Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
II: Operation TORSO
II: Operation TORSO
The General's decision on the morning of the 5th to launch a divisional attack set in train a regrouping. The right flank was buttressed by machine-gunners who took up positions to the right of 25 Battalion, whence they could harass the enemy across the Moro on Sfasciata ridge. The Maoris of 28 Battalion moved forward to a lying-up area behind the 6 Brigade battalions on the San Felice and Pascuccio ridges, gathered their supporting weapons about them page 106 and reconnoitred routes forward for vehicles, only to find that neither Sfasciata nor Pascuccio was negotiable by tracks or wheels. The discovery was of tactical significance, for it dictated the decision to move all the vehicles of both brigades along 6 Brigade's road over Brecciarola and through Orsogna – the only passable route on the Division's front. On the left flank, 22 Battalion, which had observed continued enemy activity about the Melone road fork, was relieved by 6 Parachute Battalion. The arrival of fresh British field and medium guns strengthened the artillery. In the drizzling rain of the 6th, the preparations went on. By night the four 17-pounder guns of Q Anti-Tank Troop were with difficulty hauled up the San Felice ridge and dug in to command the Ortona road. The Bofors guns of 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery crossed the Sangro, leaving protection against air attack south of the river to the Eighth Army. Two bulldozers joined 24 Battalion across the Moro ready to fill craters on the road to Orsogna. In the three or four days before the attack the ammunition point issued 50,000 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition to the field regiments. In such ways the units toiled; and meanwhile the senior officers schemed.
Freyberg had no illusions about the toughness of the task he was setting his troops. When he first decided on a two-brigade attack, he warned the Army Commander that, because of the poverty of communications, he expected the Division to be engaged in heavier fighting than hitherto. Characteristically, Montgomery extracted the most cheerful ingredient from the situation – the lack of depth in the German position, of which Herr was indeed uneasily aware. The hard going forced Freyberg to the reluctant choice of a frontal attack, but Montgomery found comfort in the ‘tremendous concentration’ that would accompany it.
The start line ran roughly parallel to the Ortona road, rather less than a mile from the objectives on both flanks. The assault on 5 Brigade's front was to be made by 28 Battalion, and 23 Battalion, moving in under artillery concentrations and smoke, was to occupy part of the Sfasciata ridge as right-flank guard. Sixth Brigade gave the task of assaulting Orsogna itself to 24 Battalion. Of its other two battalions, the 25th in its existing position would provide the page 109 firm base for 5 Brigade and the 26th would do the same for 6 Brigade by moving into the positions vacated by 24 Battalion after the attack began.
The forming up of the assaulting battalions was to be curtained by a standing barrage from 4 and 5 New Zealand Field Regiments and 111 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, 300 yards ahead of the start line from 1 p.m. to 2.30. The barrage would then move forward ahead of the infantry, lifting 100 yards in six minutes and finishing on the road 500 yards west of Orsogna.1 For three and a half hours from one o'clock, three troops of medium guns were to shell the town and the road west of it and one troop was turned on to Sfasciata, which was also the target for 6 Field Regiment, firing smoke for twenty minutes and then concentrations until 4.10. To impede the movement of enemy reinforcements, the main road on either side of Orsogna was to be shelled by 1 Air Landing Light Regiment, and a counter-battery programme lasting ninety-eight minutes was ordered. In sum, planned support was on the scale of 300 rounds for each field gun and 100 for each medium gun. Air support was to be continuous from 1.30 to four o'clock. First, for half an hour, thirteen squadrons of fighter-bombers would attack Orsogna, and then for two hours they would harass roads in the areas of Arielli and Filetto and the German artillery.
The state of communications limited the use of tanks, but 18 Regiment (less B Squadron) was to enter Orsogna along the road from Lanciano, and thence one squadron would go through the town to link up with 5 Brigade on its objective on the right. Two bulldozers were provided to fill demolitions on the Lanciano– Orsogna road. Each infantry brigade was assisted by the fire of 27 Machine Gun Battalion as well as by its 4·2-inch mortars. The security of the right flank was in charge of 5 Brigade, which, as already noted, was to occupy part of Sfasciata ridge, and the left flank was protected by 2 Parachute Brigade, which would stay where it was.
1 The rate of advance of the barrage was fixed after a practice by a company of 21 Battalion in similar country near Castelfrentano. Kippenberger would have preferred a rate of 100 yards in eight minutes but the cost in ammunition would have been too high.
No sooner had this change been made, however, than a new tactical appreciation forced another. Reports that the New Zealanders were thinning out in the Melone area and that their tanks facing Orsogna had gone chimed in with evidence of the reinforcement of 5 Corps near the coast to convince the German command that the British were shifting their weight to the east, where the country was more suitable for tanks. The enemy felt it essential to conform, especially in view of the indifferent showing of the comparatively inexperienced and undertrained 90 Panzer Grenadier Division in the coastal sector. Herr therefore ordered 26 Panzer Division still farther east and recalled 65 Division to the line in the sector between 26 Panzer Division and the Majella, where it seemed less likely to be overstrained. The new boundary ran through Orsogna, as from 4 p.m. on 7 December. At this time, too, consequential reliefs were taking place, for the Germans had calculated that no big attack could come before 8 December.
When the New Zealand attack went in, the 5 Brigade front was held by the right-hand companies of 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which during a short period in reserve had been reinforced to a fighting strength of 930, and by II Battalion 146 Regiment, extending to the outskirts of Orsogna. The defence of Orsogna itself was committed mainly to three companies of 26 Panzer Reconnaissance Unit, which were about to be relieved by III Battalion 4 Parachute Regiment; and these companies had the support of one platoon of engineers and another of infantrymen from 146 Regiment, 28 machine guns, 4 anti-tank guns, 4 mortars and 10 tanks (including two with flame-throwers). Farther west towards Melone, on 65 Division's new front, the line was held by paratroops, who had gradually been brought over from the untroubled mountain sector.
Going ashore at Taranto
Vehicles of the Divisional Cavalry make their way over muddy roads to the Sangro
Headquarters of the Divisional Artillery in its first engagement in Italy
Flat land north of the Sangro River cut up by vehicles of 2 NZ Division
Manhandling a truck bogged at the Sangro
A Bailey bridge over the Sangro River
Engineers making a corduroy road up to the Sangro
Brigadiers Parkinson and Kippenberger and Lieutenant-Colonel R. E. Romans discuss plans for an attack
General Sir Alan Brooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), General Freyberg, and General Sir Harold Alexander, December 1943
A New Zealand 25-pounder in action at the Sangro
Mud near Castelfrentano
18 Regiment tank casualty on Cemetery Ridge
Road to the Divisional Signals cookhouse at the Sangro
This photograph makes a panorama when joined with the one on the opposite page. Route 6 is on the left, the railway and the hummock on the right, and Monte Trocchio in the middle distance
On the ground, however, all went well for a while. Though harassed by the enemy's defensive fire on San Felice, 23 and 28 Battalions suffered few casualties in forming up and moving through 25 Battalion to their start lines. Both battalions had a hard pull to the start line, especially the Maoris, who had to breast the San Felice ridge, plunge down a steep gully, cross a stream and plod up the slippery and in places precipitous slopes of Pascuccio spur, some carrying Piat mortars and anti-tank grenades; but at 2.30, when the barrage began to move forward, the two battalions were ready to follow it into the smoke haze. The 23rd had a comparatively easy advance. There was a stiff climb but the objective was not distant, the only resistance was shell and mortar fire, and the battalion was protected by the fire of 2 Machine Gun Company and of 25 Battalion from San Felice. By 3.30 the battalion was firmly established along the crest of Sfasciata. The Maoris now had less cause to look with apprehension over their right shoulder.
The opening barrage had wrecked the panzer division's communications, leaving headquarters without news for two and a half hours after the attack began. Further, by a not uncommon chance, the Maoris' attack overlapped a formation boundary. On their right they met the sturdy infantry of 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, but the right-hand company of panzer grenadiers gave ground. Their outposts, either destroyed or dazed by the gunfire, were overrun by the Maoris, who appeared suddenly out of the smoke close up behind the barrage. The gap in the defence was widened, and the partial outflanking of the panzer grenadiers made possible, by the poor effort of 146 Regiment's left-hand company, which scattered in such disarray that by evening only ten of its men had been rallied.
The Maoris now had to face counter-attack from two flanks – on the right by a reserve company of panzer grenadiers and on the left by a reserve company of II Battalion 146 Regiment. The former was the more dangerous; it came earlier, it was made by better infantry and, above all, it was supported by tanks. It was C Company, on the right, that first bore the brunt of the enemy reaction. Aware of its vulnerability to tanks, the company had laid Hawkins mines on the road to the north; but shortly after six o'clock eight Mark IV tanks of 26 Panzer Regiment, with the panzer grenadier reserve company in support, opened fire on C Company's position. The company was forced back to the escarpment and then downhill on to Pascuccio ridge, where it was reorganised and put in reserve. In its retirement it damaged two of the tanks by Piat fire. It was replaced by B Company (Major Sorensen),1 which only with difficulty and after some time established itself at the top of the cliff.
Meanwhile the German tanks, without their infantry, had passed on down the road towards the Orsogna cemetery. There D Company came under close-range attack and withdrew its foremost platoon across the road to the cliff-top. A Company, however, scaled the cliffs and, moving behind D Company, took up a position north of the road near the cemetery, where it dealt to its own satisfaction with some enemy posts. Finally, the German tanks returned to their starting point, apparently glad to escape the heavy shellfire.
By midnight, then, the Maoris had weathered a succession of counter-attacks and had yielded some of their original gains only on their right to the panzer grenadiers. But all was not well. The ground they occupied was in a saucer, and even after the counter-attacks died down fire poured in on them from both flanks. Their ammunition was running short. Direct help from 23 Battalion was impracticable: earlier in the evening a patrol of the 23rd had tried but failed to make contact with the Maoris' right flank. Most ominous of all, hopes of the early arrival of tanks and supporting arms were dying. The way through Orsogna was not, after all, to be cleared.
As soon as this was obvious 28 Battalion mobilised every available man to drag two six-pounder anti-tank guns along the route the infantry had followed. They were manhandled over San Felice, but herculean efforts to pull them up the slope of Pascuccio availed nothing. These hard facts drove the Maoris' commander (Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother) to the conclusion that when day broke his men's position would be untenable. Brigadier Kippenberger agreed; and, having satisfied himself that the order would not prejudice the operations of 6 Brigade, at twenty minutes past midnight on the 8th he instructed 28 Battalion to withdraw.
Disengagement was not easy. Despite the cover afforded by heavy artillery concentrations and by B Company in a rearguard role, A and D Companies were sped on their way by shell, mortar bomb and bullet as they straggled back with their wounded and their remaining ammunition. A Company succeeded in breaking off only after repeated calls for fire from the New Zealand guns. The Maoris' withdrawal appears to have coincided with a renewed counter-attack from the north, which may account for its hazards. The six remaining tanks of the panzer company which had attacked earlier returned to the charge with the support of the last infantry that the panzer grenadier company could muster – the remnants of the reserve company and some engineers. They found the cemetery undefended and were able to plug the hole in the line; but two further tanks were damaged. Meanwhile the Maoris retired, and by 6 a.m. most of the battalion was reunited near its forming-up point, grateful after nearly twenty hours for the comfort of hot food.
The attack on the left by 24 Battalion, which was certain to be decisive for the whole operation, early lost momentum. Defensive fire, minefields and rough ground caused delay. It was five o'clock before C Company (Major Clarke),1 approaching along the northern slope of Brecciarola ridge, broke into the eastern outskirts of the town, and 5.15 before B Company on the left, having lost its commander (Major Thomson)2 by shellfire, penetrated the streets. The scraps of evidence from friend and foe for the battle that followed are not easily assembled into a coherent picture. Lucidity after the event would, indeed, misrepresent the real confusion of the event itself.
The advance of the two leading companies through the town was fiercely contested, and the rate of advance reported at one time – 100 yards in quarter of an hour – was, if anything, exaggerated. The Germans were firing automatic weapons from houses to which entry was barred by ‘S’ mines at doors and windows. Fighting developed at close quarters with exchanges of grenades. A flame-throwing tank of 6 Company 26 Panzer Regiment was detailed to clear enemy infantry from houses south of the main street. Heavy fire from the Ortona road north of the town halted C Company, which was still partly deployed on the hillside below the town; it was now without Major Clarke, who had been wounded. Nevertheless, by nine o'clock the attacking infantry had reached the square in the centre of the town. Here German tanks forced them to take cover and it became clear that further progress was impossible without armoured support.
3 Lt-Col E. W. Aked, MC, m.i.d., Aristion Andrias (Greek); Tauranga; born England, 12 Feb 1911; shop assistant; CO 24 Bn 4–8 Jun 1944; CO 210 British Liaison Unit with 3 Greek Bde in Italy and Greece, 1944–45.
Trouble awaited them there. Concealed from our own tanks but commanding their route of advance was a German tank, which it proved impossible to shift. When they tried to dispose of it with Molotov cocktails and sticky bombs, the New Zealand infantry were driven to earth by spandau fire from surrounding houses. Minefields on the right and heavy fire on the left prevented the tanks from making an outflanking move; and all this time the forward companies, trying to clear an exit to the north-east to bring help to the Maoris, were fighting an unequal battle with the German armour.
In a last effort to punch a passage for our own tanks, B and C Companies withdrew on to A Company just outside the town for a concerted attack under cover of tank fire. The two forward companies were now so disorganised that they could collect no more than 4 officers and 39 men, who, with A Company, renewed the assault. Though our fire drove the enemy to the refuge of cellars and was closely followed up by the infantry, and though penetration was achieved, the Germans, now reinforced by paratroops, counter-attacked hotly and claimed shortly after midnight to have restored the position. Thus repulsed, the New Zealand tanks and infantry retired to make a defensive laager for the night near the demolitions outside the town.
At a conference at 2.30 a.m. with General Freyberg and Brigadier Parkinson, the battalion commander (Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly) urged withdrawal: his companies were faced with stalemate in Orsogna; the ground they precariously held was unlikely to be of use for future operations; and they could only stay where they were at an excessive cost in casualties. By now 28 Battalion had withdrawn. These considerations led the General to sanction the withdrawal of the 24th; but in addition, he desired to bomb Orsogna again by daylight and believed that 6 Brigade would be able to reoccupy it without trouble the following night. Behind a screen provided by D Company, still in reserve, the tanks and the rest of the battalion withdrew without incident.
For the second time the Division had failed to capture Orsogna by direct assault. Yet once again the defenders had been hard pressed, and they appear to have conquered confusion only by improvisation. Soon after the attack began, 76 Panzer Corps consented to postpone the relief of 26 Panzer Reconnaissance Unit in Orsogna by III Battalion 4 Parachute Regiment but did not agree to put the paratroops under command of 26 Panzer Division until page 116 eight o'clock, when the last infantry reserves in the town had been committed. The parachute battalion was then ordered to send its strongest company (of about eighty men) to Orsogna, where they arrived in time to help repel the New Zealanders' last attack. Corps also embarrassed the defence of the town by refusing, and then agreeing, to postpone the transfer of responsibility for it from the panzer division to 65 Division, and it had been unhelpful towards requests for the return of tank companies from 90 Panzer Grenadier Division on the left. The stalwarts in Orsogna were not pampered.
With charge and counter-charge, the battle in Orsogna swayed this way and that. But the determining cause of the Division's defeat seems to have been the local tank superiority of the Germans. While the New Zealand armour was stalled by demolitions at the entrance to the town, the German tanks took up a commanding position on the high ground, from which they could outgun the attackers and from which they could not be outflanked. Against this handicap the dash of the New Zealand infantry could not prevail, even though, as on 5 Brigade's front, they moved so closely behind the artillery barrage and concentrations that word went round among the Germans that the enemy was firing shells which exploded with a loud noise but without lethal effect.
Operation TORSO cost the Division in casualties about 30 killed or died of wounds, about 90 wounded, and between 30 and 40 missing.1 Two tanks had to be abandoned with broken tracks near Orsogna. Losses inflicted on the enemy included 14 killed, 40 wounded, and over 50 prisoners, and damage was done to several tanks.
The operation taught important tactical lessons, both general and specific. Among the general lessons, it encouraged a distaste for daylight attacks on prepared defences; it showed the unwisdom of attempting simultaneously to bomb a target from the air and smoke it from the ground; and it underlined (if emphasis was required) the need for bringing up tank and anti-tank support without delay to infantry on their objectives.
1 The battalions' casualties were: 24 Battalion—10 killed, 49 wounded, 19 missing; 28 Battalion—11 killed, 30 wounded, 16 missing; 23 Battalion—8 killed, 14 wounded.
This was the tenor of the discussion at the Divisional Commander's morning conference on the 8th. Twenty-third Battalion was therefore ordered to stand firm in its salient. Though exposed, it was in the meantime safe from enemy attack owing to the softness of the ground. Energies were now turned towards finding a route forward for supporting weapons.
Two possible crossings of the Moro were reconnoitred and the choice fell upon the more southerly. From the village of Spaccarelli on the Lanciano–Orsogna road a cart track ran north, dropped down into the Moro near the north-eastern tip of San Felice ridge, wound up the slope of Sfasciata, and ran along the top to join the Ortona road a few hundred yards north of the cemetery. For all but the last thousand yards or so this track lay within the New Zealand lines. Given a spell of dry weather – and the 8th was the first of three fine days – it promised access for tanks to the Ortona road without the necessity of blasting a passage through Orsogna. With machine-gun and artillery fire to drown the din, bulldozers began work on the ford on the night of 8–9 December, improving the approaches for tanks and hauling across the stream and up Sfasciata six six-pounder anti-tank guns. Four guns were sited to protect 23 Battalion, which further reassured itself by laying mines brought up by mules.
Freyberg's inclination towards a thrust on the right by way of Sfasciata, which Kippenberger thought the most promising approach, must have been confirmed by events on the centre and left of the Division's front. Orsogna was bombed or strafed no fewer than twenty-three times during the 8th, and two 26 Battalion patrols which inspected the demolition at the entrance to the town that night reported it untouched and found no sign of enemy movement. A 28 Battalion patrol to Pascuccio found that nine wounded Germans who had been left in a house there during the attack had not been claimed and brought them back. But evidence such as this, suggesting that the Germans were withdrawing from Orsogna, was easily outweighed. Undeniably hostile fire greeted a raid by page 118 B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry towards the Melone road fork on the left. Even less ambiguous was the reaction to a provocative gesture by eight tanks of A Squadron 18 Regiment, which on the morning of the 9th stood off at 500 yards to shell Orsogna. The Germans demonstrated their abiding interest in the town by surrounding it with a smoke screen, moving tanks forward to its eastern edge to engage our own and bringing down heavy defensive fire. Interpreting this as a reconnaissance thrust, the Germans believed that a renewed attack was imminent in the Orsogna– Melone sector. Meanwhile, farther north, where they expected no attack, the Division was preparing one and was building up its strength in the Sfasciata salient.
It was to be launched by 5 Brigade on the night of 10–11 December, to give time for the ground to dry and for the armour to be moved into position on Sfasciata. With the support of 18 Regiment, 23 Battalion was to advance from Sfasciata under a barrage and cut the Ortona road north of the cemetery. At dawn 20 Regiment, with two companies of 21 Battalion and one of 22 Battalion, was to pass through and exploit south-west along the road to the high ground immediately north of Orsogna. Sixth Brigade would occupy Pascuccio on 5 Brigade's left. As part of the necessary regrouping of the armoured regiments, the 18th vindicated the sappers' workmanship on the Moro ford (and its own determination) by getting all of its twenty-eight tanks on to Sfasciata by 11 p.m. on the 9th, in spite of pitch darkness and the roughness of the track.
The 10th was a day of oscillating intentions. It began with a decision, announced by the Divisional Commander at the morning conference, to cancel the attack. While the Division was preoccupied with the problem of Orsogna, 5 Corps on its right had embarked on a full-scale offensive of its own. On the night of 8–9 December 1 Canadian Division established a bridgehead across the Moro near the coast, but to the ensuing fluctuations of its fortunes, and those of 8 Indian Division, the New Zealanders' right-hand neighbours, the Division could not be indifferent. It was under the influence of a setback to 5 Corps that the New Zealand attack was cancelled, since it had been intended to keep step with the advance on the right. Freyberg now ordered active patrolling to prevent a diversion of enemy troops to the coastal sector.
More cheerful reports of Canadian progress, however, prompted second thoughts, and soon after midday the General was contemplating a silent attack by 5 Brigade, with the armoured follow-through as planned. Accordingly, 23 Battalion at dusk sent out two patrols, one to the Moro river east of Poggiofiorito to see if the ground was clear between the Division and the Indians, and another page 119 to the Ortona road to discover whether it was being defended. If the road was not being held, it would be seized that night so that 20 Regiment might pass through next morning, mop up Orsogna, and exploit towards Filetto and Guardiagrele. The patrol to the Poggiofiorito area found it empty, but the other patrol heard movement suggesting that the road was being held in force.
It was finally decided, therefore, to abandon the more ambitious plan; but 23 Battalion's left flank on Sfasciata was reinforced with infantry and anti-tank guns and extended to within 500 yards of the road. These dispositions were defensive and, at the same time, far enough forward to allow tanks to deploy and to emerge on to the road if daylight brought suitable opportunities. Overnight rain made the going sloppy and 5 Brigade could attempt no aggressive strokes. But in its tanks, well concealed in a position to strike from Sfasciata, it was keeping rods in pickle.
Meanwhile, wet weather and a regrouping of Eighth Army confined the Division's active operations for a few days to the routine menaces implied by the Army Commander's instruction to demonstrate against sensitive places. In the mountain sector on the left snow, rain and crumbling roads had ruled out the offensive, and General Montgomery now decided to transfer strength from this sector towards the coast, where he thought that a concentrated blow might yet achieve a break-through. Fifth Division, relieved in the mountains by the weaker 78 Division, would come into the line between 2 New Zealand Division and 5 Corps. The New Zealanders would then join 5 Division under command of 13 Corps (Lieutenant-General M. C. Dempsey), giving Montgomery four divisions to mount an attack between Orsogna and the sea. It would take some days to complete the move, and in the meantime 17 Infantry Brigade of 5 Division (Brigadier Ward) was ordered into the line under New Zealand command to fill the gap between the New Zealanders and the Indians. On the night 12–13 December it occupied the sector between Frisa and Lanciano, the Division's right-hand boundary having been temporarily extended north-east.
Since 5 Brigade's attack by way of Sfasciata had been postponed rather than cancelled, C Company continued to deepen 23 Battalion's salient by edging forward at night, house by house, towards the Ortona road. The phrase used to describe this policy – ‘peaceful penetration’ – was a pardonable euphemism, though for a few days and nights patrols from both sides played a cat-and-mouse game among the fields and scattered houses between the battalion's left wing and the road. The Germans laid mines and reconnoitred; our men lifted mines and reconnoitred, reporting traffic on the road so loud that it could be heard from C Company's advanced posts; and the area attracted intermittent attention from the gunners of page 120 both sides. All this time bulldozers and men with shovels laboured to improve the track across the Moro ford, over which 23 Battalion had to be supported and supplied.
During this quiet period from 11 to 14 December, when even in the skies there was little activity, 6 Brigade and 2 Parachute Brigade were content by night to patrol vigorously at short range and by day to lie low. Orsogna was approached by patrols from all directions open to the New Zealand infantry. Their reports left no doubt that it was still held as a fortress and that it was daily becoming more nearly impregnable to frontal assault.