itself was occupied and consolidated. In the meantime 17 Platoon had run into opposition and was held up, but one of its sections reached the main road, where it remained till nightfall.
Aked had sent out a platoon on either flank of D Company to give supporting fire. Of two anti-tank guns which arrived forward at midday and came under his command, one had to be used against enemy machine guns, but the other was kept hidden in case tanks should put in an appearance. Late in the morning a forward observation officer arrived at D Company's headquarters and brought his guns into action against enemy observation posts. Colonel Conolly also came up and visited the scene of action, ‘being helped on his way by a squadron of ground-strafing Messerschmidts which added wings to his jeep and nearly to the occupants’.13
It was well that all possible defensive precautions had been taken without delay, for scarcely had the hotel position been consolidated when the enemy counter-attacked twice in quick page 210 succession. The second of these assaults was beaten off only with difficulty, and 18 Platoon came forward to reinforce 16 Platoon. Sergeants Kane14 and Williams15 conducted the defence with skill and courage, and the indomitable Robertshawe16 crawled back to their assistance, despite the pain of his wounded leg. A third attack was beaten off early in the afternoon (1 December), after which the enemy contented himself by shelling the hotel heavily with mortars. Before long the building began to crumble and the defenders were obliged to withdraw from its upper story. At dusk the shelling died down. Nothing further happened during the night, but enemy motor transport could be heard continually moving along the road.
Although on a small scale, the engagement had been sharp while it lasted and somewhat costly, too, with a casualty list of four killed and 18 wounded in the two companies, whose bold thrust into the enemy's position undoubtedly hastened and embarrassed his retreat from the Castelfrentano Ridge.
On either flank the pressure of infiltration was being exerted. Early in the morning of 1 December 4 Armoured Brigade moved up Route 84 from Marabella to the road junction by San Eusanio, beyond which it deployed its squadrons, whose further advance, however, was checked by the fire of concealed batteries. A Company of 25 Battalion threatened to cut the road west of Castelfrentano, while on the right a company of the 26th came up on the east side of D Company's position in the hotel building. Farther still to the right, 21 and 23 Battalions of 5 Brigade were pressing on towards Route 84 on its northward bend in the direction of Lanciano.
Before dawn on 2 December 24 Battalion went forward to occupy Castelfrentano, which was found to have been evacuated during the night, and instead of opposition the troops met with an enthusiastic welcome from the Italian population. A Company followed on and searched the village systematically, while C and B moved down into the Moro valley along an old Roman road. A and D followed later and took up positions page 211 eastward of the other companies. A section of 14 Platoon (C Company), patrolling towards Orsogna, met a single German on horseback who managed to get away and avoid capture. The patrol was fired upon from the town's approaches and forced to withdraw. Subsequently, a half-hearted counter-attack by about seventy of the enemy on C Company's position was repulsed without difficulty.
While consolidation was in progress on Brecciarola Ridge, seven of the enemy were discovered hiding in A Company's area, and soon after nightfall three escaped British prisoners of war reported at Major Aked's headquarters, informing him that three more of their number were in a house some way beyond our forward lines. Aked at once sent out a patrol to fetch them in, and at the same time to make some attempt at establishing contact with the enemy. Guided by one of the escaped men, the patrol not only picked up the British soldiers but also brought in two more German prisoners. No other enemy troops were encountered, although the patrol went on towards the Orsogna-Ortona road, along which a great quantity of motor transport could be heard moving.
The 19th Armoured Regiment had moved through Castelfrentano in the wake of 24 Battalion and advanced along the winding hill road through Taverna on 6 Brigade's right flank until held up by a blown bridge over the Moro. Several German posts having surrendered, there were a number of prisoners, but no infantry to take them over, so some of 24 Battalion's carriers went to the spot to give assistance. While they were thus engaged Captain Lewis, the officer commanding, was severely wounded. The remainder of 4 Armoured Brigade moved west along the two roads from Castelfrentano and San Eusanio to the vicinity of Salarola, from where it threatened Guardiagrele. The 26th Battalion lay immediately to the east of Castelfrentano, and some distance away, on the other side of the town, 25 Battalion faced due west. But the enemy had not yet declared the exact extent of his retreat and the whole divisional front was still in a state of movement. Soon after midnight on 2 December, 25 Battalion moved forward through 24 Battalion's lines and advanced upon Orsogna. Its leading company was half-way through the town when it was suddenly attacked page 212 by enemy tanks, which were joined by their infantry soon afterwards. Lacking armoured support, the whole unit was obliged to withdraw behind 24 Battalion. The 26th had begun to move up from Castelfrentano at dawn, but on hearing that the attack had failed it halted and dug in 1000 yards south of the Orsogna-Lanciano road. Tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment passed through 24 Battalion's lines towards Orsogna later in the morning (3 December) and drew down heavy shellfire on the Aucklanders. C Company, whose lines were furthest advanced, received most of the attention.
Before dawn on 4 December a patrol of B Company reported Orsogna still strongly held. Later another patrol of A Company went north-west towards Pascuccio to discover, if possible, where the enemy's forward defences were situated. The platoon was fired upon from the Orsogna-Ortona road and, having reported the fact by wireless, received orders to return. This was done, but one badly wounded man had to be left behind in an Italian farmhouse. Private Williams17 volunteered to go back and look after him and earned the MM by his conduct. When he arrived at the farmhouse the enemy was digging in some 200 yards away. In the intervals of doing what he could for the wounded man, Williams made sketches of the enemy positions and sent them back to Company Headquarters, using an Italian boy as his messenger. The artillery took advantage of this information and brought down fire on some of the points indicated by their unofficial observer. The wounded man was brought in by a stretcher party at nightfall.
An officer's patrol from C Company, sent out the same morning, reached a pink house on the main road near the outskirts of Orsogna, beyond which an enemy tank stood among some cypress trees. Men of the patrol approached to within fifty yards of it and saw the tank commander observing from an open turret. The approaches to the town were well protected by earthworks, and little doubt remained that the place would prove a hard nut to crack.
The 26th Panzer Division and several parachute battalions having been brought up by the enemy in support of the much- page 213 battered 65 Infantry Division, there were indications that resistance was stiffening in more than one part of the line. Lanciano and San Vito had fallen to 5 Corps on the right, but 4 Armoured Brigade's attack on Guardiagrele was held up by road demolitions and gunfire. The 25th Battalion attempted to occupy Sfasciata Ridge before dawn on 5 December, but found it too strongly held and was obliged to withdraw. Thus on 6 December the battalions of 6 Brigade were strung out along the Orsogna-Lanciano road, with the 25th close to San Felice Ridge, and the 26th in position east of the 24th, which still faced westward along the Brecciarola Ridge.
Orsogna was a key position on the main ridge that ran north-east from Guardiagrele, and, since its retention by the enemy must seriously embarrass any further attempt by 2 NZ Division to advance, General Freyberg decided to capture the town by daylight assault on 7 December. It could be approached only from the east and on a front so constricted as to deny all possibility of manoeuvre. On its south side, the ridge on which the town stood fell away sharply into steep, impracticable slopes or sheer cliffs. The ridge's northern face was less precipitous, but troops advancing on this side would be exposed to flanking fire from Cemetery Ridge extending towards Poggiofiorito. In general, the way to Orsogna was narrow and easy to defend. Moreover the enemy could be in no doubt as to the exact route along which attacking troops must advance.
The 5th and 6th Brigades were each directed to attack on a one-battalion front, 28 Battalion having as its objective Cemetery Ridge beyond Pascuccio, while 24 Battalion was to assault the town of Orsogna and consolidate beyond its western outskirts. The 18th Armoured Regiment, less one squadron, would provide support. An artillery barrage was timed to come down at 1.30 p.m. 300 yards beyond the infantry start line, stand there for an hour, and then move forward at the rate of 100 yards in six minutes. The afternoon attack was designed to allow the assaulting troops to consolidate before dark, while at the same time denying the enemy an opportunity of counter- attacking by daylight. Whether conceived with the soundest judgment or not, the plan was unpopular with officers and men long inured to night fighting (a form of operation in which page 214 they held a proud record), and who regarded a preparatory bombardment as a mere warning to the enemy that they were coming. According to Major Aked, ‘We would have preferred a silent approach and a rush at first light. We had proved by patrolling that we could get into the outskirts of the village at night. However, we attacked at 1600 hours, knowing there must be some reason for it.’
Since 2 December C Company had occupied the most advanced position, closest to Orsogna. Soon after 1 p.m. on 7 December it was joined by B Company, and as the bombardment opened the troops took cover in slit trenches. These two companies, C on the right and B on the left, following 300 yards behind the barrage, were to advance into the village until they reached a point where the main street branched out to form three sides of a square. With this objective gained, A Company would pass on through to the western end of Orsogna and occupy a small hill close by the railway which dominated the roads on either side of it. D Company was detailed as battalion reserve. At 2.15 p.m. B and C Companies began moving forward under heavy shellfire to their start lines three-quarters of a mile east of the town, while at the same time 26 Battalion prepared to occupy the Aucklanders' former position and provide a firm base for the attack. Nearly a mile to the north-east, 28 Battalion was arriving on its start line facing Cemetery Ridge. At half past two the barrage lifted, and as B and C Companies of the 24th moved forward on either side of the Orsogna-Lanciano road, the enemy concentrated shell and mortar fire on the narrow line of advance.
Support weapons of 24 Battalion waiting to cross the Sangro
The Brickworks near Castelfrentano under enemy shellfire
An aerial view of Orsogna from the south
The breastworks, Orsogna; also shown in the above photograph
Ruins of the Continental Hotel, Cassino
Looking on to the valley south of Cassino from near Point 202, 19-24 March 1944, showing part of inundated area along the railway embankment
C Company, under Major Clarke, moved forward north of the road to encounter not only shell and mortar fire of the enemy's defensive barrage but also a galling enfilade from scattered farmhouses on the ridge west of Pascuccio. Progress under these circumstances was naturally slow, and when the company reached Orsogna itself at 5 p.m. it was only to discover that the open slopes facing north were thickly sown with S-mines. Moreover, the whole area was covered by spandaus posted in the town's outskirts which opened fire on the spot as soon as a mine exploded. Corporal Carr20 of 13 Platoon won page 216 the DCM for leading his section against these machine-gun nests with great gallantry and putting several of the spandaus out of action. His shouts for more and more grenades rose above the din of battle and inspired all who heard them with fresh courage. From away to the north came sounds of Maori activity, and the Aucklanders laughed outright to hear distant yells of ‘Come out you bastards!’ Curious spurts of flame flared out in the darkness. At the time no one in C Company knew what they were, and not until next day did they hear that 28 Battalion had been attacked by a German tank armed with flame-throwers. Casualties increased. At seven o'clock Major Clarke was seriously wounded and his command devolved upon Second-Lieutenant Watt.21 Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons again tried to work round the northern outskirts of Orsogna, but the S-mine field proved an unsurmountable obstacle and more losses were sustained before the attempt was abandoned. No. 13 Platoon broke into the town itself and came upon a German tank firing into the main street. Lance-Corporal Huggins22 approached it stealthily and was about to throw a sticky bomb when he felt the muzzle of a pistol prodding his back. His captor marched him away into the town, but somehow he managed to overpower the German and make his escape, in the course of which he received a bullet through the hand. In spite of this and other gallant actions no further progress was made, and C Company was withdrawn early in the morning of 8 December.
Seeing that all was not well, Colonel Conolly had sent A Company forward at 4 p.m. to assist in capturing the first objectives. As it went into action, tanks of B Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment followed in support. Soon after passing the start lines A Company was fired upon from houses north of the road, overrun but neglected by the first attacking wave. Second-Lieutenant Kelly23 led 8 Platoon out to the right and dealt with the machine guns that had been causing trouble. With this nuisance abated, A Company pushed on towards the page 217 Pink House, which stood about 150 yards short of the town, picking up a few stragglers on the way. Wireless contact with the forward troops had broken down, but news was passed back that Major Thomson had been killed and that C Company was held up by S-mines. Having established his headquarters in the Pink House, Aked disposed his company with 7 and 8 Platoons right and left of the road and 9 Platoon in rear, supporting No. 8. The tanks now moved forward, but their progress was held up by a demolition on the road at the outskirts of Orsogna. A bulldozer came up to fill in the crater while 7 Platoon formed a protective screen. The bulldozer was knocked out, and Second-Lieutanant Ingle24 of 7 Platoon was killed while leading his men against a fortified house. A second bulldozer came on the scene and succeeded in filling the crater, while 9 Platoon moved up to help cover the engineer party.
Meanwhile Aked had been receiving a somewhat puzzling wireless message from Battalion Headquarters, repeated again and again, ‘Are Hermans with you?’ The only Hermans he knew of were out in front and very obviously hostile. Later, when the battle was over, he learned that the officer in charge of the engineers was named Hermans.25 More messages were coming through from Battalion Headquarters, urging further attempts on the village and sending the encouraging report that our friends on the right were doing well. Here 28 Battalion had secured its objective but was waiting for supporting arms to arrive by the only route, through Orsogna. Accompanied by his runner, Aked made a reconnaissance to the right, believing that one of C Company's platoons must be just forward of his position, but on arriving within 75 yards of the line of houses he was met by a burst of machine-gun fire followed by a blazing spurt from a flame-throwing tank.
By this time there were a number of wounded. Padre Judson, whose conduct on this occasion earned him the MC, had come up to the Pink House with a party of stretcher-bearers and cleared away the rubble from a partially demolished room which they made into a forward aid post. He was by no means page 218 unfamiliar with situations of this kind, having performed similar tasks at Tebaga and in other engagements. After organising the stretcher party, he helped personally to carry in the wounded. The Pink House was not a healthy spot and the aid post suffered more than one direct hit, but he stayed there till orders came for a general withdrawal. Before that time, however, Captain Borrie had come up with a truck and taken away all the wounded men, though in order to do so he was obliged to make two stretcher cases walk.
The demolition having been repaired, our tanks now attempted to enter the village, but a German Mark IV, well protected by houses, commanded the only approach so effectively that no further advance was possible; neither was the enemy able to mount a counter-attack—the bottleneck was a deathtrap for whoever should seek either to break into the town or out of it.
Colonel Conolly arrived on the scene to find affairs at a deadlock. His men could only expect to suffer heavily without hope of gaining any advantage by remaining where they were. Moreover, 28 Battalion was already being withdrawn on the right. Judging the situation to be hopeless, he returned with the intention of reporting to Brigadier Parkinson but found that General Freyberg was also present at Brigade Headquarters. The General was anxious to persevere with the attack, but Conolly, with the advantage of having been personally on the scene of action, stoutly maintained that such a course would be disastrous. Fully realising the extent to which his own military career might be at stake, he was bent on doing everything possible to save 24 Battalion from unnecessary loss. At length, to his great relief, the GOC accepted the situation and agreed to the assaulting troops being withdrawn. Conolly at once went forward again and sent his Intelligence Officer, Second-Lieutenant Jepson, with instructions for Major Aked to pull out B and C Companies. Having done so, Aked was to withdraw his own company last and occupy a defensive position behind the reserve company. Parties from B and C Companies had already made their way back to Aked's lines when orders came to withdraw. The troops remaining forward were eventually extricated from their advanced positions; all page 219 wounded still in the aid post were evacuated, and A Company covered the withdrawal.
Thus ended an unfortunate but in no way discreditable episode in 24 Battalion's history. Failure was something to which its men had become more or less strangers. They resented the implication of defeat, but found some consolation in the belief that they had been set a task verging on the impossible.
All considered, with two officers and seven other ranks killed, fatal casualties had not been heavy; but in addition to three officers and 57 other ranks wounded, 14 men were posted as missing, making in all a total of 80 casualties. When account is taken of the fact that only three companies were engaged, these losses appear considerable.
D Company occupied the battalion's old forward defence lines on Brecciarola Ridge, with A in close support, from which position they enjoyed an excellent view of Orsogna being bombed by Kittyhawks on 8 December. On coming out of action B and C Companies moved back to the southern slopes of San Felice Ridge, where the other two companies rejoined them the following night after having been relieved by 26 Battalion.
The 23rd Battalion had secured a foothold on Sfasciata Ridge, lying in the fork of the Ortona-Castelfrentano roads— the only territorial gain of a somewhat disastrous battle. Preparations were made to exploit this small success on a larger scale, and the infantry of 2 New Zealand Division began to push out patrols to the north-west. By turns, the companies of 24 Battalion sent out patrols a platoon strong every night from 7 p.m. till 5 a.m., leaving a standing patrol close to the Ortona road during the daytime. No contact was made with the enemy, though much varied activity was heard on and about the road. Once or twice our men met patrols from 2 Parachute Brigade, which had come into the line on 2 NZ Division's left.
After being twice postponed, the attack took place in the early hours of 15 December. Supported by 18 Armoured Regiment, 5 Brigade succeeded in cutting the Orsogna-Ortona road on a mile-wide front north-east of Pascuccio Ridge. The 17th Brigade of 5 British Division co-operated on the right, and page 220 6 NZ Brigade on the left. A company of 25 Battalion attacked Cemetery Ridge, while the 24th stood in readiness to move through Orsogna if the armour should succeed in exploiting along the Ortona road and entering it from the east. But the tanks were held up as they passed Cemetery Ridge and the battalion remained in position.
On 18 December it took up a position as the forward unit of 6 Brigade on Brecciarola Ridge, with its companies strung out from west to east along the line of the road. Two battalions were to remain in the line and one back at Castelfrentano, with a system of reliefs that would ensure each unit of the brigade a rest of three days after six days in forward positions. As before, a standing patrol was maintained near the Ortona road during daylight, each company undertaking this duty by turn. On the 20th Orsogna was again bombed by Kittyhawks, and 24 Battalion was warned to lie low but not to withdraw from its forward lines. C Company sent out an officer's patrol the same night to harass the enemy and discover, if possible, whether the place was still strongly held. A German standing patrol was discovered close by two knocked-out tanks at the village entrance. Our men did not engage it, but waited till after midnight and then fired mortars and flares up the main street. One spandau replied from well in rear; otherwise the enemy made no response. D Company sent out a patrol the following night with the object of bringing back prisoners, but this party also, although it fired Bren guns, threw grenades, and generally behaved in a provocative manner, called forth no retaliation and returned empty handed.
After 5 British Division had captured Arielli (four miles north of Orsogna) on 23 December, another attempt on the following day was made by 2 NZ Division to break through the enemy defences beyond Cemetery Ridge. Once again 5 Brigade, this time assisted by 26 Battalion, was to carry out the operation, and once again 24 Battalion was to stand in readiness to occupy Orsogna should the attack go through. Fifth Brigade succeeded in widening and deepening its bridgehead on the Ortona road; our armour stood by to exploit west and south-west, but German reinforcements and Italian mud combined to prevent a breakthrough. With plans complete page 221 for clearing and occupying Orsogna, 24 Battalion awaited news of success from the Maoris, whose task it was to outflank the village from the north. When a warning order to move was received in the middle of the morning, it seemed that success must be in sight, but the order was never confirmed. The 24th Battalion gave supporting fire but was not called upon to move from its position. Its mortars were established south of Brecciarola Ridge and their part in the action is briefly described in the unit's war diary:
0800 hrs (24 Dec) 28 Bn asked for support from our mortars during attack. A B C tasks given….
1000 hrs. Warning order Bn on half hour's notice to move.
1030 hrs. A Coy being mortared by the enemy. Mortars falling in wadi to north of C Coy.
1215 hrs. 28 Bn again called for A and B mortar tasks. Results very satisfactory.
1325 hrs. 3-inch mortar amm. taken up to forward positions by man pack.
1400 hrs. 28 Bn counter attacked. Called for A B C tasks. Attack smashed.
Christmas Day saw the Aucklanders still on Brecciarola Ridge, but 4 Parachute Battalion relieved them that night and they moved back to the line of the Moro River. They were under orders to go forward again on the 26th, in which case all patriotic parcels were to be withheld till some period of leisure should intervene, but when the message ‘no move today’ arrived from Brigade everything was at once set in train for a delayed celebration. A Christmas dinner of turkey, pork, green peas, potatoes, and plum pudding, with two bottles of beer a head, was served to the men by officers and sergeants in traditional fashion. That night films were shown in a barn; but the interlude was brief indeed, and forty-eight hours later the battalion was back in the line—this time on Cemetery Ridge.
With B and D Companies forward and A and C in reserve, the battalion lay astride the Ortona road, its defence lines fronting west and its left flank swung back so as to face Orsogna. Shelling was fairly constant and there were several casualties, more especially in B Company. At one time a German deserter walked into the lines and gave himself up. According to his page 222 information Orsogna was still strongly held. After a few days the forward companies were relieved by those in rear. Living conditions were not ideal and the whole scene was one of depressing desolation. Rations, which were brought up from the vicinity of Castelfrentano by mules and Algerian muleteers under a British corporal, had to be prepared in the line. The troops occupied houses by day and manned slit trenches some way in advance by night. Many of the buildings were less commodious than could have been desired. At first 11 Platoon of B Company occupied two houses, but the party in one of them left it and crowded into the other, having been unable to put up with the stench of several dead horses lying in the vicinity.
The mud and misery of an Italian winter were producing a certain amount of unavoidable sickness. Much of it was of a mild description, and cases not severe enough for evacuation were treated regimentally—sometimes under conditions not altogether ideal. ‘Today Padre is ill in bed with a temperature’, records Captain Borrie. ‘He is lying in a manger, and there are 8 sheep, 2 lambs and 2 rabbits in the same room.’
On first arriving in Italy the troops had preferred to dig slit trenches after the African manner, rather than rely upon buildings for purposes of defence. Life in the Western Desert had laid its impress on their habits and ways of speech. They still spoke of wadis instead of ravines and generally applied African phrases to Italian conditions or surroundings. But fresh environment was having its effect. If houses were scarce in North Africa they were plentiful in Southern Europe, and the New Zealanders soon began to rely upon them more and more when preparing defensive positions.
Driving rain turned into a blizzard on the night of New Year's Eve, and snow lay two feet deep next day, with heavy drifts in places. Most of the men, being Aucklanders, had never seen snow before at close quarters. The experience was novel and even exciting, the scene picturesque and in keeping with old world tradition, but living conditions were made acutely uncomfortable. Snow filled the slit trenches and drifted through shell holes into the houses. Clearing and shovelling it away was an additional and burdensome task. All movement page 223 became not only difficult but dangerous, as every object showed up clearly against the white surface. To avoid being seen by the enemy, parties visiting the forward posts dressed themselves in camouflage suits made from sheets. But the Sangro- Orsogna phase was drawing to a close, and after two more unpleasant days in the line 24 Battalion was relieved by the Maoris. Blanket rolls were packed down to the Moro bridge by the Algerian mule train. Following later, the companies were picked up by motor transport and taken back to the vicinity of Castelfrentano, where the men settled into houses with some approach to comfort. There they remained during the next fortnight.
The losses at Orsogna and elsewhere had been practically replaced by nearly one hundred reinforcements, which had arrived at intervals during the month of December. The battalion's casualties from the advance to the Sangro till the end of the Orsogna battles were:
|Died of wounds||1||16|
|Prisoners of war (includes 6 ORs wounded and p.w.)||–||8|
1 War diary, B Coy 24 Bn.
9 Letter, Lt-Col Aked, 25 Jul 1948.
13 Comment by Lt-Col Conolly.
16 L-Sgt Kane and Cpl Robertshawe were both awarded the MM.
25 Lt R. E. Hermans, MC; Mangakino; born Ranganui, 29 Aug 1918; civil engineer; wounded 7 Dec 1943.