Chapter 12 — First Battle in Italy
First Battle in Italy
THE three-day voyage across the Mediterranean was uneventful, and early on 9 October land was sighted. All ranks lined the ships' rails to catch a first glimpse of the new country. The scene was very different from Egypt and the Desert. Thousands of olive trees stretched back from the coast to the distant skyline in seemingly endless rows. The country was very hilly and little villages dotted almost every hilltop. From a distance the port of Taranto appeared to be clean and modern, with large stone buildings and sea-walls standing out in the bright sunlight.
The ships dropped anchor in the stream, and shortly afterwards landing craft came alongside the Dunottar Castle. Disembarkation began immediately, each man finding the steep, narrow gangway difficult to negotiate under an awkward load of arms and equipment. B Flight was soon ashore and the men formed up to march through the port to a camp site about five miles away. Closer inspection revealed Taranto as a town of dingy buildings and dirty streets, its shopping centre a vista of closed shutters and stone walls. Hungry-looking civilians lined the footpaths and silently watched the troops march by By 2 p.m. B Flight had reached the new camp. Company areas were allotted and the men began digging trenches and erecting bivouacs beneath the olive trees. A Flight, led by Maj Horrell, arrived later in the afternoon and the battalion was reunited. Everything had not gone according to schedule. The greater part of the cooking gear had not arrived by teatime and the meal consisted of bully beef and biscuits. After sundown the temperature dropped considerably and bed was the warmest place. Major Horrell's party was without blankets, which had not arrived from the ship, and the men spent the night huddled underneath some borrowed from B Flight.
Conditions improved during the next few days. Permanent cookhouses were set up. Stone walls, which marked the boundaries of olive groves and which had stood for centuries, page 290 were demolished to make paths around the camp. Winter was approaching and special attention was paid to drainage. Mosquito nets were issued as a protection against malaria. Mepacrine tablets, issued at Burg el Arab, were taken daily and a special ointment to rub on exposed parts of the body was provided. As an added precaution slacks and long-sleeved shirts had to be worn after dusk. Largely because of these simple precautions few of the battalion contracted malaria.
Once the troops had settled down leave was granted to Taranto. As more and more of the Division arrived in the area an increasing number of troops congregated in the town; it had little to offer in the way of entertainment. The older section was reminiscent of Cairo with its inadequate drainage, side- street disposal of refuse, and consequent variety of evil smells. Battered buildings and half-sunken hulks along the waterfront showed the havoc wrought by Allied bombers. The Germans had ransacked the town before leaving and the people were obviously very hungry. Long queues waited to buy the small stocks of food offered for sale.
Although training began soon after the unit arrived in Italy sports enthusiasts found time to prepare Rugby and soccer grounds. A battalion soccer team was selected after several elimination games. It defeated the CCS but lost to 25 Battalion. No unit Rugby team was formed but several torrid and exciting platoon and company games were played. In the company series A and D Coys were the finalists, and a play-off between the two ended in a draw—no score. The game was played on a heavy ground at a fast pace, and at the end of play black eyes, barked shins, and skinned noses were noticeable. There was little to do in the evenings. A South African mobile cinema unit visited the camp several times, one of its visits coinciding with a heavy downpour. Company canteens operated smoothly, although some commodities were in short supply— one of them was razor blades. From the local Naafi each man could buy a weekly ration of 50 cigarettes, a bottle of beer, and a small quantity of chocolate. From this source, also, limited quantities of wine could be obtained.
For the first few weeks the companies were often sent on route marches. The monotony of marching was relieved by the page 291 scenes of interest passed on the way. The sight of cultivated hills, acres of olive trees, narrow roads, the mud huts of the shepherds, and the low stone walls which divided each family plot provided a pleasant change from the desert. On one occasion the battalion marched to Crispiano, quite a large village several miles away. The grimy, badly drained town held little of interest, and the poorly dressed civilians watched their uninvited guests with distrust. Later they became more friendly, displaying a commercial interest in the leather jerkins worn by the troops. Little children, barefooted and half starved, soon lost their fear. At lunchtime they gathered around the men, begging scraps of food. Their elders remained at a more discreet distance. As a result of some bargaining many water bottles were filled with a beverage more potent than water. In the fields between the town and the camp peasants were busy cultivating small, stony plots of ground, using primitive ploughs. Women and girls were doing most of the hard work. Maize, barley, and wheat were being sown in these plots between the rows of almond, fig, and olive trees. It seemed incredible that one family could exist on the produce from such a small strip of land.
The training programme was planned to fit the troops for a new style of warfare. Some of the technique used in the desert actions had to be discarded, or modified so that it could be successfully applied in close country. In addition to route marches and hardening-up drill, platoons and companies practised various tactical exercises. Later, manœuvres were carried out on the type of ground likely to be encountered farther north. From the start it was evident that the weather and ground conditions would be important factors in the fighting in Italy. This fact was emphasised towards the end of October when heavy rain caused widespread flooding. Despite the drainage system most tents were flooded. Roads around the camp became impassable to most vehicles and for several days training was abandoned. However, by the time the unit left for the front line on 13 November good progress had been made in learning the new battle technique. Particular attention had been given to forming-up methods, movement by night through wooded country, section stalks, fieldcraft and patrolling. Various page 292 methods of attacking an objective and consolidating, with and without tank support, were practised. To improve platoon and company communications a new light wireless set, the No. 38, was issued. Although its range varied according to the terrain, this set was of considerable value in later actions. The Piat (Projectile Infantry Anti-Tank) was also issued to platoons. This weapon, spring loaded, fired a bomb capable of holing walls and piercing the armour of most tanks. It was reasonably accurate up to about 120 yards, although the bombs were cumbersome and the weapon fairly heavy.
Platoon and company runners attended a seven-day intelligence course. Snipers would have more to do in this campaign than in North Africa, and 16 men were selected and trained for this role. Company commanders and specialist officers spent several days on TEWTS (tactical exercises without troops) and afterwards the same exercises were carried out with the men taking part. Throughout the training period movement was hampered by lack of transport. By the end of October only a few jeeps had reached the battalion, and the rest of the unit transport did not arrive until after the move to the front line had begun. Fourth Armoured Brigade had rejoined the Division. The 18th, 19th, and 20th Battalions were now armoured regiments equipped with Sherman tanks, and 22 Battalion, which had joined 4 Brigade, had become motorised. Those of 26 Battalion who had fought in North Africa knew that the infantry could now expect closer tank support.
The transit camp was over 250 miles from the front line. Since the landing on the Italian mainland on 3 September the Allies had made steady progress. Naples had fallen on 1 October and the American Fifth Army was driving up the west side of the Apennine Mountains towards Rome. On the east side of the peninsula the Eighth Army was approaching the Sangro River and the town of Pescara. On 27 October Col Fountaine and several other senior officers accompanied General Freyberg to the Adriatic front. The party visited the sectors held by 5 and 78 British Divisions. On his return the Colonel gave lectures on what he had seen. The country where the Division was likely to operate was very hilly and cut by wide rivers. Communications were almost entirely dependent on formed roads, many page 293 of which would become impassable in winter. Mud was already slowing up operations.
Early in November the troops had a foretaste of an Italian winter. Heavy rain began on the morning of the 6th and continued almost without a break for four days. The camp drainage system again proved inadequate. Tents were flooded and bedding soaked. Cold winds made conditions very unpleasant. Woollen underclothing was issued and malaria precautions relaxed. Orders to move to a staging camp 160 miles away were received, and on the 11th Col Fountaine and 2 Lt McClean1 left for La Torre, a small village not far from Lucera. The main body commanded by Maj Horrell was to follow two days later.
The troops packed and prepared for the long journey. The majority, being new arrivals, wondered what the future had in store for them. Nearly all believed the campaign in Italy would be short. Colonel Fountaine's news of front-line conditions had put a damper on the enthusiasm of those who wanted to get on with the job. The general war situation was good and the BBC news each night reported successes on all fronts.
The five weeks' spell at Taranto had enabled the troops to become acclimatised. The abrupt change from the heat of Egypt to the cooler weather of an Italian autumn had had little ill-effect. Some of the men were suffering from skin infections which were slow to heal, but the general health was good. Mail from New Zealand arrived regularly but few parcels reached the camp. In other respects the men welcomed the change from the desert.
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Shortly after 8 a.m. on the 13th the troops embussed on the lorries of the Divisional Ammunition and Petrol Companies and the convoy set out along the coastal road towards Lucera. Steady progress was made, and by half past twelve the convoy had reached half-way and the men were endeavouring to erect their bivouacs on a ridge swept by a cold easterly gale. The journey was continued on the 14th, the convoy making slower progress because of the many deviations and heavy road traffic. page 294 The Germans had destroyed all bridges as they had withdrawn. Nearly all the villages and towns passed on the way had suffered damage of some sort. Foggia, the largest town, had been almost flattened by Allied bombing. The country became better as the convoy neared Lucera. There were many flourishing vineyards and olive groves and the peasants looked cleaner, healthier, and better dressed.
Shortly after midday the convoy passed through Lucera and by 1.30 p.m. had reached La Torre. In company areas everyone was soon busy erecting bivouacs beneath olive trees on ground damp from recent rains. A cold wind was blowing and the skies were threatening. Before nightfall rain began and the staging area soon became a sea of mud. There was no change on the 14th or 15th, and once again tents were flooded and bedding soaked. As a general rule bivouac tents kept out the rain provided they were not touched—a near impossibility because of their small size. In any case the water seeped through underneath the tents to soak the straw-lined beds. During these two days the unit transport and the Anti-Tank Platoon rejoined the battalion. This group had landed at Bari; the drivers' comments about Italy and its weather were unprintable.
Although few details had been given the men, the Division's part in forthcoming operations had been decided. Enemy resistance on all fronts was increasing and the arrival of winter was slowing up the Allied advance. On the Adriatic coast the Eighth Army was near the Sangro River, and it was hoped to prevent the enemy from standing on his Winter Line behind this natural barrier. Fifth Corps was operating along the coastal sector with 13 Corps inland from it. With the exception of 78 Division on the extreme right flank, the Eighth Army was advancing through hilly and mountainous country. On the west coast the Fifth Army had reached the mouth of the Garigliano River, about 35 miles north-west of Naples.
By 8.15 a.m. on the 17th the battalion was on the move, travelling as part of 6 Brigade Group. Major Horrell had gone ahead the day before to select a suitable lying-up area near the line. During the initial stages of the 107-mile journey progress was good, the roads being in fair order and free of traffic. After the convoy had passed through Termoli and turned inland, demolitions and traffic jams forced the lorries to halt many times and slowed down progress. There were plenty of signs of recent fighting—blown bridges, shell-torn homes, abandoned and burnt-out vehicles. Here and there were the graves of British and German soldiers. After dark progress became even slower. At midnight the column was held up while a burning petrol truck was pushed off the road. Nearly everyone debussed to watch as the flames leapt high in the air, silhouetting hundreds of vehicles parked nose-to-tail. At the rear of most of them a Benghazi burner was blazing and a cup of tea was on the way. Two hours later the convoy resumed its journey, finally stopping for the night on a side road leading to the village of Gissi. The men did not trouble to erect their bivouacs but slept either in the trucks or on the damp ground.
About four hours later the journey was resumed. Guns were firing to the north-west, and all ranks were warned of the possibility of enemy shelling before they reached their destination. There was none, but progress was slower even than on the night before. The roads were in a deplorable condition and were page 296 choked with traffic. Drivers lost count of the number of stops while provosts disentangled traffic jams or guided northbound convoys through muddy deviations. Early in the afternoon the battalion reached the Osento River. The bridge across it had been blown, but a rough track led to a ford across which the lorries slowly passed. For many hours the column remained at a standstill. Darkness fell with many of the brigade vehicles still south of the river. Although lamps were placed along the deviation to assist the drivers, it was almost midnight before the battalion crossed. About an hour later the convoy halted in the riverbed and the troops debussed.
Ahead of them lay a six-mile march over the hills to the new sector. Except for essential vehicles all transport was to remain in the riverbed, and this meant that all gear would have to be carried. Before the companies set out the cooks provided a hot meal—the second in 36 hours. By dawn the march had been completed and the troops were sheltering beneath olive trees about four miles from the Sangro. Except for reconnaissance parties which went down to the river, the men kept under cover for the rest of the day so that the enemy would not see fresh troops moving into the line. The reconnaissance parties examined the low ground near the river and saw no sign of the enemy. Company sectors were selected and at 5 p.m. the troops set out on foot towards the river. By half past seven they had reached their positions and were digging in. The ground was wet and soggy after recent rain. C and D Coys were straddling a lateral road about a mile from the river. A Coy was on a hill slope about 200 yards to the rear, with B Coy on lower ground on the right of it. Battalion HQ was set up in a house not far from A Coy, and the supporting arms which arrived later in the evening were dispersed nearby. By 11 p.m. defensive preparations were complete. A Coy had established an outpost of platoon strength about 200 yards from the river, and C Coy had sent out a small patrol to find suitable crossing places. A few of the men had been able to occupy houses or outbuildings, but the majority had dug slit trenches and had stretched canvas covers over them to keep out the cold and the rain. The battalion was now holding a 300-yard front, with 25 Battalion on page 297 its left and the Apello River, a tributary of the Sangro, forming a natural barrier on its right flank.
At daylight on the 20th the troops examined their new surroundings. The narrow river flat, part of which was occupied by the battalion, was heavily cultivated with olive groves, vineyards and orchards, providing plenty of natural cover. A few apple trees were soon stripped of their fruit. Peasants and their families, undeterred by the shelling, still occupied their homes. In every direction there were hills, those to the north and north-west still occupied by the enemy. Left of the battalion and faintly discernible in the poor light, the Apennines towered over everything. On the north side on the Sangro a marshy stretch of ground ran up into a series of sharply defined hills linked together by narrow gullies, rising towards a high ridge which ran across the front to form the horizon. Half right from C Coy the marsh ended abruptly at the foot of a precipitous 150- foot cliff. The patrol which had gone down to the river the night before reported no sign of the enemy. Because of the darkness it had not been able to make a detailed examination of the river.
Seven wet and unpleasant days followed. Rain fell on the 20th, and patrols sent out that night found the river in flood. This caused the postponement of a proposed attack by 6 Brigade and armour set down for the following night. Heavy rain after dusk on the 23rd caused the tank-supported thrust to be abandoned, and the troops settled down to wait until the level of the river fell. On the night of the 26th patrols managed to wade across the river, and 24 hours later a two-brigade attack was launched.
During the week 78 Division established a bridgehead across the river near the coast. Several important changes took place on the left flank. Despite adverse conditions 19 Indian Brigade, closely supported by New Zealand armour and artillery, cleared several hilltops south-east of and overlooking the battalion sector. Fifth Brigade moved into the line and took up a position on the right of the battalion. Enemy activity was confined to spasmodic shelling which at no time became severe. Two men in D Coy were wounded by shell splinters. As the Divisional Artillery moved forward into position, the shelling of known page 298 and suspected enemy strongpoints was intensified. Allied planes passed overhead at frequent intervals but enemy aircraft were seldom sighted. The heavy rain caused extensive flooding in places and many of the fields became waterlogged. Tracks and roads leading into the sector became very muddy and almost impassable to vehicles. Water seeped into practically every trench, and envious eyes were cast towards those living in houses. It was almost impossible to dry out wet clothing and boots. To make matters worse the rain brought in its train cold winds. A Coy had its cookhouse in the FDLs, but the carrying parties from other companies had the unenviable task of crossing sodden paddocks and plodding along muddy roads to and from the cookhouses twice each day.
Intensive patrolling was carried out to locate suitable crossing places over the river and to test the enemy defences in the hills beyond the north bank. The patrols generally operated at night when it was difficult to follow any of the formed tracks leading down to the river, the approaches to which resembled a bog. Crossing the river was perhaps the worst ordeal. Opposite the battalion it consisted of several streams, swollen by rain and separated by high gravel banks. The men carried only light equipment but had to fight their way through the bitterly cold water against a strong current to reach the opposite bank. Often it took hours to get across. Beyond the far bank of the river lay a flat area, a large part of which had been ploughed. Here the mud was much worse than along the south bank. Irrigation ditches, too wide to jump and full of dirty, muddy water, formed another obstacle. The patrols then had to climb the nearby hills in their wet, muddy clothes and, after a cold wait in the darkness, set out on the return journey. Patrolling was not popular.
Patrols were sent out each night to examine the river. The distance from bank to bank varied between 300–500 yards. At one crossing place there were three streams, two of them rock- bottomed and the third a muddy backwash. Wide gravel banks separated them. At another crossing place there were only two streams, divided by an island. Patrols on the night of the 20th reported that the water was only about two feet deep, but within page 299 24 hours the river had risen considerably. The current became very swift and the water shoulder high.
Two patrols were sent across the river, the first early on the morning of the 21st and the second after dark on the 24th. The daylight patrol ran into trouble. It consisted of seven men from D Coy under 2 Lt Lawrence.2 They set out from the FDLs very early in the morning and managed to cross the river and the flat without much difficulty. At the foot of the hill the cover ended, and Lawrence decided to head up a gully which divided the hill and a ridge on the right of it. The patrol leader and two of the men led off, the rest following some distance behind. Near the crest of the hill were several houses and civilians were seen moving about. The leaders had not gone far before they came under heavy machine-gun fire from one of these houses. The three men dashed over the ridge into another gully and quickly made their way down to the flat. At the bottom of the gully they were again caught in the open and all three were wounded. Meanwhile, the four men who had been following had opened fire from behind a low clay bank. The enemy quickly retaliated from his position on the higher ground, and the four decided to make a break for it and follow the others over the ridge. Two set off at a run but the soggy ground soon slowed them down to a walk. One man fell, mortally wounded, but the other, Pte Carlson,3 reached the ridge safely. As arranged beforehand, Carlson began firing to attract the enemy's attention and allow the others to escape. Time went by, and as they did not appear he set out alone to return to the river. Meanwhile, two of the wounded had recrossed the river but there was no sign of 2 Lt Lawrence. The two men left on the hill were thought to be prisoners.4
For the next 24 hours a sharp lookout was kept for the missing officer, and just when all hope had been abandoned he was heard calling out from the north bank. Wounded in the knee, he had crawled across the ditches and muddy ground to escape capture. He was helped across the river and sent to the RAP page 300 for much-needed medical attention. The 24th Battalion, which had also sent a patrol across the river in daylight, had suffered similar losses, and the arrival of New Zealanders in the line was no longer a secret from the enemy.
A fighting patrol of 18 men from 14 Platoon, led by Lt Frampton,5 was sent across the river after dark on the 24th with orders to find out if the houses on the hill were still occupied by the enemy. By this time the river was in flood and the patrol had considerable difficulty gaining the northern bank. The water was chest high and the current very swift. The ploughed paddocks were a sea of mud, and it took almost three hours for the party to reach the first house. It was unoccupied, and so was the next; but as the men neared the third house the enemy opened fire and Frampton gave the order to withdraw. Six hours after they had left, 18 cold, wet and bedraggled soldiers rejoined their company, thankful their task was over.
The heavy rain which caused 6 Brigade's attack to be postponed also brought a revision of plans. General Freyberg decided to employ both infantry brigades to establish a bridgehead over the river and continue the drive through the hills on the left of 5 Corps. In readiness for the river crossing, nine men from D Coy accompanied some sappers down to the river on the night of the 25th. They were to assist the sappers to drive stakes along the north bank of the river to which guide ropes could be attached. The current was too swift and the job was postponed until the following night. This time the sappers were more successful. The same night two other parties crossed the river, one to protect sappers who were examining a lateral road beyond the north bank, and the other to test a ford vouched for by a local farmer. Early the next morning, the 27th, it was announced that the attack would begin at 2.45 a.m. on the 28th. This news was welcomed by most of the men, who had been chafing at the continual delays and the unpleasant conditions under which they were living.
The success of the attack largely depended on two factors: the weather and the speed with which the supporting arms could be brought across the river to the infantry. The 65th page 301 Infantry Division which opposed the New Zealanders was regarded as a second-rate formation containing a large percentage of Poles and recruits, but it was well commanded and had a good record throughout the Italian campaign. Although the enemy manned a number of strongpoints on bluffs, his main defences were sited in a series of high ridges, the nearest of which lay about six miles away. This ridge, which ran parallel to the river, could be seen from the battalion sector, with the village of Castelfrentano a prominent landmark on it. As the enemy was not defending the north bank of the river, the start line for the attack was fixed along the lateral road examined by the sappers on the night of 26 November. Five infantry battalions were to take part, the 26th in the centre, with 25 and 24 Battalions on its left and 21 and 23 Battalions on its right. Each battalion was given one or more hill objectives. Covered with low scrub and a few trees, these hills were clearly defined. Narrow gullies or low saddles connected each feature.
The 26th Battalion was to assemble behind the lateral road along a 300-yard front, with its right flank on the line of the Apello River. At zero hour it was to advance north-west and capture five features. The leading companies were to extend to the left as they advanced so that on the final objectives they would be covering a 1000-yard front. Success would bring the forward troops within three miles of Castelfrentano and about 900 yards ahead of the flanking battalions. Except for a platoon of Vickers gunners (12 Platoon, 27 MG Battalion), the troops would have no close support until the river was bridged, although the artillery was to fire a barrage and concentrations on known enemy strongpoints.
Each of the rifle companies was given a separate task.6 D Coy was directed to move across the river before the main body and cover the forming up on the start line. Major Molineaux was also to station guides along the south bank to guide the rest page 302 of the battalion to the crossing place. When the barrage began A Coy was to lead B and C Coys across the flat and capture the first objective, a low hill about 1000 yards from the lateral road. B and C Coys were then to pass through and advance on the final objectives, B Coy half left for 1000 yards onto a sharp ridge and C Coy 1700 yards to Pt 217 and Pt 169, two hills separated by a narrow gully. After the two companies had passed through it, A Coy was to continue its advance up the centre of the sector to another hill, Pt 171, about 600 yards away. At a later stage D Coy was to move on to A Coy's first objective. Colonel Fountaine planned to set up his headquarters in a house at the foot of this hill. The capture of these five objectives would place C Coy on two hills covering the front, with B Coy on its left rear, A Coy on its right rear, and D Coy in reserve.
Final preparations for the night's operation were made during the 27th. Because of the possibility that the river might not be bridged when daylight came, all ranks were issued with extra food and ammunition. This included twelve rounds for each Piat and eighteen for the platoon mortar. The medical equipment of the RAP and the Vickers guns had to be manhandled across the river. To assist these two groups and help get extra ammunition across before morning, about fifty men under Capt J. R. Williams were detailed as a carrying party. Stretcher-bearers from 6 Brigade HQ were to assist the RAP staff. It was also planned to use mules to get a hot meal forward at daylight should the bridge not be completed.
Allied planes passed overhead at frequent intervals during the day and there was scarcely any enemy shelling. The sky was overcast and towards dusk heavy rain clouds built up around the hills. After dark a hot meal was served, together with a rum issue. Shortly afterwards a light drizzle began.
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Shortly after 10 p.m. D Coy, less one platoon left behind as guides, moved down the river, where Maj Molineaux was faced with an unexpected problem. At the place where the guide ropes had been stretched the night before the river was too deep to cross. After some delay another place was found and page 303 the company was soon wading into the icy water. The rest of the battalion followed A Coy down to the river about an hour later. The night was particularly dark. A misty rain was still falling and visibility was limited to a few yards. At the river bank Maj Bullôt could find no sign of the crossing place or the D Coy guides. Private Ross,7 of the Intelligence section, was sent to find a suitable crossing place. Eventually the Italian farmer who had shown an A Coy patrol a ford the previous night was induced to guide the troops across the first stream.
The current was swift. Large boulders were scattered over the river bottom and in hollows the water reached the armpits. After climbing a stony bank the company found itself on a large sandbank. The men milled around while those in the lead tried to find a suitable place to cross the next stream. By the time one was found the rest of the battalion, including the missing D Coy platoon, was on the sandbank. Corporal Matson8 leading, the troops waded into the water in single file, each man clinging to the one in front. From the chain of men came muttered curses as they stumbled over boulders or slid into deeper holes. Even the taller men found it difficult to retain their balance against the current. Large stones were being swept along the river bottom. The third channel was much different. There was no current and the water was only waist high, but the bed of the stream was thick mud which clung to the feet at each step. Nearly two hours after setting out, A Coy reached the far bank and began deploying behind the start line. The rest of the battalion arrived at short intervals. Because of the poor visibility and the need for strict silence, some confusion was inevitable as platoons and companies moved into position. Long before the barrage was due to begin, all ranks had settled down in their wet clothes to await the order to advance. A cold wind made conditions particularly unpleasant. Major Molineaux reported no sign of life in the hills ahead and no indication that the enemy expected an attack.
The Sangro-Orsogna battle, 27 November 1943–2 January 1944
At this stage no opposition had been encountered except for light machine-gun fire. Despite the confusion caused by the mine explosions and the loss of their commander, the leading platoons of A Coy continued up the slope of the hill. Company HQ lagged behind while two of the platoon commanders disputed the seniority of the other and decided who was to command the company. In the interim Cpl Matson's section had attacked a machine-gun post and captured its four occupants. The company remained on the crest of the hill while Cpl Smail9 went ahead with the leading platoon of C Coy to determine A Coy's final objective. Later he returned and led the company forward to Pt 171.
Meanwhile, B and C Coys were moving towards their objectives. B Coy had escaped trouble in the minefield and, after passing through A Coy, had turned west towards its objective, Nos. 10 and 11 Platoons leading. Because of the darkness the men were moving in fairly close formation. After crossing a narrow valley they began to climb onto the ridge. No opposition was encountered and the platoons were dug in long before daylight. C Coy was not so lucky. After leaving A Coy and descending into the narrow valley between Pt 171 and Pt 217, it ran into difficulties. The artillery had laid smoke to mark the pause line of the barrage and this smoke hung in the valley, reducing visibility almost to zero. This forced the platoons to bunch together and blotted out all landmarks. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons climbed the ridge which ran north from B Coy's position to Pt 217 and began advancing along it in the face of light machine-gun fire. They soon reached the crest of the feature, but frontal fire from an enemy machine gun forced them to seek cover as they moved down the forward slope. Major Ollivier was undecided as to his exact location and, in view of the enemy fire, ordered his men to dig in until daylight.page 306
At daybreak Pt 169 was clearly visible and the company, moving in open formation, set out towards it. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons crossed a narrow gully and began to climb the hillside. Until this stage there had been no indication of the presence of enemy troops on Pt 169, but when the leaders were within a hundred yards of their objective three spandaus and a 75- millimetre gun opened fire at point-blank range from the top of the hill. The troops scattered in all directions, some behind a shed and a haystack, nine to a nearby house, and the remainder took cover in folds in the ground. Company HQ and 13 Platoon were some distance down the slope and were not as seriously affected. The position of the forward platoons became worse when more spandaus opened fire. Some were firing from a hill north-west of Pt 169 and two others from a village in 21 Battalion's sector on the right rear of the company. The men sheltering behind the haystack were forced to vacate their refuge and seek shelter in a plough track.
When it was obvious that his company would not be able to capture the hill without heavy losses, Maj Ollivier wirelessed for smoke to allow the platoons on the hill to withdraw. A long twenty-minute wait followed. As soon as the smoke canisters began to land in the area and the enemy no longer had a clear view of their line of withdrawal, the men dashed madly down the hill to where the rest of the company lay under cover. Piats, mortars, and Bren guns were left behind in the scramble but the wounded were all helped or carried back to safety. Shortly afterwards the company reoccupied its former position on the forward slope of Pt 217. Two men had been killed and three wounded in the abortive attempt to capture Pt 169. The nine men who had occupied one of the houses near the crest of the feature had not withdrawn with the others, but they escaped later in the day after 6 Field Regiment fired a concentration of high explosive and smoke on the hilltop.
The crossing of the river and the capture of the hills beyond it had been achieved with surprising ease, and Col Fountaine was very satisfied with the night's work. A motley collection of prisoners, 32 altogether, had been captured during the night. They were mostly Poles and Russians from 65 Division. The failure to capture Pt 169 was not considered important as the page 307 German positions on the hill were partially covered by C Coy on Pt 217 and the left-flank company of 21 Battalion. The other three companies were in position long before daylight. A Coy had encountered another machine-gun post as it moved towards Pt 171, but Cpl Matson's section forced the enemy to withdraw. Tactical HQ had been set up in a house at the foot of the first hill, and the RAP was also operating from this point. Doctor Fletcher and his augmented staff experienced some difficulty in getting their equipment across the river and later in collecting the wounded from the centre of the minefield. In the darkness it was very difficult to find the wounded and determine the extent of their wounds. Casualties were suffered by the stretcher- béarers who went to the assistance of the A Coy men. By midday the battalion's casualties totalled 19—four killed and 15 wounded, one mortally. The evacuation of wounded from the RAP was delayed by the non-arrival of ambulances. Walking wounded were assisted across the river early in the morning, but the remainder, some of whom required urgent surgical attention, had to wait until after 10.30 a.m., when an ambulance arrived. The driver reported that all traffic was being routed across the bridge in 5 Brigade's sector. The ambulance was unable to carry all the patients, but in one way or another they were all evacuated by midday.
Throughout the attack communications had been better than had been expected. Some of the company No. 38 sets had been damaged during the river crossing, but as the companies were not far apart a relay system was implemented quite successfully. A No. 38 set on the south bank of the river had provided an excellent link between Tac HQ and Battalion and Brigade headquarters. News of the complete success of the Division's attack was received soon after daylight. About the same time it was learned that the bridge across the river in 6 Brigade's sector had not been completed. This was rather disturbing news for it meant a delay in the arrival of the supporting arms. With this in mind company commanders made several changes in platoon positions to meet the possibility of a counter-attack. The machine-gunners took up a position in the vicinity of A Coy. At 9.30 a.m. six tanks from C Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment reached 25 Battalion. The Squadron Commander advised page 308 Col Fountaine that his tanks would be able to support A and B Coys in the event of a counter-attack but could give only limited assistance to C Coy.
The arrival of the tanks and the appearance of flight after flight of Allied fighters and bombers eased the situation, and throughout the rest of the day the enemy was content to shell and mortar the sector at irregular intervals. Enemy planes made sporadic appearances but no bombs were dropped near the companies. At dusk the supporting arms were still south of the river, waiting the opportunity to use the 5th Brigade bridge. The non-arrival of dry clothing was serious from the men's point of view. The night turned cold and, clad in damp battle dress without blankets or overcoats, the troops spent an uncomfortable eight hours. Late that night carrying parties took a semi-hot but none the less welcome meal forward to the men. There was no major advance during the night. C Coy reported that the enemy was using a tractor to pull the 75-millimetre gun back from Pt 169. Two patrols were sent out, neither of which saw any sign of the enemy. One patrol from B Coy climbed Pt 169 and continued on to some houses in the valley beyond it but saw nothing suspicious.
Early on the 29th a special two-day mess-tin ration was issued to each man. The battalion was ordered to send out daylight patrols as the enemy was thought to be withdrawing to the Castelfrentano Ridge. To discover whether the hills north and north-west of C Coy were occupied, small patrols probed forward about 1500 yards but saw nothing except empty dugouts and signs of a hasty withdrawal. Working in close touch with the battalions on either flank, Col Fountaine moved two companies forward at dusk, D Coy to Pt 172 on the left flank and B Coy to Pt 207, a fairly prominent feature north of C Coy. Later in the night hot stew was sent forward in canisters to the companies and the men had their first really hot meal in 48 hours. Some greatcoats also arrived. Except for a short period of heavy shelling during which two men suffered concussion, the night passed without event. Patrols sent out saw no sign of the enemy.
The last day of the month was fine and sunny. The 6th Brigade bridge over the Sangro had been completed during the page 309 night, and in the morning the supporting arms came forward to join the companies. Greatcoats and some blankets were brought across the river. Patrols were sent out and on their return the advance was continued. The 24th Battalion had replaced 25 Battalion on the immediate left flank and, with 26 Battalion, moved directly towards Castelfrentano. By nightfall a line had been established about 1000 yards beyond Pt 207. The rest of the battalion also moved forward, C Coy to Pt 207, A Coy to Pt 217, and Battalion HQ to a house on the forward slope of Pt 207. Light mortaring had not hampered the advance but mines again took a toll, one man being killed and seven wounded. Tanks moving up the clay road which wound through the hills had not been able to keep pace with the infantry.
Two patrols sent out after dusk ventured within a few hundred yards of the village without meeting enemy troops, although they saw many empty dugouts. They examined the road, Route 84, running along the crest of the ridge and found it badly pitted and blocked by a demolition near the village. The ground on either side of the demolition was too soggy for tanks to cross it. There were several trip wires in the vicinity.
The weather continued to be fine and Allied planes passed overhead frequently during 1 December. Enemy aircraft made one brief appearance and attempted to machine-gun the infantry, but accurate anti-aircraft fire drove them off. During the day hostile shelling and mortaring increased considerably but the battalion escaped with only one casualty. Brigadier Parkinson visited Battalion HQ and discussed with Col Fountaine plans to continue the advance. During the night an attempt was to be made to gain a foothold on the ridge. C Coy moved forward at 10.30 p.m. to within a short distance of the road running along the crest of the ridge. About 400 yards away was Castelfrentano. Light mortar fire encountered during the stiff climb up the ridge did not hamper the company as much as tangled wire, mines, and the heavy load carried by each man.
Later in the night a party from 14 Platoon entered the village and made a rough search of it. Seven prisoners, three of them wounded, were rounded up and taken back to C Coy HQ. By daybreak six more prisoners, all from 146 Panzer page 310 Grenadier Regiment, 65 Division, had been captured, raising the total to 45. About nine o'clock next morning A Coy moved up the ridge and took up a position close to the village on the left of C Coy. At approximately the same time C Coy 24 Battalion entered the village unopposed.
The capture of Castelfrentano and the ridge east of it ended the first phase of the attack across the Sangro. In its first action in Italy the battalion had had to contend with adverse weather. It was perhaps as well the fighting had not been severe. Excluding the man taken prisoner on 23 November, casualties totalled 39—seven killed and 32 wounded, four of them mortally. The unexpectedly light opposition encountered during the advance had given the recent reinforcements much more confidence, which was to stand them in good stead in the difficult days ahead. The ‘old hands’ knew that the enemy had withdrawn only because a better defence line lay behind him —and they were right. The enemy's Winter Line was based on a second high ridge which ran north-east from Guardiagrele, through the town of Orsogna, to Arielli and Ortona. The approaches to this ridge were very difficult, particularly for guns and vehicles, and were almost wholly under enemy observation. While the Divisional Cavalry moved north-east along the Castelfrentano road towards Lanciano and 4 Armoured Brigade made a thrust towards Guardiagrele, the two infantry brigades re- grouped to continue the assault.
4 It was later ascertained that one man had been killed and the other captured.
6 Appointments on eve of attack were:
2 i/c: Maj H. J. Horrell
Adjt: Capt A. W. Barnett
QM: Lt M. Joel
Padre: Rev. H. S. Scott
MO: Capt I. H. Fletcher
Signals: 2 Lt S. M. Pritchard
OC A Coy: Maj B. R. Bullôt
OC B Coy: Maj R. S. Smith
OC C Coy: Maj F. M. Ollivier
OC D Coy: Maj A. Molineaux
OC HQ Coy: Capt J. R. Williams
Support: Capt G. T. Kain