25. The Orsogna Battles
25. The Orsogna Battles
There was a pause for a few days while the next move was prepared. Divisional conference was held each morning at the same chilly 7.45 a.m. We sent patrols out, reconnoitred routes, and prepared a plan while the gunners with infinite labour brought forward guns and ammunition. One of my patrols brought in two men of 25 Battalion whom they found in a house near Orsogna. One had been wounded in the stomach and the other was a medical orderly who had stayed to look after him. Someone must have been very much at fault in not getting them in earlier.
Winter was now closing down fast and all who could lived in houses, cheek by jowl with the almost destitute civilians. It was impossible to feel any animosity against these unhappy folk: they seemed to have no food beyond what we gave them and they had practically no possessions. All their cattle, blankets, warm clothing, everything of the slightest value, had been stripped from them and sent to Germany or wantonly destroyed. There were no young men and very few young women and none of them good-looking. Near my headquarters there were eleven new graves. We were told that they were those of local householders who had been forced to work on the positions we had just taken and then had been shot.
Travelling on the roads acquired a new interest. The German gunners used their ammunition sparingly, but skilfully, and every trip near the forward area was something of an adventure. Very soon we had a ‘Hellfire Corner’ east of Castelfrentano and a ‘Mad Minute’ west of the town. This latter was a stretch of some hundreds of yards running parallel with the front in full view from Orsogna and it was exactly registered by a 170 mm. gun which was particularly active in the early morning before our fighters were about.page 329
I had to pass it going to and coming from all divisional conferences—at this time usually held twice daily—and had several very narrow escapes. Three machine-gunners going on leave were killed here, and almost every day there were some casualties. Hellfire Corner was equally unpleasant and Jim, my new jeep driver, and I felt aggrieved that after returning from the conference over the Mad Minute we had to pass through Hellfire Corner on the way to visit the battalions. One day a self-propelled gun sneaked forward and fired eleven shots directly at us at short range when we were crawling back up the road to the Corner. All missed by the smallest margin but we were frightened into abandoning the jeep and taking cover above the road. It was some little time before we plucked up enough courage to go back to it and scuttle hastily on. Jim had a very bad stutter which I found rather infectious. It got worse after any incident like this and we would both stutter furiously for some time afterwards.
The Kittybombers came over and duly dropped their bombs on Orsogna. This was highly spectacular but probably not very effective with the comparatively light bombs, and the same applied to our bombardment: for the Germans, well protected in their cellars and dug in with solid overhead cover on the spurs, were little affected and everywhere fought hard. Both my battalions had to move down a forward slope and then climb steep and muddy spurs before beginning their attacks. They carried out this movement during the ninety-minute bombardment and under cover of smoke, with surprisingly few casualties. Both got up in time to advance behind the slow barrage. The Twenty-third got securely on to the Sfasciata Spur, took all its objectives, and was able to stay, with some forty casualties. The Maoris fought their way up the spur and though they lost the barrage managed to get almost on to their objective and across the Ortona road. The Twenty-fourth got into Orsogna but was unable to stay against a counter-attack by tanks and flame-throwers, horrible to watch in the dusk. As the frontal attack by the tanks along the causeway had gained nothing, and superhuman efforts under the Maori 2 i/c, Peta Awatere, had failed to man-handle six-pounders across the Moro and up the Pascuccio Spur, there was now no hope of getting antitank weapons up to the Maoris. During the night they beat off several thrusts by enemy infantry and tanks working along the road; but their position was impossible and the ground they had gained useless unless Orsogna was in our hands. So at 2 in the morning, when Monty called me on the air and said that he was overlooked by the enemy positions on the Sfasciata Spur and at daylight would be in an untenable position, I ordered him to withdraw. The General approved of this when I reported my action immediately afterwards. Our only gain remained in the lodgement made by the Twenty-third, but this was important and it directed attention to the only really promising approach. The Maoris page 332 reported fifty-six casualties and had extreme difficulty in evacuating their wounded.
The conference next morning was held at Ike's headquarters, a house at a cross-roads near Castelfrentano, in full view from Orsogna. I arrived just in time to take cover from a ‘hit-and-run’ raid by fighter-bombers which killed two men and wounded nine. These conferences, a feature of General Freyberg's method of command, were always a delight. We collected a few minutes early; I do not remember anyone ever being late, Ike, Bill, Steve and Kip, Fred and Laurie and Ian, Lindsay or Keith, and any attached British commanders, and we would talk for a few minutes. It was always good and heartening to feel the comradeship and warmth. The General arrived, accompanied by his P.A., John White, and Paddy Costello, at this time the able and cynical divisional intelligence staff officer, and the conference started. First Paddy would outline the general situation on the army front and give the latest intelligence about the enemy. Then in turn each Brigadier would shortly state what had happened to his command and explain any particular problems or intentions. Then the General would speak and there would be a general and free discussion, so free that visiting officers sometimes marvelled at our Soviet-like methods. When everyone had had his say, always briefly and to the point, the General would decide the policy and the intention, sometimes for a period, sometimes for the next twenty-four hours only. Occasionally, he would have to fight the Brigadiers' Union, but there were few decisions that did not have full approval of everyone concerned, people with their feet very firmly on the ground. Then the tasks of the various arms and formations were broadly worked out and the conference broke up, everyone feeling the better for it. There could have been no better means of ensuring teamwork and understanding, combined with good fellowship.
At this particular conference it was decided to make use of the ground gained on the Sfasciata Spur to get a road on to it across the Moro, gain as much ground as possible by ‘peaceful penetration’, and then deliver another attack from the spur to get across the Ortona road. The ground was page 333 drying fast with a few rainless days, and if they continued there was a chance of our being able to use tanks. I was very pleased with this decision as I had early formed the opinion that our most promising approach was up this broad spur.
During the next few days the engineers worked hard at the road, bridged the Moro at the foot of the spur out of view from Orsogna, and carried the road almost to the forward infantry. It can only have been shortage of ammunition that made the Germans refrain from shelling the bulldozers and working parties, for on most of the route they were completely exposed. The Twenty-third made more ground up the ridge, sufficient to give us a good start-line for an attack and each night there were sharp patrol clashes.
The Twentieth, now an armoured regiment with Sherman tanks, under McKergow, was put under my command, to my great pleasure. One evening a company of the Twenty-third made a particularly good ‘peaceful advance’ and I thought there was a chance of putting the Twentieth through, as the road was well forward and the ground was hard enough. Fortunately the General decided against me, for there was heavy rain during the night and the tanks would have been helplessly bogged. Further rain held up operations and preparations. We were worried by the failure of the British Fifth Division on our right to keep level with us. This division had had no fighting except some very easy affairs in Sicily and it appeared to us to be overtrained and far too formal. Its patrolling was apparently bad and it was nowhere in contact with the enemy on its front. One day Denis and I went for a walk as far as Lanciano, but as literally everybody we met or came in sight of saluted correctly, and Denis was the whole time marching at attention while I was incessantly returning salutes, we had to retire, defeated. I never saw anything like it until I visited the Guards Depot at Caterham. Despite its good saluting this division had not then found the fighting form it later produced and we thought it a very unsatisfactory neighbour.
The troops were having a very uncomfortable time. As many as possible lived in houses, even in the forward areas, but the majority had nothing better than their slit trenches page 334 and lived a wretched life, which they put up with very cheerfully. Brigade Headquarters had a fair-sized house, I had a caravan, and we were usually able to have a fire at night, so we had nothing to complain of. We still played chess, and as we had a supply officer with initiative and a staff car, we had enough cognac to have some pleasant evenings.
The weather improved a little and on the 13th it was decided to go ahead with the attack on the morning of the 15th. The object was to get firmly across the Ortona road and then move down the road to seize some high ground behind Orsogna, so isolating the town. 5 Brigade was to do the attack with 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments under command. I decided to use the Twenty-first and Twenty-third with the Eighteenth in support for the first phase, and to exploit with the Maoris and the Twentieth. I had thought of relieving the Twenty-third by the Maoris, but Reg thought the battalion should do another attack. McElroy and Fair-brother went up with me to see Reg and, after looking at the ground, all three came back with me to a brigade orders conference. Shell Alley, the stretch of road running up to Hellfire Corner, was under attention from the self-propelled gun and we had an interesting trip home, running the gauntlet in turn. We attacked behind a heavy barrage, a gun to every 11 yards, at 1 o'clock in the morning of 15 December. Communications worked perfectly and though the Twenty-third, in which Angus was staying for just one more battle, had very hard fighting, all went reasonably well. At daylight each battalion was on its objective, the Twenty-first on the right with about 30 casualties, the Twenty-third with over 100; and the tanks of the Eighteenth, most resolutely led by Clive Pleasants, had got through to the road and as far as the cemetery. Unfortunately Clive was wounded in the hand and after a while had to give up and come out. He was very white and glad of some brandy that I was able to give him when he arrived out after daylight. The heavy casualties in the Twenty-third, about 40 per cent., spoilt the picture and reduced results. We had about 100 prisoners and there were reports of unusually numerous enemy dead. The Twentieth was up on the spur but there had not been room for the page 335 Maoris and it would take some hours to bring them up. Still we had dealt a heavy blow, there were signs that the enemy were confused and shaken, and I decided to try for the second phase with the Twentieth alone.
The attempt did not succeed. The enemy shelled heavily all day and Reg Romans was desperately wounded. There was considerable delay in proceedings owing to the mud. When I heard that the leading squadron was at length moving down the road late in the afternoon, I thought that the opportunity had gone and should have stopped it. But we could overhear the squadron commander, John Phillips, talking cheerfully of knocked-out anti-tank guns, so I called for artillery concentrations on either side of the road and let them go on. We saw the leading troop get almost to the back of Orsogna and fire into the town from the rear, but one by one its tanks burst into flames and after a stubborn effort the squadron withdrew to the cemetery. Five tanks had been knocked out.
The Maoris were already moving forward, an exhausting trudge of two or three miles through mud often knee deep, which took them six or seven hours. Fairbrother went ahead with instructions to meet McKergow at the cemetery and arrange with him the details of a combined attack on the high ground in the rear of Orsogna at daylight, 6.30 a.m. I did not go forward myself as it would have entailed too long an absence from my headquarters and communications were good. We had an excellent signals officer in Pat Brennan. I understand that he was technically weak but he had the knack of getting results and in all sorts of unorthodox ways keeping communications going. It was a stormy night. The Germans shelled and mortared busily all night and from midnight launched a series of counter-attacks, some of them fiercely pressed home. Our guns were firing almost incessantly in response to calls for defensive fire. The Maoris arrived near the cemetery to find the air alight with tracer and a first-class battle going on in all directions. Monty put out a company to guard his rear and moved into position to attack, but he and McKergow did their planning under most uncomfortable conditions.page 336
Angus Ross's company beat off one savage attack, but the main weight of the counter-attacks came against the Twenty-first which held a refused right flank. The enemy were paratroopers, brought across the Apennines that day, and thrown into action by companies or platoons as they arrived. Some of their thrusts got within twenty yards of the infantry posts and one German major was shot at even shorter range. Between attacks they mortared heavily, but fortunately their commanders never had the patience to assemble enough men for any really heavy united blow, which might have succeeded. Denis and I, sitting in our A.C.V. as usual, both went to sleep, and for some hours George Marsden, the young Maori L.O., directed the artillery ‘stonks’ that were continually called for and which were the only help we could give. One attack was led by a flame-thrower which was promptly knocked out by one of the tanks supporting the Twenty-first.
Firing became heavier than ever as dawn approached. The Twenty-first reported that it was being attacked by tanks and, a few minutes later, that our own tanks of the Eighteenth, well forward in support, had knocked out four Mark IV's. At the same time Monty called to ask whether the Twentieth and Maori attack should go ahead, saying it might be wiser to face about and be prepared in case the Twenty-first line was broken. I had been talking to McElroy and was satisfied that the Twenty-first would hold firm and told Monty and McKergow to go ahead. They did so at once, 6.30 a.m., so we had the uncommon situation of both sides attacking, in the same direction, a few hundred yards from one another. The counter-attacks did not die down until 8.30 a.m. and our line was still intact.
Our attack failed, mainly due to the failure or inability of the tanks and infantry to work together, though the stubborn and skilful resistance of the German infantry and gunners no doubt deserved some success. The operation would have been difficult enough if there had been good co-operation and good inter-communication, but our training and methods were not yet adequate. The tanks were confined to the road by the rain-soaked ground and could only move in single file without any chance of manœuvre. There were page 337 one or two shallow dips in the road but the ground was otherwise flat and open and the Twentieth officers thought that their best chance was to move quickly through to the objective, leaving the infantry, deployed on either side of the road, to follow at their own pace. Both C.O.s said that they did not want a barrage as it would hold the tanks up, and with some misgivings I agreed, though one had been prepared. The final arrangements were made in the cemetery under very difficult conditions. It was about two acres in extent and enclosed by a rectangular stone wall and tall cypress trees. It was being heavily shelled with high explosive and airbursts and methodically raked by a heavy anti-tank gun which was battering gaps in the wall and then drilling tank after tank. In the circumstances some muddled thinking and impatience of delay was excusable.
Tanks and infantry set off punctually and with spirit. The enemy shell-fire redoubled in intensity. From where we watched it looked ominously violent, curling black airbursts and spouting geysers of smoke and earth appearing incessantly about the cemetery and along the road. The enemy guns were sited too far back to be seriously troubled by our counter-battery. In a few minutes, after advancing three or four hundred yards, the infantry were stopped and pinned down. The tanks moved on another half-mile, hotly engaged by anti-tank guns and infantry with bazookas, and after several had been hit and gone up in flames the remainder halted in the partial shelter of a dip in the road. We had not then evolved any reliable method of communication between tanks and infantry in action and this day there was none. The shelling did not abate at all and it soon became clear that we were completely stopped.
I went up and reluctantly decided to accept the situation and consolidate on the ground that we had won. The Maoris relieved the Twenty-third after dark and the Twentieth, leaving a squadron in close support, withdrew down the spur, having lost a dozen tanks. A squadron of the Eighteenth remained in close support of the Twenty-first and both battalions were ordered to get their anti-tank guns up and then release their supporting squadrons.page 338
Although it was finally disappointing we gained a substantial success in this hard-fought action. The enemy had lost unusually heavily and we were securely across the Ortona road on a broad enough front to be able to launch further attacks when we were ready.
During the night the reliefs were completed, with difficulty and under constant shell- and mortar-fire. There were many calls for defensive fire and the guns were hard at it on both sides all night. There was no actual counter-attack but in the morning it was clear that the Germans had brought in fresh and aggressive troops—334 Division and some para-troop battalions. They had relieved the battered 65 Division, pushed close up against us everywhere, and started mortaring and sniping in a most spirited fashion, so that a sharp bickering went on all day and all movement behind our forward positions became highly dangerous—and was for our opponents too.
In this action the evacuation of wounded was expected to be very slow and difficult. I had always given the brigade band some responsibility in action, usually that of guarding prisoners. This time Claude Miller and his bandsmen carried the wounded from the Regimental Aid Posts to an A.D.S. which we established with a blood bank, well up the spur. Often they had to have six men to a stretcher but they worked splendidly, and with the A.D.S. so far forward the wounded got on better than we had feared and several lives were saved by early blood infusions.
But they were unable to save our gallant Reg. I went to see him in the dressing station in Castelfrentano and said good-bye to that brave and loyal soul. A day or two later he died, leaving with many of us an enduring memory.
After leaving Reg I went on to Division, having a particularly exciting trip over the Mad Minute, and found the new Corps Commander, General Dempsey, with General Freyberg. We were now confronted with a series of parallel ridges running east and west from Orsogna and if we could get on to the second one would have practically turned the town and would have space to deploy our guns across the page 339 Moro. The Corps Commander thought that the enemy was shaken and that we would be able to get on to the next ridge, Fontegrande, without a formal attack. I thought that with the newly arrived paratroopers against us this was not feasible and said so. I was overruled and ordered to occupy the ridge with patrols on the following night and then to consolidate a position there.
I ordered the Maoris and the Twenty-first each to send patrols that night of an officer and twelve other ranks on to the Fontegrande Spur and to have companies standing by to occupy positions on the spur if there was little opposition. The Maoris sent two patrols, the Twenty-first one, and as expected they found themselves in a hornets' nest: we were lucky to lose no more than an excellent young officer killed, a sergeant wounded and missing, and seven other ranks killed or missing. I was in a black temper at the conference in the morning and afterwards thought that General Dempsey, who was again present, was very patient and forbearing with me.
For a few days, in bitterly cold and dull weather, there was no talk of any further attack. The troops were living under very hard conditions and were showing signs of strain. Orsogna was bombed by Kittyhawks four times in one day without any particular result, and on the same day there were two corps artillery concentrations, one of which fell largely on the Twenty-first. It looked as if we were merely demonstrating and, at the conference on the 20th, the General said that the policy was to go slow at present. When I went round the battalions that day I told them to concentrate on getting comfortable for the winter and was a little concerned that they all seemed decidedly pleased.
Next day I was called to Division and told to prepare a plan for an attack to take the next two ridges, 6 Brigade lending us 26 Battalion for the show. I must admit that I was not pleased, nor very optimistic, but I reflected that in a slogging match like this it was a question of who pounded longest and it was probably right to go on. I was put out, too, by the cocky attitude of the Para. Division in against us, and thought that they could do with a lesson. So, though a page 340 little worried as to whether the troops were in their best form, I concealed my doubts and got ahead with the business.
This was a particularly difficult attack to plan and prepare. The centre battalion, the Twenty-sixth, could attack straight ahead with no special complications. The Maoris had to advance on a more westerly axis to gain possession of the ridge junctions near Orsogna so that the tanks could get round on to the Fontegrande Ridge, which meant that they would lose touch with the Twenty-sixth as they advanced. The Twenty-first, still with a refused right flank, had to swing up in line with the Twenty-sixth before attacking, which required an awkward change of direction and complications in the barrage table. 5 Division, moreover, was still lagging behind on this flank and, though it was to do a daylight attack and draw level before we moved, we felt certain that it would not succeed. The division said that its forward companies were reporting themselves up to the Ortona road. McElroy and I walked along the road for several hundred yards in No Man's Land, and could see no sign of them. As the tank and infantry counter-attack a few nights earlier had come up this road, McElroy felt that he would be very much in the air on the objective and to some extent I shared his concern. I told Division of my uneasiness but got a poor reception from the G. 1 and the net result was merely ill temper all round. 5 Division's attack was certainly made and under a very heavy barrage. My intelligence officer, Duthie Hoggans, went to the nearest Brigade to inquire the result. He was told it was a complete success, all objectives taken. He asked how many prisoners. There were none. How many casualties? There were none. And McElroy reported angrily that they were still nowhere near the road.
On the 23rd McKergow was wounded on the Mad Minute while on his way to an orders conference at my headquarters and Purcell took over the Twentieth. No one seemed enthusiastic about doing this attack, not so much from battle weariness, for the C.O.s were all stout and devoted soldiers, as from the feeling that no great results could be expected in the mud, that the men were tired and strengths low, and page 341 because of the uneasiness as to the right flank. I thought the plan reasonably promising, the troops capable of another effort and the danger on the right one that could be coped with, so gave my orders rather grimly and bluntly overruled the few objections.
A few hours later I visited the Twenty-first and found that McElroy and his company commanders were not at all happy. I was put out because they had not told me of several minor difficulties earlier and I spoke to them sharply. They were a splendid set of experienced soldiers, but something was wrong with their mood at this moment, perhaps the constant fretting over their right flank. The real trouble, I think, was that I had decided that McElroy should stay out of this battle and that Roach, his second-in-command, should take his place. McElroy was due for a spell but he was profoundly unhappy at this decision, so wretched that I relented that evening and said he could take the battalion in. His mood changed at once.
Then I went on to the Maoris and the Twentieth and was encouraged to find Monty Fairbrother and Purcell in good form and very confident. Monty was due for furlough so I ordered him out over stubborn protests and put his second-in-command, Russell Young, in command. There was more trouble in the evening when we checked over the barrage tables and found that there had been a misunderstanding between Steve Weir and myself and the barrage would not suit the swing up of the Twenty-first. Steve was furious, as it was a great deal to ask his tired staff to get out and distribute fresh tables in the few hours left, but I had to insist and must have been highly unpopular at artillery headquarters.
After dark we moved Brigade Headquarters to a filthy little hamlet called Sfaciarelli, near the foot of the Sfasciata Spur. Unfortunately it was impossible to place ourselves near the start-line, as in the desert battles. There was only the one muddy road up the spur and it would have been far too long and difficult a trip for visitors, not an unimportant consideration. The Twenty-sixth, going into the line that night, had a desperately difficult approach march and the page 342 men were tired out before they attacked. On the map it looked simple and easy enough to relieve and move the battalion from its position in front of Orsogna, but the approach march took seven hours. During the afternoon General Dempsey called and asked what I thought of the prospects. I said that we would take the Fontegrande Ridge, the first objective, but that I doubted whether we would get the next ridge. He looked at me consideringly, said: ‘You've been a Brigadier for two years and gone from success to success.’ I replied that we would do our best. He went away without further comment, leaving me a little doubtful as to whether I would not be superseded in the next half-hour.
Generally, things were not right before this action. The Twenty-first was unhappy and anxious about its right flank. The Twenty-sixth was in a strange brigade, on completely strange ground which it had not seen in daylight, and was exhausted before it started. The Maoris were weak in numbers after their previous severe actions, and Russell Young was fighting his first battle as a commander, though this proved of no importance. The Brigadier was in a sour and angry humour, which helped not at all. It was the day before Christmas—which we all remembered. Lastly, the attack which we had been told 5 Division was to do during the afternoon, with Arielli ahead of our right flank as an objective, had not even been attempted, and its forward infantry were still a long and uncertain distance behind the right of the Twenty-first.
The barrage opened at 4 a.m. on 24 December, a cold, raw morning. On the right it was ragged and the Twenty-first at once complained bitterly of shorts falling among the companies on the start-line. The barrage advanced by lifts of a hundred yards every four minutes and the infantry went forward doggedly, but, in the opinion of many officers, with a little less than their usual élan. It was a nasty night and a grim hour for tired, wet, and battle-weary men.
The Twenty-first, though it lost the barrage, took its first objective after some sharp fighting and clever manœuvring and then found itself confronted in many places by a vertical bank, too high to jump down. One weak company, under page 343 Brian Abbott, moved through the Twenty-sixth area and made a precarious lodgement on the second ridge. The rest of the battalion dug in and McElroy used his reserve company to guard his long and tender right flank. The Twenty-sixth also took its share of the first objective and some men got across with Abbott's party; but the battalion got no farther. The Maoris gained the all-important neck giving the tanks access to the Fontegrande Ridge but were then held up by most stubborn resistance and lost heavily. The paratroops opposing them maintained a heavy fire while the barrage was actually falling on them.
Not long before dawn I asked Fountaine whether he could get the second objective. He said there was considerable disorder and confusion and it was beyond reach. I then asked for a description of the lodgement on the second ridge, how many men were there, were they in a secure position, could they be reached and supplied. He said there were forty or fifty in the party, that they were overlooked by enemy posts and most insecure, and that it would be impossible to reach them in daylight. Actually they were on both sides of a cleft and not on any part of the flat top of the ridge. I thought that the ground they were on was of no value, that they would be an easy mark for a counter-attack, and only an embarrassment if we wanted to fire a barrage for a further attack and told Den to withdraw them to the first ridge at once.
General Freyberg had been sitting beside me in the A.C.V. all night, watching and listening but saying nothing. When he heard me give this order he at once reached for the headphones and very carefully and slowly put Fountaine through a long questionnaire. Then he told him the party was to stay where it was. This was the only time that he ever overruled me in battle or that I completely disagreed with his decision. I said as much but he was adamant and the party stayed where it was perched.
Before daylight a squadron of the Twentieth tanks under John Rolleston got round the neck on to the Fonntegrande Ridge and very soon completed the mopping-up. They had a busy day and before it ended had outshot and thoroughly page 344 quietened the Germans on the second ridge, who started off by sniping in a most aggressive fashion. They were handled in a bold and skilful way that provided one of the few bright features in this unsatisfactory affair. The Twenty-first reported thirty-four casualties, the Twenty-sixth thirty-two, and the Maoris about a hundred. We had taken half our objective and had sixty-seven prisoners, nearly all wounded. A most unhappy incident was yet to be disclosed.
No fresh troops were available to continue the attack and it was plain that we had shot our own bolt. 25 Battalion relieved the Twenty-first which had had no break since we crossed the Sangro a month earlier and was now very weary and, when the relief was completed, about 2 o'clock on Christmas morning, 6 Brigade took command of the sector. I met the battalion, trudging slowly out to its billets after daylight, and thought that I had not seen men so exhausted since Flanders. Every man was plastered with wet mud up to his neck and their faces were grey. Nevertheless I got smiles and cheerful words from every officer and every platoon. From all but one.
There was no response whatever from one platoon. The eighteen men passed me silently, their faces utterly expressionless, and none replied when I spoke to them. I was startled. A few hours later the battalion commander came in with a stern set face and gave me the reason. These men were under close arrest because they had refused to go into action. Only the platoon commander and four men had gone in. Such a thing was unheard of in the Division and the C.O. was heartbroken.
It was a sad business. Charges were laid, a court martial convened, and the cases were heard a week or two later. It appeared that during the afternoon before the attack the platoon sergeant warned his officer that the men would not go in. The company commander was informed. He relieved the platoon, which was in fire-pits in a reserve position, and brought it back to a farm house to be rested. In the evening he spoke to the men in a firm and soldierly fashion and when he left was satisfied that he would see them on the start-line. Zero hour was at 4 a.m., the men were to be awakened at 3 page 345 a.m. to have a hot meal at the company cooker, and then to move a few hundred yards to the start-line. At 3 a.m. the platoon commander went to the door of the room in which the men were sleeping, called out ‘shake a leg’, and went back to complete his own preparations. When he had finished and had his meal, only four men had arrived at the cookhouse, there was no time left and he went into the battle with them only. The others were found by the R.S.M. still wrapped in their blankets after daybreak and were at once put under arrest.
At their trial some maintained that they had not heard any call and had simply overslept. Others, more candid, admitted that they had made up their minds not to go into the attack. They all had good records, the sergeant a particularly good one, and the platoon had behaved well in the previous month's operations and had had eleven casualties. They were all convicted and received sentences of one to two years' imprisonment, the N.C.O.s being in addition reduced to the ranks. There was no sympathy for them in the battalion but I felt, as did the General, that there would have been no trouble with a more understanding platoon commander and confirmed the sentences with reluctance. There was no doubt that these men had been severely tried, but no more than their comrades who went forward to their duty on that black morning. Later the balances of their sentences were suspended and they were posted to different battalions to give them a chance of redeeming their characters by good conduct. Some did so, not all, and the sergeant was a broken man. The officer was held to have failed in his duty to his men and was not again employed with the Division.
At the end of the year General Montgomery gave up the command of Eighth Army, which he had done so much to make famous and to which he owed so much of his own fame, and went to England to command 21 Army Group for the invasion of Normandy. We were glad to hear of his appointment, but it was a little depressing to hear that Army Headquarters staff could talk of nothing else but who was to go with him and who to stay in this Adriatic backwater. We speculated as to whether General Freyberg or Oliver Leese page 346 would succeed him and were disappointed that General Freyberg did not.
We had a few days' spell and then relieved 6 Brigade in the same positions on 2 January. With a foot of snow, everyone perforce lived in the houses scattered over the country-side and there was no more question of continuing the offensive. Nevertheless, we were kept alert and lively. Both sides constantly mortared, shelled, and sniped and patrolled actively. These paratroopers were the first Germans we had met who patrolled really aggressively. They got their issue of snowsuits sooner than we did and sent parties over to visit us every night. Most of the houses had only one door, facing east, and often no window. They were blind on the side from which the enemy approached and until a technique for holding them was worked out we had one or two unpleasant surprises. One night a German patrol got up to one of the Twenty-third's houses unobserved, inflicted four casualties by throwing grenades through the door, and dragged one wounded man away. This annoyed us extremely and we laid on plots to prevent any recurrence and at once had a gratifying success. A party of seven which tried to raid a house in the Maori area was neatly ambushed and all killed. During the following day I was showing a Polish General around the forward area and we visited the platoon concerned and heard the story. General Duck was apparently not at all pro-German, his delight when he understood that all the raiders had been killed, not wounded or captured but killed, was almost alarming.
Occasionally houses received direct hits though we discouraged our gunners from doing too much in that line, as our own men were also all in houses. The 170 mm. wrecked a house in the Twenty-third area, killing or badly wounding two officers and six men. The battalions started to ring up and ask when I would be likely to appear on my morning visit and what my route would be. Guides were then placed at various points to lead me from one company headquarters to another by covered routes. No one wanted to be noticed to be having visitors.
We heard welcome talk of a move. We too had lost interest page 347 in the Adriatic coast, and after all, we had failed to take Orsogna, our first failure, and were tired of looking at it all day and every day. On Christmas morning we were startled to hear church bells ringing in that smitten little town. A Brigadier of 4 Indian Division arrived to discuss reliefs, sitting in a jeep and wearing a bowler hat. He said it was bound to come in handy before long. For a few uneventful and boring days I commanded the Division while the General went ahead to see Fifth Army Headquarters and visit the Cassino front where the Americans had been held up. At 4 in the morning of 17 January 1944 we set off for the other side of Italy, all badges and markings removed, in a vain effort to conceal our identity. No one could possibly mistake New Zealand troops, with badges or without.