CHAPTER 10 — The Sangro: Orsogna
The Sangro: Orsogna
No time was lost in getting the troops off the ships, ‘A’ Party commencing disembarkation at 9 a.m. and ‘B’ Party an hour or so later. The men came ashore in large barges towed by tugs and, leaving their valises, bedrolls, and bivouac tents in the care of a baggage party, marched off. Everyone was in the easy dress of shipboard life, with many wearing tennis and deck shoes, and the Italian spectators seemed astonished, as well they might, at the bedraggled appearance of the men. Any chance of concealing the identity of the troops was destroyed by a ‘Tommy's’ greeting of ‘Hello Kiwis’, and also by a query from shore to lighter as to the identity of the approaching troops being answered with ‘New Zealanders from the Dunottar Castle’. It probably mattered little as the prospects of keeping such a matter secret appeared to be negligible.
The very narrow streets of Taranto were obstructed by debris from the severe bombing the town had received, necessitating marching in single file until the open country was reached. The camp site, seven miles away, was pleasantly situated in a fine grove of pine trees, green shrubs, and scrub, resembling the Hymettus camp outside Athens. The swarms of mosquitoes, however, were a serious drawback and emphasised the need for anti-malarial precautions, which were strictly enforced. Gloves and veils were provided for men on pickets and similar duties and repellent cream was used generally; all ranks were required to take a mepacrine tablet daily, Sundays excluded, and water where mosquitoes could breed was drained or treated. These necessary but irksome precautions ceased, however, about a month later, on 8 November, the end of the dangerous season, when all the special equipment was withdrawn.
The preparation of an organised camp was commenced at once. No cooking utensils were immediately available and bully beef and biscuits for the first few meals made it certain that the hot meal in the evening of the second day would be appreciated. Plenty of wine was available but it was of poor quality. Back at the ship the battalion baggage party was somewhat unfortunate. Instead of merely watching the baggage being page 322 swung out by winches, the men had to manhandle everything to the trucks as the winches had broken down. This gave the party a full night of laborious work and no food. On the arrival of the baggage in camp much thieving was revealed, nearly a quarter of the kitbags having been rifled. Boots tied on the outside of the bags had been a special target. Some retaliation against the Italian baggage lighters was rumoured to have taken place, with considerable advantage to the troops.
The surrounding country, very rocky and wooded, presented a striking picture to eyes long accustomed to the desert, and the men in their spare time took every opportunity to explore the neighbourhood. In a valley nearby an old Roman castle in ruins was discovered, the interior having a number of religious pictures painted on the walls. The sight of a number of black snakes introduced some caution into these rambles though ‘the largest seen was a mere forty-two inches’. A plentiful supply of fresh fruit was available and grapes, almonds, figs, and dates were eagerly bought at very low prices. Once again the men had the somewhat confusing experience of handling strange currency—Italian lire and lire issued by the Allied military authorities—the fourth occasion for those who had served in Egypt, Greece, and Syria, and the fifth for those who had also visited Palestine.
The first rain experienced in Italy, and indeed the first since the end of the Tunisian campaign five months ago, fell on the second day and showed the urgent need for drainage throughout the camp and the metalling of roads and tracks. The large working parties employed soon overcame the mud, and by the fourth day the camp had taken shape and was in a reasonable condition. During these activities the battalion had its first glimpse of the enemy in Italy when an enemy aircraft passed overhead at a great height.
The inevitable football ground was soon constructed. Company parades and daily route marches followed, and the training was gradually extended to include all forms of instruction and tactical exercises suited to this new theatre. Movement through wooded country at night, sniping, and camouflage, for all of which there had been little or no scope in Africa, received special attention. On 25 October Colonel Morten and the company commanders attended an interesting tewt involving an attack on a walled village, Montemesola being visited to inspect the German defences there.page 323
Leave to Taranto for 15 per cent of the strength had been granted a few days after the battalion's arrival. The men, however, had little liking for the town. They found it very dirty and there was little or nothing to purchase. The more adventurous spirits roamed the countryside, visiting the villages scattered over a considerable area. One such village was Marino, 15 miles away; it was quaint and most attractive, untouched by war, its narrow streets paved with white stone and not a speck of dirt anywhere. It was the cleanest village seen since Greece and the people were very friendly.
In addition to the usual sports and games, a mobile cinema and the brigade band entertained the troops. C Company showed great enterprise by holding a miniature-garden competition, in which replicas of a Maori pa and the Wellington Cenotaph were skilfully reproduced. The Padre (Rev. H. G. Norris) and Captain Williams of C Company also arranged an excellent battalion concert. Entertainment of a very different kind was provided in the afternoon of 28 October when a severe electrical storm destroyed by lightning several of the barrage balloons protecting the port of Taranto. Thunder, lightning, and rain continued till the early hours of the morning, and although a fairly clear day followed, another thunderstorm before dawn the next day and heavy rain throughout the ensuing night completed the soaking of the camp and everything and everybody in it. However, the drainage work carried out earlier in the month proved its worth.
The second flight of the Division which arrived at Taranto on the 22nd brought some of the battalion's vehicles, the absence of which was very inconvenient and also limited training. The first vehicles to arrive, on 30 October, were few in number but provided some very welcome mobility; they were the Brigade Signals' truck, one jeep, the RQMS's three-tonner, A Company's cooks' truck, and HQ Company Commander's pick-up, and were followed the next day by the battalion office truck.
An intensive period of close-country training occupied the first two weeks in November under conditions very similar to those in New Zealand and in distinct contrast with much of the desert training. The heavy showers of rain and the much cooler weather made the issue of battledress early in the month very welcome.
Officers, warrant officers, and NCOs of the battalion were given some insight to the situation and conditions on the Fifth page 324 and Eighth Army fronts in Italy when, on 2 November, they heard a lecture by Colonel Fountaine (26 Battalion), who had been a member of a party taken over the battle fronts by General Freyberg. The lecturer described the country, road conditions and road discipline, and the salient features along the front, and also gave an account of the recent attacks along the Adriatic front. Much of this information was passed on to the men.
Since the middle of October plans for the employment of 2 NZ Division had been altered on two or three occasions, while the forward move of the Division had been delayed by the non-arrival of its vehicles. These matters did not affect the battalion to any extent, but eventually, on Saturday, 13 November, under Major Possin, it moved off for a staging area 82 miles on the road to Lucera; Colonel Morten and Major Norman had gone on ahead.
There was good scenery with many interesting villages, but the staging area was cold and bleak with no shelter and the night was bitterly cold. Next day the route traversed country planted in vegetables of all kinds and much like New Zealand. The town of Foggia (normally a busy industrial centre with a population of over 60,000), which the column passed through, had been very severely bombed and ‘was in a real mess’. After passing Lucera, a town of over 18,000 people, with its notable cathedral and castle, the battalion reached its bivouac area soon after midday, just before rain fell. It was rather cold and a stiff gale made conditions very unpleasant, but fortunately the advance party had already completed tracks and drains in the area.
The following two days were spent in training. Though not so rugged, the country resembled that behind Taihape. As had been the case in all the countries the battalion had visited, there were no fences; the black soil was very muddy and the cross-country route marches and hill training proved rather stiff tests. Winter had set in with heavy frosts, which made the issue of woollen underwear and leather jerkins (the men's first experience of the latter) a great comfort.
The active front on the Sangro, for which the battalion was heading, lay 70 air-miles away to the north-west, though it was half as far again by road. The Eighth Army, which had advanced over 300 miles since landing in the extreme south of Italy on 3 September, was approaching the river, beyond which the Germans were preparing a defensive line for the page 325 winter. On the other side of Italy, the western flank, Fifth (United States) Army (which included British troops also), after landing at Salerno on 9 September, was 70 miles beyond the Volturno River, 100 miles from Rome. Mountainous country between the two armies, the Apennines, made co-operation and communications difficult and presented the enemy with every opportunity for efficient demolitions. The capture of Rome, regarded as of high political importance, was the next main Allied objective.
On the Eighth Army front 78 Division was advancing up the coastal sector with 8 Indian Division on its left. In the hills farther inland were 1 Canadian Division and 5 British Division. General Montgomery's plan was to force the Sangro position by crossing the river near the mouth and to spread out from there. The New Zealand Division, directly under Eighth Army command, was to relieve 8 Indian Division in the Atessa area, 12 miles from the Adriatic coast, and so enable that division to close on 78 Division for the coastal attack. If the attack succeeded the New Zealand Division was to advance to the north-west to Chieti, 20 miles away.
By wireless silence, camouflage, and the retention of 8 Indian Infantry Brigade under New Zealand command, it was hoped to avoid disclosing the relief to the enemy. It had also been intended that all moves would be made by night but the extremely bad state of the roads made this impossible.
About half the Division had gone forward, the leading troops five days earlier, when on 17 November 25 Battalion left Lucera in rainy and very cold weather for the Atessa area. The route touched the Adriatic coast at Termoli, then turned sharply inland near Vasto, 17 miles up the coast. The men found the villages and their inhabitants disappointing. There was heavy traffic on the roads, and beyond Termoli, where amphibious jeeps attracted the attention of the men, much delay was caused by traffic jams at the river crossings and by the steep, narrow, and tortuous mountain roads. The numerous deviations made necessary by the destruction of all bridges became almost impassable in many places because of wet weather and the very heavy traffic.
After a slow and very trying journey of sixteen hours, the battalion bivouacked about 15 miles short of Atessa, where Tactical Headquarters of the Division was established. The altitude was now almost 2000 feet, the bivouac being on the page 326 eastern flank of Monte Sorbo of 3000 feet, a mile away. There was a snowcapped range a few miles off and the atmosphere was decidedly chilly.
Very early the following morning (19 November) 25 Battalion (less B Company detached for protective duties with the Engineers) moved with the rest of the brigade to a lying-up area north of Atessa, about three miles from the Sangro River. No bivouac tents were available on this occasion and the men made their own arrangements for the remainder of the night. Haystacks were a natural choice, but in one instance, through creating a huge mushroom by dragging hay from the sides of a stack, a collapse occurred, burying some men of A Company to the accompaniment of much profanity and struggling; fortunately there were no casualties.
At dusk, preceded by 26 Battalion and followed by the 24th, the battalion marched to its position on the brigade front along the Strada Sangritana, a mile from the river. There it dug in with 26 Battalion on the right and 24 Battalion on the left. The road from Atessa had proved impassable for vehicles and it was a gruelling march, especially for those who had to carry heavy weapons, ammunition, and equipment, the mortar platoon and 11 MG Platoon (which accompanied the battalion) and the men who assisted them having the hardest tasks.
Heavy rain fell during the night and continued throughout the day, creating very muddy conditions and flooding the slit trenches. Houses and other buildings in the vicinity were taken over to shelter the troops, the Italian occupants proving very hospitable. In one house (casa) three men shared a room with a donkey, a situation offering some scope for the company wit. Where buildings were not available, bivouac tents gave some protection.
The mortar platoon, it is said, was the first to incur the displeasure of the enemy and also to learn the difficulty of emplacing its mortars in the muddy ground. Under Lieutenant Groshinski,1 it had orders to take up positions as near the river as possible. It was difficult to find good bases to take the shock of discharge of the mortar and timber was used as a foundation. From his OP and Command Post up the biggest oak tree in the vicinity, Groshinski, with the powerful voice for which he was famed and which was heard at B Echelon a mile back, issued his orders to range the mortars, which were 150 yards page 328 from him. On fire being opened, the base plates of three of the four mortars skidded off the timber bases and the breech pieces were snapped off. The fourth mortar was gradually driven down until the sights were level with the ground. In the midst of this turmoil the enemy, who, it is claimed, would have had no difficulty in hearing the fire orders, retaliated with his own artillery, and a shell bursting under the tree brought Groshinski down in quick time and caused a speedy withdrawal of the mortars to a safer and firmer position.
Sixth Brigade's sector was the eastern half of 19 Indian Infantry Brigade's position between Monte Marcone on the right and the junction of the Sangro and Aventino rivers on the left, a frontage of about three miles. The three battalions, however, were centrally situated in a comparatively small area a little to the south-west of the junction of the Atessa road with the Strada Sangritana. Active patrolling across the river had been ordered by Division and all battalions sent out patrols each night, with varying results due to difficulty in crossing the river, there being frequent changes in the depth of water and speed of the current.
Where 6 Brigade was situated the Sangro valley was two miles wide with a cultivated area of vineyards, orchards, and olive groves, the Piazzano, south of the river, and a narrow, marshy strip on the northern bank with many irrigation ditches. Steep hills on both sides overlooked the valley, terminating in places on the northern side near the river in almost vertical cliffs. North of the cliffs the country, which was intersected by many water channels, rose sharply to a dominating ridge stretching from Lanciano on the right, through Castelfrentano to Guardiagrele on the left. The ridge varied in height from about 800 to 1500 feet above sea level, and at Castelfrentano was about 1000 feet above the river, four miles distant. Along the New Zealand front and for several miles downstream there were no bridges. The river ran in several channels separated by gravel banks, the current was rapid and the bottom stony, with boulders in places. As the considerable drainage area of the river consisted almost entirely of very steep country, terminating in the Apennines in the upper reaches, the fast run-off of any rain quickly caused a fresh in the river. Except in summer, the melting of snow in the mountains also caused a considerable variation in the depth and current.
The Germans had a strong chain of defences north of the river, with their main line along the ridge through Lanciano, page 329 Castelfrentano, Guardiagrele, north of Casoli, and thence to the south-west along Route 84. The most heavily defended positions were the south-eastern approach to Castelfrentano, the road junction on Route 84 a mile and a half west of Castelfrentano, and another road junction a mile east of Guardiagrele, where the road to Orsogna leaves the Castelfrentano-Guardiagrele road. These positions were linked by a belt of wire along the road line, covered by machine-gun and infantry posts well dug-in and camouflaged. The two road junctions were protected by anti-tank ditches and anti-tank guns and there were weapon pits on both sides of Route 84 from the Sangro River northwards to the main ridge. The position was held in depth, up to two miles in places.
In front of the main position was an outpost line consisting mainly of machine-gun and weapon pits fairly wide apart. The north bank of the river was mined in several places. It was a formidable position, but defences depend primarily on the quality of the defenders and in this instance the defenders were 65 Division, a second-rate formation composed mostly of Poles and young raw troops with horse-drawn transport and poor equipment. Wide frontages were held, two regiments occupying 15 miles, with 146 Regiment opposing the New Zealanders.
The first day in the position, 20 November, was rather trying, the weather bad with mud everywhere and the Germans enjoying good observation from within a couple of thousand yards. ‘Jerry gave us a fair pasting from across the Sangro,’ wrote Wakeling, ‘and the 24th suffered a few casualties. A long day and all to keep under cover as Jerry only about 2000 yards away. Another plaster at 4 when our guns put over a fair barrage. Patrols out at 7 p.m. Quiet night except for some Spandau and Bren shooting.’
That night it had been planned for 6 Brigade to make a silent attack, coinciding with an attack in the coastal sector and another by 19 Indian Brigade on the left, two miles beyond the New Zealand front, but because of a rise in the Sangro the operations were postponed for forty-eight hours. During this waiting period standing patrols were maintained on the south bank of the river, and when the depth of water permitted reconnoitring patrols went across. The depth varied at different points, and although the water was icy cold the men showed great determination in carrying out their tasks, sometimes wading breast-high with linked hands to help withstand the current, and occasionally swimming to find the depth or after page 330 being swept off their feet. As mountaineers and tramping clubs in New Zealand have so frequently emphasised, the men found that the crossing of a river was not lightly to be undertaken and that darkness greatly increased the difficulties and dangers.
Many of 25 Battalion's patrols were unable to cross the river, though they tried repeatedly at different points. One that succeeded was a patrol from B Company under Second-Lieutenant Norton-Taylor2 which climbed the cliffs north of the river; it found that the buildings on Colle Scorticacane, a mile to the north-west of the Sangro, were occupied by the enemy. It also found mines south of the river on a front of about 400 yards. There were in fact many mines in the area, and their removal required joint action by the engineers and escorting infantry detachments; the very efficient German anti-personnel S-mine was used extensively and caused much worry and many casualties. Daylight patrols were tried on the 21st by the other two battalions, under orders by General Freyberg, but these were repulsed with loss, and in consequence instructions were issued that no one was to cross the river in daylight.
The following day heavy rain caused another fresh in the Sangro and the postponed attack on the coastal sector and 6 Brigade's front was again postponed for a further twenty-four hours. The attack by the Indian Brigade to the left of the New Zealand front was not affected, as the point of attack was above the confluence of the Aventino and Sangro rivers and the latter could be crossed there.
During the night Bailey bridge and folding-boat equipment was brought forward to the river, and to mask the noise and discourage enemy patrols the artillery and machine guns along the New Zealand front were active. About three in the morning enemy shells falling near disturbed some of the men of the battalion, and a little later, when the shelling increased, a shell hit a tree within ten yards of a group of men of B Company but fortunately was a ‘dud’.
Before dawn on the 23rd there was considerable liveliness when all three New Zealand field regiments and one British field regiment under New Zealand command supported the attack by Essex and Punjab battalions of 19 Indian Brigade across the river. The attack succeeded against strong opposition, though subsequent enemy counter-attacks had some temporary local success which brought the New Zealand artillery again into action. This, in turn, caused increased enemy fire against page 331 25 Battalion's position and other parts of the New Zealand front, especially on roads, buildings and gun positions, the enemy apparently anticipating an extension of the attack.
Shortly after the start of the Indian Brigade's attack there was more heavy rain, which continued until the afternoon, causing the Sangro to rise nearly two feet. This made the operation proposed for that night quite impossible and 6 Brigade's attack, at first postponed for twenty-four hours, was cancelled and a new plan adopted. That day the first casualty in the battalion in the Italian campaign occurred, Corporal Brunton3 being wounded by a shell splinter.
From a security point of view the presence of civilians so far forward in the battle zone was a source of some anxiety, the more so as they had, until quite recently, belonged to a hostile power. That such fears had some basis was revealed by a search of the houses and other buildings in 25 Battalion's area, when one of the inhabitants who was found in possession of a transmitting set was arrested.
The following day (24 November) 5 Brigade took over the eastern half of 6 Brigade's front with one battalion and it was decided that both brigades would take part in the attack, probably on the night 26 – 27 November. For the first time in Italy enemy aircraft appeared over the New Zealand sector, though it will be recalled that a single aircraft passed high over the New Zealand camp near Taranto.
While the day of the attack was awaited there was the usual intermittent artillery fire by both sides, and when conditions permitted Allied aircraft were busy. On the 26th two flights, each of twelve Kittybombers, and seven flights each of twelve Baltimores bombed selected targets in the short space of two hours. An enemy aircraft was shot down and landed in the Sangro, the crew of two being taken prisoner by 25 Battalion. The next day air action increased in beautifully fine weather. Kittybombers bombed and strafed Casoli, five miles to the west, and Liberators bombed all along the main ridge in the vicinity of San Maria, seven miles to the north-east.
While Allied aircraft were operating the enemy artillery fire was much reduced, though on the 25th the position held by 25 Battalion had received more than its usual quota of shells, fortunately with little damage. The New Zealand artillery was busily preparing for the forthcoming attack, blasting houses on page 332 the opposite hills and, one evening just before dusk, firing five rounds from every gun at selected targets. The machine-gunners also took part in harassing the enemy, especially on the 26th, when for two hours after 10 p.m. they concentrated on an area in the vicinity of Colle Scorticacane, where the previous day considerable movement of enemy troops and transport had been observed.
Patrolling during this period was continued as usual and on the 24th each battalion had orders to send a strong fighting patrol across the river to visit positions known to have been occupied by the enemy, and to be prepared to go further and fight to find out the state of the enemy. Although the Sangro was reported by standing patrols to have dropped a foot during the day, the current was fast. The battalion's fighting patrol of one platoon, led by Lieutenant Coleman4 of D Company, was unable to cross, though a reconnaissance patrol from C Company, Lieutenant Muir,5 Sergeant Jim Brunton, Privates Robin Walker,6 ‘Hongi’ Menzies,7 and Les Delaney,8 crossed a hundred yards upstream but took three hours to do so. Patrols from B Company, one on the 23rd under Second-Lieutenant Rees9 and two, on the 25th and 26th, under Lieutenant Berry, could not get across the river. The other battalions also had difficulties. A 24 Battalion patrol crossed above the Sangro- Aventino junction but was unable to cross the Aventino, and 26 Battalion failed at one point but succeeded at another.
The irrigation ditches across the river opposite the brigade were found to be almost impossible to cross and the low-lying ground was reported to be a quagmire. The only contact made with the enemy was a house opposite the right flank of the brigade, about two miles north of 25 Battalion. Despite repeated attempts, no patrols were able to cross on the evening of 25 November; the river was running high and fast after four hours' rain and the men found it impossible to stand in water of hip depth. Italian civilians who had just crossed were able to give some valuable information, especially regarding the position of page 333 minefields. Some of those which had been discovered by patrols contained mines of a type strange to them; booby-trapped mines consisting of bamboo sticks laid across a track and attached by a string to a pull-igniter and demolition charge had also been found.
On the afternoon of the 27th, the day of the long-postponed attack, Colonel Morten discussed the plan with the company commanders. He explained that the Divivion was to establish a bridgehead over the Sangro and later exploit to the north and west to cover the main road—Route 84—running from the vicinity of the Aventino-Sangro junction to the Castelfrentano- Guardiagrele road, five miles to the north-west.
Both 5 and 6 Brigades were attacking, with 6 Brigade on the left, and for the first time New Zealand armour was to support New Zealand troops in the attack, though the armour had had its first action when a squadron on 23 November supported the Indian Brigade's operations. Nineteenth Armoured Regiment (less one squadron) was to support 6 Brigade's attack, which was to be made with all three battalions forward, 26 Battalion on the right and 25 Battalion in the centre. Each battalion had an artillery FOO attached and a machine-gun platoon (11 Platoon for 25 Battalion) under command.
In 25 Battalion the usual boundaries between companies were dispensed with and the three attacking companies, A, C, and D, were each to capture defined features and move by specified routes. B Company (Major Possin), the battalion reserve, was to help the rest of the battalion to cross the Sangro and provide protection and guides. For the crossing the company was to place as many hand-wires as possible over the water and provide guides at both ends for its own battalion and also for 24 Battalion, which was to use the same crossing-place. The company was also to place a strong standing patrol on the north side to protect the crossing of the two units and provide two other standing patrols: one of these was to be on the road north of the river to help A Company to form up; the other was to be in position to the west to assist D Company to get into position facing south-west for its attack on Pt 122, which lay in that direction. After A and D Companies were on their start lines, B Company was to form up in readiness to take over Pt 122 after its capture, following 24 Battalion (which was moving behind D Company) on its way to its objectives at Taverna Nova and Marabella.page 334
Both battalions crossed safely, though not without some difficulty, in the order A and C Companies of 25 Battalion, then page 335 24 Battalion, and then the rest of 25 Battalion. The wires provided by B Company to aid the crossing were unequal to the strain, and a serious hitch was averted only by the fortunate discovery of another crossing nearby which did not require the use of wires. The icy-cold water, the stony bottom and the lodging of grit in the boots, the darkness and the waiting, and the enemy bank opposite, all combined to make the wading of the river an unpleasant and somewhat eerie episode; and the firing of a Spandau during the crossing, though it caused no casualties, was startling. Many of the men discarded their clothing in order to have it dry when they reached the left bank, the thought of going into the attack and spending the cold night in soaking clothes ‘having no appeal’. This mode of dress or undress for an attack naturally created some humour, even under the icy conditions, more especially in 15 Platoon when Les Delaney, after getting across, was able to produce a bottle of gin which had a buoyant effect on Roly Harwood,10 Robin Walker, Paddy Brockett,11 A. J. Hoy,12 N. McLay,13 and Gunderson,14 who shared it. Apparently no one suggested that the enemy may have caught the battalion with its pants down.
Forty-five minutes before zero hour (2.45 a.m. on 28 November) the battalion was in its assembly area, with its companies disposed as planned on the general line of the road 300 yards beyond the river, each flank protected by a platoon of B Company.
At zero the artillery and machine guns supporting the attack opened fire on selected targets and A and D Companies advanced under their deafening roar. The enemy defensive fire in reply was prompt, but being directed on the line of the river, fell harmlessly behind the attacking troops. The rate of advance decided upon, 100 yards in five minutes, with fifteen minutes' pause at intermediate objectives, took into account the steep and rough nature of the country to be traversed. A Company had been given the task of capturing Castellata, which was on a prominent ridge dotted with farm buildings about 1000 yards to the west of the assembly position. To avoid the line of cliffs which intervened along the direct route, A Com- page 336 pany (Major Robertshaw) advanced first to the north for about 500 yards and then to the north-west up a gully for about the same distance before turning to the south-west and climbing up to Castellata. The company searched the farm buildings on the way and, with a casualty list of one killed, one died of wounds, and nine wounded, secured the objective without difficulty. For his part in this action, Major Robertshaw was awarded the Military Cross.
D Company (Major Handyside) moved straight down the road to the south-west for about 1200 yards to its first objective, Pt 122, which it occupied with no opposition. After 24 Battalion had passed through to the west on its way to Taverna Nova and Marabella, D Company advanced 1500 yards to the north-west to its second or main objective, Pt 150, which was 800 yards to the west of A Company at Castellata on the adjoining ridge. D Company secured Pt 150 with a loss of one officer (Second-Lieutenant G. K. Smith) killed and Major Handyside and twenty-one men wounded; Captain Hewitt took over command of the company.
C Company (Major Webster) followed A Company up the gully and, passing through at Castellata, occupied two hilltops a little to the north-west of A Company and about 400 yards east of D Company's second objective on Pt 150. It then secured Hill 171 on the battalion's second objective, 600 yards to the north-west and about 300 yards north of D Company. The company had no casualties.
B Company (Major Possin), the last to leave the assembly area, followed the route to the south-west initially taken by D Company and 24 Battalion, and took up its position in reserve on Pt 122 which D Company had vacated. It had one casualty, a man wounded by the supporting artillery.
S-mines and booby-trapped box mines caused most of the casualties in the battalion. Twenty-three prisoners (three of them wounded), including many Poles, were captured. By daybreak the companies had secured all their objectives and the battalion, supported by its attached machine-gun platoon and covered by the artillery, was firmly established. Throughout the attack the battalion had trouble with its wireless link with Brigade and communication was not established until the final objective was reached.
The flank battalions of the brigade and 5 Brigade to the north-east also secured their objectives (with one minor exception) with comparatively little opposition.page 337
Though the opposition was weak, 25 Battalion had carried out its attack in the dark over steep, difficult country as planned, with skill and accuracy, the German Army Commander, Lemelsen, commenting that the attack had ‘got in amazingly soon’. Down near the coast, where a small bridgehead had been secured during the second week of November and enlarged considerably by the 24th, the British attack had also made good progress towards the main ridge and was continuing.
The communications for the conveyance of ammunition, food, and other requirements to the troops across the Sangro and for the passage of tanks, guns, and vehicles required the urgent erection of bridges. In the New Zealand sector the plan provided for two bridges, a Bailey bridge to serve 5 Brigade's front and (in the absence of sufficient Bailey bridging) a folding-boat bridge for 6 Brigade. These were to be erected on the night of 27 November, but owing to trucks running off the road in the darkness and others becoming bogged, the engineers were unable to commence the folding-boat bridge until a little before daylight the next morning. When daylight came, the enemy with his excellent observation directed accurate artillery fire on the bridge site, causing severe casualties and much damage and preventing further work until after dark. By 9.15 that night the bridge was able to take carefully regulated light traffic but no vehicles. The delay in the erection of the bridge prevented supplies being brought forward to the battalion and to some extent the men fended for themselves; pack mules were used and fifteen, loaded with ammunition and rations, were sent up in the late afternoon.
It was a beautiful day and ‘6 MEs paid us an early morning visit,’ wrote Wakeling, ‘but did little damage. 3 hit and run raids during the day and one a/c brought down just in front of us. A few shells landed on a face on our right.’ The appearance of New Zealand armour in their vicinity was a welcome sight to the men, six tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment appearing during the morning at Pt 171 near C Company, where they were in position to support 26 Battalion on its third objective 1200 yards to the north. These tanks had been compelled to use the Bailey bridge in 5 Brigade's sector and had been much delayed by mud and enemy shelling, a number of them being bogged beyond immediate recovery. Next day, by 9 a.m., although the approaches were a quagmire, the bridge to serve 6 Brigade was completed and seventeen tanks and about two-fifths of the battalion's support weapons were north of the river.page 338
A little after midday, 29 November, there was a lively little action about 2500 yards to the west of D Company when a company of 24 Battalion, supported by tanks and artillery, secured Barone, a high feature from which the enemy had directed fire on the Sangro bridges. Shortly afterwards two fighting patrols of 25 Battalion, each of one platoon from A and B Companies under Second-Lieutenants Nelson15 and Norton-Taylor, advanced to the north-west a mile beyond D Company's position on Pt 150 to the bend in Route 84 where the railway from Casoli to Castelfrentano crossed it. The patrols met with no opposition, though Nelson's platoon had one page 339 casualty from an S-mine; within an hour the platoons were followed up by the remainder of their companies and, a little after dark, by six-pounder anti-tank guns. The day's casualties were two wounded, Privates Jordan16 and McKeeman.17
During the morning and again in the afternoon, two bombing and strafing raids by six enemy aircraft were made against the forward positions and the Sangro bridges. The planes were engaged by New Zealand Bofors guns on both occasions, and in the afternoon one of the aircraft was shot down near the river close to B Company, the pilot rolling his aircraft and dropping by parachute. A little earlier an Allied aircraft crashed south of the river. The Allied air forces were not idle, engaging enemy defences and gun positions and in the morning scoring what appeared to be a hit on an ammunition dump near Castelfrentano.
On the 30th the advance was continued, 6 Brigade being directed slightly to the right away from Route 84 towards Castelfrentano, which was to be attacked by 24 Battalion while New Zealand armoured units advanced up Route 84 in simulation of a main attack. In the afternoon A Company (Robertshaw) pushed on to the north for about a mile, patrolling towards Pt 150, which lay 800 yards to the east of Route 84. The leading platoon was fired on from an enemy post on the hill; another platoon came forward and by 5 p.m. the post was captured with a loss of two killed (Sergeants Penman, MM and bar, and Peebles18). Twenty Germans of 146 Regiment, 65 Infantry Division (the same formation as that attacked two days ago) and nine light machine guns were captured. That night the remainder of A Company advanced and the position was occupied with two platoons forward, 9 on the right and 7 on the left, and 8 Platoon in reserve. To guard the left flank of A Company, D Company (Captain Hewitt) sent a patrol to San Eusanio railway station near Route 84, 800 yards south-west of Pt 150; the previous night a patrol had reported the station clear of the enemy, but it had been reoccupied and in a sharp action Corporal Davidson,19 the patrol leader, was page 340 wounded. Preceded by another patrol under Corporal Ward,20 the whole of D Company went forward in the early evening, but the enemy had gone and the company took up a position near the station.
The advance of 25 Battalion was closely supported by the tanks of B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment, which despite the rough country were well forward by dusk. The machine-gunners supporting the battalion also found the country difficult to traverse with their heavy weapons and ammunition but the men, as they always did, stuck to their tasks and never failed in their duty to be in position with the least possible delay, ready to open fire.
During the afternoon B Company (Major Possin), in reserve in its original position on Pt 122 near the Sangro, was relieved by 22 Battalion and moved nearer to Route 84 in readiness to go forward at short notice. That evening 25 Battalion, in common with the other battalions, was ordered not to advance further without permission, except for patrols, all three battalions being on an east-west line passing about a mile south of Castelfrentano. The purpose of this halt was to establish, for the moment, a firm base with a series of company localities with adequate supporting weapons.
While the infantry units with their supporting tanks and machine guns were established on their firm base, the field artillery units crossed the river to positions on the northern side. The tanks of 18 Regiment also crossed, and those of 20 Regiment were at the river bank ready to do likewise. During these movements at least one regiment of artillery was always in position ready to support the forward troops, while the heavier artillery farther back had moved forward in turn to positions vacated in the Atessa area by 6 Field Regiment. Other troops, delayed by traffic congestion, could not cross the river until 1 December. The battalion's casualties on 30 November were two killed, one died of wounds, and four wounded.
With the infantry closing on Castelfrentano, the battle for this key point on the main ridge overlooking the Sangro valley was now imminent. In the morning of 1 December 24 Battalion had orders to attack Pt 398, a prominent hill immediately south of the town and overlooking it at close range, and then exploit success into the place. If the attack did not succeed, 6 Brigade was to mount another attack at 3.30 next morning.page 341
At 8.45 a.m. a company of 24 Battalion, supported by another company and by artillery, mortars and machine guns, launched the attack from positions halfway up the hill, and against strong opposition and subsequent shelling and counter-attacks secured a large hotel in the town. Meanwhile, 25 Battalion consolidated its position in the San Eusanio station area, B Company coming forward up Route 84. In the afternoon C Company, with two mortar carriers and three Bren carriers under command, advanced through A Company on Pt 150 and then up rough gullies to the left of 24 Battalion. It met with no opposition, though its position 400 yards south-west of the town was a distinct threat to Route 84 west of Castelfrentano.
After dark 25 Battalion closed on its forward company and occupied the next knoll about 500 yards west of it on the same ridge. Twenty-sixth Battalion was in touch with 24 Battalion's right flank and had a company close to Route 84 where it emerged on the eastern side of the town. A little farther to the east and north-east a squadron of New Zealand Divisional Cavalry was patrolling in very difficult country towards Route 84 where it ran northwards between Castelfrentano and Lanciano, so that the town was virtually under attack on three sides. The Divisional Cavalry maintained touch on its right with Indian troops who were attacking in the coastal sector. Units of 5 Brigade cemented a firm attacking front by advancing towards the plateau to the east of Castelfrentano. Twenty-fifth Battalion's casualties that day were one killed and four wounded.
In the early morning of 2 December 24 Battalion, with air support, advanced into Castelfrentano and found that the enemy had gone.
Beyond the town the Division was confronted by another very prominent ridge five miles to the north-west, which ran south-west from Arielli through Orsogna to Guardiagrele. One thousand feet high at Arielli, the ridge rose to 1400 feet at Orsogna and to 1500 feet at Guardiagrele and was separated from the Castelfrentano ridge by the steep valleys of the Moro River, the south-east slopes of Orsogna being very precipitous. An old Roman road–termed a cart track by the Germans– gave the most direct access to Orsogna from Route 84, which it left 400 yards west of Castelfrentano. This Roman road went steeply down into the deep defile of the Moro River and joined the Lanciano-Orsogna road 1400 yards beyond the river at a point 3000 yards from Orsogna; from that point the road proceeded up the narrow and very steep-sided Brecciarola ridge page 342 into the town. There at the entrance the road was narrow, with houses closely bordering it on either side; on the left or southern side the ridge fell away from the buildings almost as a precipice while the northern side, while not quite so steep, had been heavily mined, as was later discovered. Thus access to Orsogna from the east was limited to this very narrow ridge, permitting practically no manoeuvre and greatly favouring the defence.
Orders were issued from Division for the advance to continue. Sixth Brigade was to go across country towards Orsogna; 24 Battalion was to cut the Lanciano-Orsogna road a mile to the east of Orsogna, while 25 Battalion, as a first step, was to move along Route 84 to make contact with 18 Armoured Regiment and 22 Battalion which were advancing northwards up Route 84 from the San Eusanio area. On the right flank of the brigade, C Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment was to move on Orsogna along the Lanciano-Orsogna road; 5 Brigade was to consolidate the position it occupied on the ridge near Castelfrentano. To the left of 6 Brigade, 4 NZ Armoured Brigade was to advance on Guardiagrele and San Martino, two and a half miles west of Orsogna.
On the afternoon of 2 December, after climbing up the steep slopes to Route 84, 25 Battalion followed the road north-west to a large bend a mile and a half from Castelfrentano, where the road turned to the south-west. By 3 p.m. the companies had taken up positions and were dug-in west of the road near the bend. About the same time 24 Battalion had reached its allotted position on the Brecciarola ridge, a mile and a half north-west of 25 Battalion. Shortly after settling into its new position, 25 Battalion despatched B Company to the vicinity of San Amoto, west of Lanciano and two and a half miles north-east of the battalion, to form a protective screen for the night for the laagered tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment which, against some opposition, had moved there from Castelfrentano. On the way B Company had a sharp clash with the enemy and captured two prisoners, one heavy mortar and four light machine guns. Prisoners taken in this area by 19 Regiment revealed the presence of 26 Panzer Division, one of the best German divisions in Italy, and it was evident that stiff fighting lay ahead.
Back at the battalion a reconnaissance of the track known as the Roman Road was made by the Transport Officer, Second- Lieutenant Edinger,21 and two men of the Intelligence Section page 343 to see whether it was suitable for vehicles. A working party from A Company and the anti-tank platoon, together with a covering party under Second-Lieutenant West22 of A Company, were also sent up the same route. Just before dusk, the working party was fired on from the high ground near Orsogna. A fighting patrol from the covering party was sent forward and without loss captured five of the enemy. There was only one casualty in the battalion that day, one man being wounded.
During the evening 25 Battalion received orders to attack at dawn through Orsogna to a ridge 2000 yards west of the town and then exploit success to San Martino, two miles farther on. In the circumstances–the difficult country and the presence of 26 Panzer Division (though possibly not known when the order was issued)–it was an optimistic order, reflecting the optimism generally felt by Eighth Army at the time. At 1.30 a.m. on 3 December, with D Company leading, followed by C Com- page 344 pany, Battalion Headquarters, and A Company, the battalion advanced towards Orsogna via the Roman Road and the Lanciano-Orsogna road; B Company was still detached with the tanks. After an hour and three-quarters the column halted to form up, just beyond the forward positions of 24 Battalion, near which Battalion Headquarters was temporarily established. D Company (Captain Hewitt) deployed on both sides of the road and advanced slowly towards Orsogna, followed by C Company (Captain Webster) in the same formation. A Company (Major Robertshaw) in reserve dug in 1200 yards from the eastern outskirts of Orsogna. At its previous position 25 Battalion had been in telephonic communication with Brigade Headquarters but was now dependent on wireless.
Shortly after 6 a.m. at first light, D Company was on the outskirts of the town and had met with no opposition, though it had captured three Germans who had been digging a weapon pit. With 17 Platoon on the right and 18 Platoon on the left, the company advanced into the town; the two leading platoons had orders to go right through and leave to 16 Platoon the task of clearing the buildings. Good progress was made until the centre of Orsogna had been passed, when a German armoured car, which had come down the main street to the town square, opened fire from the rear on the two leading platoons. Under cover of supporting fire from the reserve platoon, 17 and 18 Platoons tried to work round to the south to engage the armoured car from that flank, but heavy fire from enemy infantry posts on both flanks forced the two platoons to take cover in the buildings.
Meanwhile a section of carriers under Sergeant O'Neill23 had entered the eastern side of the town. O'Neill explains what happened:
‘At 0610 hrs 3/12/43 my section of carriers (3) moved in support of D Coy to take the village of Orsogna. On entering the village we heard MG fire and also saw tracer going over our heads. We received orders to wipe out Spandau post in a group of houses and moved accordingly. The post on arrival, had been vacated so we then proceeded in direction of main road through village. While [we were] moving along an anti-tank gun opened on to us and we immediately went to cover at rear of houses. Later we were joined by C Company and remained in our position. We attempted to engage Spandau page 345 post on the ridge to the right of the village with our .5 MMG but could not get any reply. At approx 1000 hrs ten enemy tanks were observed on the right ridge. Five of the tanks placed themselves in position on the ridge and the other five went around in the direction of the village. The tanks on the ridge then shelled the village and also the houses in which we were quartered. Soon after, our own artillery opened up but the shells were falling short and landed in among C Coy troops and also hit the houses. I then attempted to OP for the arty and managed to increase the range to hit on the top of the right ridge but could not get them to shift in the right direction. While on OP work I heard C Coy being warned to withdraw and soon after Spandaus opened from our left and right flanks, while the enemy tanks were shelling the road.
‘I rounded up all my section personnel and confirmed a report that a tank was coming down the village road towards us. The three carriers had to be abandoned with all the equipent, etc., as we could not get on to the road in time, and all the personnel came away from the village.
‘Shortly after, I observed enemy personnel moving amongst the houses we had vacated.’
The enemy advance into the town frustrated any attempts by 17 and 18 Platoons to withdraw and both platoons were forced to surrender. As the enemy counter-attack developed, 16 Platoon had been ordered to hold its position as supporting tanks were expected. None appeared, however, and when the German tanks approached, the seven men who were all that remained of the platoon made a dash from the building they were occupying, ran along a street under fire, and escaped down a steep slope into a gully.
From its position at the eastern edge of the town C Company had been engaging the enemy, as opportunity offered, to cover the withdrawal of D Company, but the approach of the Germans necessitated a hurried retreat down a gully on the northern side of the Lanciano-Orsogna road. Enemy artillery and machine guns harassed the retiring troops and the road was heavily shelled all day.
Retiring through the position held by 24 Battalion, C Company, with the remnants of D Company and the men of the section of carriers, reorganised about a mile to the east of that battalion. Early the next day, 4 December, A Company, which had continued to hold its forward position in front of 24 Battalion, also retired and, with Battalion Headquarters, joined page 346 C and D Companies. The battalion's casualties were one officer (Second-Lieutenant Fordie,24 D Company) and three other ranks killed; one officer (Lieutenant Coleman, D Company) and fifty-two other ranks (including eight wounded) prisoners of war; and twenty-five other ranks wounded.
Although during the attack on the previous day tanks had not appeared in support of the battalion, they had not been inactive. When, at seven in the morning, Brigadier Parkinson had learnt that 25 Battalion was in trouble, he called urgently for armoured assistance from 4 Armoured Brigade and directed a troop of C Squadron, 19 Regiment, to use its guns in support of the battalion. From the road ahead of Castelfrentano the troop fired on the enemy assembling to the north-west of C Company and on the advancing tanks; by midday medium artillery also was in action against Orsogna. Two troops, each of three tanks, of A Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, in reserve about eight miles back near the Aventino River, moved up but were unable to reach 24 Battalion's position before 11 a.m., by which time C and D Companies of 25 Battalion had retired. The two troops, however, advanced up the road past A Company to within 500 yards of the outskirts of Orsogna and there fired on two German tanks which were advancing eastwards. One of these was disabled and abandoned by its crew, the other withdrew.
The remainder of A Squadron, 18 Regiment, also came forward, though some time after the two leading troops, but before reaching A Company had three tanks bogged and only two got through; these remained near A Company and fired on Orsogna, forming a defensive line when at nightfall the two leading troops withdrew to that vicinity.
The field artillery of the Division had also been engaged, all the regiments after midday firing on the enemy gun positions and, together with the air force, attacking the road running north-eastwards from Orsogna to Poggiofiorito and Ortona on the coast, eight miles beyond. The enemy aircraft had also taken part, bombing and strafing the forward positions, and the men saw more enemy machines than they had seen hitherto in Italy. The Germans were not allowed, however, to escape unscathed. About ten in the morning Spitfires had intervened and a running fight took place; in mid-afternoon the New Zealand Bofors shot down one aircraft and possibly a second.page 347
The operations of 25 Battalion on 3 December had resulted in a most unfortunate reverse which, it would seem, might well have been avoided. With no defence against tanks, the troops had little prospect of success. In a review of the operation the question arises as to whether too optimistic a view was taken in directing the battalion to attack an objective 2000 yards beyond Orsogna and then to exploit up to a further two miles. Penetration to such a depth, on a front which must necessarily have been narrow, exposed the battalion to counter-attacks from the flanks which could have been very dangerous, even if only enemy infantry was employed and our supporting battalions came forward. But with the great probability of enemy tanks being present on such a long and prominent ridge, containing both rail and road communications, the hazards were greatly increased, necessitating the presence of supporting anti-tank weapons and tanks well forward with the infantry and powerful and well-planned artillery support. If the difficulties associated with getting the artillery across the Sangro made proper artillery support impracticable, that could have been accepted, but the other requirements would then have been all the more imperative.
As regards the question of tank support, on 2 December C Squadron, 19 Armoured Regiment, on the right flank had already started via a secondary road (Loudon's Road) for its junction with the Lanciano-Orsogna road, two and a half miles to the north of Castelfrentano, when General Freyberg issued orders for the squadron to advance to Orsogna and from there to push out light patrols to Guardiagrele and San Martino. On its way north the squadron encountered and overcame enemy opposition, and on reaching the Lanciano-Orsogna road turned towards Orsogna but was stopped in the early afternoon by a blown bridge across the Moro River, which it found impossible to by-pass. As already related, the squadron laagered in the vicinity for the night 2 – 3 December, under the protection of B Company, 25 Battalion, and the following morning used its guns against the enemy in and near Orsogna. Had this squadron received General Freyberg's order in time to have taken the direct route to Orsogna, the same as that taken by 25 Battalion and the two troops of 18 Regiment, or had it been able to circumvent the blown bridge and move on Orsogna at dawn on the 3rd, the tank support then available for 25 Battalion may well have given the New Zealand attack a secure grip of Orsogna. The remainder of 19 Regiment was in the page 348 vicinity of Castelfrentano, and when it was known that C Squadron was stopped at the Moro there seems to be no reason why another squadron was not ordered forward via the Roman Road.
The absence of the support weapons of the battalion requires some explanation. Twenty-fourth Battalion, which advanced towards Orsogna early in the afternoon of the 2nd, was established on the Brecciarola ridge and dug in by 5 p.m., waiting for its support weapons, which by 10 p.m. arrived via the Roman Road. Yet 25 Battalion, which passed through 24 Battalion five hours later and then, after another three hours, attacked Orsogna only a mile away, had no support weapons. It appears that a combination of bad roads, the receipt after dark (at 10 p.m.) of the order to attack Orsogna at dawn (necessitating an approach march at night), and severe shelling of the road when daylight came prevented the support weapons from reaching the battalion. An extract from the battalion's war diary reads: ‘… very wintry weather resulting in D Coy being cut off in Orsogna as support weapons were unable to move through the heavy going to support the attack.’
In considering 25 Battalion's attack it must be remembered that the battalion had been deprived of B Company and so had three companies only for its extensive task. In the event this reduction in strength, though it could have been important, was of no account as in the attack only two companies were actively employed, and one of these was in a supporting role and did not enter the town.
But, important as the above considerations may be, the ques tion of the timing of the attack was even more so. Obviously, the less time allowed a retreating enemy to organise, reinforce, and improve his next position, the greater would be the pros pects of success. Orsogna could have been attacked by 24 Battalion during the afternoon of 2 December or by 25 Battalion by the late afternoon. Supporting weapons, for 24 Battalion at least, were available by 10 p.m., and for both battalions could have been at Orsogna by dawn on 3 December. The enemy was given from eight to twelve hours to prepare for the attack, and during that period may well have laid the numerous mines found in front of his position. But most unfortunately, as was subsequently learnt, he was able to bring into the Orsogna position by midnight on 2 – 3 December the 26 Panzer Division's reconnaissance unit (the first company of which reached Orsogna at 6.30 p.m. on the 2nd), together with a page 349 company of tanks (including flame-throwers) and two 20-millimetre four-barrelled anti-aircraft guns. The intervention of this reinforcement was a natural consequence of the delay in mounting the attack.
On the morning of the 4th 24 Battalion found Orsogna strongly held and at 5 p.m. 25 Battalion moved up on the right of 24 Battalion, extending the front along the San Felice ridge to the north-east, where it was about 800 yards west of the Lanciano-Orsogna road. A Company was on the right and B Company (which had rejoined during the day) was on the left, each on a front of 700 yards. A night standing patrol near the fork of two rivers, 400 yards north of A Company's right flank, was established by 9 Platoon. The remnants of D Company were accommodated in a house behind 24 Battalion and 800 yards to the south-west of 25 Battalion.
During the morning of 4 December a patrol from 23 Battalion, which held a reserve position on Loudon's Road, a mile or more to the south-east, reported to 25 Battalion. It had the somewhat ambitious project of shooting-up traffic and laying mines on the Poggiofiorito-Orsogna road, two miles to the north-west. Twenty-fifth Battalion was able to steer it clear of its proposed route up the Sfasciata ridge, which was strongly held by the enemy; although it did not achieve its object the patrol had various contacts with the enemy and returned to its battalion the next morning. On the afternoon of the 4th carriers of 23 Battalion were also in touch with 25 Battalion.
C Company, temporarily situated close to the Moro River near the road bend 500 yards east of B Company, had orders to put out that night, 4 – 5 December, a strong standing patrol on the Sfasciata ridge, 700 yards to the north-west of A Company's standing patrol. To prepare the way the locality was first subjected, at 10 p.m., to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. An hour after midnight 13 and 15 Platoons, with a line party of signallers and with snipers and intelligence personnel attached, left Company Headquarters and, moving down the bed of the Moro River, formed up about 300 yards north-east of A Company's patrol. On a total frontage of 100 yards, 13 Platoon was on the right and 15 on the left. The platoons then advanced due west up the steep face towards the Sfasciata ridge for about 400 yards, when about 3.30 a.m. German flares went up followed by machine-gun, mortar, and rifle fire from steeply rising ground on the right. The two platoons advanced slowly up the slope, silencing four machine-gun posts on the way, but were finally page 350 pinned down by heavy fire from a flat-topped hill above them.
This was an hour after first contact had been made and the platoon commanders decided to withdraw. On reaching A Company both platoons were placed on the right flank, extending it for about 300 yards eastwards across the stream. The battalion's casualties on 4 December were one officer (Captain Frost, Carrier Platoon) died of wounds, and one man wounded.
On the left flank of 6 Brigade, 26 Battalion was in position below the Brecciarola ridge in the Moro valley south of 24 Battalion. There had been heavy rain on the 4th which caused a high flood in the Sangro, and by the evening this had washed away the bridge on 6 Brigade's original sector and was threatening the other bridges; that night the only bridge remaining on Eighth Army's front was a 24-ton class Bailey bridge which, by 1 December, had been erected near the bridge in 5 Brigade's original sector. The northern approach had, however, been washed away in places and until 11 a.m. on the 5th, when the damage was repaired, the Sangro was impassable. This situation emphasised the grave menace such a river could be to forces established beyond it, and it was only the clearing of the weather during the night, which enabled flood waters to be dammed and the approach repaired, that on this occasion relieved a crisis.
On the morning of 5 December 3 MG Company and 10 Platoon of 4 MG Company occupied positions on the right rear of 25 Battalion, in the vicinity of Hellfire Corner, from which they could engage the enemy on the Sfasciata ridge. This was part of a plan for a full-scale attack on the enemy positions between Sfasciata and Orsogna and for harassing him on Sfasciata. There was some patrol activity by 25 Battalion that day. In the early afternoon Second-Lieutenant Lawson25 of A Company took a reconnaissance patrol to investigate suspected minefields, and after dark another patrol under Sergeant Chapman26 of B Company went down the Moro valley for 1200 yards to the north-east and reconnoitred the eastern side of the Sfasciata ridge but saw no sign of the enemy. About the same time Sergeant O'Neill with six carriers established a standing patrol east of the Moro on the right flank, a little to the north-west of Hellfire Corner. As usual, observation over the enemy positions in front of the battalion was maintained page 351 by the Intelligence Section, which had an OP on the left of B Company, and on the forward slope nearby the battalion snipers on the lookout for targets intensified the close watch that was being kept. No doubt the enemy was similarly vigilant.
Farther afield, the right flank of 25 Battalion seemed to be well guarded. Lanciano to the east had been captured by 8 Indian Division, whose patrols, as well as detachments of the Divisional Cavalry, were around Frisa, two and a half miles north-east of the battalion, while patrols from a Canadian tank regiment had established contact with the New Zealand Division near Hellfire Corner.
Road communications had been much improved by the erection on the Lanciano-Orsogna road of a Bailey bridge, near the blown bridge which so unfortunately had stopped the advance of New Zealand armour on the 2nd and 3rd of the month. This gave the battalion and other troops in the area a much better route, though long stretches were under enemy observation and subjected to heavy shelling at times, notably Hellfire Corner and the road running south-west from there to the new Bailey bridge; drivers and others who had to use the road and working parties maintaining it were often severely harassed. Another road was similarly treated: that part of Route 84 leading from Castelfrentano to the north-west, which 25 Battalion had used on the 1st and which was carrying heavy traffic, received so much fire that it was called ‘The Mad Mile’, it being the habit of drivers to traverse it at reckless speed. The new bridge enabled 25 Battalion to avoid this section of the road.
Although there had been considerable artillery fire elsewhere, the battalion received only a few mortar shells, and during the night some heavy shells burst near the road across the valley to the rear. During the afternoon the appearance of enemy fighter-bombers, harassed by anti-aircraft fire and Spitfires, created interest rather than hazards for the men on the ground. Casualties for the day were two killed (Lance-Corporals Glynan27 and Thomson28) and three wounded.
The orders for the impending attack were issued on the afternoon of 6 December. The attack was to be made in daylight on the next afternoon by 5 and 6 Brigades, 5 Brigade on page 352 the right; the Maori Battalion was to attack up Pascuccio spur opposite the left front of 25 Battalion, its objective being the road beyond Cemetery ridge; 23 Battalion was to attack Sfasciata ridge. In 6 Brigade 24 Battalion was to attack Orsogna; 25 Battalion was to hold its ground as a firm base for 5 Brigade; and 26 Battalion would serve the same purpose for 6 Brigade by coming forward and occupying 24 Battalion's position when that battalion advanced.
That night the battalion had a patrol working down the eastern side of Sfasciata ridge as far as the river fork at the northern end. Nothing was seen of the enemy, but the patrol passed what appeared to be a machine-gun post well up on the north-eastern shoulder of the ridge. The only casualty of the day was Private L. P. Jones,29 who died of wounds.
Although the 7th, the day of the attack, was a little clearer than the previous day, which had been showery with poor observation, the showers continued and visibility was still poor, page 353 interfering seriously with the heavy air support of thirteen squadrons of fighter-bombers which had been arranged, and the men saw only a few aircraft overhead. Before daylight Corporal Bartlett30 and another battalion sniper occupied a forward OP in a pink house in front of B Company and were in touch with that company, the battalion mortars, and an artillery OP by No. 38 wireless set.
In the early afternoon there was much activity in the battalion's area when the two attacking battalions of 5 Brigade passed through on their way to their start lines. At 1 p.m. a standing barrage (to be followed by a creeping barrage) by three field regiments opened, another field regiment was firing smoke, a medium battery was shelling Orsogna and the road west of it, and other artillery was engaging selected targets. A large number of machine guns, many of them only a few hundred yards behind or east of the battalion, joined in and the men found the din deafening.
The battalion also played an active part in the attack, A, B, and C Companies giving covering fire against specified sectors of the ridge in front, while the mortars bombarded the reverse slope. Half an hour after the artillery barrage commenced the battalion stood-to and continued in this state of readiness until darkness fell. Back at the RAP a number of wounded men of 23 Battalion were attended by the RMO (Captain Pearse) before evacuation to the field ambulance.
In the initial stages the attack had proceeded according to plan. Twenty-third Battalion had only about a thousand yards to go, though the country was steep, and, opposed only by shell and mortar fire, the battalion was firmly established within the hour on the base of Sfasciata ridge. Twenty-eighth Battalion also had a steep climb, including an escarpment almost sheer in places, before reaching the Poggiofiorito- Orsogna road; considerable opposition was encountered, and although the battalion succeeded in reaching the objective and in repelling repeated counter-attacks, its position was overlooked by the enemy to such an extent that it would be untenable in daylight, and the battalion was ordered to withdraw. The country was so difficult that neither battalion of 5 Brigade was able to get its support weapons forward.
On 6 Brigade front 24 Battalion, early in the attack, met with considerable artillery and mortar fire and later with machine-gun fire; S-mines also were encountered. The centre page 354 of Orsogna was reached despite considerable resistance, which included tanks. New Zealand tanks in support were stopped by craters, but after dusk were able to enter the fringe of the town. There they were again stopped by mines and strongly defended posts, including a tank skilfully placed up a side street, and subsequent efforts meeting with no success, the troops were withdrawn.
Except for the position gained on Sfasciata ridge by 23 Battalion the operation was a failure, the casualties suffered by the attacking troops being 29 killed, 93 wounded, and 35 missing; two tanks were lost. The enemy lost an unknown number of killed and wounded and fifty-four prisoners, while three tanks and one anti-tank gun were known to have been put out of action. Twenty-fifth Battalion's casualty list was one man (Private Ryan31) wounded and taken prisoner.
The day following the attack was beautifully fine and there was much air activity, forty Kittybombers raiding Orsogna and the enemy defences on the ridge continuously from nine in the morning. On three occasions the enemy sent over Messerschmitts, and New Zealand Bofors anti-aircraft guns, as well as men of 25 Battalion and everyone else within range, engaged them heavily without apparent result. The battalion RAP, being established in a house as usual, naturally took a keen interest in enemy bombers, and on this particular day had the added interest of discussion with the American driver of an attached United States Army ambulance, who was found to be ‘a grand guy’.
Air activity by both sides the next day (9 December) was on much the same scale as previously, and except for a few shells, which were too close to some of the men to be pleasant, it was a quiet day for the battalion. Away off to the left on the Brecciarola ridge, eight New Zealand tanks caused a violent disturbance when, to test the defences, they heavily shelled Orsogna. The enemy response was lively, with heavy shelling of the vicinity of the tanks, the placing of a smoke screen round Orsogna, and the advance of three tanks to the eastern edge of the town, from which place they shelled the New Zealand tanks. The New Zealand artillery and a medium regiment replied strongly and the fracas ended, when their ammunition was expended, by the withdrawal of the New Zealand tanks, one of which was damaged by a direct hit.page 355
An attack by 5 Brigade, which was planned for the night of 10- 11 December, was cancelled in the morning as a Canadian attack in the coastal sector the previous night had met with more resistance than had been expected, although for a time, due to better progress by the Canadians, a further operation was proposed. The New Zealand Division therefore continued its policy of active patrolling in order to hold as many enemy troops as possible on the New Zealand front. In the course of these operations a force of two platoons of 23 Battalion, four six-pounder anti-tank guns, and seven tanks occupied a salient within 400 yards of the Poggiofiorito-Orsogna road, 2000 yards north-west of 25 Battalion. The same evening 25 Battalion placed a standing patrol of one platoon of fourteen men under Sergeant Bellerby32 on the base of Pascuccio ridge, where, on 4 December, 24 Battalion had placed a standing patrol; communication was established by No. 38 set and later by wire, and a defensive fire plan was arranged both for artillery and machine guns. There was one casualty (Private Pitt33) reported wounded during the day.
Eighth Army's plan for the attack had been recast to provide for four divisions—1 Canadian, 8 Indian, 5 British, and 2 New Zealand—eventually to advance on the front between the Adriatic and Orsogna, while another division (78 British) would hold the mountains on the left of the New Zealand Division. In the meantime, on the night 12 – 13 December, 17 Brigade of 5 British Division was to come under New Zealand command and fill a gap between the left flank of 8 Indian Division and the New Zealand right.
On 11 December many shells fell in 25 Battalion's position but no one was hit. On Pascuccio ridge Sergeant Bellerby's standing patrol detected an enemy OP and directed artillery fire on it. Late in the evening the men heard heavy artillery fire, and learnt later that it was a barrage fired for nearly an hour by 6 Field Regiment to simulate an attack in order to draw the enemy's defensive fire and so test its strength and position. This stratagem failed as the enemy simply ignored it.
All battalions of the brigade had patrols out that night. Twenty-fifth Battalion kept its standing patrol on Pascuccio ridge, and also sent a reconnaissance patrol westwards up a gully page 356 on its south side to within 600 yards of the road and thence across the ridge. It found fresh digging there and heard the enemy working just ahead; traffic could also be heard on the road. The patrol returned without incident. The following day 14 Platoon (which was providing the standing patrol) placed a listening post 500 yards in advance, near where the patrol had been the previous night, and withdrew it an hour after midnight; an enemy working party was again heard but the nature of the work could not be ascertained. When the listening-post men returned, artillery fire was directed against the working party and nothing more was heard of it. On the same day the battalion received a very welcome reinforcement of fifty-four men from the base at Bari, the strength at the time being over 200 below establishment.
The 4.2-inch mortar made its first appearance in the battalion when, on 13 December, Sergeant Cook34 of the mortar platoon obtained one at Brigade Headquarters. This was attached to the battalion, but later at Luce the Brigade Heavy Mortar Battery was formed from the three battalions' detachments, the men being detached from their units until operations were of a more mobile character. The mortar, firing a 20-pound bomb, had the useful range of 4400 yards.
In the evening a patrol of three men led by Second-Lieutenant Rees made another reconnaissance of Pascuccio. It found no enemy on the ridge but, as on the previous night, heard a good deal of traffic moving along the road. The same night D Company moved forward a short distance to the crest of San Felice ridge on the left of B Company. The only casualty reported for the day was Private Whitaker,35 wounded.
The following afternoon (14 December) Colonel Morten gave the company commanders the plan for a further advance the next day. While 5 Brigade attacked and secured positions west of the Poggiofiorito-Orsogna road, 6 Brigade was to advance and protect the left flank of that brigade; 5 Brigade's frontage would extend from a little to the north of Duncan's Road, on the right, for 2500 yards to the Cemetery on the left, 1500 yards north-east of Orsogna.
The day preceding the attack was fairly quiet, with little shelling. Three casualties were reported: Sergeant Heine, died of wounds, and Sergeant Sullivan36 and Private Ludemann37 wounded. In the late afternoon, in readiness to support the page 358 advance of the battalion, four 3-inch mortars laden on mules, and with a carrying party of thirty-seven men, were taken forward to the standing patrol position on Pascuccio ridge. The night was very cold and the light but intermittent rain which fell during and after the attack made conditions very unpleasant.
B Company (Major Possin) was detailed to secure the battalion's objective. At zero hour, accompanied by 11 MG Platoon, it advanced through the standing patrol's position and climbed up the Pascuccio spur towards the Cemetery, with 10 and 11 Platoons on the northern side of the spur and 12 Platoon on the southern. In the darkness the steep and slippery slopes were difficult to negotiate and progress was slow. For the first half-hour no opposition was encountered, but soon afterwards 10 Platoon in the lead, 900 yards from the objective, was halted by flanking machine-gun fire, while on the left of the company front shell and mortar fire forced 12 Platoon to take cover. This stopped the advance of the company and, as the opposition could not be overcome or evaded, the troops dug in and awaited the arrival of men of 23 Battalion, which had tanks in close support.
B Company had lost touch with Battalion Headquarters, 10 Platoon could not find one of its sections, and 12 Platoon was disorganised and not in contact with the rest of the company. However, Company Headquarters was in touch with 26 Battalion on the ridge on its left rear, and until daylight 25 Battalion sent all instructions for B Company through that battalion.
Enemy mortar fire continued unabated, and the company called for artillery concentrations against mortars situated near the road 600 yards north of Orsogna and directed the fire. This had little effect. At 3.50 a.m. Battalion Headquarters ordered B Company to push on to the road before dawn and find 23 Battalion's left flank. By that time the company was reduced to 11 Platoon (Lieutenant Berry) and two sections of 10 Platoon, the third section having been knocked out by mortar fire, but these remnants advanced against hostile fire to within 200 yards of the road. A patrol sent forward from that position reported that the enemy was holding the line of the road in strength.
The enemy fire was intense and the platoons retired about 600 yards. At 6.15 a.m. fresh orders were received to advance again when heavy artillery supporting fire, which was being arranged, came down on the enemy positions. With this assist- page 359 ance 11 Platoon worked its way forward, and Sergeant Chapman, making a reconnaissance by himself, reached A Company of 23 Battalion about dawn. He found there was a gap of 500 yards between the left of 23 Battalion and B Company, too wide to be covered by the troops on the spot, and generally there was a good deal of confusion. New Zealanders and Germans were in small groups throughout the area and a continuous line could not be formed. From its position 200 yards behind 11 Platoon, 10 Platoon was ordered forward but was again halted by enemy fire. About the only bright feature in this dismal situation was the arrival about this time of a hot meal, sent up to B Company by pack mules.
After dawn 23 Battalion, whose left flank was several hundred yards too far to the right, requested that B Company should move about 400 yards to the right and to within 300 yards of the road to secure 23 Battalion's flank. Although 25 Battalion did not agree with the proposal, 6 Brigade Headquarters, to whom it was referred, ordered that B Company should be placed under command of 23 Battalion. The company then took up the position required by that unit.
During the operation Private L. G. Sinclair,38 who was in charge of the RAP detachment with the company, organised a party of stretcher-bearers and led them forward to where several wounded men requiring attention were lying on a track 700 yards beyond Company Headquarters. Under particularly heavy fire from mortars and artillery, Sinclair dressed the wounded, showing great coolness and courage, and then had them carried out. He received a well-merited Military Medal. The company's casualties, five killed and nine wounded, were taken back to the standing patrol position where the RAP had been established.
Sergeant N. K. Chapman was also awarded the Military Medal. After completing the reconnaissance already mentioned, Chapman crossed about 800 yards of unknown ground to find the Commanding Officer of 23 Battalion, who explained the situation. He then reported to B Company headquarters, his information enabling the company to complete its task.
Late in the afternoon New Zealand tanks were active, passing through the Cemetery with the object of blocking the western exit of Orsogna and then moving to the south-west towards Guardiagrele. They met severe opposition from tanks and anti-tank guns and at dusk withdrew to the Cemetery, where a page 360 detachment from 23 Battalion protected their laager. At this stage, when the defence of the Cemetery seemed assured, B Company at 7 p.m. reverted to the command of 25 Battalion but remained where it was.
The operation had resulted in 5 Brigade cutting the Poggiofiorito-Orsogna road on a front of a mile and being firmly established in the position, supported by tanks well forward and by organised artillery and machine-gun defensive fire when required. These defences were tested in mid-afternoon by strong counter-attacks, and later by tanks and infantry supported by artillery and machine-gun fire; after severe fighting all attacks were repulsed with considerable loss to the enemy. It was subsequently learnt that 26 Panzer Division had four battalions forward between Poggiofiorito and Orsogna, but had been forced to send its only reserve battalion and its last tanks towards the coast. In the absence of tanks to meet the New Zealand attack, a strong line of anti-tank guns was established behind the forward troops and later in the day a few tanks were brought up from Arielli.
After dawn next morning an attack beyond the Cemetery, arranged the previous evening, was made by 20 Armoured Regiment and 28 Battalion, but in the face of severe opposition was not successful. Twenty-fifth Battalion continued to hold Pascuccio spur and still maintained its standing patrol, which although now behind the front line, was required to watch the gully between Pascuccio and Brecciarola ridges.
That day there was much air activity, in the course of which Messerschmitts before noon raided the battalion's position and American aircraft dropped a few bombs behind it, but no damage was caused. On the following morning an attempt by two platoons of 26 Battalion and two troops of 20 Armoured Regiment to enter Orsogna did not succeed, the troops being withdrawn in the late afternoon and evening. There was also some activity on both flanks but little result, and for the next few days the Division adopted a holding and patrolling policy. B Company spent most of the 17th removing mines from the head of the gully near its position on the northern side of the Pascuccio spur.
In the future, so long as circumstances permitted, 6 Brigade intended to hold its position with one battalion forward and one in support, while the third battalion would be in reserve recuperating at Castelfrentano. The battalions were to change over so that each had six days in the line and three in reserve. page 361 Twenty-sixth Battalion was the first to go back, being relieved on the night of 18 December in the forward position by 24 Battalion. At the same time the depth of the brigade's defences was increased by an improvement in 25 Battalion's dispositions on the San Felice ridge. At dusk in a heavy fog, A Company was moved from the northern slopes of the ridge, where it had remained since the 4th, into 24 Battalion's former position near the junction of the Roman Road with the Lanciano- Orsogna road. There it overlooked the Moro valley running eastwards from the vicinity of Orsogna. Company Headquarters and the platoons were all accommodated in houses with their defensive positions nearby. After completing its task of removing the mines, B Company was withdrawn to the position vacated by A Company. C and D Companies remained where they were, C Company towards the northern end of San Felice ridge and D Company about 600 yards north of A Company's new position. During the day the strength of the battalion was increased by the arrival of another fifty reinforcements. Corporal Mead,38 wounded, was the only casualty of the day.
Next day, Sunday, 19 December, was quiet. After dark 25 Battalion took over from 24 Battalion the standing patrol position on Colle Chiamato overlooking the Moro valley, A Company being on the other side of the valley, about 800 yards to the north-east. The patrol, a platoon by night and a section by day, occupied a house on the edge of a ravine leading down to the Moro from the western end of Colle Chiamato. The other standing patrol position on Pascuccio was to be held by night only. Kittyhawks bombed and strafed Orsogna that day and the next, though a heavy bombing programme arranged for the 19th was cancelled. Another reinforcement numbering eighty men on the 20th brought the total arrivals during the last eight days up to 184. The one casualty reported that day was Private Walsh,39 wounded.
B Company had a change of company commanders, Major Possin being evacuated sick and Captain Williams from the Support Company taking his place, while Captain Sanders from HQ Company went to A Company.
On the evening of the 21st it was 25 Battalion's turn to go into reserve, and on relief by 26 Battalion it moved back to page 362 Castelfrentano for three days' rest. The march of three or four miles in the dark was very unpleasant, but with the prospect of a clean-up and a rest in comparative comfort, the men made light of it, their only complaint after settling down for the night being that the New Zealand guns kept them awake for some time. From their excellent viewpoint on the ridge on Castelfrentano, the men next day enjoyed the spectacle of thirty RAF bombers attacking Orsogna and of the New Zealand artillery shelling enemy anti-aircraft positions around the town.
On 23 December further changes in the officers of the battalion occurred: Colonel Morten was evacuated sick and Major Norman took command of the battalion, with Major Robertshaw as his second-in-command; Captain Webster from B Company took command of HQ Company.
Anticipating its return to the forward area, the battalion on the 23rd had its Christmas dinner in the peace and relative comfort of its position in reserve. A very good meal was provided, as in former years, from special rations supplemented by local supplies, fruit, and beer, while the issue of a Patriotic Fund parcel to every man and a large parcel mail provided additional delicacies and enhanced the Christmas atmosphere. In traditional fashion the officers waited on their men, and Brigadier Parkinson and Major Norman visited the troops at their meals.
On 24 December a further attack on the enemy positions north-east of Orsogna was made by 5 Brigade. Some success was attained against strong opposition though, with the exception of a company of 21 Battalion across the Arielli stream, the troops did not reach the second objective and no exploitation was possible. On the right flank of the attack the position secured by 21 Battalion was very thinly held and fighting continued all day, with the enemy, a training battalion of 6 Parachute Regiment, in close proximity. It was decided to relieve 21 Battalion, and in the early afternoon of Christmas Eve 25 Battalion was ordered forward for this purpose.
The route followed was a somewhat circuitous one to the north and west. No. 11 MG Platoon accompanied the battalion but left its guns behind as it was to take over those of 3 MG Platoon in the line. About 5 p.m., just as a halt was made for the evening meal, rain fell and the going, especially along Duncan's Road, was extremely wet and muddy and the men found the march most exhausting. In addition to the very heavy packs, extra rations were carried, and with boots clogged with page 363 mud the men floundered on in the darkness almost yard by yard in single file, maintaining contact by sound and having trouble in keeping to the road.
On reaching the Poggiofiorito-Orsogna road the companies moved by various routes to their positions. Following the road for half a mile to the south-west towards Orsogna, D Company (Captain Hewitt) turned off to the west and took up its position on a second ridge 1000 yards from the road, crossing two watercourses of the Arielli stream on the way. There it relieved C Company, 21 Battalion, and also B Company, 26 Battalion, on the left flank of 25 Battalion's sector, a mile and a half north-east of Orsogna. A Company (Captain Sanders) went to Pt 331 on the right flank, about 1200 yards to the north-east of D Company, and B Company (Captain Williams) was in support on Pt 332 in the vicinity of the road 800 yards behind. C Company (Major Webster) supported D Company on the other flank and occupied a ridge 300 yards behind it.
By half an hour after midnight, on Christmas morning, the relief of 21 Battalion had been completed. By the time the troops had dug themselves in, it was nearing daylight, and shortly afterwards the German mortars commenced shelling the position. The situation of D Company was not very secure and the platoons were brought closer together; however, in the event of attack the company had orders to withdraw across the Arielli stream a hundred yards or so in its rear. F Troop, 32 Anti-Tank Battery, which had been supporting 21 Battalion, had remained in position and by the morning 25 Battalion's own anti-tank guns were also ready, having been dragged up with considerable difficulty. No. 11 MG Platoon, too, was ready in the positions taken over from 3 MG Platoon.
Christmas morning was very quiet along the whole front, with just enough shelling and mortar fire to disturb the peace of the day, though Corporal Kingsford40 had the misfortune to be wounded. Early in the morning 6 Brigade Headquarters had moved up and taken over operational control from 5 Brigade.
No further effort was made by the New Zealanders to breach the German defences on the Arielli-Orsogna front. A skilful defence by first-class German troops and the onset of winter had stopped the offensive and made further operations unprofitable until the weather improved. About ten miles from the sea, and with an elevation of 1000 feet at Poggiofiorito and page 364 1400 feet at Orsogna, rising to peaks of 6500 to 7300 feet nine miles to the south-west, the ridge, held in part by 25 Battalion, naturally experienced severe winter weather, which made it necessary to get the men into buildings where possible; thus the forward defended localities consisted chiefly of platoon posts in farm buildings, with slit trenches in the immediate vicinity. On account of enemy observation, movement of any kind was difficult and usually had to be undertaken in darkness. The tracks and roads were in a bad state and would soon be impassable to vehicles if used to any extent. Supplies for the forward troops had to be brought up by mules, though jeeps were used to bring meals from the brick kiln in Castelfrentano as far as the Moro River.
After dark on Christmas Day a battalion of a British paratroop brigade took over from 24 Battalion on Brecciarola ridge east of Orsogna, the latter battalion moving back a little over a mile for a brief rest. As darkness fell the enemy artillery, mortar, and Spandau fire increased a good deal, and though some movement of German troops near the forward positions was observed, there were no further developments.
The next day German mortars were again in evidence. The weather was dull and cold, with drizzling rain. In front of 25 Battalion the Germans were seen moving about freely after 10 a.m., and it was unfortunate (though that was not the term used by infantry observers) that the artillery fire directed against them should fall 300 yards short until corrected, when of course the opportunity had passed. It was a case, as a Maori soldier once put it, of ‘If the first shell no catch the Maori, the second no chance.’ During the next few hours the Vickers guns with the battalion twice broke up parties of Germans moving in the same locality, and in mid-afternoon further movement was shelled by the 4.2-inch mortars. D Company, which had good observation, was able to act as observers for all this fire, but naturally its prominent position out on a spur attracted much enemy mortar fire. This gave the company an unpleasant time and made it difficult to maintain communication with Battalion Headquarters.
At 6.30 p.m. B Company, from its support position, took over D Company's position, D Company withdrawing to B Company's position. Soon afterwards B Company placed a listening post about 400 yards to the north-west beyond the gully which extended along the front. The enemy mortar fire which had worried A Company continued throughout the night, two men page 365 being wounded. The 27th was bitterly cold, with moderately heavy rain and some hail. At 3 a.m. C Company, from its support position, sent a patrol of three men to the north-west of B Company, beyond the listening post towards a road 1100 yards away which led to the village of Magliano. The patrol found that the enemy was holding the road in strength and withdrew, reaching its lines by 5.30 a.m. The listening post also withdrew by dawn with nothing to report. At daybreak the enemy position found by the patrol was heavily mortared and shelled.
Soon after midday B Company reported that about fifty of the enemy were dug in behind a house 200 yards north of the listening-post position and that snipers were active in various houses. It was a busy afternoon. Shortly after noon enemy tanks and infantry were fired on by artillery and machine guns and no further movement was reported there. An hour later enemy movement 200 yards farther away was also shelled, both by the artillery and by four tanks with C Company, which reported that the artillery fire was effective and that the four tanks had gone forward and had fired on the houses in the area, later withdrawing. Subsequently a sniper was seen in a group of houses 800 yards north-west of A Company, and the houses were shelled by the artillery after the battalion mortars had fired smoke to indicate the target. Before dusk an A Company reconnaissance patrol under Corporal Bennett41 crossed the Arielli stream and, climbing to the crest of the next ridge about 600 yards to the west, reached the vicinity of Pt 340 without opposition. The patrol reported the houses on the side of the hill to be unoccupied but saw two Germans on Pt 340.
To give some additional protection to B Company in its somewhat exposed position, C Company placed a standing patrol of one section in a position overlooking the Arielli stream on the northern flank of that company. Another standing patrol on the other flank of B Company was provided by 26 Battalion at the request of Major Norman. These patrols were provided only at night to guard the approaches.
Early the following day, 28 December, a German who appeared to have lost his way wandered into B Company's position and, after being challenged, was shot while trying to escape. During the night there had been intermittent and searching artillery and mortar fire against 25 Battalion's position but it page 366 was ineffective. It was again a very cold day, and though there was no rain the ominous sky seemed to threaten a fall of snow.
The cold, wet weather was causing considerable hardship to the men and the conditions in the forward posts made reliefs necessary at short intervals. The routes serving the battalion notably Duncan's Road, which had been cut up by tanks, were quagmires and no vehicles were permitted on this road without the specific approval of 6 Brigade Headquarters. Rations for the battalion, including one hot meal each day, continued to be brought forward on mules. Near Battalion Headquarters and the RAP, engineers were busy with bulldozers, and Canadian engineers farther back were blowing up damaged houses to get material for metalling the roads.
One of the many acts of kindness and service by New Zealand medical officers throughout the war was performed that morning when the battalion RMO (Captain Pearse) removed a cyst from the throat of an Italian girl.
In the afternoon enemy tanks opened heavy fire on C Company; sound bearings were taken and the artillery was called upon to silence them. Later a patrol of three men under Corporal Green42 went to Pt 340, but by the time the patrol reached the place, however, the light had faded and, other than some empty weapon pits, nothing was seen. The only casualty reported on the 28th was Corporal Firth,43 wounded.
At night D Company returned to the left flank of the battalion, exchanging positions with C Company. In front and to the left of D Company, B Company's left forward section was being sniped at by a tommy gun, thought at first to be fired by mistake by men of 26 Battalion. Occasional single shots continued, and on investigation an enemy patrol was found. It was engaged by the flanking posts of B Company and by 26 Battalion's standing patrol, and the tommy gun ceased fire but resumed half an hour later. Soon afterwards a German who was captured in the vicinity said that his patrol had been dispersed by the fire from the New Zealand posts, and that two other German patrols were out; nothing was seen of these
The German patrols seemed to be showing a little more enterprise, and to assist in guarding against surprise, 600 yards of trip-wires attached to igniters were erected in front and on page 367 the flanks of the forward posts of B Company on the battalion's left flank. The following morning (29 December) there was a good deal of enemy activity at some buildings in front of the company; tanks of A Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, in support fired on the buildings, provoking enemy shelling and mortar fire; in retaliation B Company then called for artillery fire against the guns and mortars. Exchanges of this sort on a small scale, mostly against the forward positions, continued throughout the day.
Farther back the enemy fired a few airbursts, a favourite German ranging method a quarter of a century ago, the shells bursting with a very startling ‘crump’ and usually much black smoke. This was followed by heavy shelling and mortaring of the houses in the Battalion Headquarters area occupied by the troops, five of the buildings being hit. Fortunately, casualties were light, three men being wounded, one of whom died the next morning.
At dusk Sergeant Tulloch44 took out a patrol from B Com pany to booby-trap houses which had been the target for the New Zealand artillery earlier in the day. He gave a report on the operation:
‘The patrol … left at approx 1730 hrs. We left from Barn OP following down a track as shown by guide. After we had crossed the wadi we moved along the forward slope (enemy side) until in line with objective-when in direct line with obj. we approached as warily as possible. When we were within about 15 yds of objective we noticed movement on our right. Unable to go further we went to ground. After a short while men were noticed coming across the horizon, about 15 to 20 men, and along the skyline, not trying to conceal themselves were another 10 or more. During this time one of the men from the party of 10 walked to the haystack and spoke in whispering voice to person apparently in slit trenches, number unknown. The party on our right patrolled their forward slope coming up in line and below where we were concealed. To my mind I would say that the horizon would be no more than 50 yds behind the haystack.
‘In the gap in the hedge we had crossed there was a wire which I did not have time to investigate. It may or may not be a trip wire.’page 368
In the circumstances there was only one course open to the patrol and that was to retire and report the situation. This was done and heavy fire from artillery, mortars, and machine guns was directed against the buildings. This brought a report from A Company, on the other flank, that two white flares 1000 yards to the north were fired by the enemy when the artillery opened fire and shortly afterwards an enemy patrol was seen. On two occasions machine-gun fire was directed on the locality where the flares had appeared, and also on the route the patrol was likely to take. This relentless harassing of the enemy was a good example of the policy adopted by the Division during the period when offensive operations on a larger scale were impracticable.
Except for a little artillery fire and an alarm at 10 p.m. when one of the igniters on the trip-wires in front of B Com pany exploded without apparent cause, the remainder of the night on the battalion's front was quiet. The next day was fine with good visibility, and the battalion's OPs reported a good deal of movement. The RAF was active and an observation aircraft directed artillery fire on to the various targets observed. Two men of B Company were wounded by mortar fire, the other casualties of the day being four died of wounds. During the day it was found that the houses in front of B Company were again occupied by the enemy and snipers in them were a menace. This nuisance was not to be borne unchallenged, and an observed artillery shoot was arranged, B Company first ranging on the target with smoke from 2-inch mortars. Later in the day the same area was twice bombarded, once by tanks under 26 Battalion and again at dusk by 25 Battalion mortars. The tanks scored hits on four houses and Browning machine guns joined in. The enemy mortars replied briskly. In the evening men of the carrier platoon at last light established a standing patrol on the battalion's right flank to the right of A Company, returning at dawn; the patrol reported a minefield in the area.
That same evening Second-Lieutenant Lawson, Sergeant Toms,45 and five men of A Company explored the gully of the Arielli stream to ascertain whether it was occupied and to investigate digging that had been seen there. Crossing the gully in front of the company, the patrol climbed the ridge to the north-west for about 500 yards; it found that the ridge was page 369 held by the Germans, voices being audible just ahead, while a tank was heard moving in the vicinity. The patrol returned safely at 10 p.m.
In the centre 18 Platoon of D Company placed a listening patrol on the right of the company on top of the ridge overlooking the gully along the front, there being a gap of about 300 yards to A Company. Rain had caused poor visibility and a party of about sixty Germans, probably a working party which had lost its way, wandered right on to the patrol's position. Needless to relate, the two men of the patrol, ‘Pop’ Wilson46 and ‘Mac’ Fitzgerald,47 kept very still and the Germans went past without seeing them.
B Company that evening was relieved by C Company and went into battalion reserve.
Before and after daylight on the last day of the year, enemy tanks and mortars fired on the battalion's positions but there was little infantry action. C Company reported shelling after midnight but thought it was short-shooting by the supporting artillery. About a couple of hours before daylight an enemy patrol of three men fired on the left posts of the company and with the break of day the position came under mortar fire; the left company sector was in fact living up to its reputation. In the early afternoon A Company on the right flank was also bombarded by mortars, and at the same time C Company shelled by 75-millimetre guns at fairly close range.
Later in the day, towards evening, Corporal Bartlett (who had a roving commission) and another sniper, Private Harwood, crossed the gully to the north-west of C Company and visited a farmhouse 500 yards away which had been shelled the previous day. From the house they observed other buildings in the vicinity and returned safely with the report that the area was lightly held. The weather during the day had been dull and threatening, with the leaden sky which so often presages snow, and at 8 p.m. the snow came in a violent storm which continued until morning. Three men were wounded during the day, Sergeant Falconer,48 Privates Hubbard49 and Ramsay.50page 370
The majority of the men in the rifle companies were in open slit trenches and conditions were as bad as anything experienced in Italy during the whole campaign. In the vicinity of houses slit trenches had been occupied by night only, but as these became unusable through snow and water, the houses themselves were converted into strongpoints, with shelters dug underneath and windows and doors blocked with sandbags. Where houses did not exist, fresh trenches had to be dug; many of the gunpits of the artillery supporting the battalion, as well as the mortar and machine-gun pits, were also unusable and new positions were prepared.
Many men suffered severely from exposure. One Bren-gunner from C Company had to be taken into a house at Company Headquarters to thaw his hand free from the gun barrel. In A Company several men asleep in their bivouacs were quite unaware they had been asowed in and had to be dug out by others who had much difficulty in finding their shelters. One section of mortars behind A Company had the good fortune to be in a cave and in the morning played the Good Samaritans by accommodating and assisting others less fortunate. Others also gave aid where possible. ‘Jim Wilson of 8 Platoon did a great job during this cold snap,’ said one man. ‘The cold didn't seem to affect him as much as it did the others and he went round all the positions keeping chaps on the move— bringing them in for assistance through massage—and doing general work that others were incapable of doing. His mates said he did a marvellous job and undoubtedly saved many Kiwis from dying of cold.’
The one hot meal per day brought up on the mules was a Godsend and naturally was most eagerly awaited; unfortunately the rum issue, equally welcome, did not reach all the companies; D Company sent out two parties to collect the rum from Battalion Headquarters, but both of them found the storm too thick and severe and had to give up the attempt. Men lost their way on journeys as short as a hundred yards. Snow had covered the countryside to a depth of two feet, with drifts up to four feet in places, and roads and tracks were almost impassable.
In these conditions active operations on a large scale were impossible, and until the worst of the winter had passed, the policy of holding fast and active patrolling was to continue. This, in combination with aggressive action by all available means against any targets presenting themselves, would perhaps page 371 prevent enemy forces being withdrawn to more active fronts and would inflict casualties; it would have a good effect on the morale of the troops, prevent stagnation, and maintain the offensive spirit.
There were no New Year celebrations for 25 Battalion though, in reversal of the usual behaviour of the human mind, the day will doubtless be remembered long after other much more pleasant such anniversaries have been forgotten. The day was spent clearing the roads and tracks, repairing and relaying telephone lines, and preparing shelters of some kind in place of those collapsed or otherwise unusable. The countryside was practically a bog, with the snow overlaying the mud which had not had time to freeze hard, and the men floundered around over their boot-tops in the mixture. Snow and sleet continued to fall until the late afternoon, hampering work and reducing to a minimum artillery fire on both sides. Apparently, at least one goodwill message was passed to the Germans: ‘On New Year's Day in this area,’ wrote a member of the battalion, ‘the artillery put down a barrage of shells on the forward slopes that could be seen both by the Germans and ourselves, “Happy New Year Fritz”, and although not every shell fell in the correct position, the wording was easily readable.’
Snow also created difficulties in the use of telephones in forward localities because of the way the voice carried in such conditions. At a C Company OP the Bren-gunner manning the post (Roly Harwood) had some trouble in convincing Lance- Corporal Bayliss51 of the Signals that it was impossible to use a telephone there because of the enemy overhearing it, but after trials under a blanket the latter agreed and Major Webster had the telephone withdrawn.
For a time the snowstorm completely disrupted signal communications. During the operations against Orsogna the signal lines laid on the ground worked well until the mule trains were used to bring up supplies. Naturally the muleteers followed the lines to lead them to the companies and platoons and nearly every night the lines were broken, necessitating the linesmen going out to repair them. Lieutenant Izard,52 the battalion Signal Officer, then had the lines erected on the many olive trees available, but when the snow came, the combined effect of rain, frost, and snow resulted in the lines being coated page 372 up to a thickness of four inches, which broke them. The lines came down to earth again, and when covered by a thick carpet of snow were well protected. Apart from trouble from the snow, tanks and other vehicles, as well as shellfire and bombing, also caused breaks in the lines. To avoid or reduce this, the lines as far as possible were kept clear of roads and country suitable for tanks, and ditches and stone walls were utilised to give protection.
The wireless equipment was also affected by the cold weather, the frozen snow on the aerials making contact impossible. Aerials thus affected were thawed out and set up in buildings, a method which worked well.
In the evening of New Year's Day B Company relieved A Company on the right flank at Pt 331 and held the position with only one platoon forward, the other two being well back to give greater depth to the defences. On the other flank C Company had the misfortune to suffer a casualty from short-shooting by the supporting artillery, of which a number of cases had been reported from time to time by various units. The following day saw the commencement of leave once more, but only on a very small scale, the first party of one officer and ten other ranks leaving for the New Zealand Base at Bari on the Adriatic, 150 miles to the south-east. The weather was fine but very cold after rain during the night.
After dark, on being relieved by 21 Battalion, 25 Battalion moved back to the Bailey bridge at the eastern end of Duncan's Road, and there, over a period of some hours, boarded vehicles for Castelfrentano. The prospect of a few days' rest was, of course, very welcome and on arrival at the town, with the miseries of the line behind them, the men were in the mood to enjoy the magnificent view of moonlit, snow-clad mountains and valleys spread out before them. A period of rest and showers, interspersed with a church parade, mobile cinema shows, the departure of a second small leave party, and the despatch of fourteen NCOs to the Base to form a training cadre for future reinforcements, now followed for the next twelve days.
Since the battalion landed in Italy there had been many changes among the officers, twelve of whom were no longer with the unit. Colonel Morten, Major Possin (B Company), Second-Lieutenants Sutton (D Company), D. J. Pocknall (Anti- Tank Platoon), H. G. Smith (IO), Coddington (A Company), and Nelson (A Company) had been evacuated sick; Captain page 373 Handyside (D Company) had been wounded and Captain Frost (Carriers) had died of wounds; Second-Lieutenants G. K. Smith and Fordie (D Company) were killed in action, and Lieutenant Coleman (D Company) was taken prisoner in Orsogna on 3 December. Four new officers who joined on 29 December were Second-Lieutenants J. B. May, A. G. Henricksen, R. V. Milne, and B. G. Kemp. Major I. C. Webster (OC C Company) had gone to Bari on 11 January and Lieutenant Milne53 took command of the company. The appointments of several officers had also been varied from time to time.
In the Sangro-Orsogna operations the battalion's casualties, as shown in the unit lists, were: Killed, 2 officers, 17 other ranks; died of wounds, 1 officer, 8 other ranks; wounded, 1 officer, 96 other ranks; prisoners of war, 1 officer, 53 other ranks (including 9 other ranks wounded), a total of 5 officers, 174 other ranks.
The troops were not looking forward to the next tour of duty in the line with its hardships and dangers, but just as it was due they learnt with much satisfaction that the Division was to leave the sector. Grumbles and growls, short tempers and sour expressions, gave way to good humour and skylarking and a totally different outlook.
On 13 January an advance party under Major Robertshaw was sent off, and in very cold weather the battalion followed the next morning, the guns still in action against Orsogna providing an accompaniment to the march. The route passed through Lanciano, across the Sangro five miles from the mouth, thence four miles along the coast; and after covering 27 miles, the vehicles halted for the night in the Casalbordino staging area, four miles inland. The Lucera area, 87 miles farther on, along Route 16, was reached the next afternoon after an interesting journey in fine weather through a pleasant countryside. It was then known, contrary to the belief that the Division was to rest there, that it was in fact to move across Italy to the Fifth Army's front, where conditions were more favourable for winter operations. There it was to form a reserve for the Fifth Army's offensive against the Gustav Line, of which Montecassino formed one of the principal bastions.54
At eight next morning, Sunday, 16 January, the journey was resumed on a tarsealed road which passed through the Apen- page 374 nines, the mountain backbone of Italy, to Naples. During the morning sleet fell and the troops had a cold and slippery ride through Ariano Irpino, a town of 20,000 people, curiously perched on the peak of a conical-shaped hill 2650 feet above sea level; then, in good weather, the route ran down the western slopes through several interesting mountain villages. Passing through Avellino, a provincial capital of 30,000 inhabitants and possessing a monastery attractive to pilgrims, the battalion at 3.30 p.m. came out on to the flat country just to the north-east of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius ten miles to the south-west belching smoke from its summit of almost 4000 feet. After completing about 100 miles in the day, the column parked on the roadside for the night, the volcano which was erupting a little after dark naturally attracting much attention.
In bright moonlight early next morning the journey was resumed, still on a tarsealed road; 120 yards was maintained between vehicles as a precaution against air attack, the Fifth Army front at Cassino being only about 50 miles away. The route passed through a wine-growing district of which Caserta, of over 50,000 people, was the principal town, its magnificent Royal Palace attracting the keen attention of the troops. Twenty miles to the north of the town the battalion halted in the Alife area, a mile and a half west of S. Angelo d'Alife in the Volturno valley, journey's end for the time being, 250 miles from the starting point of Castelfrentano.
7 Not traced.
19 Lt R. L. Davidson; Hastings; born Hastings, 28 Mar 1918; draper; wounded 30 Nov 1943.
35 pte L. A. Whitaker; Dipton, Southland; born Dipton, 12 Aug 1902; engine driver; wounded 13 Dec 1943.
38 Cpl G. D. Mead; Rakaia; born NZ 10 Feb 1912; agriculturist; wounded 18 Dec 1943; p.w. 1 Feb 1945.
39 L-Cpl D. J. Walsh; Norsewood; born Norsewood, 4 Nov 1918; drover; wounded 19 Dec 1943.
44 Sgt T. W.Tulloch, DCM; born NZ 12 Dec 1915; clerk; wounded 17 Mar 1944; deceased.
46 Not traced.
47 pte R. M. Fitzgerald; born NZ 23 Jun 1921; died of wounds 21 Mar 1944.
50 Pte W.Ramsay; born Edinburgh, 1 Mar 1921; labourer; wounded 31 Dec 1943.
54 For this move the Division masqueraded under the name of Spadger Force, all New Zealand insignia being removed.