20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 14 — The Battle for Orsogna
The Battle for Orsogna
After taking Castelfrentano early on 2 December 6 Brigade was ordered to push on to Orsogna. At the same time 4 Brigade's task was to take Guardiagrele and San Martino. The New Zealand axis of advance was to be via San Martino to Chieti. Circumstances required that the attacks be simultaneous; both were equally important to the Division's drive to Chieti and each depended on the other for its own success. Orsogna overlooked the lateral road to Guardiagrele and the latter village commanded the only good road from Orsogna to San Martino.
Two platoons of 25 Battalion actually got into Orsogna but were driven out by German tanks and infantry. Twenty-second Battalion and 18 Regiment, however, could progress no further than Salarola on the Castelfrentano-Guardiagrele road, being held up by strong German defences at the road junction further west. A full-scale attack was obviously required.
The task looked formidable. The little Moro stream was just big enough to be an obstacle and it ran at the bottom of a huge cleft. Only one road ran to Orsogna and it approached the town along a causeway. There was no possible approach through the precipitous country west of the town unless Guardiagrele was taken, and there, with perfect observation, the Germans were very firmly placed. East of Orsogna several parallel spurs ran down to the bottom of the valley. These were the only possible lines of approach, but to get on to one we should have to cut and metal a road down our side of the valley in full view of the enemy, throw a bridge, and then build another road close behind any advance up the spur. There had been much rain, movement of wheels or tracks off the metalled roads was already almost impossible, and snow was to be expected.
On 7 December a two-brigade attack was launched with the aim of capturing Orsogna and the ridge running north-east from page 324 the town. A stretch of about 2000 yards of the Orsogna-Ortona road was included in the objectives. The plan was for 18 Regiment's tanks to advance along the Lanciano-Orsogna road and break into the town frontally while 24 Battalion moved along the valley below the causeway and the Maoris attacked along the Pascuccio spur to get astride the Orsogna-Ortona road. This the Maoris managed to do but their anti-tank guns could not be got up to help them against tank attacks. Twenty-fourth Battalion fought its way into Orsogna but was counter-attacked after dark by German tanks and flame-throwers. The tanks, valiantly assisted round demolitions by bulldozers, also reached Orsogna but were halted by a German tank firing down a side road. Enemy fire was so heavy that no further progress could be made, the troops were in a precarious position, and it was decided to withdraw. The Maoris, overlooked by enemy positions on Sfasciata spur, were also in an untenable position and were ordered to withdraw. The only territory gained was the footing on Sfasciata spur obtained by 23 Battalion. This fact directed attention to the possibility of an approach from the north-east, using Sfasciata ridge to reach the Orsogna-Ortona road.
To enable supporting weapons to be taken forward to 23 Battalion two bulldozers worked all night on 8–9 December improving a cart track from Spaccarelli down to the ford over the Moro, made tracks for tanks up Sfasciata ridge almost as far as the infantry, and afterwards towed up the vital six-pounders. Engineers also bridged the Moro at the foot of the spur out of sight of Orsogna.
In preparation for the next attack the Division's armour was regrouped. Eighteenth Regiment came under 5 Brigade's command and, after nightfall on 9 December, crossed the ford and climbed the narrow track to Sfasciata, a difficult manoeuvre in the pitch darkness. By dawn twenty-eight tanks were in 23 Battalion's area and well camouflaged.
Meanwhile, on the right flank, the Canadians had attacked across the Moro on the Adriatic coast and the Indians had established a bridgehead across the river north of Frisa. The attack planned for the New Zealand Division was intended to conform with that of the Canadians, but in view of the resistance they had met it was cancelled. A policy of active patrolling page 325 was substituted and the 23rd gained sufficient ground to give a good start line for an attack.
In the meantime the New Zealand armour had been disposed tactically. After it had become certain that the projected attack on the night of 10–11 December would not take place, 4 Brigade had decided to move 18 Regiment back to Castelfrentano on the 12th, to replace it on Sfasciata spur with the 20th, and to transfer the 19th, which had had more than a week's rest and refitting at Castellata, to the area vacated by the 20th in support of 2 Parachute Battalion. On the night of 10–11 December the 20th moved from the left flank via Castelfrentano and Lanciano to a position about two miles east of Spaccarelli and laagered there with two Bren-carrier platoons from 22 Battalion under its command for transporting ammunition. Heavy rain on the night of 11–12 December prevented 18 Regiment's tanks from moving on the 12th and they stayed in position till the night of 14–15 December. At 5 p.m. on the 12th, 4 Brigade attached a tractor to 20 Regiment to tow bogged tanks and to help them across the ford. This tractor and one of 22 Battalion's carrier platoons on loan to the 20th were transferred to the command of the 18th on 14 December as soon as it was decided that that regiment would be the first armoured unit to advance when 5 Brigade attacked the Orsogna-Ortona road. The engineers worked continually on the track from Spaccarelli to Sfasciata and on the night of 13–14 December built a wooden bridge over the ford.
On the evening of 14 December a reconnaissance patrol consisting of Lieutenant Familton,1 an engineer sergeant, and a guide inspected the craters in the nearer demolition on the Brecciarola road and decided that tracked vehicles could pass, with difficulty.
As soon as the position on 5 Corps' front was stable the New Zealand attack was to take place. On the New Zealand front the enemy had four battalions of 26 Panzer Division in the line between Poggiofiorito and Orsogna. Twenty-third Battalion and the 21st would make the assault, with the Maori Battalion in reserve.
The plan was for 5 Brigade to push forward from Sfasciata page 326 ridge in two directions, one due west to capture a mile of the Orsogna-Ortona road, including the cemetery, and the other north-west across a gully north of Sfasciata. Zero hour was 1 a.m. on 15 December. After reaching its objectives 5 Brigade, assisted by tanks of 18 Regiment, was to reorganise to meet counter-attacks and be prepared to exploit to the west with the tanks if conditions were favourable. Simultaneously with this main assault, the left battalion of 5 British Division was to advance south of Poggiofiorito and establish contact with 5 Brigade. The left flank was to be guarded by 6 Brigade occupying Pascuccio ridge and meeting 5 Brigade at the cemetery. There was to be no frontal attack on Orsogna but the tanks were to shell the town during the attack to keep the defenders quiet. After 21 and 23 Battalions were firmly across the road, the Maoris and the 20th were to move south-west down it to seize some high ground behind Orsogna and isolate the town.page 327
The attack began on time. Twenty-first Battalion reached the road and swung right towards Poggiofiorito, finally linking with 17 British Brigade. The 23rd had many casualties but crossed the road and reached the railway. On the right it was in contact with the 21st but there was a gap of several hundred yards between its left flank and the cemetery. Twenty-fifth Battalion had made contact with the 23rd's left flank but had not crossed the road.
Eighteenth Regiment, twenty-eight tanks strong, advanced up the Sfasciata ridge, a party of sappers moving in front to clear mines between the start line and the road. This, and the softness of the track after the rain, limited the speed of the advance. In the heavy going eight tanks became casualties. One troop went to assist the 21st and another moved down the Orsogna-Ortona road to the cemetery, which owing to its losses, the 23rd had not been able to reach. The troop therefore returned north-east along the road to support A Company of the 23rd, leaving two tanks at the cemetery. The area was full of pockets of Germans and it was doubtful whether the tanks could hold the cemetery unless the infantry was thickened up.
Meanwhile the infantry battalions had had a gruelling time. At 5 a.m. 21 Battalion was counter-attacked by five German Mark IV tanks which came along the road from the north-east, cutting off several platoons and causing the others to withdraw 300 yards behind the road. The tanks carried on along the road and halted behind B and D Companies of the 23rd. At the time of the enemy tank attack the first of 18 Regiment's tanks were just struggling through to the road. There had been no opportunity to bring up anti-tank weapons and the enemy tanks were too close to the New Zealand infantry to be engaged by artillery; they swept 5 Brigade's forward area with fire until 5.50 a.m., when they withdrew at leisure, still firing. When the first of 18 Regiment's tanks appeared the 21st companies, much reduced in strength, reoccupied their positions. Three hours later enemy tanks again approached, this time down a lane from Poggiofiorito east of the road, and in spite of artillery concentrations again forced D Company of the 21st to retire. Eighteenth Regiment's tanks knocked out one tank and drove the others back towards Poggiofiorito.page 328
On the left flank an armoured demonstration against Orsogna was carried out by 5 Troop of B Squadron 20 Regiment, which went forward to the outskirts of the town under Lieutenant Familton. Each tank fired about a hundred rounds, both high-explosive and armour-piercing, into the town. The troop withdrew at 2 a.m. when the position from which it had been firing was heavily shelled.
The original orders for the operation had directed 18 Regiment to be prepared to exploit after dawn on 15 December. That morning the strained situation on 23 Battalion's left flank and the lack of infantry near the cemetery made it inadvisable to do so. With the strengthening of the line by C Company of the 23rd and B Company of the 25th, however, the position improved and at 11 a.m. Brigadier Kippenberger ordered 18 Regiment to begin the exploitation past the cemetery to the western exit from Orsogna. The tanks were to avoid any heavy fighting but were to watch the road leading westwards out of Orsogna and were to return to their regiment at nightfall. Except for these reconnoitring tanks the 18th was to stay where it was, hull-down on the reverse slope of the hill leading up to the cemetery.
On arrival at the Orsogna-Ortona road 20 Regiment, supported by two companies of the Maoris, was to pass through the 18th and carry out the main exploitation with the object of blocking the western exit from Orsogna and then advancing south-west towards the road leading to Guardiagrele. Sixth Brigade was to be ready to occupy Orsogna from the east when 20 Regiment entered it from the west, and farther south 19 Regiment and 22 Battalion were put on an hour's notice to push forward to Guardiagrele and San Martino when the way was clear. Orsogna was not to be assaulted directly unless the German opposition there weakened, and if the New Zealand infantry could not make its way forward in the wake of 20 Regiment the tanks were not to stay out alone but were to return to the infantry at night. If the tanks by themselves could not gain the high ridge due north of Orsogna, 28 Battalion would go through them and attack at 2 a.m. on 16 December, and at dawn the 20th would advance again.
Orders were sent to the 20th at 8.30 a.m. to send a squadron to 5 Brigade and the New Zealand artillery was requested to page 329 fire a smoke screen round Orsogna and Poggiofiorito to hide the tanks' movement past ‘Hellfire Corner’. The smoke could not be brought down before 10 a.m. and Headquarters 4 Brigade therefore instructed the 20th to delay the move until arrangements with the artillery were completed. At the same time 5 Brigade requested the tanks to move forward immeditely. These conflicting orders were due to the fact that 4 Brigade was expecting an artillery liaison and observation officer to come up to 20 Regiment, while 5 Brigade was acting on the assumption that the smoke screen would be arranged by telephone and observed by artillery officers already forward with 23 Battalion. Finally the latter arrangement was used. The 20th requested the smoke to begin at 10.50 a.m. and at 10.30 C Squadron, fourteen tanks strong, moved off under command of Major Barton towards the ford.
The cover given by the smoke screen was completely successful. The tanks moved over the open section of the road without being molested, and at 11.45 a.m. the artillery was requested to stop firing smoke. Ten minutes later, however, when the first tanks of the squadron were appearing on the crest of Sfasciata, the smoke was renewed until 12.50 p.m. at the request of 5 Brigade.
Eighteenth Regiment's reconnaissance commenced at 1 p.m. Six tanks set out along the road towards the cemetery, followed by some infantry. They drew artillery fire before reaching the cemetery but advanced to a slight bend in the road about 100 yards past it, where the leading tank was hit by anti-tank fire and burst into flames. From there forward the road was directly exposed to fire from Orsogna, with only a deep valley in between, and also from guns in the olive trees on the right. The remainder of the tanks halted round the cemetery, which gave the only cover available. Here they were under fire from German machine guns and engaged them with their own.
At 12.30 p.m. C Squadron of the 20th was moving up Sfasciata ridge through 21 Battalion's rear area, and soon after 1 p.m. two troops were on the road with 23 Battalion's forward companies ready to pass through 18 Regiment. Impressions of the move are given by Major Barton:
Before we moved up the Ridge at all we had spent a number of days just waiting around, which we found rather nerve racking as page 330 we knew we were liable to go at any moment…. —a very trying wait it had been for all concerned….
The next morning, 15 December, a sudden call came for me to get the Squadron ready to move at a moment's notice and to report to 5 Bde HQ. I duly reported—having first ditched a scout car in my haste—and was given instructions from 5 Bde BM (Denis Blundell)2 to report to 18 Regt and to go under command of them and to get further instructions from Lt-Col Ferguson.3 The 18th Regt were on the ridge before Orsogna. We moved off eventually about 1100 hrs. I should say we felt very conspicuous going round ‘Hellfire Corner’ which had a most unpleasant reputation. We crossed the stream below and were faced with what appeared to be a perpendicular slide of mud. I must confess my heart missed several beats and I really never thought we had a chance of getting up. However, Ian Carson4 who was leading tackled it in his usual calm way and to my amazement and relief we all made the grade, except, I think, one of Lieutenant Walford's5 troop. It was a foul track, feet deep in mud, and very narrow. We eventually reached the 18th's headquarters, dispersed under some bedraggled looking olive trees, and I reported to Col. Ferguson.
In the meantime the rest of the 20th, less B Squadron which was to stay behind the Moro with 6 Brigade, was ordered up Sfasciata to the road under the command of 5 Brigade to reinforce the exploitation along the road to Orsogna. The area was so thickly covered with smoke that it was unnecessary to fire any more to mask the move, and at 1.30 p.m. nineteen tanks, comprising Regimental Headquarters and A Squadron under Major Phillips, left the regimental area near Lanciano and crossed the Moro to support C Squadron. The tanks reached the ford at 1.54 p.m. and came under 5 Brigade's command. During the move the RSM's tank and the Adjutant's became bogged—the latter was rear link in the communication system. A Squadron lost one tank bogged, one damaged on a mine, and another with mechanical trouble, leaving a total for the action of twenty-eight effective tanks.page 331
Major Barton continues:
One squadron of the 18th was up at the cemetery and was waiting there for us to come up. We were to probe forward a little, more or less to feel out the ground, but mainly to hold the cemetery and ground around it. After the usual delay of getting the wireless tuned into the 18th we set off. We found the 18th squadron with one tank burning on the road just by the cemetery. We were just about to pass them when Col. McKergow came up on the air and informed me that we had reverted to command of the 20th and were to carry out our original plan. So, without any infantry, off we set for Orsogna.
General Kippenberger explains the change of plan:
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 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…. 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 … 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.6
Major Barton again:
Ian Carson's troop was leading and he went around the back of the cemetery with the idea of making it easier for us to spread out and comb more ground…. Ian and his troop disappeared behind the cemetery and it was the last we heard of him—he must have run bang into the 88 which had got the 18th tank…. [Corporal Logan Talbot's7] tank was brewed up there too…. The remainder of the squadron then followed up the road and our only casualty there was Alan Shand—2nd Captain—who had a bogey shot off and was immobilised—also by the same 88 but was not fired on again, which was amazing. I can still remember Alan's flow of good high country language as he stood helplessly by his tank. If ever anyone wanted to get at the Germans it was Alan.page 332 page 333
On reaching the cemetery I can well remember the squadron milling around on receipt of the change of plans … during which valuable daylight was lost…. I think the most lasting impression … was the dismal atmosphere of the day…. and the stench and effect of considerable shelling. The noise was not noticeable with earphones on….
I then followed Jock [Laidlaw]9 on to the main road to the left of the cemetery and from conversation on the air gathered that a danger spot existed just past the cemetery. Jock was going too slowly for me so I waited by the cemetery to let him get on a bit and ‘enjoyed’ the sight of Jock's bounteous collection of stores and cans being blown off the back of his tank by the Jerry gun. Jock was very sore later when he discovered his loss.
The squadron soon warmed to its work.
By this time things had started to hum [says Major Barton] and Jerry was taking more than passing interest in us and threw most things at us. However, we made good progress and got a lot of shooting in—casas, haystacks, which were usually hiding an MG post and full of jittery Germans, and there were also a lot of Jerries just running around aimlessly—we must have collected quite a few. At this stage Lt Percy Brookes10 was leading with his troop and was going with great dash. He left the road and cut across country to the high ground which we were making for. The remainder of the Squadron followed, leaving a trail of smoking haystacks and casas —it really was a most amazing sight.
The ground was soft after rain, making tricky going for tanks off the formed roads. Major Barton was only too keenly aware of this danger:
I was very worried about the ‘going’ which was very soft and treacherous and it was not long before Cliff Shirley came up on the air and said he was ‘—well stuck!’ At the time I'm afraid he did not get very much sympathy as our hands were more than full! He was in a very nasty position—bogged down and completely surrounded by Jerries. I told him he would just have to stay put in the meantime—Cliff appeared to think that very cold comfort! By this time we had crossed the soft going with no further mishaps and came out on to the high ground. Lieutenant Brookes had moved up to the ridge and was immediately engaged by Jerry tanks. Theo Dore's11 tank was brewed up and it was only some fine shooting by Lt Brookes' troop and Jock Laidlaw's which restored the situation.page 334
Split-second reaction has a high value in battle and one loader-operator in C Squadron certainly had this gift. Whether he was playing a piano-accordion or assembling a complicated gun mechanism, ‘Shorty’ Shorrock's12 twinkling fingers seemed to be twice as quick and skilful as those of anyone else. During the advance he had been loading as fast as his gunner could fire. High-explosive shells for casas seemed to be the rule and ‘Shorty’ was sitting with one ready on his knees when he suddenly heard his gunner, peering through the periscope, yell that he had spotted a German tank. Realising in a flash what was needed ‘Shorty’ dropped the HE shell unceremoniously on the steel floor of the turret and slammed an armour-piercing round into the breech. The gunner did a good job, and some time later the turret crew realised that the fused HE shell, usually treated with extreme care, had been dropped on its nose without blowing them all to glory.
Sergeant Laidlaw says:
German infantry were running everywhere like rabbits and our co-axial guns were working hard, but we had to keep going and, although some of them put up their hands, we could not stop to take prisoners. After we passed some of them got back into their holes again. We had been fired at and shelled all the way. Lieutenant Shirley's tank was bogged and the crew had to stay in it till we returned.
Lieutenant Shirley describes their ordeal:
We were … ‘bellied’ in trying to get out and you couldn't have put a tissue paper between the mud and our bottom plates. We could hear Germans in the casa about 30 yds away and after the other tanks had gone on we were left on our own…. we primed our grenades, had rifles and Tommy guns ready, and then spent the most uncomfortable two hours or so that I never wish to go through again.
We heard a Jerry patrol move along the railway line in the dark but decided that discretion was the better part of valour.
Sergeant Laidlaw continues:
By this time we had got round to one side of Orsogna where we could cover the road north of the town. Lieutenant Brookes' tank shot up a German tank which had brewed up one of ours and in turn he was fired on by two anti-tank guns. My gunner, Lou Jones,13 page 335 fired at the flash of these guns and silenced one with his first shot. It went spinning over like a catherine wheel. It took several more shots to put out the second gun. Lieutenant Brookes' tank then knocked out the second enemy tank. These two German tanks had been concealed inside a haystack.
Corporal Denham says:
Being nearly last in the Squadron [we found] most of the better casas seemed to have had it, and apart from some dazed looking Jerries targets were becoming short…. I then took my tank to the right flank and found the going better with some high class casas to poop at. From there I made for the objective—a low mound with two or three casas on it directly behind Orsogna. The rest of the crowd gathered there eventually. Theo Dore's tank had been shot up…. three members of … [the crew] killed, he and Claude Hodges14 being badly burned. Theo valiantly tried to get one of the others out of the burning turret with showers of tracer hitting the turret alongside him.
In the meantime A Squadron had also advanced up the road, going into position just near the second bend past the cemetery in some olive trees to the right of the road, from where it could support C Squadron with fire. A member of this squadron, Trooper Russell,15 says:
… we were severely stonked all day, but kept moving and shooting and getting tanks brewed up. This must have been to the right of the cemetery quite some distance and in an area where 88s were thick. I remember these 88s all camouflaged and [they] looked just like oak trees which were all in autumn tints…. We withdrew in the evening and returned to the cemetery where we had to rearrange ourselves.
C Squadron's losses had been heavy and, with only eight tanks now in action, it could not deal effectively with the German anti-tank guns without the support of infantry, which it urgently needed. It was also under close-range fire from German infantry in buildings. The companies of the 28th, however, had not left Castelfrentano until 2.30 p.m. and were not expected on Sfasciata before dark. The leading companies left their trucks at Spaccarelli and the second convoy at ‘Hellfire Corner’ and walked from there via the ford to Sfasciata, an page 336 exhausting trudge of two or three miles through mud often knee-deep. The two leading companies did not arrive at the cemetery till 9 p.m.
At 5.20 p.m. Brigadier Kippenberger instructed the tanks to stay forward if possible until the infantry came up, but about the same time, as the light was failing so rapidly that C Squadron's position was becoming precarious, Colonel McKergow asked for permission to withdraw to the cemetery. This was given and the squadron withdrew under cover of artillery fire.
The squadron commander sums up the situation:
By now it was almost dark and the Colonel informed me that no infantry could possibly reach us. There was only one thing to do— to fight our way back and that while there was some light left…. there were only two wirelesses still working in the Squadron by this time so we had a hurried conference on the ground (quite unmolested by the Jerries!) and decided our order of march to get back to the road. Lieutenant ‘Rusty’ Walford was to lead (he was the nearest to the road and had struck fair going coming across) and we were all to follow him, to go as fast as we could, and at all costs to keep moving as we just dare not stop or we would most certainly have got bogged down. I think it was the most anxious twenty minutes of my life. I pictured us all being bogged down in the dark surrounded by Germans and being systematically mopped up. The relief when we all reached the road was beyond words.
In the meantime I had told Cliff Shirley and his crew to leave their tank and make a dash for the road on foot and pick us up as best they could. By the time we reached the road it was completely dark and our only guides were burning haystacks which shed a ghostly light over everything and as we passed one would make us feel very conspicuous. By this time we had quite a number of wounded on board plus Lt Shirley's crew, and then to make matters worse my own tank was put out of action. I have never discovered what it was that hit us but think Jerry must have put some mines on the road after we had passed. The Germans were starting to react again and the journey was not entirely peaceful and we were very lucky to get back with so few casualties considering how many we had perched all round the tanks…. a very fine soldier, Beckett,16 was killed while riding on the back of Keith Given's tank.
According to Sergeant Laidlaw:
We had to run the gauntlet through groups of houses on both sides of the road. They were full of Germans and Barton's tank was knocked out. His crew had to transfer to the other tanks. This meant that, with … eleven extra men in the remaining tanks the turrets were too crowded for us to use the guns if we had needed to.page 337
Corporal Denham says:
From here we retraced our tracks…. Cliff Shirley and crew caught up with us as we gained the road and three of them scrambled on to my tank…. It was about this time that Major Barton must have lost his tank and I had an ‘egg’ [sticky bomb] planted on mine. I can well remember Alan Shand counting heads as we pulled into a very exposed area by the cemetery…. I am sure we were in view of the Jerry anti-tank gun before mentioned although he may have been hampered by olive trees and we were in full view of Jerry OP's in Orsogna. During the night a section of 23 Bn came up to us to help picket the area prior to the Maoris arriving…. The night seemed to be spent brewing up in the turret. As some of Cliff's crew were still with me I decided to spend the night on the engine grill where I found the aforementioned bomb in the morning. A number of Jerries were dug out of slitties and haystacks by the Maoris in the morning in this area.
The results of the brigade action were plain, but prospects of further gains were uncertain. The infantry had successfully cut the Orsogna-Ortona road and its bridgehead across it formed a mile-wide salient into the enemy's positions. Both flanks were now firm and the danger spot round the cemetery was solidly held. In support 18 Regiment had thirteen tanks ready to exploit towards Poggiofiorito and Arielli while the 20th had twenty-three at or near the cemetery. The New Zealand positions were further secured against counter-attacks by a complete semicircle of artillery defensive tasks ahead of them.
Losses in men and tanks, however, had been heavy. The infantry had had 33 men killed and 109 wounded. Fifteen of the 18th's tanks had been put out of action and ten of the 20th's, either by the enemy or by the hazards of the Sfasciata track. Both regiments had lost six killed, while six had been wounded in the 18th and nine in the 20th.
It was some consolation to the 20th to know that, in its first engagement as armour, C Squadron had gained its objective against stiff opposition and had been forced to withdraw as night fell only because the infantry had been unable to get up to it in time. The squadron's commanding officer sums it up:
On looking back now the whole thing rather puts me in mind of an old time cavalry charge. We just raced ahead gaily, firing like mad, and after our long wait for a chance to have a go in our tanks it really was a most satisfying and thrilling experience. Unfortunately, like all military operations our elation was sadly tempered by the knowledge that we had lost so many of our gallant friends. page 338 I always feel particularly sad for those who ‘go west’ in their first action—one feels that somehow they have not had a run for their money.
One of C Squadron's casualties was Trooper Ken Jones. When Captain Coote's17 tank became bogged, Jones got out to have a look and was caught by the stray round that kills so many. He was one of the regiment's ‘hard cases’ and is remembered for his original remarks, one of which comes readily to mind.
His troop commander, Allen Shand, was one day lecturing his tank crews on the recently received range tables whereby gunners were required to estimate a range as so many turns of the elevating hand-wheel. The lecture closed with the customary query, ‘Any questions?’ There was a momentary silence and then Jones spoke up. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I understand how to change turns into yards, but what I would like to know is how to convert turns into lira.’
In accordance with the plan to repeat the attack on the morning of 16 December, the commanders of 20 Regiment and 28 Battalion conferred at 10.30 p.m. at the cemetery: Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother18 of the Maori Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel McKergow, Major Barton and Major Phillips of the 20th, and an artillery OP officer from 4 Field Regiment. The last reported his tank stuck on a ridge behind 23 Battalion's FDLs.
Major Barton describes the night:
The conference was held in very uncomfortable surroundings in a broken down house alongside the cemetery…. it was decided to try again the next morning with the Maori Battalion. All I can remember of what little remained of the night was getting back to the tank and being received by Jackie Groufsky19 with a hot mug of cocoa and bully beef sandwiches. No meal at the ‘Waterloo’ ever tasted so good. We spent the rest of the night before dawn came discussing the day and what was to come. Little did either of us realise how little time Jackie had left.page 339
The plan for the attack required C Squadron to advance on the left of the road, with D Company of the Maoris 400 yards behind. A Squadron was to follow on the right of the road supported by A Company of the Maoris 300 yards behind. Working together, the two squadrons would try to get into Orsogna. The other two Maori companies and the artillery observation officer were to bring down fire on the enemy whenever he appeared.
About half past three on the morning of the 16th the Germans counter-attacked the 23rd and 21st vigorously from the direction of Poggiofiorito and Arielli. Infantry, tanks, and flame-throwers were used, mainly against the New Zealanders' right flank, but all attacks were beaten off. Twentieth Regiment assisted the 23rd by sweeping the ground with machine-gun fire.
The regiment's tanks were on soft ground at the cemetery and it was feared that some of them would become bogged when they tried to move. Normally tank movement was unpopular page 340 with the infantry as it usually called down enemy fire. During the enemy counter-attack the tanks took advantage of the noise to move on to firmer ground and by 6 a.m. were ready to begin the advance.
By 6.30 a.m. the infantry company commanders had reported and wireless communication on the No. 38 set had been arranged. A quarter of an hour later it was decided to postpone the attack owing to the poor light. At this stage A Squadron had ten effective tanks, C Squadron seven, and RHQ two. At 7.5 a.m. the tanks dispersed slightly and the advance started.
Major Barton once more takes up the story:
Another point which I remember very vividly was the shelling we experienced at the cemetery for about an hour on the morning of the second attack. It was terrific and was made worse by the tall cedar trees which were causing most unpleasant airbursts. It was quite fascinating to listen to the German OP's giving their fire orders over the air.
… C Squadron's leading troop moved off with the idea of paving the way for A Squadron. I was just about to move off when we had a direct hit in the turret from an AP. Jackie Groufsky was killed and the gunner ‘Slim’ Sinclair20 eventually died of his wounds. I was about to transfer to Lt Stan Morris's21 tank when he had a bogey shot off—it was not my day. By then it was obvious that we were getting nowhere—the infantry had been held up and the tanks had got too far ahead of them. The Germans, after their experience of the day before, were well prepared this time and the attack was called off. The gun which had done so much damage was still firing and no amount of ‘stonking’ or patrolling would dislodge him.
Corporal Denham saw the attack begin:
C Squadron with A following moved off up the road again as it was breaking day and our Jerry anti-tank gun started up again. I went to help Alan Shand and his crew who were trying to do something with their tank when Major Barton's second tank came up. As he was about to pass I can plainly remember the flash of the AP shell hitting his turret…. Although shocked slightly and singed he was unhurt and went off for stretchers…. Shelling had been concentrated on this area very heavily during this time … [but] he walked down the road for a stretcher as if it was only an April shower. Alan Shand got a nasty wound shortly after while trying to extinguish a fire in his tank started by the same gun that had disabled him earlier.page 341
… we set off about 7 a.m. [says Major Phillips]. There were no infantry in sight. Lieutenant Walton led the way as he had done so the previous day and knew the way and the going. I followed with Squadron Headquarters. The leading troop took up positions as previously arranged and began to shoot up haystacks and houses near the sunken road.
Sergeant Russell begins the story of this troop's advance:
We left the Maoris behind at daylight … and, not having any communication with the ground troops it was impossible to know what was holding the infantry up. No. 1 Troop had a lead on the rest of the squadron and … got within a few hundred yards of our objective when the 88s got on to us. We took the only shelter offering—houses. We no sooner stopped than the Jerries came from haystacks and houses and we dealt with them very successfully by quick shooting. Ivan Walton was the troop officer but could not get complete cover from an 88 and was hit repeatedly through the engines, but stayed at his post until all his ammo was gone and then decided to get back this mile or so on foot with his crew.
Trooper Percasky24 was one of Walton's crew. He has recorded that when Walton evacuated his tank he was ‘all for continuing the fight’ from a tank nearby that had been immobilised the previous day. However, after some discussion it was decided to get back as best they could. During this move a shell wounded Lieutenant Walton and his gunner, Trooper Herbison.25 Lance-Corporal Coleman26 carried Herbison into a house close by, outside of which Sergeant Dalton's27 tank was burning. Percasky then made his way to the house also. There he found the crew of Dalton's tank, three of them badly wounded.page 342
Sergeant Russell describes the action:
The Jerries let the tanks through his infantry and lay low until we tried to get back and then came to light. The Hun infantry also pinned the Maoris down we found out later. Gib Dalton was troop sergeant and a grand soldier. He took shelter behind a two-storeyed house to the right of the road…. Gib's tank was hit and went up in smoke in a matter of seconds. Flames were pouring out of the two drivers' hatches and the turret as well. Gib came out through them … with the ear phones still on. I saw both drivers get out also through flames.
We proceeded until [Lieutenant Walton's] tank stopped and engaged targets. My tank … engaged targets to the left of the road. We were halted between three houses when I thought I saw a haystack move and was reporting same to the sergeant when we were hit. Immediately we went up in flames. Being wireless operator I was last out the turret. I ran back about 15 yds to where Sgt Dalton and Trooper Kneebone29 [the gunner] were lying badly wounded and burnt. They asked if I had seen … our two drivers, but … [I could only presume] that they had both been hit…. I crawled over to a house on our right about 10 yds away, had a quick look inside and went back and helped Eric Kneebone inside. Then I went back for Sgt Dalton who unaided covered that distance although he had almost lost a leg by the AP shell. We were all very badly burnt…. I rolled smokes for the three of us and [had] lit up when there was a terrific explosion outside bringing in part of the roof and smothering us in dust. Outside we could hear our tank brewing up, our ammo, etc. exploding.
By now Eric and Gib were in serious pain so I crawled out into the front passage to see if any of our squadron tanks had come up as far as we were. The first thing I saw was a Kiwi crawling back up the road. I called several times. He looked over and said ‘What the hell are you Maoris doing up here?’ It was L/Cpl A. Coleman, Lieut Walton's driver. He came back carrying his cobber Tom Herbison, their gunner, … [whom we carried] into one of the back rooms…. By this time we were beginning to go blind. L/Cpl Coleman, Troopers Percasky and Perrin30 refused to leave us in our condition although it meant certain captivity or death. … Jerry troops were around our tank 10 yds away. Escape was impossible. A Jerry doctor came out of Orsogna and gave us drugs and a drink of vino. Then they carried us away on stretchers into Orsogna, where I was immediately operated on.page 343
Trooper Herbison died in the house but Lieutenant Walton rallied later and, with Sergeant Dalton, was carried back to a German rear headquarters where they were separated from the other prisoners, who did not see them again.
Well, there we were, one tank left and a mile away from the others. We waited for those on foot to get back, believing that our presence on the road would help them make it, and then our only chance was speed. I got Bill de Lautour, our tank commander, to back the tank as far as possible in the shelter of the house so that we would have as much speed on as possible when we came out into the open. I also fired all my smoke rounds to cover our move and away we went. We passed some of Ivan Walton's crew pinned down alongside the road but saw them too late to stop, which I think would have been finis.
We got back to Major Phillips' tank and pulled off the road alongside it. George Hart told us that at least five red hot ones brushed over us when we were coming back. We were also told that we were at first thought to be a Jerry tank and were lucky not to have stopped one from our own side. I noticed after this an order that tanks returning would always reverse their turret. Ours was being traversed and shooting during the earlier part of the journey.
We were very worried about our other crews getting back on foot and waited some time for them. I then saw some men on foot who, I surmised, were not ours. Bill de Lautour got permission over the air and went to investigate, thinking they might be ours. He went only about 400 yards and fell as if dead, a cunning move. I got going with the co-axial Browning and he was not long in getting back into the turret. So ended the day's work.
Major Phillips made two reconnaissances on foot to try to find the crews of the two knocked-out tanks of Lieutenant Walton's troop but each time was stopped by machine-gun fire. He says:
After the troop leader had told me over the air that his tank had been hit I offered to bring my tank up to rescue his crew but he said they would be better on foot. As he was on the spot I accepted his decision. When his crew did not return I went forward on foot to look for them. I met so much LMG fire that I decided there was no hope of getting any nearer them that way and returned to get my tank. Most of our crews were out of their tanks, sitting about wondering what had happened to C Squadron and waiting for them page 344 to come up. Just then the third tank of my leading troop came back under fire. As it arrived Lieutenant Dougall's tank was hit, apparently by a needle gun, and began to burn slowly. His crew evacuated and I called to the men to take fire extinguishers and put out the fire. By the time I had got ours and gone forward there was no hope of saving it.
By this time Lieutenants Shirley and Walford, with some C Squadron tanks, had come up. There was plenty of shelling…. C Squadron had had casualties, there was no sign of any supporting infantry, and the attack just petered out.
Attempts to communicate with the forward infantry having proved unsuccessful, Colonel McKergow finally got in touch with Colonel Fairbrother, who was still in contact with his leading troops. A Company was ordered to try to work round to the right to locate the enemy anti-tank guns but, as the Maori Battalion's war diary says, ‘… [the guns] being so well camouflaged and sited … presented great difficulties to our Infantry.’
The tanks were finding things difficult, too. By 10 a.m. nine tanks had been knocked out and Brigadier Kippenberger ordered the remainder to withdraw to the best possible position to form a bridgehead. The CO ordered A Squadron to withdraw slightly to more favourable positions and C Squadron to remain where it was. Colonel Fairbrother was told that the tanks would withdraw to the cemetery at last light.
Major Phillips continues:
On orders from the CO we withdrew slightly to near a church where we took some paratroop prisoners from haystacks and told them to go back along the road to the infantry, saying we would keep them covered with our tank machine guns.
At 11.5 a.m. another of A Squadron's Shermans brewed up. As the tanks could neither neutralise the fire of the concealed enemy guns nor hold their ground without further losses, the CO at 11.30 ordered the remainder of A Squadron to withdraw as soon as possible behind the cemetery, followed by C Squadron, the commanders to arrange mutual support. Major Phillips describes the withdrawal:
I spoke on the air to Lieutenant Shirley and told him we would withdraw to the cemetery, A Squadron leading, followed by C Squadron. I would fire smoke at the north-west corner of the cemetery, to blind the anti-tank gun that had done so much damage, page 345 and our tanks were to go at top speed. Mine was the last tank out and I saw one tank drilled through the rear of the engine compartment and the bogey of another shot through.
Enemy shelling of the cemetery area was incessant and heavy and four of the wounded, including Lieutenant Walford, were killed. The IO, Lieutenant Dave Murray, went to look for stretcher-bearers and was not seen alive again. Later his body was found amongst the dead at the cemetery, where he must have been killed while assisting the wounded. He was sadly missed in the regiment. A popular, cheery officer, he had been wounded in the breakthrough at Minqar Qaim in June 1942 and is remembered for his interesting and witty talks on the intelligence summaries.
Shortly after noon A Squadron reported a house with a camouflage net at one side. The CO ordered his tanks east of the cemetery to demolish the building but its destruction did nothing to reduce the enemy's fire. Colonel Fairbrother was informed that the regiment's position was untenable and that the tanks would withdraw behind his FDLs, leaving his two forward companies to withdraw as soon as possible. Arrangements were made to evacuate the casualties by bearer parties and the regiment withdrew at 3 p.m. under heavy shellfire. The tank state of the regiment, less B Squadron, at the end of the day was C Squadron 5, A Squadron 7, RHQ 2—a total of 14.
At first light on 17 December the squadrons withdrew to turret-down positions on Sfasciata ridge and the CO established his headquarters at the Maori Battalion headquarters, the two functioning conjointly. Spasmodic enemy shelling caused a further fatal casualty during the day and at last light five tanks of A Squadron moved down the Ortona-Orsogna road to the 21 Battalion area to relieve tanks of 18 Regiment, while C Squadron and the remaining two tanks of A Squadron moved to a covering position in the Maoris' area.
During the day (17 December) two troops of B Squadron had been engaged in a reconnaissance in force of Orsogna. An artillery OP had reported after dawn that there was no movement round Orsogna and 26 Battalion was ordered at 8.45 a.m. to send two platoons forward with two troops of the 20th to test the strength of the enemy.page 346
At 9.30 a.m. the leading platoon from D Company of the 26th advanced along the Lanciano-Orsogna road. At the same time 7 Troop of B Squadron under Lieutenant McKerchar32 pulled in behind D Company's positions, waited till the infantry had gone about 500 yards ahead, and then followed. The first part of the advance was made without opposition and the first platoon reached a demolition about 1000 yards from the start line at 10 a.m. Wireless communication between the tanks was perfect, but the infantry lost touch through their No. 38 sets being jammed. However, keeping the infantry in sight, the tanks moved up behind the platoon to the demolition, while the infantry advanced again towards the outskirts of Orsogna. A second platoon of D Company moved up to support the first and was accompanied by 6 Troop under Lieutenant Dawkins, which deployed some distance east of the demolition to assist with fire. The detour round the demolition was still passable for tanks, but McKerchar, who was leading his troop, was unwilling to proceed until a search had been made for mines. The infantry, moving along north of the road, had been hidden by a high bank and there was some delay before they could be located. Finally, just as a mine-searching party of infantry reported a track clear round the demolition, they were fired on and disappeared.
McKerchar suspected mines on the road and asked for instructions before rejoining the infantry, who were once more in trouble and out of touch. They had run into a minefield when moving north of and below the road and the mines were so thick that two or three had to be lifted before the men could dig in.
Communications were difficult from the outset. It had been arranged that the infantry were to call on the supporting tanks by runner or visual signal, the pace of the advance being governed by the speed of the men on foot. However, visual contact with the ground troops could not be maintained and finally control was effected by runner from the infantry to their headquarters, by telephone from there to B Squadron headquarters, and thence by radio to 6 and 7 Troops.
The infantry's headquarters was calling for the tanks to move page 347 up and 7 Troop was ordered forward. The leading tank at 11.50 a.m. by-passed the demolition and it had gone some 400 yards past the filled crater when one of its tracks was blown off by either a mine or a shell, which also blew off the complete bogey assembly. There were no casualties to the crew. No. 6 Troop was ordered to fire on suspected enemy mortar positions and did so until the artillery opened up a few moments later.
Sergeant McClelland33 took his tank forward but was ordered to pull back slightly owing to the danger of more mines. Both tanks came under shell, mortar, and small-arms fire. Likely enemy positions were shelled by the artillery and 6 Troop at 1.15 p.m., but a quarter of an hour later the Germans laid a smoke screen across Orsogna.
At 2.33 p.m. 26 Battalion reported that the infantry were held up by fire from four spandaus, but 7 Troop was unable to observe where this fire came from. Both troops were mortared from north of Orsogna and the leading tank shot the top off a building about fifty yards away from which green flashes had appeared.
Just before 3 p.m. Lieutenant McKerchar's tank was hit a second time and he ordered the crew to bale out. While doing so the operator was wounded in the back by a grenade which landed on the back of the tank. The troop commander and the gunner baled out and McKerchar moved round to the front of the tank to evacuate the drivers, who could not get out by way of the emergency hatch as the tank was down on one side. While doing so he was killed by machine-gun fire. The gunner, Trooper Sutherland,34 tried to drag the commander round to the back of the tank but was himself wounded. He says:
The wireless operator, Trooper Rees,35 and I then took shelter under the tank and the drivers remained inside, pinned down by machine-gun fire. Sergeant McClelland's tank came up but it became bogged in a crater. A member of his crew crawled up a ditch to investigate and I called to him, telling him our casualties and that I could hear the enemy talking. This was reported to Squadron Headquarters. When things quietened down I tried to move back. I was machine gunned but managed to escape.page 348
Corporal Lomas,36 the third tank commander, then took his tank forward at 4 p.m. to tow out the sergeant's tank. Enemy small-arms fire interrupted the work, but with 6 Troop's support by fire it was completed successfully a quarter of an hour later.
There was now no hope of advancing into Orsogna and the infantry advised that they had decided to withdraw after nightfall. The tanks stayed forward to rescue their wounded. Sergeant McClelland and Trooper Burland37 went forward under fire to bring back the remaining men from McKerchar's tank. Shortly after 5 p.m. the sergeant's tank was set on fire by a mortar bomb and the remaining tank was recalled by Major Poole. It duly returned, bringing back all the wounded. No. 6 Troop covered the withdrawal before returning itself. During the night the enemy blew up the knocked-out tanks.
On 18 December the Regiment had a static role. A and C Squadrons experienced mortar fire and shelling and engaged machine-gun posts which were firing on the infantry. The Adjutant's tank was still bogged and, in order to maintain communications with 4 Brigade, he transferred to the RSM's tank and moved down to the Maori Battalion headquarters to join Colonel McKergow.
At first light on 21 December some C Squadron tanks returned to A Echelon area for rest and maintenance and were joined in the late afternoon by the CO and the Adjutant. Meanwhile, one troop of A Squadron remained with 21 Battalion, a mixed troop of A and C Squadrons with the Maoris, and another A Squadron troop in reserve at Maori Battalion headquarters, all under Major Phillips.
About the 19th December the position at Orsogna had become rather static—the Maoris were in and around the cemetery. Three tanks from A Squadron were situated about 100 yds on the Moro side of the cemetery road. I had just recently come back from hospital and was sent up with three crews … to relieve the crews page 349 in these tanks. We left after dark with a mule train across the Moro and up what had been the road. It now consisted of two wide ruts made by the tanks and a slippery level patch in between. The only way to stop floundering into the ruts was to hold on to a mule and it seemed as if it could see its way in the dark the way it kept to the middle.
We duly relieved these crews and stayed there for three or four days in absolute inactivity with only an occasional reminder from the Germans that they had some interest in the area. We could by looking back to our left see ‘Hellfire Corner’ and we could watch the various vehicles running the gauntlet, often pursued by a few shells from the town.
Bill Russell's troop of A Squadron was farther to the north-east with 21 Battalion, which was holding a bridgehead over the railway line under heavy shellfire. ‘We had the role of shooting up fox holes which covered this bridgehead and successfully cleared the fox holes and shifted a few Jerry O pips.’
The period in a static role was brief. Eighth Army's intention was to continue the offensive and to reach the Arielli stream by 24 December. On the right 5 British Division was to capture Arielli and the high ground on either side of it on the afternoon of 23 December. The New Zealand Division was to advance to a ridge beyond the Fontegrande spur, thus practically turning Orsogna's flank and gaining space to deploy its guns across the Moro. Fifth Brigade was to carry out the attack with the assistance of 26 Battalion. It was not an easy task. The men were tired, numbers were low, and the mud seriously restricted tank movement. Patrols from the 21st and the Maoris had found the Fontegrande spur strongly held by German paratroops.
On the afternoon of 22 December Colonel McKergow was wounded in the arm while returning from 4 Brigade Headquarters after receiving orders to move his headquarters and B Squadron back to Sfasciata that afternoon and to come under command of 5 Brigade. Major Purcell took over the regiment and went to 5 Brigade Headquarters for orders. The 20th was to allot one squadron to 28 Battalion, to support and exploit if possible, and another squadron to the 21st and 26th, mainly for their defence but also with the possibility of exploiting. Its strength for this action was 29 tanks—16 in B Squadron, 9 in A Squadron, and 4 with RHQ.page 350
At 4.30 p.m. B Squadron reverted to the command of the 20th and at 5 p.m. Regimental Headquarters moved from its rest area to Spaccarelli, where it was joined by B Squadron. The tanks crossed the Moro by HONGI bridge and laagered for the night on the lower end of Sfasciata spur. At dawn they moved further up and dispersed round 21 Battalion headquarters on the ridge.
The regiment's next action continued the pattern which had begun with C Squadron's foray on 15 December. In the old infantry days the battalion had attacked with perhaps two rifle companies forward and two in support, and with mortars, Bren carriers and, later, two-pounder anti-tank guns in mobile supporting roles. Now the regiment split up into squadrons, half-squadrons and, at times of heavy tank casualties, into troops in support of the men on the ground.
The attack by 5 Division was successful but its 15 Brigade could not extend far enough to the left to link up with 21 Battalion. The New Zealand attack began with an artillery barrage at 4 a.m. on 24 December. Twenty-first Battalion gained its objective and one company advanced to the second ridge. The 26th had a similar success against tough opposition but the lodgment on the second ridge was most insecure. It was small in numbers, was overlooked by enemy posts, and could not be supplied in daylight. The Maoris advanced westwards and gained the neck of land which gave the tanks access to Fontegrande ridge, but they were then held up by stubborn German paratroops and lost heavily.
At 5 a.m. on 24 December the 20th tanks moved to support the infantry. Lieutenant Caldwell begins A Squadron's story:
It was on the morning of the 23rd that a conference was called by Lt-Col Purcell to put us in the picture as regards an attack planned by Brig Kippenberger. A Squadron, led by Major Phillips, was … to move along the road past the cemetery towards the town and, about 600 yards past, [was] to turn at right angles across the fields to contact the Maori Bn by daylight…. We set out in the early hours of the morning and with no visibility I started by putting my tank off the road and throwing a track. I then stopped my sergeant's tank and took it over. We proceeded along the road nose to tail. There was a lot of stuff going and coming across our heads but on the road everything was comparatively quiet.page 351
The tanks moved in line ahead along the road with Major Phillips leading. He says:
At first we had some Engineers, protected by a section of Maoris, sweeping for mines in front of us. Near the cross roads they encountered small arms fire, the Maoris withdrew, and the Engineers took cover. They were willing to go on but as they would obviously have suffered casualties I decided to try to push on without their assistance.
As dawn was approaching the tanks had to try to get hull-down positions near the crossroads and the sunken track running north. The two earlier tank attacks had confirmed that there were no other suitable positions between the start line page 352 and the crossroads. A few hundred yards short of the crossroads Major Phillips's tank was stopped when mines blew off both tracks. While its crew were evacuating, Lance-Corporal Kidd,39 the operator, and Trooper Newton,40 the gunner, were killed. The sappers, who deserve special mention, soon appeared and under heavy fire swept a turn off the road to allow the tanks to deploy to the right.
Lieutenant Caldwell continues:
George Hart and I after a short consultation swung right off the road and moved through the olive trees to find the Maoris. George was on the left and I on the right. It was just getting light now and George's troop came under fire….
Bill Russell describes their contact with the enemy:
Our tank ran slap bang into an anti-tank gun and tractor sheltered in a haystack and he got the first shot in and blew our track off. But I got him before he got the second shot and Sergeant Needham's tank also got some shots into the gun position and the haystack and tractor burnt. We shot up houses and it was amazing to see so many prisoners waiting to be taken but we could not deal with them except a few from fox holes around our positions. Needham's tank ran on a mine and George Hart withdrew behind us to support us if necessary. Tony McKay,41 a gunner, took some prisoners for a walk with his revolver in hand but no ammo for it, but they went quietly. We sat in tanks all day shooting and being sniped at if we ventured out.
Lieutenant Caldwell soon linked up with B Company of 28 Battalion. ‘I carried on to the right and contacted my Maori company commander and gave them some help by shooting up with the troop various houses across the gully in front from which a few spandaus were still firing. By this time the Maoris had dug slit trenches and were well established…. The day passed reasonably well. Tubby Hamilton,42 one of the tank commanders, did some good shooting at Jerry positions, notably a haystack, and Jerries came out of it like rabbits from a warren.page 353
B Squadron had advanced as soon as the artillery barrage opened at 4 a.m. The tanks moved up Sfasciata spur along the track known as ‘Duncan's Road’ to come under command of 26 Battalion. Some 300 yards short of the Orsogna-Ortona road the track was blocked by burnt-out tanks from previous actions and the squadron commander, Major Poole, having made contact with 26 Battalion, led the squadron on foot across some fields to the road.
While moving up the ridge in the darkness Captain Abbott's tank went over the edge but luckily landed upside down on its turret on a small ledge ten feet below. He and his crew escaped by climbing out of the escape hatch in the floor. Captain Rolleston's tank went half-way over before anyone realised what was happening and it remained precariously balanced there until rescued by a Scammel, one of the unit's recovery vehicles, next day.
A Squadron having secured the turn-off at the crossroads, 5 Troop of B Squadron was ordered up at 7.20 a.m. to the first objective, Fontegrande ridge, situated between the eastern and central tributaries of the Arielli stream. At the same time 6 Troop, under Lieutenant Dawkins, was ordered up to the cemetery area to assist 5 Troop forward and give all possible support.
Moving down the road, 5 Troop reached the turn-off at 7.43 a.m., but one tank was disabled on the minefield that had immobilised Major Phillips's tank. The troop commander, Lieutenant Familton, describes their progress:
I saw no use in going further, turned north …, took the lead myself, and headed across country. Going soft and visibility poor —trees and fog. About … [a quarter of a mile from the road] we were heavily shelled. Direct hit on the rear of my tank wiped off all our Christmas dinner, in ammo tins welded on the back, and all our water. Luckily [we were] carrying no tarpaulins—a lesson learned earlier at the Sangro…. Although all were shaken no one was hurt.
At 8.25 a.m. the troop made contact with 26 Battalion, left one tank to assist it, and pushed on to the right flank. Familton's account continues inter alia:
We sighted houses … and turned north-east looking for 21 Bn. We had to keep moving [as I was] frightened that if we stopped we would bog…. We reached Fontegrande, [though it was] hard page 354 to tell where we were … contacted 21 Bn—Major Tanner.43 The Infantry were done—so was the rum…. [The troops were] very thin on the ground…. We immediately engaged MG posts on the far side of the creek—good shooting—first shot almost fatal to 21 Bn. It was HE and burst on a twig just in front of the FDLs. We had to bore sight from this on.
The infantry had met heavy resistance; the 21st was worried about its exposed right flank and, like the 26th, could get only one depleted company on to the far bank of the Arielli stream. The second objective, the ridge beyond Fontegrande and between the central and western tributaries of the Arielli, was beyond reach.
There were so many ridges and spurs in the area that for some time the information sent back to infantry and armoured headquarters was rather obscure. Colonel Purcell's report of the operation states:
At 0750 hrs CO was ordered to carry on with original plan for second objective, [to exploit south-west and west towards Filetto] and as Inf did not appear to be certain of final objective Capt Abbott, with the remainder of half sqn, was ordered up to thicken up on first objective, i.e. three tks with 21 NZ Inf Bn and three tks with 26 NZ Inf Bn.
At 0900 hrs CO was advised that second objective seemed OK, and OC B Sqn and other half sqn was ordered to stand by for time being, ready to bring original plan into operation.
At 0907 hrs OC B Sqn advised that information from CO 26 NZ Inf Bn was that inf were dug in on first objective but had not proceeded to second objective.
No. 6 Tp (Lt Dawkins) was withdrawn from cemetery as visibility was too poor for him to be of assistance.
Captain Abbott's troop moved down past the cemetery just before 10 a.m. and was heavily shelled. Visibility was very bad and the tanks had considerable difficulty in finding the route, but about noon reported that they were in position. Meanwhile 5 Troop's tanks were carrying out fire tasks in support of the infantry.
Lieutenant Familton continues:
Mist made observation poor—watched for smoke and flash of MGs in mist. [Our] tanks were right on the crest of the ridge in amongst the infantry slit trenches. Absolutely no hope of the infan- page 355 try moving forward. Not only done in but terrain was very difficult and a good deal of opposition. My second tank was on the boundary [between] 21 Bn and 26 Bn assisting 26 Bn in same way.
At 11.55 a.m. RHQ moved near the Orsogna road, visibility being still very bad, and the artillery forward observation officer was taken up to the 21 Battalion FDLs in RSM Wilson's tank to try to find better observation. The tank remained in the area to thicken up the armoured support. Lieutenant Familton with two tanks took over the right flank with the 21st, one troop of three stayed about the boundary between the two battalions, and another three tanks supported the 26th. Owing to the difficulty of getting infantry support weapons up to Fontegrande the tanks remained in the FDLs, engaging numerous enemy machine-gun and mortar positions.
The Brigade Commander later paid this tribute to the regiment's work this day:
Before daylight a squadron of the Twentieth tanks … got round the neck on to the Fontegrande Ridge and very soon completed the mopping-up. They had a busy day and before it ended had outshot and thoroughly 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.44
Meanwhile it was discovered that Lieutenant Hart's troop of A Squadron had got ahead of A Company of the Maoris, who had met intense enemy fire. The crews remained in their four disabled tanks and during the day fought them from their exposed positions. The work of Major Phillips in contacting the infantry on foot and guiding his tanks is worthy of mention. Later in the day, having obtained another tank, he went back to his old tank on the road to get some gear but was disturbed by an 88-millimetre gun firing from Orsogna which chased him through the olive trees. While attending a conference called by the Maoris, Major Phillips was wounded when the house in which the meeting was being held suffered some direct hits and part of the roof collapsed. After he was evacuated Lieutenant Caldwell took command of the squadron, with Lieutenants Hart and Morris as troop commanders. Despite frequent attempts by Lieutenant Hart on the ground and by the page 356 CO over the air to get in touch with the infantry, dusk came with the disabled tanks still forward of the FDLs. The CO of 28 Battalion was asked to send a standing patrol forward to protect the tanks but this patrol did not find them. About 10.30 p.m. the tanks were attacked by enemy infantry with anti-tank grenades.
Sergeant Russell continues his account:
Christmas Eve and raining steadily, getting dark and no infantry with us. About 9 o'clock we were eating biscuits, good hard ones, and all one could hear was the crunching of biscuits. I had my head out looking for any action and a driver also was on watch, but the night was so dark we could not see any patrol. Anyway Jerry came in and sticky-bombed our tank and rocked us severely. The concussion was enough to bust our fuel tanks. I started defending ourselves with the revolver until we got organized and Bill de Lautour fired the big gun with the guard down—somewhat dangerous in itself. Yes, we fired all we had at the darkness and saw no results. Dave Black, our wireless operator called up on the air—his words—‘We are being heavily engaged.’
Lieutenant Caldwell describes the difficulties of communication:
Then … we started to have trouble with our batteries. We were too green to realise that we could not keep the wireless running all the time without running the batteries down. If we started the charger going or the engines the infantry complained bitterly as it drew fire on them all around us, and furthermore they could not hear anything coming. So by evening our wireless work was almost useless but we just managed to arrange for George [Hart] to bring out what tanks he could with the other crews carried on the back.
Russell describes their withdrawal:
A stonk was called down to help us get out and we had to delay it four minutes to get enough time to get out and on to George Hart's tank—two crews riding on the outside of one slippery and muddy tank in the rain. I reached the mobile tank as Tony McKay was just leaving it. I asked where he was going and to my amazement he said, ‘Back to dismantle the guns, as we have been told.’ It was bad enough getting back this far without having to do it again and we all climbed on and started for the railway line which was steep and slippery going to cross, Sgt Needham [walking out in front] waving a white handkerchief in the dark to try and show us the route, and feeling quite conspicuous to the Jerry.page 357
Colonel Purcell writes:
The withdrawal of A Sqn tanks that night was a very iffy business. Lt. Hart was leading but could not read his map in the dark and was therefore directed from my tank. I had an air photograph, and, with George identifying certain points that I described as he moved we finally located the crossing over the railway, and so back to leaguer.
A Squadron was now left with five ‘runners’, four being in the Maori FDLs and one in RHQ area, the last subsequently requiring attention from the unit fitters.
In the northern sector of the front 25 Battalion relieved the 21st that night. An account by Lieutenant Familton states inter alia:
Rather a sticky position arose for a short time before 2 a.m. when we were left holding the line with two tanks and with no contact with the British Division on the right flank. The Corporal on ground watch heard a Jerry patrol out front and we called for Arty protection and had the Div. Arty covering our front in about four minutes….
We pulled back off the ridge and took up position by the company commander's headquarters, a battered old house. On 26 December we did a shoot from FDLs for the Infantry and got both tanks bogged. It had been raining and we had to get one of Pat Abbott's tanks to pull us out…. Jerry had a sitting target on the skyline but strangely hardly fired anything at us. He must have been waiting for his self-propelled Arty because he just had us bracketed when we were pulled off.
During Christmas and the two succeeding days the tanks remained in position, being subjected to harassing fire by enemy artillery and mortars and engaging them in return. The regiment's war diary entry for 28 December, ‘engage houses near enemy FDLs and enemy seen to evacuate’, is amplified by Lieutenant Familton:
On the 27th I had a visit from Major Williams45 of 25 Bn who wanted us to shoot up some houses for his forward sections. I said we would need an OP with his forward section and he immediately offered to do the job himself. We ran through the procedure and … netted him in on a 38 set. He set out and at the required time we moved into FDLs again and made contact with Major Williams. We fired a good number of rounds and scored some direct hits on houses. Major Williams in his excitement jammed the air giving us a description of the Jerries running.page 358
On 29 December 5 Troop was to be relieved by the reserve troop. While moving up to the Fontegrande ridge from the Orsogna road the leading tank slid off the track while trying to avoid a dead mule. The next tank blew up on what the engineers later believed to have been a triple Teller mine on a ratchet. The belly was blown out of the tank, the turret lifted, and the gun jammed over the driver's hatch. The turret was immovable, the tank on fire. Two of the turret crew were wounded and the driver, Trooper Carmichael,46 and spare driver, Trooper Dawson,47 were both killed.
This tank now blocked the only swept track through the minefield to the main road and it was not possible to relieve 5 Troop until dark, when crews were changed. Lieutenant Familton concludes:
Rain had soaked the ground. We had tried to dig dugouts by the tanks but were flooded out and had to sleep in relays curled round the turret floor. Steel is a cold, hard mattress. At last light we came out to a well-earned rest and sleep.
For three days a section of 22 Battalion's Bren carriers was put under 20 Regiment's command to carry ammunition supplies forward, but mules were the only means of bringing up food, fuel and ammunition from Sfasciata ridge. Splendid work was done by Lieutenant ‘Stuffy’ Hazlett48 in getting these mule trains up to the forward tanks night after night. Sergeant Russell describes the reactions of Italian muleteers as they drew near the front line:
… Jim Easterbrook49 and I took a badly organised mule team up to Chas Caldwell's position. I think we left about 10 p.m. on Christmas night so as to be on the road before the cemetery about 2 a.m. as it was shelled regularly. We had Italians with the mules and my impressions of them were very poor. They said they were not supposed to be in the forward areas and if I had not threatened to be rough with them would have certainly got lost in some safe place on purpose. The drums of petrol and dieseline were tied on page 359 to these mules by a strap or cord through a handle on top of the tin which often used to pull out and off would come the load. I think we only arrived there with half the supplies we started with. We turned … to the right about 800 yards before the cemetery and took a track which led to the tanks and got within a couple of chains of them and dumped the gear, as the Ities were really sticking their toes in and it was a job to hold them there while we unloaded. Jim told Chas of our arrival and I had to keep the Ities from clearing out. The journey was pretty quiet except for a few shells on the opposite side of the ridge.
The difficulties to be overcome in supplying the forward tanks during a Sangro winter brought out the best in the quartering staff. Major Barton pays tribute to two of his men, who had their counterparts in the other squadrons:
I can remember so vividly meeting Bob Newlands [C Squadron's QMS] and old Bill Brass, our cook, on the mud track on the way to Orsogna. It was pitch dark and very muddy. Bob was supposed to be miles away. He and old Bill had carried for miles a huge pile of new socks and clothing of every description—I believe he had been ordered back by the CO but conveniently ‘forgot’ the order— and to top it all off he opened up a blanket and it was full of freshly baked scones! Bob was always the first on the scene after any action and we never lacked anything.
Lieutenant Caldwell describes the close of the year on A Squadron's front:
This was the only show I remember when the tanks were within 20 yards of the front slit trenches. The first shot fired from my tank at a house about 300 yards away was nearly unfortunate for a Maori in front of me. The tank was a replacement sent up without the gun T and A'd [tested and aimed] and my first shot skimmed the top of a slit trench on a slight rise to our front, but fortunately the soldier had his head down. We had to adjust things roughly on the spot.
Christmas Day passed uneventfully. That night Steve Fleming … came up with Christmas cheer in the form of turkeys and extra rum, plus much needed fuel for the charger. The Maoris were relieved by the 24th Bn and … we stayed in the area for a couple more days … and were relieved [by B Squadron]. The change over took place during the day and we had to move back over soft going right under the nose of Orsogna to the road. Two of the tanks were bogged and had to be towed out and when finally we reached the road the remnants of A Squadron went down past the cemetery flat out…. We pulled back right over the Moro and that evening it snowed hard and we were pleased to be out of it.page 360
The static period dragged on, each side waiting for the other to make a move. The infantry, after heavy casualties, were reaching the limit of their endurance, and winter was definitely the wrong season for tank manoeuvres. The war diary for the first days of the new year reads:
RHQ Office area shelled. Intercomn difficult on account of weather.
RHQ Office shelled again. Cas—1 Ital woman killed. Office veh slight cas.
Maintenance of vehs and tks…. All RHQ, A and C Sqns tks and A Ech proceed via LANCIANO and CASTELFRENTANO to area near SAN EUSANIO for refitting, B Sqn remains under comd 5 NZ Inf Bde on ORSOGNA RIDGE.
Enemy patrol attacks house occupied by 28 NZ Maori Bn on ORSOGNA RIDGE and B Sqn called [on] for protecting fire.
A report by Captain Rolleston, commander of B Squadron's tanks on Fontegrande ridge, gives a clear idea of the difficulties of a winter campaign in mountainous country:
I was offr in charge of three of our tks which are in the FDLs at present held by the MAORI Battalion. These tks are at present unable to move owing to the snow and heavy going but [are] otherwise ‘runners’. They are situated on a reverse slope … about 150 yds from the top of the ridge which form the FDL. There is one platoon of inf whose HQ and residence is a house on the crest immediately in front and they are responsible for the ridge from the house almost to the ORSOGNA Rd. It is a wide front but the company on the left was forward along the ORSOGNA Rd and so could give covering fire along the fwd slope of this pl ridge. (This was the posn when the 24 NZ Bn held the posn.)
The pl puts out listening posts at night along this ridge while the balance live in the house. The tks have three men in each and during the night one man in each tk is always awake and there is always a man with his head out of the turret of one tk.
During the early morning of 5 Jan it was snowing and blowing hard from the direction of the enemy and visibility was limited as well as very difficult. About 0530 hrs there was a shout from the pl's house followed by a burst of firing, then a stream of MAORIS poured down the slope shouting to us to open fire on the house. This we did with our Brownings directed by the pl comd. A certain amount of SA fire was returned but it was spasmodic and brief. page 361 A MAORI patrol was then sent fwd and found the house clear of enemy except for one dead GERMAN who had been killed by Browning fire and a wounded GERMAN who could be heard shouting ‘Kamerad’ fwd of the FDLs. I recovered the paybook and papers of the dead GERMAN and forwarded them to Coy Comd.
In my opinion … the GERMAN patrol would have had no difficulty in getting through and destroying the tks. Tks at night are helpless against patrols and their only protection is by inf on the ground. Owing to the snow, inf weapon pits are NOT manned by night and the fact of there being only three men in each tk makes a ground picquet by tk members impracticable.
With a foot of snow everywhere there was no question of continuing the offensive, although both sides shelled, mortared, sniped and patrolled aggressively. The troops lived in houses where possible, the days began to drag, and there was too much time to think over recent losses.
On 7 January B Squadron returned to regimental command on being relieved by a 19 Regiment squadron and there were welcome rumours of a move. Major Elliott,50 now the regiment's second-in-command, left on the 10th to chart the road for the projected move and, with no regrets, the regiment prepared to leave the Orsogna battlefield.
As was to be expected, the Sangro campaign brought out many lessons, some of them self-evident but requiring the hard proof of experience, others the fruits of initiative and of the knowledge that grows with the encountering of new difficulties, for the overcoming of which no training can do more than partially prepare.
It had become obvious early in the battle that an attack with armour could not be mounted at short notice. The assembly of tanks, refuelling, and reconnaissance by commanders were factors which could not be skimped if success was to be assured. In the event of inadequate time for reconnaissance, careful study of air photographs was necessary.
Co-operation with infantry, of course, depended largely on communications, whether by radio or, as often happened, by visual means. Under the muddy conditions tanks were forced to keep mainly to the roads, with the result that infantry going page 362 to ground or deploying to avoid enemy fire were soon out of sight and lost touch. In country such as that round Orsogna obvious lines of approach were always mined or blocked by demolitions. Tanks held up in this manner were soon out-distanced by the attacking infantry, and once more communications broke down. Minefields created a major problem, and invariably the going required to be cleared by sappers or infantry minesweeping parties, otherwise tanks were disabled in a futile attempt to get forward. Movement in support of infantry in FDLs was likewise hampered, being restricted by minefields and also by the infantry themselves. The starting and running of tank engines or the Homelite charger close to the enemy FDLs inevitably brought down shelling and mortaring.
As a means of communication the No. 19 set had performed well, but considerable difficulty was experienced in keeping batteries charged in forward areas. The No. 38 set did not always operate satisfactorily and, in fact, communication with the infantry was never good. Part of the fault lay in the use of the horizontal aerial and communication improved when the tank aerials were kept upright.
The tank fighting in the advances to Orsogna was grim. Well practised in the art of close-country fighting and with his customary efficient use of camouflage, the enemy had prepared some particularly unpleasant surprises. Tanks and anti-tank guns were concealed in houses, tanks and self-propelled guns in haystacks, snipers abounded in the excellent cover of the olive groves, and tank movement without covering fire, against an enemy dug in and well concealed, was fatal. On occasions enemy anti-tank gunners held their fire until after the leading tanks had pushed on and then took heavy toll. Some anti-tank guns were never discovered, so difficult was observation in the excellent cover afforded by the countryside.
A tank attack without infantry was no more successful than infantry operations without armour. The enemy simply remained underground, making only brief appearances to snipe at tank commanders. Prisoners who had surrendered could not be handled by advancing tank crews, who could only indicate to their captives the direction in which they were to go and push on. Scores of these jumped back into their slit trenches or gunpits after the tanks had passed and fought again.page 363
All likely tank approaches were mined and covered with shell and mortar fire, forcing tank commanders to use periscopes early in the attack. Where the going was uneven the shortness of the periscope head caused increased ‘dead ground’ round the tank. Exploitation was hazardous and costly. The cross-country capabilities of tanks in winter time were limited, and the only reliable method of choosing a route was reconnaissance by tank personnel on foot.
In spite of these difficulties there was no cause for lack of confidence in the Sherman. It had proved itself reliable and manoeuvrable, even if handicapped by the soft ground as was every other type of tank, gun, or vehicle. When moving over soft, hilly country it was found that the Sherman could go up or down steep slopes but not around steep hillsides. After a number of tanks had cast tracks a general tightening-up of tracks took place, as well as a changeover to tracks of the steel or rubber chevron type.
All tank weapons were found to be highly satisfactory, although it was found necessary while shooting from stationary tanks to keep motors running to dissipate gases from the turret.
Of the other regimental vehicles, motor-cycles proved quite useless off the roads and scout cars had likewise only a limited usefulness. Bren carriers were used successfully and did not cut up tracks as badly as did the tanks. Their work in carrying supplies forward and in evacuating wounded was invaluable. Jeeps were the most useful all-purpose vehicles. Three-ton trucks with four-wheel drives were the only ones that could operate off the roads, and very seldom at that, while two-wheel-drive water trucks were about as ‘happy’ as they had been in soft sand in the desert.
The recovery of bogged or disabled tanks was done by two D-8 tractors from the armoured brigade workshops. These did sterling work, but the delay caused by the regiment's having to wait its turn proved costly when stranded tanks under enemy observation were fired on until they ‘brewed up’, sometimes the day after they had been disabled. Scammels, the unit recovery vehicles, were unable to operate off formed roads, and the need for an armoured tracked recovery vehicle became more and more obvious as the operations proceeded.
Taken all round, the campaign was a severe baptism of fire page 364 for men—perhaps three-quarters of the unit—in their first action, and an equally trying ordeal for those to whom the style, though not the fighting, was new. It was felt that while the regiment, in common with other units, had suffered a reverse—Orsogna was still in enemy hands—the hilly country, soft going, lack of opportunities for manoeuvre, and the difficulties of a winter campaign were factors just as important in causing that reverse as was the fighting ability of the enemy. The odds were undoubtedly in favour of the defence. Even so, C Squadron tanks in their bold advance on 15 December had proved that tanks could reach their objective, and only fading light and the absence of ground support had compelled them to withdraw.
The restriction of movement to the roads was the cause of most of the tank casualties and at one stage the regiment had no fewer than thirty-three immobilised, of which twenty-five were the result of enemy action; the rest had either bogged or had suffered mechanical trouble. Casualties in men, too, had been heavy. Five officers and 19 men had been killed or had died of wounds, 3 officers and 28 men had been wounded, two men were wounded and prisoners of war, and two others also were prisoners. In spite of these losses—most of them highly-trained members of tank crews—all squadrons continued to operate with efficiency till the end of the campaign.
3 Lt-Col J. B. Ferguson, DSO, MC, ED; Auckland; born Auckland, 27 Apr 1912; warehouseman; OC 7 Fd CoyMay 1941; CO 18 Armd Regt Dec 1943-Jan 1944; 20 Regt Jan-May 1944; 18 Regt Jul 1944-Feb 1945; wounded 6 Dec 1943.
18 Brig M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde Jun 1942-Apr 1943; comd in turn 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr-Dec 1943; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun-Oct 1944; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944-Sep 1945; comd Adv Base 2 NZEF Sep 1945-Feb 1946; Associate Editor, NZ War Histories.