CHAPTER 19 — Operations on the Sangro Front
Operations on the Sangro Front
The division once again found itself a part of the Eighth Army and, even before it was completely assembled in Italy, there was a job waiting for it. It was to form the Army reserve whilst being in a position to cover the airfield at Foggia. The area chosen as being suitable for this task was a few miles north of the town of Lucera, and arrangements had already been made to send the Division's heavy equipment here, straight from the ships.
The Divisional Cavalry, one of the first units ordered forward, set off in a single convoy on 4 November to do the trip in one bound from Altamura. On later trips the men got quite used to travelling about in settled country, but this trip remained a particularly vivid one in most people's memories. It was fun, after so many years of the empty desert, to be bowling along through country which was actually inhabited. It was in fact completely novel to practically the whole regiment, for there remained only a mere handful of men who had actually been in Greece. There they had been very green troops, whereas now they were proven troops and knew it. They were proud to realise that they were as good as any fighting men in the world: so that now their mental attitude had none of that vague, subconscious apology for being there at all.
The roads, by comparison with anything the regiment had ever found, were excellent. The Italian engineers certainly know their jobs and have a happy knack of putting an almost artistic finish to their work. The very edges of the tarmac gave the impression that they had been neatly snipped off with scissors before being marked off with little rectangles of stone, painted white, inlaid, and in perfect alignment. Such little touches—and there were many of them—somehow can give a trace of asceticism to such an unpromising subject as an ordinary highway.
Though it was on a dull November day, the trip had a gayness about it. The tang of the air on the cheeks was stimulating, as too was the tug of the scarf-end flapping behind in the wind. But from town to town the attitude of the local people varied. Here they turned out to watch with only stolid interest; there they smiled shyly; but everywhere the little boys held out their page 305 hands calling hopefully, and usually not fruitlessly, for some ‘beesqueet’. Actually the trip, on the whole, was uneventful, the only incident of note being when one of the Staghounds struck something on the verge of the tarmac, broke a spring shackle, swerved off at speed and capsized.
The area set aside at Lucera for the regiment was a fairly flat piece of ground dotted with groves of oak trees. Though the ground was drying out after the recent rains, it was still rather sodden, but the place promised to be a very pleasant camping spot. The matter of settling in was no trouble to the New Zealanders, trained as they were by some years of desert movement. So, within an hour of its arrival, the regiment was fully organised for a stay of some time; and by midday the next day, football fields had been marked out and a series of matches between squadrons had been arranged. Now that the colder weather had set in, the anti-malarial precautions were relaxed. A lot of the training was devoted to finding out just how the new Staghounds were going to behave in this close country, and it was essential to find out the limitations of all vehicles in wet and muddy terrain. Consequently there were many trips up the various hillsides in the neighbourhood, over turf land, on boggy surfaces in the gullies, and even over wet ploughed ground. On the latter surface particularly, it was most gratifying to find that the Staghounds were capable of climbing as far and further than some Sherman tanks whose crews were carrying out the same tests. But the most pleasing performance was put up by the White scout cars which proved that they could outstrip anything.
But no sooner had the regiment settled in, anticipating quite a few weeks' stay—hot showers had even been erected—than the air became filled with strong rumours of a move forward; for Divisional Headquarters moved in to the adjoining area on 7 November. The very next day the CO and his Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Kavanagh,1 left with the GOC's party to reconnoitre more forward areas.
The Division was ordered forward to increase the pressure on the enemy's Sangro River line, and Div Cav was again to be the first unit to move up. The enemy was showing every intention of holding this line along the Sangro for the whole winter, and the New Zealand Division was being sent up to the inland end of it into the country in front of Atessa.page 306
The Divisional Cavalry pulled out from Lucera on 12 November and again travelled in one big convoy. The roads forward ran through fairly hilly country and were found to be rather winding and, in places, narrow. The wet, sticky nature of the countryside promised much trouble if the vehicles were going to be forced off the formed roads. However, the regiment was lucky to be amongst the first to go forward and the roads were not particularly busy; but nevertheless the move was a slow one since the route entailed by-passing many demolitions.
The main reason why Div Cav went forward first was so that it could get into position to cover the left flank of the Division while it was on the move, and also to establish contact with 1 Canadian Division, already in the line.
The regiment's first destination was a position just forward of the village of Cupello. Here the road ran round the brow of a hill where there was a reasonably level spot. Arriving there in the middle of the afternoon of the 12th, the squadrons deployed in the fields above and below the road. Here at last the men felt that they were getting somewhere near the fighting because, through a saddle in the hills to the north-west could be seen, about 20 miles away, the valley of the Sangro River.
The camping area—they could hardly call them laagers now— was, like the whole countryside at the time, very muddy but fast drying out. The amount of space for dispersal of the squadrons was somewhat restricted, too, but nevertheless each troop commander, within his limited scope, took great pains in the siting of each vehicle, visualising the possibility of being ordered off to carry out some task at short notice.
The job of posting the flank guard for the Division was to fall on B Squadron, so on the next day, the 13th, a patrol of one troop from that squadron went forward to reconnoitre the village of Castiglione. But the following day it was decided not to send the whole squadron forward, and the only job done by it was that allotted to the Dingo troop which went forward to try to make contact with the Canadians. This reconnaissance was also rather upset because one of the little cars managed to tip over a bank, slightly injuring the troop officer, Lieutenant Dickie.2 Another patrol went forward, however, and got into Atessa, but did not penetrate right into the town as the position there seemed rather obscure.
In retirement the enemy had been, as usual, thorough with demolitions, but had failed in the destruction of one bridge; page 307 and this was a most important one for the New Zealand Division since it was on the very road which was to become the divisional axis. The bridge, as it turned out, had been saved from destruction by a sapper of 8 Indian Division, who had dashed quickly forward as his section arrived there and snatched away the burning fuse just in the nick of time. It was natural that the enemy should be very keen to rectify this upset in his plans and so the bridge in question, over the Sinello River immediately below the village of Gissi, had of necessity to be carefully guarded. Fighting patrols of the enemy had already tried to get back and finish off the job but had been driven off. The whole of Div Cav was therefore ordered forward to set up camp in the bed of the river all round the bridge.
There was quite a lot of trouble, despite the previous care of the troop officers, to get cars out of the sticky ground on to the road and to do this according to timetable. An added handicap was the increasing volume of traffic on the road itself, since the traffic had to be held up from time to time when it became necessary to run out a winch rope across the road. Many of the drivers of the through traffic which was being held up showed signs of impatience, and this did not help soothe the temper of the LAD officer, Captain Pierce.3 There came the occasion, moreover, when he was striding back on to the road to supervise the winding of his winch once more. There he found a staff car weaving its way forward past the line of waiting Staghounds and appearing as if its driver was going to be just one more to ask to have the rope slackened so he could drive over it. Joe was working against the clock and, in justifiable annoyance, he rushed up on to the road towards the car roaring: ‘Wait-a- minit-can't-yer? What's the hurry? Where the Hell's the fire?’ when he found himself gazing into the eyes of the passenger, General Montgomery.
Even so, Joe got the regiment mobile by the scheduled 9 a.m., regardless of delaying mud and impatient generals. But the hazards of these proved small in comparison with what was to be experienced later in the day. The weather deteriorated and a storm blew up from the west, carrying hail and sleet, into the teeth of which the column had to drive. The route ran through some really mountainous country, and here the New Zealanders, coming as they did from a mountainous country and having driven, in their time, over some steep terrain, could page 308 not but notice and be amazed by the achievements of the Italian engineers. They had built what, by New Zealand standards, would be first-class roads through, by the same standards, absolutely impossible country. There was one place in particular where the road had been carried in a zig-zag from a high ridge down a virtually perpendicular bluff of solid rock many hundreds of feet high. At one or two corners the big Staghounds had to be reversed up to negotiate the turns, and this gave the crews some breathless moments as they looked over the edge and wondered what sort of a mess they would make if a driver made one slight error and precipitated them and fifteen tons of armour-plate on to the traffic below.
Up on the ridges the sleet and rain reduced the crew commanders' voices to a mere croak, but coming down into the valleys, and particularly in one place where the enemy had demolished a really sharp corner, the thrill—call it fear if you wish, and you would not be far wrong—of negotiating the turns had them glowing with warmth and oblivious of the wind howling round their ears.
The move from Cupello to Carpineto, in the riverbed below Gissi, was barely 20 miles but, mainly due to the one difficult deviation, the trip took all day and the last of the regiment was not in until after dark.
A Squadron immediately mounted guard over the bridge which the enemy had not yet given up hope of destroying. The previous night there had been an abortive attempt to get at it, and it was also under spasmodic shellfire from a mobile gun.
From Carpineto the regiment was given several tasks which kept the various squadrons apart for many weeks. On 17 November, during Colonel Bonifant's absence at an Army Commander's conference, the second-in-command took a reconnaissance party out south-west of Atessa to see if it was a feasible proposition to relieve the Essex Regiment of the job of guarding that area, the left flank of the Division. But the country proved far too mountainous to be covered properly by armoured cars. B Squadron nevertheless moved off there the next day to do this job until 22 (Motor) Battalion could get forward to take over.
Two days later, 20 November, C Squadron and RHQ pulled out to advance up into the forward line. This again was only a relatively short drive of some ten or twelve miles but it took most of the day. Once again the move in this higher country was made in miserable sleety weather, though down in the valleys there was little wind or rain.page 309
The destination was the village of Monte Marconi and the squadron actually laagered on the village green, which was hidden from full view of the enemy lines across the Sangro by the Marconi feature itself.
The attack on the Sangro was originally scheduled for the night of 20 November, but during that afternoon a spate in the river brought about the first of several postponements that delayed the attack for seven days.
During this period A Squadron was relieved of the job of guarding the bridge and remained with B Squadron in reserve at Carpineto. C Squadron was employed patrolling the right flank of the Division and told to make contact with the left of 5 Corps. The contact was established, but only on foot as the road had been demolished in three places. During the attempt to negotiate one of the demolitions two of the three cars in the patrolling troop were stuck, and came under shell- fire which was rather too accurate for comfort. They had to be left there for two days. Patrolling also went on down a track into the riverbed and on the 22nd, in the middle of the day, one NCO decided to follow it further. He managed to get across the river on foot, and get back again to report that though the river was high at the time, there were fords across each stream which, with the river at normal height, would be quite shallow and firm enough for armoured vehicles.
Zero hour was fixed for 2.45 a.m. on the 28th. C Squadron was scheduled to follow 19 Armoured Regiment about 3 a.m., sending the Div Cav man who had located the fords as a passenger on its leading A Squadron tank so that he could guide the way to the opposite bank. Even with the help of a bulldozer of 5 Field Park Company, the crossing proved only just possible, as the tanks, wherever they turned, cut rather heavily into the riverbed shingle. With the exception of one tank which got stuck in the first ford, and one or two others which got off the side of the track leading to the river and stuck, the 19th was successfully shepherded across the river; but to little avail, as the sticky state of the ground on the far bank was far too much for its tanks.
Lieutenant Mack's troop was detailed to follow the leading tank squadron so that it could pick up its NCO, who had been the guide, at the far bank. But only one of the cars of this troop managed to complete the crossing, the other two getting stuck in the fords where the tanks had cut up the shingle; and since page 311 word had come back that practically all the tanks were getting stuck in the boggy ground beyond the river, the balance of C Squadron was ordered to stay in the meantime on the south bank. So the general plan of getting some Divisional Cavalry across in close support of the infantry, and as cover for the right flank of the attack, had to be abandoned for a few hours at least.
During the course of the day two other troops tried to get across and up with the infantry, but they too suffered the same fate as the first one.
RHQ moved into Monte Marconi as C Squadron moved out and during the day the CO called B Squadron forward to join him there.page 312
A bridgehead had been well established by the 29th and the whole day was devoted to building this up. C Squadron spent the whole day trying to get patrols across and up in support of 23 Battalion. In the morning one troop made the crossing with surprisingly little difficulty and by 2 p.m. the cars of the other two troops had been extricated.
The next orders were for one of these three troops to work its way forward along a track up some rising ground on the right flank. Its objective was the village of Elici. Another troop was directed along the base of the hills to try to make contact with the left of 8 Indian Division at La Defenza. Both troops were held up by mines which they had not managed to clear by nightfall, and since the river had risen again a little, they both went to Headquarters 23 Battalion to spend the night.
Overnight the remainder of the mines were lifted for them and on the 30th they were able to resume their probing tasks, and this time they were more successful. Before 8 a.m. the one troop had made contact with the Indian division and then it got on to a road leading up a long spur in the direction of Lanciano. The troop continued to feel its way along this road all day until it arrived at a point about due east of Elici. Another troop felt its way up the road past 23 Battalion headquarters and then on to a track straight for Elici; but its advance was held up by some accurate shelling from a gun position almost due south of the village.
While this was going on there was work for the regiment right on the other flank of the Division as Casoli had been reported clear of the enemy. At dawn three troops of B Squadron had been sent to probe along the road in that direction to make sure. There was a bridge across the Sangro just west of Perano but it had been destroyed and the B Squadron troops had been instructed to try to ford the river. They got as far as the ruins of the bridge by 9.30 a.m., but found it neither possible to ford the river nor to negotiate the remains of the bridge with the cars, so a foot patrol was formed which continued to work along the road.
Truly Div Cav was beginning to realise its limitations in close and mountainous country during wet weather. It was becoming increasingly obvious that, as far as divisional reconnaissance was concerned, the Divisional Cavalry was not suitable to cover the whole front as it had been able to do in the wide and navigable desert, and that reconnaissance in future was going to be done by infantry. The function of a light armoured page 313 unit of exploiting after a successful attack was here proving to have severe limitations, for though the actual crossing of the Sangro by the Division had gone according to the book, it was not possible to get Div Cav forward to exploit the bridgehead during its build-up. This came about simply because the nature of the ground had prevented its even keeping up with the advance, let alone passing through to hold the newly gained ground. There was only one other job in close country which the regiment had ever undertaken and successfully carried out, and that was completely outmoded; a lot of the war had been won since the campaign in Greece. So much indeed had been won that now there was absolutely no question of Div Cav ever being called on for that work again, namely covering the retreat of the Division.
Once the bridgehead was securely established, the next general objective was to get up on the high ridge round the head of the Moro River, capture the town of Castelfrentano, and then work westwards along the road to Guardiagrele. The Division, once it got this far, would be in a position, with a reasonably good supply line, to launch an attack against Orsogna and thus open up a route right to the Adriatic coast north-eastwards, or one north-westwards on to Route 5 which ran right across Italy.
On 1 December B and C Squadrons resumed the previous day's drives. A patrol of 23 Battalion had already reported Elici clear and, by mid-morning, one troop of C Squadron had occupied the village and carried on past it in a north-westerly direction. Two different tracks had actually been taken up the hills from the road along the north bank of the Sangro and, as they climbed up these tracks, the patrols found them gradually improving until they developed into reasonably good second-class roads, which joined up about a mile east of Castelfrentano and led across a plateau to Lanciano.
No enemy were encountered on the extreme right, but there were all the signs of recent occupation and of hasty departure. The left-hand troop of the two worked away in advance of 23 Battalion in the direction of Castelfrentano, but as soon as it had reached the edge of the plateau, its road swung off towards Lanciano and ceased to be of use. The cross-country going slowed the cars down straight away and very soon the infantry had passed through and left them well behind.
After struggling unsuccessfully all day on the 30th to ford the river, RHQ and B Squadron had the problem eased when the New Zealand Engineers completed a Bailey bridge that page 314 afternoon. Supporting arms were now able to get across faster, although there was quite some delay from the softness of the approaches, which would take some days to dry out enough to allow the congestion of traffic near the bridge to get over and clear away.
Of these supporting arms it was more important to get tanks and field guns across urgently; and by the time these were over, Div Cav got its turn. By 8 a.m. on 1 December, B Squadron was across and off up the road towards San Eusanio.
Route 84, climbing from the Sangro to Castelfrentano, follows the valley of a small river which runs back into the Sangro. In its turn the small river is fed by two others joining it from the west. The ridge between them carries a secondary road which loops round the whole catchment to join the road from Orsogna to Route 84, and the head of this loop runs quite close to the village of Guardiagrele.
B Squadron was ordered, on the 2nd, to work along this road and try to break into Guardiagrele. One troop got well in sight of the village before it suddenly came under fire from an 88-mm. gun and lost one car which went on fire. There were no casualties but, while retiring towards Squadron Headquarters, it did suffer one when Lieutenant Ian Van Asch4 was severely wounded.
Early in the morning of the same day 24 Battalion had advanced into Castelfrentano. The enemy had cleared out during the night, so it was reasonable to assume that his defences all along the forward slope of the ridge between Castelfrentano and Orsogna had also been vacated. Accordingly the GOC directed the weight of the Division's advance at Orsogna, on his left front, with the intention of capturing that town and driving on towards Chieti, which lies astride Route 5 to the north.
Orsogna, the immediate objective, was to be attacked from the south-west through Guardiagrele, and from the eastern side, via an old Roman road running down from Castelfrentano, across the Moro River, to join a secondary road between Orsogna and Lanciano.
C Squadron was interested in both these approaches. Three troops were forward. The first sat out on the hills north of Elici guarding the right flank of the Division from any threat from the direction of Lanciano. The other two entered Castel- page 315 frentano just behind 24 Battalion and were directed to join up with the tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment, which were wrapping up the last of the defences along Route 84 towards Guardiagrele and Orsogna. As an integral part of the enemy's defences this road had been on the reverse slope and most of it was in full view of Orsogna. Now, of course, it was—and most uncomfortably so—very much on our forward slope. Indeed, not many days had passed before the stretch of road running from Castelfrentano to the Brickworks had earned the nickname of the ‘Mad Mile’. As it was, one of the C Squadron troops was able this day to pinpoint gun positions in front of Orsogna, about the head of the Moro River, and later had the satisfaction of seeing these tormentors being thoroughly attended to by both gunfire and fighter-bombers.
The other troop was commandeered by Brigadier Parkinson5 to help with the reconnaissance of the Roman road for the ‘back-door’ approach. This troop had quite an entertaining day ferreting out enemy troops who had, so it appeared, been more or less forgotten during the retirement and were left there.
Either that or they had just been brought into the line, because they did not seem to know how to site their defences. Another point about them was that some of their camouflage efforts betrayed their lack of elementary farming knowledge: an absolute give-away to the farmer/soldiers whom they were now opposing. At various places round the hillsides there were haystacks which, for no particular reason, were unnecessarily small. Having thus caught the eye, other points about them created suspicion. They were built without sufficient pitch to turn a heavy rain, let alone melting snow: the hay in the walls did not lie so as to turn the weather downwards but so as to soak it inwards: nor were they built in places convenient for carting out in the wet winter. Without more ado, each of them was given a ‘serenading’—a burst of machine-gun fire— to set it alight. And the American .30 ammunition on issue at the time was ideal for this, with its liberal proportion of tracer, incendiary and explosive rounds. With each stack an anti-tank gun inside it was destroyed.page 316
The enemy troops about the place were quite an embarrassment as the reconnaissance was well ahead of the infantry to begin with and the prisoners could not be collected. One group of them was given a particularly harrowing time. These men were originally flushed by a burst of machine-gun fire into a small vineyard and they ducked into a patch of cabbages. Another burst sent them helter-skelter into a small house. A 37-mm. explosive shell on the latch blew the door in, and a canister of shot was fired into the fireplace beyond. It killed nobody for they all came outside again at high speed, and were last seen scuttling off rapidly downhill through an olive grove in the general direction of the Adriatic Sea, looking, in their urgency, as if they could have easily crossed to the Dalmatian coast without taking a breath or getting their feet wet.
This reconnaissance was primarily the responsibility of C Squadron, 19 Armoured Regiment, whose gunners seemed to be having as much fun as the Div Cav men. Indeed they, not being in wireless communication with the tanks, waited for them after they had been halted at the Moro River, with some qualms lest they, too, should suffer a brief ‘serenading’ of 75-mm. shellfire. However, nothing so uncomfortable happened.
The patrol ended at the river itself in the early afternoon. The bridge had been blown, leaving a gap of at least 30 feet across a very steep gully.
But the day's work had altogether borne quite a lot of fruit. Reconnaissance had been made for 6 Brigade's advance into Orsogna from the east and plans for this looked promising though, at this juncture, Orsogna was not the main objective, but San Martino which lay on the road to Chieti. Progress had been made along the road from San Eusanio almost to Guardiagrele as well as along Route 84 from Castelfrentano to where it meets this other road. About here the enemy was promising vigorous defence, but nevertheless, once this was overcome, the way would lie open for a meeting of 6 Brigade heading westwards through Orsogna and 4 Armoured Brigade advancing northwards from Guardiagrele. Each prong of this advance was dependent on the success of the other, as 4 Brigade could not get past Orsogna while the enemy occupied it, and 6 Brigade could not take and hold Orsogna while Guardiagrele was held by the enemy.
The 6th Brigade's attack on Orsogna went in on 3 December and was very nearly successful, part of 25 Battalion penetrating right into the middle of the town, but the counter-attack could page 317 not be contained; nor could 4 Brigade penetrate past the road junction between Orsogna and Guardiagrele. B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry had patrols up to this point but the enemy defence was far too vigorous to allow for any further advance.
To the right of the Division, in the meantime, 8 Indian Division had been making steady progress and had captured Lanciano. Since it appeared that the New Zealanders had found a fairly hard nut to crack in and around Orsogna, it was decided to try to exploit the new weakness on its right and launch the main weight of the attack meanwhile towards Arielli. Permission was asked and given for Div Cav to pass through the Indian division's area in this direction.
B Squadron, which had been under command of 4 Armoured Brigade for the Orsogna attack, was withdrawn on 4 December and, together with A Squadron, which had now been called forward across the Sangro, was placed under command of 5 Brigade and set off to find a way through the village of Frisa by a secondary road running due north from Lanciano. A patrol was carried out quite successfully until one of the A Squadron cars struck what was presumably a box mine just short of the bridge over the Foldrino River. A wheel was taken cleanly off by the blast, but nobody was hurt. This came as a great boost to morale within the regiment, the majority of which had travelled so long in Bren carriers and to whom a mine meant certain death to at least one of the crew.
The patrol was held up only a few hundred yards farther on by a demolished bridge. This delayed it until the early afternoon, when engineers from the Indian division effected repairs. Once over the bridge, a B Squadron troop continued on up the road until it met a troop of 6 Lancers and some tanks of 1 Canadian Regiment.
Just short of the bridge, about where the car was blown up, an old Roman road cut off to the left. It ran down over the Moro River and up across the Orsogna–Ortona road three or four miles north-east of Orsogna. It passed through Arielli to the north-west and, on the map, met the Foro River about ten miles north of Orsogna. As a new axis of attack this looked most promising since it completely by-passed Orsogna and could completely cut it off. So a patrol from A Squadron did an initial foot reconnaissance along this road, getting within half a mile of the Moro where it passes round the eastern end of Sfasciata Ridge.page 318
There was a certain amount of alarm, about this time, on the rear left flank of the Division. For two or three days, little villages up on Monte Majella had been suffering at the hands of the German 5 Mountain Division, which had been carrying on what appeared to be quite aimless destruction. From time to time, high up on the slopes, there could be seen columns of smoke from these villages, indicating that whoever was there was ruthlessly destroying them. This gave no particular cause for alarm in the New Zealand Division but it did serve to worry the civilians in Casoli, who were sending in reports that German patrols were visiting the town. Accordingly a strong patrol from the Divisional Defence Platoon and a troop of B Squadron's Staghounds were sent back to the town. They arrived there in the early evening and took up a position in the town itself, prepared to come to blows with an enemy force said to be about a mile away. If they could not produce any fighting for them, the excitable and imaginative Latins did at least manage to produce a most delightful false alarm during the night. On the morning of the 5th the patrol reconnoitred back further towards the south-west until held up by demolitions. Reports still had it that some two hundred Germans on horseback were advancing to do bloody battle, and these eventually did turn up near Archi, though they were a somewhat smaller force. They consisted of two wretched deserters who had been making for our lines.
The Roman road leading towards Arielli was still the subject of A Squadron's interest but the going was very poor. On 5 December a troop made another attempt to get across the Moro. Getting down the hill, and still short of the river, it came to blows with and routed a machine-gun post, taking three prisoners of 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment. But as soon as it had forded the river the troop was held up by the muddy going and got no further.
The obvious thing to do now was to try to work still further to the right; and another patrol linked up with some Canadian tanks in a thrust up the road through Frisa. This little force also got to the Moro but found the bridge destroyed and the river unfordable. Enemy troops could be seen upstream of them. They managed to get to grips with some of these, back along the road a little, and collected another three prisoners from the same panzer regiment. This brush later caused interest from enemy guns whose shellfire forced the patrol to retire.page 319
It was very frustrating having to compete with all these physical difficulties. Defence was so much easier in close and hilly country. The Divisional Cavalry alone, probing and poking at the enemy defences, had tried every possible route forward over a frontage of some 12 miles, and everywhere had been held up initially by the nature of the ground, and then warned off by shellfire. In the desert such a frontage would have supplied perhaps dozens of little weak spots to exploit and, having been exploited, they could have been expanded. But here the nature of the country not only limited the possible approaches but also precluded every chance of the necessary support when boldness was used to get a wedge into the enemy defences. All the Div Cav could do now was to wait until a break-through was made and then try to exploit that.
And all the time the enemy was strengthening his defence of the line which the Division faced, while the weather became steadily more and more wintry. The days were damp and the sky watery; visibility was often poor, and often there were light and misty rains.
The Germans seemed determined to hold the area round Orsogna and Guardiagrele, and they vigorously resented any movement in this direction. So, in the drive towards Chieti, the New Zealand Division had to accept a stalemate while the main thrust went in nearer the coast. In order to contain as much as possible of the enemy's strength, an attack was planned to get firmly astride the Orsogna–Ortona road, thereby containing 26 Panzer Division now in Orsogna.
For the next few weeks, therefore, the Divisional Cavalry had only small jobs to do, these requiring only one, perhaps two, troops at a time. As a unit nevertheless, it had to be prepared to exploit any successes should the Division break substantially into the enemy defences. B and C Squadron headquarters were brought back a mile or so behind the line into positions that would allow patrols to get forward quickly if they were needed. A Squadron stayed forward under command of 5 Brigade up on the Sfasciata Ridge.
On two further occasions there was restlessness over the safety of the bridge at Carpineto so vital to the Division's supply lines, and each time a troop and some dismounted personnel were sent back there on guard for a few days.page 320
The squadrons remained in their reserve positions until the end of the month, and on some four occasions during this period, patrols from B and C Squadrons were sent forward to try the Guardiagrele defences. Intrusion there was very promptly attended to, the patrols being held off each time by the inevitable shellfire. B Squadron suffered two men wounded in one such sortie on the 16th, and then on the 20th had a car destroyed. This time, too, the crew commander, Sergeant W. R. Brown, MM, received severe wounds from which he died the next day. A Squadron, during this period, was doing similar work in probing towards Arielli. Two troops, in fact, went forward in high hopes on the 22nd because the village had been reported clear of enemy; but the report proved false.
A Squadron remained with 5 Brigade until 31 December, when it was pulled back to Castelfrentano; but not before it also had suffered casualties. On the night of the 29th it had come in for some shelling which cost it one wounded and two others killed—Corporal Anderson6 and Trooper Thorn.7
While the squadrons were in reserve positions they took the chance to have their anti-aircraft mountings fitted on the Staghounds. One or two at a time, troops were sent back to Divisional Workshops to have the welding done.
Some of the crews took advantage of this trip to fit up heaters for drinking water on their cars. In most cases these consisted of two shell-cases brazed together, end to end, to make a cistern. This, with the uppermost percussion cap loosened so as to unscrew for filling, was mounted beside one of the silencers at the back of the engine compartment. A coil of copper tubing, usually salvaged from a hydraulic brake system, ran from top to bottom of the cistern round the muffler. A drain-cock salvaged from a radiator and a strip of tin round the whole assembly completed the job.
These little thermo-siphons were surprisingly effective—if the engines were working hard they could actually boil the water— and allowed for a round of hot cocoa for the crews when boiling the billy was quite out of the question. He has probably forgotten the incident, but the mystified look on Brigadier Parkinsons face was a joy to behold in the cold afternoon when a C Squadron car stopped to report after that first reconnaissance to the Moro River. The crew commander suggested to him that page 321 a cup of cocoa would go well, and he politely but somewhat abstractedly replied: ‘Yes, wouldn't it be nice’, before turning back to his wireless operator. Ten seconds later a steaming cup was thrust into his hand.
Christmas Day came and went. The CO and 2 i/c visited every squadron; there were special church parades; a party of officers was entertained lavishly to dinner by a baron in Casoli. But to the greater part of the regiment, it was much the same as any other day in the year. New Year's Day, on the other hand, will take a lot of forgetting. It was ushered in by a heavy fall of snow and a high wind in the middle of the night. Tents had been issued, about one to every troop, and nearly all of these collapsed at the height of the blizzard. The storm came up with dramatic suddenness, and when the heavens dropped their great blanket of snow to crush the flimsy tents, there was not much anybody could do but try to sleep in the misery until daylight came. After all, it made little difference for the meantime as nobody had been really dry for weeks.
New Year's Day was certainly a happy one for nobody; nor, for B Squadron, was the following day. With Nos. 7 and 9 Platoons of 27 MG Battalion under command, it was sent forward as infantry to take over the sector between San Eusanio and Guardiagrele.
This was part of the rearrangement of the whole front on a more static basis. Reserve troops were now being brought forward on the extreme left flank to replace 2 Parachute Brigade (at the time under command of the Division), which was being moved right over on to the right flank.
Taking over the sites was a long and tiring job for everybody, struggling as they had to through the snow, waist deep in places. The Staghounds were left at Squadron Headquarters near the main road and all supplies had to be manhandled forward. It was not until late in the afternoon, two days later, that the last of the machine-gunners' equipment and supplies had been carried up into the forward positions. During 3 and 4 January the squadron was joined by 34 Anti-Tank Battery and two troops of the 33rd which came under command; and the supply situation was relieved on the next day when an Italian mule detachment also came under command.
The frosts which might have been expected after the snowfall were never heavy enough to freeze the snow hard, so that the partial daytime thaws caused it to form a thin, breakable crust, with underneath, the same six inches of slushy mud that had page 322 been there for weeks. Walking anywhere with a load was therefore a trial, as often as not, beyond the limits of both temper and physical powers. But necessity forced the issue, and by 10 January alternative tracks had been dug back to Squadron HQ.
As the object of this move was to get into positions of static offence, a regular system of foot patrols was put into operation. This was somewhat novel to troopers and gunners alike and, under guidance, they all became thoroughly enthusiastic about these new infantry tasks, particularly when white clothing was issued for patrolling.
If the snow made for miserable conditions when it came, it certainly broke the December spell of cold raw weather and, with little exception, the pattern of the weather changed. When the sun did come out it was warm and the air was clean and crisp.
A Squadron, still under command of 5 Brigade, was due to take part in further plans, and on 7 January it moved back from Castelfrentano, prepared to come under command of 4 Armoured Brigade. However, nothing came of this during the following week.
By 13 January the usual crop of rumours which inevitably foretold a major move was given some support by the hurried departure of the regiment's 2 i/c for some undisclosed destination. Further evidence came two days later when officers from 4 Indian Division, which was to take over the New Zealanders' sector of the line, went out on a reconnaissance with the CO.
B Squadron finished handing over to its relief by 19 January and final preparations for the whole of the regiment to move completely out of the forward area were made the same day. That night, still with the attached machine-gunners and anti-tank batteries under command, they moved back across the Sangro.
Next day, the 20th, the regiment set off back along the same coastal route by which it had arrived in the line, for Lucera, and arrived there late in the afternoon. It was by now quite obvious that the Division was to travel over to the Fifth Army's front. And Div Cav was to be ready to move off the very next day.
5 Maj-Gen G. B. Parkinson, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Christchurch; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1896; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1917–19; CO 4 Fd Regt 1940–41; comd 1 NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941–42; 6 Bde Apr 1943-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div (Cassino) 3–27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Jun-Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; Commander, Southern Military District, 1949–51.