27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 18 — Orsogna
Beyond the Castelfrentano ridge was another on which was situated the town of Orsogna; these two ridges converged at the village of Guardiagrele, on the road to which 4 Armoured Brigade was held up by demolitions and gunfire. The 25th Battalion was ordered to attack through Orsogna at dawn on 3 December and exploit to San Martino (north of Guardiagrele), to which 4 Brigade had been directed.
The 25th set out on foot at 1.30 a.m., forded the Moro stream in the intervening valley, and reached the Lanciano-Orsogna road on Brecciarola Ridge. The leading company entered Orsogna, but when half-way through was counter-attacked by German tanks and infantry, and after losing many men killed and captured was obliged to retire. Sergeant Paul's section of 11 Platoon, which stayed on an exposed flank in the outskirts of Orsogna to cover the withdrawal, inflicted casualties among the Germans. The Vickers gunners were under fire from tanks and mortars, and when ordered to leave, ‘we were lucky enough,’ says Paul, ‘to get out of a bad spot without losing a man.’ His conduct in this action won him the MM.
The 26th Battalion began to move up at dawn, but on learning that the assault had failed, halted and dug in north of the Lanciano-Orsogna road. The transport, including 12 Platoon's vehicles, was shelled on the road to Castelfrentano, and 10 Platoon, nearby on the reverse slope, got the overs. Although most of the men rushed into houses, the drivers were caught unawares at their vehicles. Private Bryan1 was killed instantly, three others wounded, and six vehicles damaged. Next day 12 Platoon, using mules to carry the guns, went into position on a spur south of the Moro.
Patrols explored around Orsogna, and after the artillery and 11 Platoon's Vickers had put down fire to soften the German defences, 25 Battalion attempted before dawn on 5 December to occupy Sfasciata Ridge, north-east of the town, with a standing patrol, but found it too strongly held. To oppose the German posts there, 3 Company (with 8, 9 and 10 Platoons) page 370 went into position near the crossroads about two miles north of Castelfrentano—‘down a forward slope with Jerry overlooking us 2000x away,’ wrote Moss—and fired frequent harassing tasks during the night. Next day a dense mist reduced visibility to about 50 yards, and light rain began to fall. In the evening 2 Company relieved 3 as flank guard; 10 Platoon returned to 24 Battalion, and 8 and 9 went as far forward as they could get on Brecciarola Ridge, ready to support another attack on Orsogna. Farther back, 7 Platoon was well placed to cover the road and fire harassing tasks.
General Freyberg decided to capture Orsogna by a daylight assault on 7 December. The only practicable approach, along the steep-sided Brecciarola Ridge from the east, was narrow, exposed and easy to defend. The two infantry brigades were both to attack on a one-battalion front: while the Maori Battalion was to secure Cemetery Ridge by advancing up Pascuccio, the 24th was to enter the town from Brecciarola Ridge and consolidate beyond its western outskirts. At the same time 23 Battalion was to occupy Sfasciata Ridge.
To assist the 23rd, 2 Company fired 60,000 rounds on Sfasciata Ridge, while 3 and 4 Companies (less 10 Platoon) supplemented the artillery barrages for 28 and 24 Battalions. The total ammunition expended exceeded the 120,000 rounds the Vickers had used during 6 Brigade's attack at El Mreir in July 1942. ‘And by the way they [the Germans] answered the harassing it would appear they knew our positions,’ says Major Moore, who believes the enemy had located the guns by sound before the attack. The gunlines were severely shelled. Sergeant Partridge2 was killed, and the nine wounded included four officers: Captain Pleasants, Lieutenant McLenaghin, and Second-Lieutenants Jackson3 and Hanan,4 of whom all except Hanan were evacuated. Captain Halkett commanded 3 Company until Pleasants's return six weeks later.
Without meeting any enemy infantry but coming under shell and mortar fire from the direction of Poggiofiorito, 23 Battalion established a line along the crest of Sfasciata Ridge, and 1 Platoon, carrying its guns on mules over the steep gully from San Felice Ridge, placed them in support. ‘The experience page 371 gained in Syria with mules paid dividends here,’ says Grace.
The Pascuccio spur, up which the Maoris (with 2 Platoon under command) had to advance from San Felice, was steep-sided, razor-backed, and dotted with farm buildings; it lay almost at right angles to the steep escarpment along which ran the Orsogna-Ortona road. The Maoris destroyed a whole series of German posts, climbed the escarpment, and dug in across the road. After dark German tanks (one of them a flame- thrower) attacked down the road, but retired towards Poggiofiorito after one or two had been destroyed. Five times German infantry tried in vain to penetrate the Maoris' position. The Maoris had to be withdrawn before dawn because it was impossible to get the supporting anti-tank guns there, and because 6 Brigade had failed to take Orsogna.
Meanwhile 10 Platoon waited all night ready to move immediately the capture of 24 Battalion's final objective was reported. By listening on their own No. 18 wireless sets to the infantry's No. 38 ‘walky-talky’ sets, the machine-gunners were able to follow the progress of the battle. In the centre of the town the infantry encountered German tanks, which made further progress impossible without tank support. The New Zealand tanks were delayed by demolitions and then found their only approach blocked by a concealed Mark IV. From this hopeless situation 24 Battalion was eventually extricated.
The only territorial advantage gained, therefore, was 23 Battalion's salient on Sfasciata Ridge, to which 4 Platoon was despatched before dawn. Both platoons with this battalion (1 and 4) were frequently shelled and mortared, but had few casualties. Private Opie,5 4 Platoon's cook, ‘set up his cook shop forward of the gun line—and forward of our FDLs in a casa—the first we had dared to enter,’ says Sergeant Knowles.6 ‘Here we could hear the hydro burner roar above the noise of the battle. Opie was killed while he stood outside the back door at the well—the noise of the burner drowned the sound of a mortar.’
Meanwhile 3 Company manned its guns day and night ready to fire ‘stonks’ (on fixed lines) or harassing tasks. After one of 7 Platoon's shoots the enemy mortared the gunline until it was pockmarked with craters three feet deep and four feet page 372 across, and scored a direct hit on a Vickers. ‘It was the most completely destroyed gun that 3 Coy ever had,’ says Captain Halkett. ‘The water jacket was completely gone, Dial sight spare parts case were never found and the ammunition belt was left smouldering with occasional rounds bursting with the heat.’ The two men in the gunpit were eventually evacuated suffering from burst ear drums and the after effect of the concussion. ‘If ever there was a miraculous escape this was it.’
To harass Orsogna's eastern approaches, 8 Platoon left Brecciarola Ridge for Colle Chiamato, south-east of the town, where it did several shoots which annoyed the Germans, who answered with spandau fire on fixed lines. The German artillery and mortars searched 8 Platoon's ridge and shelled almost every possible place short of the gun positions—which were shelled and mortared the day after the platoon left. Three mules were ‘borrowed’ to assist with the supplying of the platoon, but the track was too slippery for them, so Sergeant Mayfield7 and his men preferred to pack the supplies in on their own backs.
Another frontal attack on Orsogna obviously would be a waste of men and time, but the town might be outflanked by gaining access to the Orsogna-Ortona road from the Sfasciata Ridge. During the next few days, therefore, the engineers built tracks and improved the crossings over the Moro stream to this ridge for the passage of the tanks, guns and supplies.
Both 5 and 6 Platoons took up fresh positions, across the Moro from Sfasciata Ridge, to give covering fire if required— it was not—for a Northampton battalion of 5 British Division, which came into the line on the New Zealanders' right on the night of 13–14 December. Next night 2 Platoon joined these two platoons (under 2 Company) in readiness for another attack. Major Moore placed the twelve guns of 2, 5 and 6 Platoons in a line close enough together for their beaten zones of fire to overlap. ‘I was determined to use them as a coy, firing on call from the Inf Bns on any Arty Df Task within our effective range 4500 yd,’ he says.
The Division's third effort against Orsogna was fixed for the early morning of the 15th. Fifth Brigade was to get across the Orsogna-Ortona road and isolate the town by seizing some high ground behind it.page 373
The machine guns supplemented the artillery barrage.8 Nearly half of the ammunition they used that day, 170,500 rounds, was fired by 2 Company, whose task was to give supporting fire on the right flank, where the Northamptons were to occupy a group of buildings near Poggiofiorito and establish contact with 5 Brigade. Moore says his guns were to ‘fire on the road beyond Poggiofiorito traversing to the right during the attack, which was to coincide with 5 Bde up Sfasciata Ridge, with the idea of stopping any enemy reinforcements coming along the road from the right. Just beyond Poggiofiorito was a crossroad and on getting a call over the radio “Pogo” we were to fire on it with the 12 guns as a D.F. task.
‘On the evening before the attack Lt Col McElroy9 and his Adj came to where my guns were, wanting to find out where the nearest elements of the British Unit on their right were. I took them over and found that the British Bn HQ had moved over the Moro. When we were moving back and about a hundred yards in front of my guns they suddenly opened fire. Somewhat annoyed I asked them why? It appeared they had contacted the British Unit and told them they were in position ready to fire, and were told to go ahead, and having fired were told that they did not mean them to fire [just then]….’
The barrage began at 1 a.m. and before dawn the two assaulting battalions of 5 Brigade, the 21st and the 23rd, were on their objectives across the road after some very hard fighting. On the right flank, about half a mile from Poggiofiorito, 1 Platoon supported the 21st with defensive and harassing fire; in the centre 4 Platoon, after going almost to the road, dug in under small-arms and shell fire, and harassed the slopes of the Orsogna ridge, about a mile away; on the 23rd's left flank 11 Platoon accompanied B Company 25 Battalion, which dug in covering the head of the gully between the Pascuccio and Sfasciata ridges.
The casualties were so numerous in 23 Battalion that many of the wounded could not be taken back until more stretchers page 374 were obtained. Private Carey,10 a medical orderly with 4 Platoon, during the next two or three days went to the aid of at least thirty wounded, mostly infantrymen, in the open and under fire; he undoubtedly saved the life of a man who had a severed artery, and probably saved others. He was awarded the MM.
The Germans counter-attacked from the direction of Poggiofiorito and Arielli in the early hours of 16 December. They were beaten off with no great difficulty on 23 Battalion's front, but the main weight of their attack came against 21 Battalion. Moore received a call from Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy for maximum machine-gun support on one of the artillery defensive-fire areas in front of the infantry. These target areas, each identified by a code-name, were usually 1200 yards wide and about 200 yards deep. ‘I asked him left, right or centre as I could only cover the width of my gun line 250 yd approx. He told me and said that he wanted fire for approx 5 min.
‘We gave him five belts rapid. The target was at 4250 yds. … Then to my horror I found that the Inf FDLs were 3850 yd from my guns. As the normal safety precautions do not permit shooting over our troops when they are more than 3800 yds away the five minutes that they took to fire the five belts seemed to me about five years. When I called Lt Col McElroy on the radio he said “Good!! Do it again.” This we did but after that I had to bring the rate of fire down to normal as the initial two periods of 5 belts rapid had heated up the guns more than somewhat.’
All six platoons of 1 and 2 Companies were in action at various times—2 Company's guns at 3.30, 4.6, 4.19, 4.24, 4.43, 5.2, 5.30 and 7.40 a.m.—with results that were reported to be very satisfactory. The artillery fired many concentrations, and 18 Regiment's tanks were also very busy. The attack lost momentum, and by half past eight the Germans had withdrawn in the direction of Poggiofiorito. They left many dead and four of their six tanks (including two flame-throwers).
That morning 20 Armoured Regiment and the Maori Battalion attempted to exploit along the road from the cemetery, which was being violently shelled. The infantry were soon pinned down, and the tanks, hotly engaged, went on ahead half a mile or so before they also halted. Several went up in flames, and the rest were ordered back. Had this attack succeeded, 24 Battalion page 375 was to have entered Orsogna, and 19 Armoured Regiment and 22 (Motor) Battalion were to have thrust past Guardiagrele. Now, however, all attempts to exploit were abandoned; the Division was to hold the ground it had won, the mile-wide salient across the Orsogna-Ortona road.
The weather was bitterly cold, and the rain and fog so reduced visibility that bombing and shelling were unprofitable. For a while the only Vickers that did any shooting were 3 Company's, which harassed the approaches to Orsogna and the town itself from time to time.
The 23rd Battalion was relieved by the 28th, and after a day (the 17th) with the Maoris under shell and mortar fire, 4 Platoon was replaced in the evening by 2 Platoon, whose commander (Lieutenant Hutchinson11) says his guns ‘were situated in very exposed position & we were severely mortared for some time. Only the soft nature of the ground saved us from considerable damage…. During lunch one day we had an unpleasant diversion. A Jeep came tearing up through the olive grove, struck a mine & the driver [a Maori officer] was blown high in the air right in front of us. He died instantly.’
After three days' hard work in support of 21 Battalion, 1 Platoon went back to Castelfrentano on the 18th for a rest, and 3 Platoon left San Felice to take its place. Sixth Brigade's decision to give each battalion a spell out of the line also allowed the attached 4 Company platoons to have a rest.
The weather cleared sufficiently on the 22nd for the bombers to attack Orsogna. Men occupying houses a mile or so from the town ‘rushed outside,’ wrote Moss, ‘to see successive waves of Baltimores and Bostons, approaching … six at a time. Our arty put green smoke shells down in the area where the bombs were wanted, and as the planes went overhead we saw a green flare from the leader and then the bombs—four from each aircraft—drop out in a shower. We watched them plummet down in the dense mass of houses, and the great belching eruptions of black and orange which followed. Lumps of masonry were hurled hundreds of feet into the air and seemed to take minutes to rain down again.’ This raid and others, although spectacular, probably achieved very little; the Germans were too well protected in their cellars or solidly dug in on the spurs.page 376
Eighth Army decided on yet another attempt to break the line before the winter snows began. Fifth British Division was to capture Arielli and the high ground around it, and the New Zealand Division the heights north and west of Orsogna. Fifth Brigade, with 21, 26 and 28 Battalions, therefore, was to take Fontegrande Ridge, west of the Orsogna-Ortona road, and another unnamed ridge beyond it; it was expected that the next phase of the advance, to the Feuduccio and San Basile ridges, would induce the enemy to evacuate Orsogna.
In the morning of 23 December 2 Company moved up the muddy tracks to an open space on Sfasciata Ridge to support 5 Brigade more closely, and that night 12 Platoon accompanied 26 Battalion on a gruelling march into 5 Brigade's sector, while 9 Platoon, using sturdier mules than the three ‘borrowed’ earlier, and with Italian muleteers, carried its guns over Colle Chiamato to 6 Brigade's left flank, a miserably bleak position with a commanding field of fire, where it was to lie doggo and shoot only if it had a target of Germans trying to escape from Orsogna by the ‘back door’.
Fifth Division encompassed Arielli in the afternoon of the 23rd, and at four o'clock next morning the barrage opened for the New Zealand attack. The whole of the southern horizon was lit by the continuous flashes of the guns and (a machine-gunner observed) ‘the air shook with the storm of shells passing overhead…. Jerry kept shooting up flare after flare to try and find out what was going on. The area sounded to be alive with spandaus…. They are spiteful sounding weapons…. I bet our old Vickers though doesn't sound any nicer to Jerry, and it throws over ten times the amount of stuff.’
By daylight both 21 Battalion (on the right) and 26 Battalion (in the centre) were firmly on the first objective, the Fontegrande ridge, and their supporting Vickers (3 and 12 Platoons) were dug in with them. Only two rifle companies, one from each battalion and both much below strength, had succeeded in crossing the Arielli stream to the next ridge, where they clung precariously to the reverse slope. The very steep, slippery ground, as much as the tenacious enemy, had prevented the infantry from gaining more than a foothold on the final objective. It was miserably cold and there were frequent heavy showers of rain.
On the left the Maori Battalion (with 2 Platoon under command) secured the neck of land where the Cemetery and Fontegrande ridges join, which enabled the tanks of 20 Armoured page 377 Regiment to get along a road onto Fontegrande to support the infantry. The Maoris were held up short of their final objective. The ground in front of them was swarming with Germans, and several times during the day urgent concentrations of artillery, mortar and Vickers fire were called for to break up incipient counter-attacks.
Whenever 10 Platoon (which had taken over from 9 Platoon on San Felice ridge) was called upon to fire, wrote Moss, ‘We would get the codeword for the particular target and everyone would tear out to the gun pits, put the setting on the dial sights, level the bubble and swing onto the lamp. The sec comds would report “Guns ready to fire” and I would yell “All guns—FIRE” and there would be a simultaneous roar as 200 nickel slugs went out in the first six seconds. We would give them the remainder of the first belt rapid and then two more normal, pull the guns through and go back to our hut. It would take us just five minutes to freight 3000 rds over to the Jerry lines and although we couldn't see the results of our shooting, being behind a ridge, it was gratifying to have the Maoris ring up on two occasions and report that our fire, in conjunction with that of [7 and 8] platoons of 3 Coy, had broken up two counter attacks.’ Also 2 Company, which fired 86,000 rounds that day, was told that it had helped to repel the Germans.
On the right flank, as on the left, the fighting continued, with the infantry engaged at close quarters and assisted by the tanks and all the supporting fire available. The 21st Battalion was due for a rest, and it was decided to relieve it with the 25th. After much difficulty in negotiating the muddy tracks, 11 Platoon arrived with 25 Battalion in the evening and took over from 3 Platoon, which went back to Castelfrentano. The operational command was transferred from 5 Brigade to the 6th.
Christmas Day 1943, the New Zealanders' first in Italy, was foggy, cold and miserable. Nevertheless most of the machine-gunners managed to have a very good dinner: pork and turkey, plum pudding, fruit salad and cream, oranges, figs and nuts, and two bottles of beer for each man. One ‘felt positively revetted with good food and slept like a python after eating a gazelle.’ A parcel mail and a National Patriotic Fund parcel for every man had arrived a day or two earlier.
Padre Finlay,12 who visited the companies whenever he could, page 378 was taken by jeep to 3 Company a day or two before Christmas and held brief services, with a quietly sung hymn, at each platoon headquarters.
The front was fairly quiet on Christmas morning, some light shelling and mortaring being the only activity. Sixth Brigade's mortars and the Vickers of 2 Company and 7 and 10 Platoons fired at some German mortars which were annoying the Maoris, but could not silence them. It appeared that the enemy might be about to make another counter-attack, but the defensive fire put an end to any such possibility.
When a battalion of 2 British Independent Paratroop Brigade took over from 24 Battalion, which at that time was the only New Zealand battalion directly facing Orsogna, the platoons of 3 Company on Brecciarola and Colle Chiamato came under the paratroops' command, and 10 Platoon went out with 24 Battalion for a short rest.
Boxing Day was another unpleasant day, with drizzling rain. Twice before midday 25 Battalion asked 2 Company to fire on Germans who could be seen moving about freely, and later reported very satisfactory results. Early in the afternoon 5 and 6 Platoons again engaged this target area, which was quiet for the rest of the day. This was a busy day for 2 Platoon, which fired 33,000 rounds on targets selected by the Maori Battalion. After dark next day, when 24 Battalion returned to the line to take over from the Maoris, 2 Platoon was relieved by 10.
The days that followed took much the same pattern. Both sides mortared each other's foremost posts, harassed each other with machine-gun fire, and shelled roads and tracks farther back. The front line consisted of a series of platoon posts in farmhouses, usually with nearby slit trenches which were occupied at night. The enemy had good observation, so patrolling and the bringing up of food and ammunition (by mule) were confined to the hours of darkness.
The building shared by 7 Platoon's headquarters and 3 Company's advanced headquarters gave a grandstand view across a gully to the Brickworks corner, about half a mile away on the road to Castelfrentano. ‘The Germans had this [part of the road] under good observation and one of their 88s kept our traffic moving nicely,’ says Halkett. ‘Idle Vickers gunners invariably watched our vehicles running this gauntlet and many a quiet bet was made as to whether the next vehicle would make the hurry distance of 200 to 300 yards. Occasionally a vehicle was hit and stopped and the resulting scramble of driver page 379 and/or passengers for the ditch and safety was considered highly amusing to watchers at a safe distance.’ But it was not in the least funny when nobody got out of the vehicle.
Heavy rain fell in the afternoon of the 31st, and after dark a bitterly cold wind was accompanied by sleet and hail; later, when a rising gale shrieked around the farmhouses, snow began to fall. Visibility was soon reduced to a few yards. The pickets shivered in the gunlines, and even the men in the houses had little sleep. Next morning, New Year's Day, the countryside had been transformed: ground which had been rutted by tank tracks and pocked with shell holes was now a shining white expanse, broken only by the twisted trunks of the olive trees.
The whole Division set to work digging itself out: gangs of men shovelled snow off the roads and tracks; signalmen repaired broken telephone lines; men who had been sleeping in dugouts or bivvies found shelter in houses. Many of the Vickers had been completely buried in the snow and had to be dug out; they were placed at ground level, ready to fire if necessary, in front of their waterlogged pits. Furniture, ladders, door frames, rafters, and everything else that was combustible was fed into braziers and fireplaces around which the men huddled for warmth.
The weather cleared and during a succession of fine days, interrupted by one or two fresh falls of snow, a partial thaw turned the roads into morasses and the surrounding countryside into slush covered by a thin crust of snow. All movement, except on the beaten tracks, was exceedingly difficult.
In these conditions there was no question of continuing the offensive on Eighth Army's front, but in the more open country on the other side of the peninsula Fifth Army might still be able to drive towards Rome. It was decided, therefore, to transfer some divisions from Eighth Army to the Fifth. The first to go was 5 British Division. In the resultant regrouping 2 Independent Paratroop Brigade (still under New Zealand command) took over the Poggiofiorito sector from a brigade of 5 Division.
The ground was still partly covered with snow when the company arrived. The slush hampered the diggers, and life in the pits was damp and cheerless. As the snow thawed Company Headquarters and 1 Platoon found they were in an area thickly sown with S-mines. A dump of these mines and booby-trap mechanisms was discovered under a haystack. Engineers from the paratroop brigade were summoned, and after a hurried course (self-taught) on the mines, 1 Platoon assisted in the clearing. For some time after that it was not safe to go near the platoon: disarmed S-mines, if set off by the unwary, would leap into the air without exploding.
The paratroops sent patrols out each night, and for that reason the Vickers were not allowed to do harassing shoots, except one night when the patrols reported vehicles moving around the Canosa crossroads.
The paratroop brigade's former positions near Orsogna and farther south were taken over by a company of Maoris, 22 (Motor) Battalion and Divisional Cavalry. On Brecciarola Ridge D Company 28 Battalion was closely supported by 3 Company less 7 and 9 Platoons (8 Platoon replacing 7); in the Colle Chiamato-Colle Bianco sub-sector 22 Battalion had its own machine guns; and on the left flank, in the Colle Bianco-Colle Barone sub-sector, Divisional Cavalry was reinforced by some anti-tank gunners and by 7 Platoon near the peak of Colle San Biagio and 9 Platoon on the western outskirts of Fontana Ascigno.
Only between late afternoon and mid-morning was the waist- deep snow on Colle San Biagio firm enough to carry a man's weight; 7 Platoon had an exhausting time manhandling its stores over the last mile or so. The posts at Fontana Ascigno were fortified with wire, and getting the wire there (according to a Divisional Cavalry report) was another exhausting business ‘with the bloody mules stumbling and slipping in deep drifts of snow, packs slipping, and the Ites yelling and tugging.’
Fifth Brigade replaced the 6th in the Fontegrande-Orsogna sub-sector. Staying in the same position, 10 Platoon was now to page 382 give immediate support to the Maori Battalion, 11 to the 21st, and 12 to the 23rd, while 2 Company's three platoons, on Sfasciata Ridge, when called upon, were to support the brigade with defensive fire and harassing and fixed-line fire.
Barely half a mile back from the infantry, 2 Company had its twelve guns across the centre of an open space about 300 yards in diameter. ‘When the CO asked me why I had picked such a place,’ says Moore, ‘I told him that I didn't think that the methodical Germans would consider us such fools as to put our guns on an open space like that. And so it worked out for when the jerries got annoyed with us after any particular shoot, and they often did, they would shell and mortar the gullies on either side of the ridge.
‘We stayed in this position [from 23 December] until the div. was withdrawn and fired 430,000 rounds. All the Coy Personnel were during that period 2 hrs. on and four off around the clock. The average time from getting the task to guns firing was 2 minutes on any target in an 160° arc up to 4500 yd. Barrels for this work became a vital question.’ The battalion armourer, who had the only .306 gauge with which to check the barrels, had to make the long trek from Battalion Headquarters to do so. Brigadier Barlow, a British small-arms expert who inspected the company's guns, agreed that it would be a good idea for each section sergeant to have a gauge and arranged for .306 plug gauges to be issued to the battalion. ‘To be able to measure breech wear with these plug gauges after every 1000 rounds fired … and to be able to tell if they were fit to fire another 1000 rounds was a tremendous relief to me,’ says Moore.
‘One afternoon soon after taking up our positions I returned to the house where I had my HQ and found in my room five telephones other than my own Coy phone. All the units around had put in individual phones each with a different number of rings meaning 2 Coy. I took this as a great compliment and while we stayed there … averaged about 2 hrs sleep in the twentyfour…. I made a habit of contacting the Inf COs each morning to find what enemy positions their patrols the previous night had located. Together we would work out the harassing fire for the next night. Using all 12 guns for short periods and at irregular intervals firing approx 20,000 rds a night…. when I heard a German spandau firing, I did on several occasions ring the nearest Bns, get bearings from their forward elements. Then using 12 guns quietened the Jerry gun. I don't say we hit him but I do say that a Coy of 12 guns can give a heck of a scare.’page 383
When several men from 2 Company were selected to go to Bari on leave, Captain Aislabie took them in his truck back to B Echelon at Castelfrentano for their pay and changes of clothing. ‘Happy party going; back to my quarters for their tea,’ he wrote. ‘Got about 600x down road when shell landed beside us…. Ran 50x to house for medical aid & got 20x when second shell came in beside truck…. Of 5 men for leave one left.’ Privates Mackintosh13 (the driver) and Maurice14 were killed, Shand15 mortally wounded, and Farnell16 and Corporal Dryden wounded.
On ‘Jittery ridge’, across the Orsogna-Ortona road, it was most dangerous to move near the front in daylight because observation posts and snipers in houses, in places only about 200 yards away, could bring down immediate fire. At night both sides sent out patrols. A German raiding party wearing white clothing caught some Maoris asleep, entered their house unchallenged and inflicted several casualties. Next night another patrol, reaching one of 23 Battalion's houses unobserved, inflicted casualties and took a prisoner. After that, however, the New Zealanders were not caught unawares.
Alternative positions well forward with the Maori Battalion were selected by 10 Platoon. A section was to go up at night, do a shoot and pull out while it was still dark. In the evening of the 7th the machine-gunners set out for one of these positions, near a house beyond the cemetery. The thin crust of snow supported the man who trod carefully, but every now and then somebody fell up to his knees in a concealed slit trench or tank track. The road and railway, although they would have given easier going, were avoided because spandaus were set to fire on fixed lines down them.
The Maoris gave the machine-gunners a cup of tea. ‘After we'd drunk it,’ wrote Moss, ‘we put on our improvised snow clothing, and went forward to the positions. Everyone knew that concealment of the pits would be a very desirable factor in daylight tomorrow, so we carefully cleared the snow away before throwing out the earth…. The ground was very wet page 384 and sticky and in an hour we were not much further down than a foot. Suddenly 300x out to the left, hell broke loose round the church. Grenades and bombs cracked and flashed, spandaus purred and positive fences of tracer sped over the snow. For a moment we thought we had been discovered, but the spitting of a tommy gun and a bren gun stuttering told us that it was someone else's party. Jerry mortared and spandaued, but every time he stopped, the bren would give another short burst, further back each time as the enemy patrol was driven off. We dug with renewed vigour, finishing about midnight after painstakingly covering the fresh earth with snow and obliterating tracks….
‘Up at six this morning [the 8th] and put the guns and ammo in the pits and then went back to the house. We heard that the Maoris in the church killed five out of the seven Huns in the patrol last night.’ After that the Germans made no serious attempts on the New Zealand forward posts.
About four o'clock Moss and his men left the house to occupy the gun pits ‘and found to our disgust that they had about eight inches of ice-covered water in them. There was some shelling about 300x away and bits of shrap were kicking up puffs of snow all around us…. The gunners of course had to stand in the water so I decided to get the shoot over without delay. Our most prominent target was a large three-storied house which overlooked the whole area and was probably used as an O.P. We opened the ball by giving it a belt rapid and a good many bullets must have found their way into the windows and breaks in the walls. After we opened fire only three more shells landed. We didn't know whether there was any special significance behind this or whether the Jerry arty. had just stopped to try and locate us by sound. Anyway nothing more came our way at all. We shot up every visible house in the Jerry lines and then traversed back and forth at different ranges for good measure. Every now and then we came back to the big house and gave it a few more bursts to keep its eyes shut. We got away about ten belts a gun without incident and then pulled out one at a time.’
A couple of mornings later 10 Platoon did a dawn shoot at Orsogna from one of these direct-fire positions. ‘We fired at buildings from which we had seen spandau tracer, into the village square, on the Guadiagrele road and also did a traverse of the whole place. We did one good thing by provoking an automatic anti tank gun to fire and disclose its position. It sent some tracer shells bouncing down the road on our right page 385 and we pinpointed it nicely. Later we got the 4.2 [mortar] onto it with blockbusters and it has not fired since.’
About twenty German fighter-bombers, the first seen since Christmas, appeared suddenly in the afternoon of the 11th and made a hit-and-run raid on Poggiofiorito. ‘They came out of the sun from a great height and going like hell. They hastily dropped their bombs which fell over about two miles of territory and tore off smartly … one apparently receiving a direct hit on its bomb, because it disappeared in a puff of smoke the size of a gasometer, which hung in the air for half an hour.’
Next day Orsogna was the target for the RAF. ‘The bomb bursts all mushroomed up to form an opaque pall of dust over the village, and after it had dispersed the Kittys [Kittyhawks] went in again and strafed it with their .5's. When they had gone the arty. plastered the place and covered it with another cloud of dust and smoke. The Maori mortars were not to be outdone of course and added their contribution to the inferno.’
If the Maori Battalion was in favour of harassing fire from the Vickers, 23 Battalion certainly was not. For several days 4 Company was not allowed to do any shooting in case it drew retaliatory fire. The Maoris' CO (Lieutenant-Colonel Young17) rang 10 Platoon on 14 January to say that he had not heard its ‘familiar rattle for some time’, and when told why, said he would ring Brigade Headquarters. Not long afterwards Company Headquarters18 advised 10 Platoon that it ‘could fire if the Maoris wanted it’, and about three o'clock Colonel Young asked it to fire for the rest of the afternoon. Soon after the platoon engaged its first target in Orsogna, however, 23 Battalion demanded that it should stop, and although it was affirmed that 10 Platoon was under 28 Battalion's command, the Vickers were not permitted to do any more shooting.
Already 4 Indian Division had begun to relieve the New Zealand Division on Eighth Army's front. That night (14–15 January) 2 Company was replaced on Sfasciata Ridge by an Indian machine-gun company, and two nights later 4 Company and 8 Platoon handed over their positions to the Indians, as also did 1 Company in the Poggiofiorito sector.
For the impending move to Fifth Army's front all identification markings were removed, but as on all other such occasions, page 386 few could have mistaken the New Zealanders. The Division departed in groups: 2 Company went with 6 Brigade on 15 January, Battalion Headquarters and 1 and 4 Companies with the artillery on the 18th, and 3 Company with Divisional Cavalry on the 20th.
The long convoys snaked back over the Sangro and down to the mouth of the river, turned south along the Adriatic coast and inland again to the first staging area, near Casalbordino; they then continued on past many familiar landmarks to the second staging area, on the road to Lucera, and through new country, south-westwards into the mountains along a fine highway through Ariano Irpino, where streams of refugees lined each side of the road, most of them heading in the direction of Naples. The numerous villages passed on the way usually occupied pinnacles or sharp bends round cliffs, and the greasy cobbles of their steeply ascending main streets tested the heavily laden vehicles. ‘We saw many precipitous snow capped peaks mostly about the 6000' mark…. On emerging from the hills we immediately recognised a distant cone with its crowning plume of smoke, as the famous Vesuvius.’ The convoys went on to another staging area, near Cancello, and then entered the Volturno valley, where in due course 2 and 3 Companies reverted to the battalion's command at Sant' Angelo d'Alife.
There was plenty to do on arrival: erecting tents, stacking ammunition, digging sump holes and drains, cutting firewood, overhauling vehicles and guns, repairing camouflage nets, and other tasks. Italian women washed clothes, usually for about five lire a garment; children with tin billies swarmed around the cookhouses for scraps of food. When darkness fell Catherine wheels appeared all over the camp while men whirled the charcoal braziers which were to heat their tents.
‘Speed’ Whelan,19 an orderly in 4 Platoon, ‘jacked me up a bed,’ says Knowles. ‘When I saw him sleeping on a coffin lid I inspected my own bed—to find I had the coffin. He was upset when I sent him back [to the nearby cemetery] with it—after all he had emptied the corpse out of it.’
During the next fortnight the machine-gunners settled down to route-marching, range practices, gun drill, map reading, camouflage, training with mines and booby traps, and so on; they also played football, and made trips to Pompeii.
Since its arrival in Italy the battalion had suffered sixty-five casualties: twelve killed, forty-one wounded, and twelve prisoners of war (of whom five were subsequently killed in an air raid).
8 1 and 2 Companies were under command 5 Bde and the remainder of the battalion under 6 Bde. 1 and 3 Pls were under command 21 Bn and 4 Pl under 23 Bn; 2, 5 and 6 Pls were to support 5 Bde. 7 and 9 Pls were kept in reserve on San Felice Ridge in case of a counter-attack, and 10 Pl was in a mobile role ready to exploit with 24 Bn past Orsogna if the town fell.
Shellfire destroyed two guns on 14 Dec, one in 7 Pl and the other in 11 Pl, and next day damaged one of 4 Pl's guns.
17 Lt-Col R. R. T. Young, DSO; Richmond, England; born Wellington, 25 Jun 1902; oil company executive; CO School of Instruction 1943; 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1943–Jul 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; wounded 26 Dec 1943.