Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
Separated from the New Zealand Division by the intervening Monti Simbruini, 8 Indian Division pursued the retreating enemy along the road which linked Route 6 with Route 5 by way of Alatri, Guarcino and Subiaco. On 6 June 10 Corps ordered 8 Indian Division to advance at speed, first to the Arsoli area on Route 5 (the Rome-Avezzano highway) and then to the Rieti area, about 40 miles north-east of Rome; the New Zealand Division was to be page 82 prepared to pass through 8 Indian Division at 48 hours' notice. In the evening of the 6th, however, HQ 2 NZ Division received confirmation of earlier news of a change in plan: the Division was to advance as rapidly as possible to Avezzano and clear Route 82 as an alternative way forward. Arrangements were made, therefore, for 6 Infantry Brigade to take under its command the units of Wilder Force and continue the advance from Balsorano to Avezzano.
Near Balsorano the Monti Simbruini rose almost vertically from the Liri River to the peaks of Pizzodeta and Viglio, the latter over 7000 feet, and at the foot of this great mountain wall most of the culverts and stone bridges, which occurred every few hundred yards along Route 82, had been demolished by the enemy. Except for the infantry, therefore, the rate of advance depended on how quickly the engineers could construct bridges and detours at these obstacles. While the leading troops of 6 Brigade (26 Battalion) came up the valley from the south, Divisional Cavalry continued its patrolling and the engineers their work of clearing mines and demolitions. A Squadron's armoured cars passed through Balsorano and by dawn on 7 June were about a mile beyond the town, where they were held up by an obstruction. The wrecked German guns and the many shell craters around them testified to the effectiveness of the New Zealand artillery's retaliation for the punishment it had received farther down the valley.
Sappers from the three field companies of the New Zealand Engineers and mechanical equipment of the field park company, including five bulldozers, were employed on Route 82 lifting mines (with the assistance at times of the infantry), repairing culverts, filling in craters and bridging the larger gaps. Mines and booby traps were found in houses, around demolitions, and even under cherry trees which were in fruit.
When the trucks of B Company, taking the lead in 26 Battalion, encountered obstructions which they could not pass until trimmed by the engineers' bulldozers, the infantry debussed and set out on foot to catch up with the armoured cars, which by that time, 8 a.m. on the 7th, were stopped by a demolition three miles north of Balsorano. B Company lifted mines on the verges while the sappers cleared the road. The company passed Castronuovo and halted for the night about seven miles beyond Balsorano. The rest of the battalion, which followed as the road was opened to vehicles, laagered not far behind B Company. The same day 25 Battalion concentrated in the village of Urbani near Balsorano.page 83
The advance was resumed early on 8 June, when A Company, 26 Battalion, passed through B to take the lead. The engineers continued to work ‘at top pressure’ so that the armoured cars, tanks and lorries could follow the infantry. Only A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry and one troop of tanks went ahead; the rest of Divisional Cavalry and A Squadron, 20 Regiment, moved into San Vincenzo, a little town among terraced hillsides which rose to the rocky heights east of the Liri. A Company of the 26th made steady progress, despite the mines and booby traps which wounded seven men during the day, and covered eight miles before halting near Capistrello, only four miles from Avezzano. The rest of the battalion stopped overnight between Civitella Roveto and Capistrello, and the transport, after being held up by bad demolitions farther south, also passed Civitella Roveto before stopping to laager. Some delayed-action explosions on the road during the night cut signal communications to the rear.
Another early start was made on 9 June, when C Company took over the lead from A and advanced to within about two miles of Avezzano. A two-man patrol went on ahead over low hills to enter the town, where the mayor and citizens had turned out in force to welcome the Allied troops but waited all day in vain. The two men were treated royally. A very bad demolition blocked the road just south of Capistrello, but the troop of tanks managed to get over a saddle and catch up with the infantry. Half-way up the last hill before Avezzano, however, they were held up by yet another demolition—the last one.
Early on 10 June C Company and the troop of tanks were on the Capistrello-Avezzano road, D Company and a troop of armoured cars on the road which linked Route 82 with Route 5 west of Avezzano, and the rest of the battalion in the vicinity of Capistrello. The 24th Battalion had arrived the previous day at Castronuovo, and the 25th was still back near Balsorano.
By this time, however, 10 Corps had advised the Division that Route 82 would not be needed. Sixth Brigade was ordered not to deal with any more demolitions but to continue searching the Avezzano area with reconnaissance parties. The GOC drove up to 26 Battalion in the morning and, together with Brigadier Parkinson, went to a point overlooking Avezzano and the Fucino plain. He told the Brigadier to hold his present positions and to send a strong patrol to reconnoitre Route 5 westwards from Avezzano and make contact with 8 Indian Division troops reported in Arsoli.
A patrol composed of two troops of armoured cars, two scout cars of the engineers and a platoon of infantry in 15-cwt trucks set out along Route 5 in the afternoon of the 10th, but was delayed page 84 by a series of demolitions. Two days later it met armoured cars of 12 Lancers at Carsoli, six miles from Arsoli.
A platoon of C Company, 26 Battalion, and other troops entered Avezzano on the 10th. During the next few days patrols reconnoitred the side roads and villages around the Fucino plain, where ‘wild flowers of every colour grew in profusion and the squares and rectangles of cultivated land gave the appearance of being painted on a canvas.’1 The evidence obtained from civilians and the numerous escaped Allied prisoners of war who came into the lines confirmed that the enemy had gone quickly from this region, leaving only small rearguards to blow the demolitions. Many reports were received of the presence of parties of Germans, but only a few were rounded up. Most of them seemed to be marauders intent on reprisals against the Italians or the gathering of loot before they departed.
For A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, whose patrols explored the villages near Avezzano, the next few days were ‘a long riot of German prisoners, escapees, signorinas and vino, Fascist spies and partisans…. The beauty of the countryside, the affection of the people and the lack of any and all restrictions and restraint together with the zest of chasing the odd Fascist spy is, in many respects, an ideal existence.’2 Among the Germans collected was ‘a very smelly bunch of ragamuffins’ from 85 Regiment of 5 Mountain Division, whom the partisans had locked in a house while working themselves up to murder pitch.
Many of the escaped Allied prisoners were reluctant to leave the Italian families with whom they had been sheltering. ‘Some came alone, some brought wives, and a few their wives and children.’3
2 War diary, Div Cav.
Brigadier Inglis gave instructions on 3 June for the formation of a mixed patrol to search north of Alvito to see if there was a way into the hills by which assistance could be given to the paratroops who had been dropped near Collelongo. A force under the command of Captain Saxton2 and consisting of the Reconnaissance Troop and a troop of Shermans of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, together with a platoon of 2 Company, 22 Battalion, in trucks, started out the same day and reached the village of Fontana Lepore, about four miles from Alvito. Saxton's force did not make contact with the retreating enemy ‘but must have been hot on his heels.’3 Civilians said he had left only that morning, with mules and mountain guns. The country beyond Lepore was too difficult for the tanks. They engaged what appeared to be German observation posts in the hills to the north-east, and received in return a heavy bout of shelling. As the result of the general revision of the Division's role, Saxton's force was recalled on 4 June.
The tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, apart from those with Saxton's force, took up firing positions near Alvito to engage suspected enemy observation posts and gun positions in support of the armoured cars of 12 Lancers which, with the assistance of 1/5 Essex, were advancing on the San Donato-Opi road. Patrols of the Essex had entered Opi by the morning of 6 June, by which time the country between Sora and Opi was clear of the enemy.
1 Diary, B. C. H. Moss, 27 (MG) Bn.
Advance parties left on 12 June and the Division moved back during the next two days, Divisional Headquarters, Divisional Artillery and 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades to the Liri valley west of the junction of Routes 6 and 82 at Arce, and Divisional Cavalry (less A Squadron) and 4 Armoured Brigade (less 18 Regiment) a mile or two north of Fontana Liri. The 18th Armoured Regiment remained a few miles away in a valley below Veroli. A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, was recalled from the Avezzano sector on 16 June, when Canadian engineers arrived with orders to dismantle all Bailey bridging equipment for use elsewhere.
The remainder of June and part of July were spent in training and recreation near Arce.
The New Zealand Division's casualties in April, May and June, during the occupation of the Apennine position north of Cassino and the advance to Sora and Avezzano, were 121 killed and died of wounds, 600 wounded, and two prisoners of war, a total of 723. The Division had covered about 60 miles in a fortnight. The policy had been not to run headlong into opposition and incur needless casualties. Had the advance been pressed vigorously regardless of casualties, heavier losses might have been inflicted on the enemy, especially in prisoners – altogether the Division collected just over 300 – but little more of tactical value would have been achieved.
The German tactics during the withdrawal on the Division's front were designed to prevent a force breaking through to the Liri River south of Sora, which might have cut off a large body of troops. The 51st Mountain Corps therefore spread its troops over as wide a front as possible and tried to slow down the pursuit with rearguard actions and demolitions. Once the main weight of Eighth Army had passed Arce and crossed the Liri River, nothing further was to be gained by holding south of Sora; all that remained to be done was to delay the pursuit below Balsorano in the upper Liri valley long enough to allow the left-flank troops of 51 Corps time to fall back through Avezzano. This the enemy succeeded in doing.
Acquafondata, the village from which convoys took supplies to the distributing points in the Apennine mountain sector
A hairpin bend on the Inferno Track
An aerial view of the road zigzagging up the southern slope of Colle Belvedere and over the shoulder of Colle Abate towards Terelle. On the other side of Colle Belvedere is the entrance of the pass through the mountains to Atina
Guns bombarding the Gustav Line
Hove Dump before it was shelled by the Germans
The devastation of Cassino
Italian refugees return to their homes while the New Zealand Division advances beyond the Gustav Line
In conference at Headquarters 5 Brigade: an American military attaché, Brigadier K. L. Stewart, Brigadier C. E. Weir, Colonel R. C. Queree, General Freyberg and Brigadier G. B. Parkinson
It was not known whether the enemy had tanks. Traces of tracked vehicles had been seen at Atina, but these might have been self-propelled guns. There is no indication in German records that either 44 Division or 5 Mountain Division disposed of any tanks, but they had a few self-propelled guns and towed anti-tank guns, which of course did not have much mobility in such hilly country and in any case had to be withdrawn behind the demolitions or abandoned.
The enemy made the most of his excellent observation from the high ground overlooking the roads along which the pursuit came, and employed his field and medium guns effectively, but perhaps his best artillery work was done by the mountain guns in the hills east of the Sora-Balsorano valley; these were the guns which inflicted so many casualties on the New Zealand artillery. The enemy also held up the advance at times with his mortars and automatic weapons, the crews of which sometimes maintained their fire until their ammunition was exhausted.
The advance to Avezzano was in pursuit of an enemy who was retreating. If it had little influence on the manner of his going, it at least did something for the morale of the New Zealanders who participated: for the first time in Italy, after the series of rebuffs, if not defeats, at Orsogna and Cassino, they had the enemy on the run. After months of wallowing in mud and snow and the other discomforts of static warfare, they found it exhilarating to be on the move again. It was reminiscent of the war of movement they had mastered in the Desert.