Chapter 9: The Fortore and Biferno Rivers
The Canadians Move Westward from Foggia
The 1st Division’s association with the broad Foggia plains, to the western regiments reminiscent of the Canadian prairies, was only fleeting. Since their arrival in the Mediterranean theatre it had been the lot of the wearers of the red patch to do most of their campaigning in mountainous terrain. After their fight along the sunbaked ridges of Sicily their path had taken them over the steep Calabrian plateaux and across the rugged tableland of Lucania. Now their orders sent them into the hills again – towards the tangled mass of heights which forms the main watershed of Central Italy.
The Allied Armies had reached the third phase of operations forecast by the Commander-in-Chief ten days earlier. The objective was Rome, which was to be taken in the pincers of an Eighth Army thrust south-westward across the peninsula from Pescara and a frontal attack from the south by the Fifth Army driving up the Tyrrhenian coast from Naples.1 The Allied commanders entertained high hopes (which the troops magnified into unjustified assurance) that the fall of Rome would not be long delayed. At the end of September it was believed that the Germans intended to withdraw by gradual stages to the Pisa – Rimini line,2 and Montgomery’s chief concern was that his administration would not be able to keep up with his pursuit of the enemy. On 4 October he cabled Mr. Churchill:–
When I have got the lateral Termoli–Campobasso I will have to halt my main bodies for a short period and operate in advance of that lateral only with light forces while I get my administration on a sound basis during the period of the halt. But light forces directed on a sensitive area can be very effective and by this means I will retain the initiative and gain ground. After the halt I will advance with my whole strength on Pescara and Ancona. I shall look forward to meeting you in Rome.3
The prescribed forward limit for the operations of these “light4 forces” was the general line Pescara–Popoli; but Pescara was not less than 130 miles
from Foggia by road, and Popoli (on the east-west highway from Pescara to Rome) was separated by a formidable mountain barrier from the most advanced elements of the Eighth Army.
The Termoli lateral which was Montgomery’s immediate objective was Highway No. 87, linking the Adriatic port with Naples. It crossed the Eighth Army’s axis of advance about 45 miles west of Foggia, passing through the upland city of Campobasso 35 miles inland. The Army Commander ordered General Dempsey to advance to this line on a front of two divisions – the 78th along the axis of the main coast road, and on the mountainous left flank the 1st Canadian Division, directed on Vinchiaturo, a road junction six miles south-west of Campobasso, at the foot of the great wall of the Matese Mountains.5
The axis allotted to the Canadian Division was singularly devoid of alternative routes. The main road from Foggia to Vinchiaturo (Highway No. 17) ran westward in the most serpentine fashion into the heart of the Sannio Mountains – sturdy bastions of the main Matese group (see Map 9). Climbing out of the plain twelve miles west of Lucera, the highway twisted and turned up the rugged escarpment, following a sinuous course which doubled and sometimes more than trebled the airline distances between the hilltop towns along its route. This mountainous terrain, in which almost all vehicle movement was confined to the roads, naturally favoured the defender; and he was further aided by the barrier of the upper Fortore River and its tributaries, which flowed north-eastward across the Canadians’ path.
On 29 September, at his last conference before going to hospital, General Simonds announced his plan for the 1st Division’s advance. He named five bounds between Lucera and Campobasso to which the main body of the 1st Brigade would move as each was reported clear by an advanced guard, whose task would be to deal with light enemy rearguards. This mobile force was commanded by The Calgary Regiment’s CO, Lt-Col. Neroutsos, and included the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, the Calgary tanks, The Royal Canadian Regiment (carried in lorries) and the 27th Anti-Tank Battery RCA, with the 2nd Field Regiment RCA and the 66th Medium Regiment RA in support. While the main advance would be made along Highway No. 17, with the 3rd Brigade in reserve, the 2nd Brigade would strike through the bleak hill country to the south, thus protecting the left flank of the Division, and indeed of the entire Eighth Army.6
The divisional start line was at Lucera, which has stood from Roman times on an isolated rocky fragment of the Apennines rising 500 feet above the surrounding plain. From the western edge of this natural stronghold one of Frederick II’s great castles still faced the hills, and as the leading Canadian troops descended the highway past the massive walls early on the morning of 1 October, they could see, stretching across their path a dozen miles ahead, the abrupt rise of the outlying ridges of the Daunia Mountains.7
A strong vanguard moved well in advance of Neroutsos’ force. It was led by Lt-Col. F. D. Adams, and consisted of his Reconnaissance Regiment, a squadron of the Calgaries and a company of the RCR8 shortly before 8:00 a.m. the Princess Louise “A” Squadron came under machine-gun fire as it reached the lower spirals by which Highway No. 17 climbed out of the level plain. It quickly became apparent that the enemy was prepared to dispute possession of the village of Motta Montecorvino, which sat like a thimble on a pointed hill atop the first main ridge. Reconnaissance elements fanning out to either flank reported that for four or five miles on each side of the highway the ridge was defended by machine-gun posts and 88-millimetre guns. It was clear that an attack in force upon Motta would be necessary to dislodge the enemy from his advantageous position.
Meanwhile on the immediate left flank the Princess Louise “B” Squadron had moved rapidly south-west from Lucera to Alberona – a hill village six miles south of Motta. The commander, Major M. A. G. Stroud, had learned about the enemy’s dispositions from Major Vladimir Peniakoff,*
* The small special scout force of the Eighth Army which this almost legendary Russo-Belgian officer commanded was originally more formally designated No. 1 Long Range Demolition Squadron. Its main armament at this time consisted of jeep-mounted .50-inch Browning machine-guns.9
the founder of “Popski’s Private Army”. The two pooled their resources, and the combined armoured-car and jeep force, making its way with difficulty up a narrow and tortuous track into the hills, assaulted Alberona from the rear. Without suffering a single casualty the attackers drove the Germans from the town, killing at least fifteen.10 It was the first of many instances of active cooperation between “PPA” and Canadian troops.11 The dead Germans were clothed in the familiar Luftwaffe blue with yellow pipings; for the line of the Motta ridge was being held by elements of the 3rd Regiment of Heidrich’s 1st Parachute Division.12
Operations in front of Motta now developed into an action by the advanced guard. What was intended to be a combined infantry and tank attack started at 4:00 p.m. Little artillery support was available; for with the exception of the 10th Field Battery the two regiments allotted to the force had been delayed in a bad traffic congestion between Foggia and Lucera. “A” and “B” Squadrons of the Calgaries advanced with great dash up the ridge in the face of steady 88-millimetre fire and fought their way through the town. But now infantry-tank cooperation broke down. Machine-gun fire sweeping the exposed slopes was evidence that the enemy still held the town and the flanking hills, and it was apparent that heavy casualties would accompany any attempt by the RCR to follow the armour into Motta by daylight. As darkness fell Neroutsos ordered his tanks to withdraw to a less hazardous position, and the RCR commander, Lt-Col. D. C. Spry, reorganized his troops for a night assault.13
By 9:00 p.m. “C” and “D” Companies of the RCR had secured an intervening platform north of the highway, about half way up the main ridge. A patrol from “A” Company reported the edge of the town free of the enemy, but as the rest of the company pushed forward they met heavy machine-gun fire, and a brisk skirmish ensued. In view of the strength of the defences, Spry decided to withdraw his troops down the slope and to shell the town before attacking again in force. By this time the remainder of the 2nd Field Regiment had caught up, and a few minutes before 3:00 a.m. it fired a brief but heavy concentration into the town. Immediately afterwards “A” and “B” Companies assaulted through a violent thunderstorm, pressing forward in the face of scattered enemy fire. The German garrison had already begun to withdraw westward up Highway No. 17, and by first light the RCR were securely established on the far edge of Motta.14
The action ended the operations of the advanced guard: at 7:30 a.m. on the 2nd Brigadier Vokes, the acting GOC, directed Brigadier Graham to take over with the 1st Brigade. Shortly afterwards “C” Company of the RCR, supported by the Calgaries’ “C” Squadron, advanced on the next objective. This was the road junction 2000 yards west of Motta, where from Highway No. 17 the secondary road to Castelnuovo della Daunia branched north along the dominating ridge of Mount Sambuco. It was an unprofitable move. In the exposed saddle between the Motta hill and the objective infantry and armour were caught by heavy fire. German 88s knocked out six Canadian tanks in short order; and mortar and machine-gun fire pinned the RCR company to ground 600 yards from the ridge.15
The fighting at Motta Montecorvino was the first major engagement of Canadian troops on the mainland of Italy, and was as intense as any that followed during the month. In striking their first blow against the protecting screen of the 1st Parachute Division, the Canadians encountered a new pattern of enemy behaviour – determined and fierce resistance up to an unpredictable moment, then rapid withdrawal to another dominant feature. These effective tactics were being employed by the enemy in accordance with a Tenth Army order issued late in September for a slow withdrawal to defence positions south of Rome (see below, p. 267). Two of its paragraphs suggest that the order might have been written expressly for the battle group of paratroopers who opposed the Canadians at Motta Montecorvino.
Within the limits of the delaying action, every opportunity is to be taken of destroying enemy forces that have pushed ahead incautiously, and of inflicting heavy losses through action of combined arms. Withdrawal to the individual defence lines and the delaying action between them are dependent on the enemy advance.
Withdrawal movements must only take place as a result of overwhelming enemy pressure or of heavy losses caused by intense artillery fire. The practice is to be followed of intensifying our own artillery fire shortly before withdrawal, and posting rearguards well supplied with ammunition to screen the withdrawal movement. ...16
This systematic opposition to our advance was to continue as the 1st Division pushed deeper into the rocky uplands of the Molise. Allied staffs were soon to realize that an unexpected development had taken place in the German plan of campaign. On 30 September, as we shall see later, Hitler had ordered the Tenth Army to stabilize and hold a winter line across the narrowest part of the peninsula. On the German left flank this position was to be at the River Sangro, which flowed across the 76th Corps’ sector 50 miles north-west of Motta. Herr was notified that his withdrawal across these 50 miles should not be completed before 1 November.17
The 1st Brigade’s Advance from Motta to the Fortore
From the high, wooded ridge behind Motta the enemy commanded both the Castelnuovo road, which ran along its western slope, and Highway No. 17, which bent around its southern extremity. In order to free the main axis Brigadier Graham ordered The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment to make a right-flanking attack on the ridge, and the 48th Highlanders to break out from a firm base in the Motta area and seize the important road junction.18 The two battalions had reached the foothills early on the 2nd, just in time to come under an ineffective attack from three Messerschmitts which swept out of the mountains to strafe and bomb the Canadian positions in and about Motta.19
About midday the Hastings, with Lt-Col. The Lord Tweedsmuir again in command (see above, p. 125), struck across country towards their objective, a point on the Castelnuovo road about a mile north of Highway No. 17, where a rough track branched off towards a number of scattered mountain villages to the north-west. Machine-gun fire held them in the oak woods at the foot of Mount Sambuco, but after dark they scaled the steep slopes, and drove off enemy rearguards.20 When the arrival of the 48th Highlanders in Motta was delayed by traffic congestion on the main axis and mortar fire which was still falling on the town during the afternoon of the 2nd,21 and because daylight would soon be fading, Brigadier Graham sent the RCR against the left-hand objective. Advancing across the muddy pastures west of the town they occupied the crossroads without difficulty, and as night fell successfully assaulted the overlooking German positions. There was bitter hand-to-hand fighting in the darkness and the rain, but by daylight on the 3rd the whole ridge was in our hands.22 The two nights’ fighting had cost the RCR and the Calgaries 65 casualties between them and the Hastings thirteen.
The next objective was Volturara, a typical Apennine mountain town two miles west of the Sambuco ridge – although thrice that distance by road. From
its rocky pinnacle it commanded two of the eastern approaches to the Fortore River – the narrow valley of the Torrente la Catola through which Highway No. 17 continued westward, and the lateral road to Benevento, which zigzagged up a long ridge south of the Catola to cross the right-hand fork of the Fortore near San Bartolommeo in Galdo. The 48th Highlanders secured Volturara virtually without opposition on the morning of the 3rd, but heavy machine-gun and mortar fire from both sides of the Catola valley halted further advance along the main axis. “A” Company forded the river (the bridge on the Benevento road had been blown) and in a sharp scrap cleared the south bank; but the main fire continued to come from the direction of San Marco, a village on a dominant ridge three miles north-west of Volturara and half that distance north of the highway, with which it was unconnected by direct road.23
Brigadier Graham therefore ordered the RCR to attack San Marco, at the same time sending a company of the 48th Highlanders against a road junction two miles north of the village. He allotted in support the bulk of the divisional field artillery and the 66th Medium Regiment RA, and directed Lt-Col. Johnston to create a diversion on the left by again putting a Highlander company across the Catola.24
“C” Company of the 48th, supported by a troop of Calgary tanks, put in their attack at 3:00 p.m. on the 4th, capturing the crossroads in a stiff fight which cost the Canadians seven killed and three wounded against an estimated 60 enemy casualties.25 On the same afternoon the RCR assaulted the San Marco ridge after an exhausting march across country. Faulty coordination resulted in the infantry attacking without the planned artillery support, and the leading companies ran into heavy enfilading fire. There was little progress until Lt-Col. Spry brought his dismounted carrier platoon forward with all its Bren guns, thereby breaking the deadlock. Darkness found the enemy still holding the ridge, with the attackers in close contact. Taking a calculated risk in employing artillery support in such circumstances, Spry ordered a concentration by the 2nd Field Regiment. This bold move worked. Convinced that a fresh attack was impending the enemy withdrew, enabling the RCR to occupy San Marco without further trouble. In the early morning they descended to Highway No. 17 and marched unhindered westward to the high ground overlooking the Fortore crossing.26
In the meantime the Hastings and Prince Edwards had been pushing into the inhospitable hills farther to the north with a view to turning from the right flank the enemy’s positions east of the river. Late on the 3rd they set out from Mount Sambuco under orders to seize Mount Miano, three miles north of San Marco. The move entailed about fifteen miles of marching, much of it in rain and darkness, across unfamiliar mountainous country which concealed unlocated German outpost positions. By daylight on the 4th, after a sharp early morning skirmish, the Hastings had gained positions on Mount
Ingotto, about half way to their objective; but it was midday on the 6th before they reached Mount Miano, to find it abandoned by the paratroopers. In the meantime a patrol of drivers and other headquarters personnel had taken Carlantino, four miles to the north-west, after a brief exchange of shots; Celenza Val Fortore, between Mount Miano and the river, was found empty of Germans.27
Four days of persistent effort by the 1st Brigade had driven the enemy’s rearguards back west of the Fortore, and thus enabled the Canadian Division to draw up to his first major natural line of resistance. By the morning of the 6th the 3rd Infantry Brigade had come forward to relieve Graham’s tired units on the main axis.28 Three days earlier on the right flank “C” Squadron of the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, covering the Division’s northern boundary along the Castelnuovo road, had reached the Fortore opposite the town of Colletorto, which patrols reported held by a battalion of the 67th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (of the 26th Panzer Division).29 On the left, the 2nd Brigade, which had been waiting at the ancient Roman town of Troia, 15 miles south of Lucera, was ordered forward to the Fortore on the 4th. By nightfall the Edmontons and the Patricias were in the San Bartolommeo area, overlooking the Fortore. The Seaforth Highlanders, who, like the Edmontons, had followed a southern route through Castelfranco and Montefalcone, had troops across the eastern branch of the river in Foiano di Val Fortore.30
Prisoners taken by the Edmontons on 5 October in a raid on Baselice, a village facing San Bartolommeo across the Fortore valley, belonged to the 71st Regiment of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division.31 This identification, together with that made earlier in the Colletorto region, helped to illumine a picture which had been by no means clear to the intelligence staffs.
At the end of September interrogation of prisoners and reports from Popski’s patrols had indicated that the 1st Parachute Division was holding a line from San Bartolommeo to the coast at Termoli.32 Heidrich was conducting his defence along this wide front with independent task groups; the force opposing the 1st Canadian Brigade from Motta westward was part of Battle Group Heilmann,*
* A captured strength return of 26 September revealed that Battle Group Heilmann comprised, besides Heilmann’s own regiment, a battalion of the 1st Parachute Regiment, two troops of parachute artillery, four anti-tank platoons, a machine-gun battalion and anti-aircraft and engineer troops – an estimated total of 1350 excluding the machine-gun battalion (of undetermined strength).33
under the commander of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, Colonel Ludwig Heilmann. It now became apparent that behind this screen of paratroopers the two remaining formations of the 76th Panzer Corps – the 26th Panzer Division and the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division – were withdrawing northward before the steady pressure of the Fifth Army. This movement across the Canadian axis inevitably brought the attacking
force against a succession of fresh troops. By the time the Canadians reached the Fortore crossing on Highway No. 17 the 1st Parachute Division had passed on northward; they were now to fight their way forward against General Walter Fries’ 29th Panzer Grenadier Division.34
Meanwhile the quality of the German defence opposing his left flank had induced General Montgomery to seek assistance from the Fifth Army. On 5 October he signalled General Alexander:
Canadian threat against Campobasso and Vinchiaturo meeting stiff opposition. Suggest American division at Benevento be ordered to operate energetically northwards to Vinchiaturo as such a thrust would force the enemy to give ground in front of Canadians.35
The request, however, produced patrol action only, for General Clark was fully occupied with preparations for a major attack across the Volturno, which was to start in a week’s time.36
The Capture of Gambatesa by the 3rd Brigade, 7–8 October
An attempt on the night of 5–6 October by a company of the Royal 22e Regiment to establish a foothold across the Fortore above the demolished 13-span highway bridge was driven back by heavy and persistent fire. The enemy – a battalion of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Regiment37 – was in too good a position to yield the crossing except under greater pressure; accordingly Brigadier Penhale gave orders for a two-battalion attack to be made on the morning of the 7th.38
The valley of the upper Fortore separated the Daunia hill range from the next and more massive group to the west – the Sannio Mountains. The valley was less than 500 yards wide at its crossing by Highway No. 17, which climbed for four twisting miles from the long Ponte dei 13 Archi to Gambatesa, a town of 4000 inhabitants mounted on an easterly spur of the Sannios. From this ridge the enemy’s range of vision and field of fire were considerably extended by the junction with the Fortore of two major water-courses – the Torrente Tappino, flowing eastward from the hills about Campobasso to enter the main stream half a mile north of the highway, and the Torrente la Catola, which came in just south of the bridge. Penhale therefore ordered the attack to be made on an axis still farther to the south, with the Carleton and Yorks on the right directed against Gambatesa, and the West Novas on the left attacking the Toppo Fornelli, a wooded ridge about a mile south of the town.39
At half-past seven on the morning of the 7th, after divisional artillery and the 66th Medium Regiment had fired a series of concentrations along the opposite bank and on the brigade objectives,40 the assault companies of both battalions pressed forward resolutely across the gravel bed of the river.
Some of the enemy’s positions had apparently escaped the preliminary shelling, for the Carleton and Yorks were caught on the river line by heavy machine-gun fire. Smoke laid by platoon 2-inch mortars assisted the crossing, and the two leading companies pushed up the long slope across ploughed fields, which driving rain was rapidly turning into heavy mud.41 Progress to within half a mile of the objective was considerably aided by the constant artillery support provided through the efforts of the attached forward observation officer, Capt. N. B. Buchanan of the 1st Field Regiment RCHA*
* In this action Capt. Buchanan earned a bar to the Military Cross which he had won early in 1943 while serving with the British First Army in North Africa. He later took part in the Normandy landings, where he earned a second bar to his MC.42
At this point, however, the attackers were held up by fire from two self-propelled guns, whose exact position could not be determined. It was now late afternoon, and for the rest of the day and the following night the Carletons remained in their chilly, rain-swept positions on the muddy slopes, pinned down by harassing shellfire, while patrols sought the troublesome guns in vain. But the enemy was not disposed to argue further. Two companies sent forward in the early morning by Lt-Col. Pangman found the town abandoned.43 The 24 hours’ fighting had cost the Carleton and Yorks twelve killed and 16 wounded.
The West Novas, meanwhile had made better progress. Their crossing met only scattered small-arms fire, which was effectively discouraged by “the welcome chatter of the Sask. L.I. machine-guns”.44 The assault companies gained the far bank without a casualty, and plodded steadily uphill. Grenadiers holding a group of farms midway between the river and the Toppo Fornelli with 20-millimetre cannon and machine-guns were flushed from their positions. Throughout the afternoon the attack moved slowly forward, and as daylight waned the unit’s 3-inch mortars successfully engaged German machine-gun posts on top of the ridge. Two platoons of “B” Company made the final assault, and by nightfall consolidation by the battalion had secured the brigade’s left flank.45
The enemy’s relinquishment of Gambatesa was matched by a similar withdrawal all along the left bank of the Fortore. On 8 October the Princess Louise entered Colletorto unopposed.46 On the same day, on the 3rd Brigade’s immediate right, the 48th Highlanders crossed the river below its junction with the Tappino and met no resistance; their patrols found the isolated villages of Macchia and Pietracatella free of Germans.47 South of Highway No. 17 the 2nd Brigade, as we shall see later, had pushed the enemy out of the bleak moorlands in which the headwaters of the Fortore originated and had gained control of the last of his lateral communications east of Vinchiaturo. Now that Herr had been compelled to yield a promising defensive position divisional Intelligence held out hopes that his withdrawal might be accelerated, particularly as by this time on the Eighth Army’s right
flank the British 78th Division had secured Termoli and was holding the Campobasso lateral as far inland as Larino.48 But as the Termoli–Campobasso road lost its value to the enemy, Highway No. 17 westward from Vinchiaturo, with its southern flank completely secured by the great wall of the Matese, assumed greater importance. The Canadians were still sixteen miles from Vinchiaturo (or 30 by the undulating and twisting highway), and the rugged nature of the intervening country gave the Germans ample opportunity to prevent Brigadier Vokes’ left flank from reaching the Campobasso–Vinchiaturo line before the road to the west had been adequately protected.
Although the Germans had successfully broken contact after their loss of Gambatesa, they were still shelling the highway and the Fortore crossing. These tactics, which they continued to employ throughout the withdrawal, were a source of considerable embarrassment to the Canadians, whose own artillery was sometimes kept out of retaliatory range by road demolitions and by the mining of river crossings and potential gun deployment areas. As the advance progressed, these difficulties in getting the artillery forward were largely overcome through the cooperation of the movements staff and the divisional Engineers, and it was not long before the gunners themselves could deal with most of the mines found in their gun areas. The problem was further eased by employing the jeep-towed 75-millimetre guns of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment RA, which on 5 October temporarily left the 1st Airborne Division to gain battle experience with the Canadians.49
Because of the hostile fire Brigadier Penhale, ordered by the acting GOC to resume the advance on the 9th, decided that before the main road could be safely used he would have to push the Germans back from the flanking high ground which afforded excellent positions for their self-propelled guns.50 The brigade objective lay 20 miles along the highway – the fork just west of Gildone, where a secondary road branched off to Campobasso. While the Royal 22e advanced astride the main axis towards Jelsi, a lofty town roughly midway between Gambatesa and Gildone, the Carleton and Yorks occupied Mount Verdone, a dominant oak-covered hill on the right flank.51 By the night of 9–10 October Lt-Col. Bernatchez had a company at the junction of the lateral road leading south through Riccia. The West Novas now moved through the 22e’s positions and advanced south of the highway; about midday on the 11th they reached a small tributary of the Tappino, the Fiumara Carapello, which crossed the main road immediately west of Jelsi.
The enemy had chosen this watercourse for his next delaying line behind the Fortore. That he was under no delusion that it could long be held is revealed in telephone conversations between the Chiefs of Staff of the 76th Corps and the Tenth Army (Colonels Henning Werner Runkel and Fritz Wentzell, both members of the German General Staff Corps). “Casualties are considerable”, Runkel informed Wentzell shortly after lunch on the 11th. “I
believe that at Jelsi we shall again be in difficulties.” For this reason, Wentzell pointed out, Kesselring had granted approval for a further withdrawal. “That is again only for one day”, the Corps Chief of Staff rejoined. “When he breaks through at Campobasso a great mess will result. ... I am worried stiff that 29 Panzer Grenadier Division will suffer heavy casualties.”52
About the time that these gloomy prognostications were being expressed, the West Nova Scotias, moving through the vineyards south of Jelsi, began to attack across the narrow gully of the Carapello. As “C” Company reached the river bed, the Grenadiers on the ridge opened up with machine-guns and brought down heavy defensive fire. One West Nova officer was killed and two wounded; casualties for the whole day’s action numbered 23 all ranks. Communications with Brigade Headquarters were destroyed. Nearly all the mules carrying the 3-inch mortars were killed, yet the crews set up their weapons and vigorously returned the enemy’s fire.*
* One of these mortarmen, Pte H. S. Waye, was awarded the Military Medal for his gallantry in the action.53
Late in the afternoon a flanking attack on the right by “A” and “B” Companies forced the enemy to give ground; but only after an anxious and uncomfortable night was Lt-Col. Bogert able to report occupation of the ridge.54 Meanwhile the Royal 22e Regiment, coming up on the left, had occupied Mount Gildone, south of the highway; a patrol into Gildone had found the town abandoned.55 Kesselring’s report that night noted that three Canadian attacks “in battalion strength near Jelsi were repulsed after hard fighting in which the enemy suffered heavy casualties”; and added, “In the area of Jelsi the enemy is bringing up reinforcements.”56 The latter phrase was a standard way of admitting the loss of a position: already the Tenth Army had authorized a withdrawal to a line only five miles east of Campobasso.57
The 2nd Brigade’s Fighting on the Left Flank, 6–12 October
It is time now to examine the fortunes of the 2nd Brigade, which we left halted in the hills about San Bartolommeo and Foiano, where the rapidly rising Fortore prevented further advance until suitable diversions to take heavy traffic had been constructed at the demolished bridges.58 In its isolated role on the left flank the brigade’s operations could not draw support from the main body of the Division. It had therefore been allotted the 165th Field Regiment RA, the 90th Anti-Tank Battery RCA, and “B” Squadron of the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards.59 In command, in the absence of Brigadier Vokes as GOC, was Lt-Col. Hoffmeister of the Seaforth Highlanders. While engineers and unit pioneers put forth prodigious efforts to restore lines of communication, small infantry parties probed forward west
of the river, and on 6 October a Princess Louise patrol, scouting 20 miles down the Benevento road from Foiano, established contact With the US 45th Division.60
The enemy had good reason for holding the lofty tableland about the Fortore forks as long as possible. Ten miles west of San Bartolommeo a lateral road running northward from Benevento to join Highway No. 17 near Jelsi provided him with an important avenue of withdrawal; on the 3rd Popski had reported a heavy flow of tanks and vehicles – apparently of the 26th Panzer Division – moving along this route towards Riccia.61 A 76th Corps situation map of 3 October, captured at the end of the war, shows a resistance line (Widerstandslinie) drawn along the east side of this road.62
At 8:00 a.m. on the 6th Hoffmeister received an order from the GOC, “You will take and hold the crossroads at 729118.”63 This was a road junction at Decorata, where a trail through the hills from Foiano met the Riccia lateral. Hoffmeister assigned the task to the Seaforth Highlanders, supporting them with a battery of the 165th, and a mortar platoon and a machine-gun platoon of the Saskatoon Light Infantry.64 From Foiano the road to Decorata (which consisted only of a church and half a dozen scattered houses) climbed in succession over the northern shoulder of two sprawling, windswept hills – Mount San Marco, whose bald top reached 3300 feet above sea-level, and the slightly lower Toppo Felici beyond. The Seaforth plan provided for a leapfrog advance by three companies to take these two heights and exploit to the crossroads. Any doubts as to the enemy’s defensive intentions were quickly cleared up. Before the infantry attack started, two troops of the Princess Louise reconnoitring along the road to Decorata drew heavy machine-gun and mortar fire from Mount San Marco; one officer and seven other ranks were killed and four armoured cars and a carrier were knocked out.65 A prisoner captured at ten that morning said that a company from the 3rd Battalion of the 71st Panzer Grenadier Regiment was holding the hill to cover the regiment’s withdrawal.66
At 3:00 p.m. the Seaforth “D” Company led the advance on Mount San Marco. The first bound was completed with little difficulty, but “C” Company, following up, met a storm of fire “such as had never before been experienced by this battalion.”67 The commander, Major S. W. Thomson (who was awarded the MC for his part in the action)*68, called down all available support, and thus aided his men pressed up the long slope and took the hill by early evening, at a cost of some 30 casualties. Here “C” Company was joined by “B” and “D”, and shortly after nightfall all three pushed on towards the Toppo Felici. The leading troops dealt effectively with various enemy machine-gun posts, but they were still a mile from their objective
* Major Thomson was then holding only acting rank, which accounts for his receiving a decoration not normally given to other than junior officers. Later, while commanding the battalion at Ortona, he won the DSO.
when they encountered the more serious opposition of German armour; fire from a German armoured car inflicted several casualties on “D” Company, killing the company commander and a sergeant.69
The Highlanders were without anti-tank weapons (although somewhere to the rear bulldozers and oxen were collaborating in strange partnership to get the 17-pounders forward). Faced with the probability of a strong armoured counter-attack across the open moorland at first light, the acting battalion commander, Major J. D. Forin, withdrew his three companies under cover of fog to Mount San Marco.70 Early morning patrols reported no contact with the enemy; and it seemed likely that the commanding observation which the Seaforth now enjoyed would compel a German withdrawal to the north-west. Before advancing, however, the 2nd Brigade waited for its supporting arms. A squadron of The Calgary Regiment arrived from Volturara on the same day, and careful plans were laid for the Patricias, supported by tanks, to attack the Decorata crossroads on the 8th. A shortage of petrol caused postponement, however; and late on the 8th a Seaforth patrol reported the crossroads clear of enemy.71
West of Decorata the 2nd Brigade’s axis of advance over the Sannio watershed veered to the south side of the height of land. The Canadians’ path was cut across by a number of small tributaries of the Torrente Tammarecchia and the Tammaro, flowing southward to join the Calore River above Benevento. Within this belt of sparsely-wooded and unproductive country, which continued westward a dozen miles to the main Vinchiaturo–Benevento lateral, four isolated villages gave the enemy potential positions at which to make a stand – Castelpagano and San Croce del Sannio on the Canadian brigade’s left flank, and Cercemaggiore and Cercepiccola on the right, both the latter within three miles of Highway No. 17.
The 71st Panzer Grenadier Regiment, coordinating its withdrawal with that of Fries’ left wing farther north, resisted the Canadian advance only with occasional shelling; the 2nd Brigade’s casualties during the period 9–12 October were virtually negligible. In an effort to maintain pressure on the retreating enemy the brigade employed air support liberally; Kittyhawks of the Desert Air Force bombed Cercepiccola and Cercemaggiore on successive days.72 The Edmontons marched unopposed into Castelpagano on the 9th,73 the Seaforth Highlanders securing San Croce early on the 12th.74 Meanwhile on the brigade’s right flank PPCLI patrols joined hands with the Royal 22e Regiment after Riccia had been abandoned. On the afternoon of the 12th a wide sweep northward from Castelpagano by The Loyal Edmonton Regiment*75 precipitated a German
* During the second week of October the unit, which was allied to The Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire), received notification of royal authority to assume the title, “The Loyal Edmonton Regiment”.
withdrawal from Mount Saraceno, a prominent height overlooking Cercemaggiore from the east, and the Patricias entered the village that night.76
By this time Hoffmeister’s units had drawn level again with the 3rd Brigade on the main axis, although attempts to renew contact with the Royal 22e west of Gildone were frustrated by a strong German patrol covering the highway.77 The accompanying skirmish yielded two prisoners to the Patricias, however, whereby intelligence staffs learned that the Canadian left flank had worked its way through the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, and was now opposed by Lt-Gen. Smilo Baron von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzer Division.78 Just before midnight on 12–13 October, Brigadier Vokes ordered the 2nd Brigade to proceed at once with the capture of Vinchiaturo.79
The Occupation of Campobasso, 13–14 October
The skill and persistence with which the 1st Canadian Division had harried the enemy through the difficult Apennine country west of the Foggia plain and kept him continuously in retreat were now to be rewarded by the relative ease with which the final objectives of this phase of operations fell into our hands. German testimony to the Canadians’ rate of progress appears in an entry in the 26th Panzer Division’s war diary: “Opposite the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division the First Canadian Infantry Division had appeared again, which explains the rapid advance of the enemy.”80 It is apparent from contemporary German records that heavy casualties had taught the enemy a deep respect for our artillery, and, as we have seen, Hen constantly found himself in the dilemma of having to decide between a further withdrawal or exposure to losses that his depleted formations could ill afford.81
The 76th Corps was now facing two Allied corps; on 11 October, in order to maintain offensive strength and ensure efficient administration on his widening front, Montgomery turned the Adriatic sector over to the 5th Corps and strengthened the 13th Corps by inserting the 5th British Division on the Canadian right.82 By 12 October the 78th Division had extended its hold along Highway No. 87 to a point eight miles south of Larino, and units of the 15th Brigade, passing through the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards at Colletorto, had reached Bonefro, within five miles of the lateral road.83 “The road via [Gildone–]Campobasso is the only road back for the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division”, Runkel told Wentzell on the afternoon of the 11th,84 and the two agreed that “when it is decisive one has to accept heavy casualties.” But as they spoke Canadian shells had already fallen
on Campobasso, presaging heavier fire to follow as the expected Canadian attack developed. Should the town be held? “My hair is turning grey”, lamented the 76th Corps’ Chief of Staff.85
Brigadier Vokes’ first sight of his objective may have come when he was still east of Jelsi; for the highway near Mount Verdone afforded a distant view of the 13th-century citadel which rose 350 feet above Campobasso, to look eastward down the Tappino valley and westward across the headwaters of the Biferno. Campobasso, a provincial capital of 17,000 people, consisted of an old town clustering about the rock on which the citadel stood, and a modem section, whose wide streets were flanked by imposing municipal and provincial administrative buildings, banks and schools – all built during the Fascist era. About two miles to the south the village of Ferrazzano crowned a spike of rock 600 feet above the plain. Ferrazzano had the unreal appearance of a fairy castle; but a determined force might well make it a formidable defensive position dominating the approaches to the town beyond.
On 11 October the Divisional Commander had assigned the capture of Campobasso to the 1st Brigade, which marched forward to the Jelsi road fork during the night of the 12th–13th. Brigadier Graham planned his attack in two phases. At 6:30 a.m. on the 13th the 48th Highlanders began to advance astride the Campobasso road; by mid-morning, without sighting the enemy, they had secured a line two miles south-east of the city. One company went up into Ferrazzano and occupied it after a brief skirmish with a handful of defenders. A small-scale counter-attack on the Highlanders’ main positions*
* During this counter-attack the Hastings’ Second-in-Command, Major A. A. Kennedy. lost his way while attempting to make contact with the RCR and was taken prisoner. He made a daring escape many miles behind the enemy lines, and after wandering for three weeks through the mountains east of Rome, reached American positions near Venafro.86
was beaten off without much trouble,87 but news of this German reaction, together with heavy shellfire which now began to fall along the road, delayed the arrival of the other two battalions of the brigade.88 It was dark when the RCR reached the 48th, and Lt-Col. Spry obtained the Brigadier’s permission to postpone the final assault until next morning. The Hastings and Prince Edwards were ordered to take over Ferrazzano during the night and from there to simulate an early morning attack on Campobasso.89
At 5:30 a.m., while the Hastings’ rifles, carbines and Bren guns banged and chattered in a noisy demonstration from the outskirts, the RCR entered the city. For Spry’s battalion this assault was “absolutely bloodless”.90 though a Hastings company commander was seriously wounded by a parting shot from the last withdrawing enemy.91 For reasons best known to its Commander, the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division’s morning report referred to “heavy fighting in and around Campobasso” following a penetration into
the town by “the entire 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade”. That evening the Division reported the evacuation of Campobasso “after a hard battle”.92
In the meantime Lt-Col. Hoffmeister had begun the task of breaking the enemy’s hold on the nexus of roads about Vinchiaturo. The operation against the town was one of isolation rather than direct attack, and was designed to take full advantage of the Canadian superiority in artillery. Two miles east of Vinchiaturo the north and south secondary road through San Giuliano cut like a bowstring across a wide curve of Highway No. 87; to complete the analogy, Highway No. 17 formed the arrow to this bow, with the arrowhead at Vinchiaturo. The Monteverde crossroads – where shaft met bowstring – was commanded from the north-east by La Rocca, a double-peaked hill 3000 feet high. Hoffmeister ordered the Patricias to occupy this feature as a necessary preliminary to seizing the road junction; the Edmontons were to take the high ground south-east of Vinchiaturo, between Highway No. 87 and the San Giuliano road.93 On the morning of the 14th, after an impressive bombardment by the 3rd Canadian and 165th British Field Regiments, the PPCLI scaled La Rocca without meeting direct opposition. But the enemy appeared “to be defending Vinchiaturo with artillery fire rather than with troops”,94 and throughout the afternoon he heavily shelled the hill and the crossroads below.95
Although von Lüttwitz could hardly have known that the Canadian acting GOC had promised the 13th Corps to secure Vinchiaturo by noon on the 14th,96 his diary recorded that evening that “the attack which was expected for today has not materialized. The enemy has not apparently completed his artillery preparations.”97 Later that night he ordered a retirement to a line through Baranello and Busso, about two miles east of the Biferno River. “Withdrawal now”, he predicted, “will prevent heavy losses tomorrow from superior enemy forces and artillery fire.”98
While the Patricias held their position overlooking Vinchiaturo from the east, Hoffmeister’s remaining battalions completed the envelopment of the town. Early on the 15th the Edmontons pressed forward from Cercepiccola across the San Giuliano road and occupied a hill overlooking the important highway fork south of Vinchiaturo; then they pushed patrols out to the west to investigate the villages which hugged the flank of the Matese Mountains.99 During the morning the Seaforth Highlanders swung north-westward from the Monteverde crossroads to cut Highway No. 87 north of Vinchiaturo. While a platoon occupied that town, the rest of the battalion worked forward towards Baranello, in front of which a subsequent night patrol encountered a series of alert German machine-gun posts.100 The significance of their presence was to be fully realized in the days that followed.
By securing the southern end of the Termoli–Vinchiaturo lateral the 1st Canadian Division had completed its part of the initial task which
General Montgomery had prescribed for the Eighth Army. Operations in the next phase, it will be recalled, were to be carried out “only with light forces”, while administration was building up for a further major advance. At a conference on 14 October the Division’s senior General Staff Officer, Lt-Col. George Kitching, announced that the Canadian formations would reorganize in the vicinity of Campobasso, and he forecast a pause in major operations of eight to ten days. While adopting defensive measures the infantry brigades would send forward long-range patrols to investigate the enemy.101 The gunners would continue to play an important part; given as his first priority the elimination of enemy guns shooting into the Campobasso area,102 the CRA, Brigadier A. B. Matthews, disposed his field regiments so as to reach to the line of the Biferno River and his medium artillery the Cantalupo–Frosolone road, twelve miles west of Highway No. 87.103
The diary of the 26th Panzer Division reveals that the enemy guessed wrongly when seeking to account for the sudden change in Canadian tactics. Asked by von Lüttwitz the reasons “for the discontinuation of the attacks of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, contrary to expectations”, Runkel replied “that he believed the division to have suffered many casualties and that the artillery fire of the previous days might have resulted in the adoption of a more cautious method of operation.”104
Long before Campobasso fell elaborate plans had been made to develop it as an administrative and recreational centre. Despite the German shelling, which continued intermittently for a week,105 the 13th Corps lost no time in establishing a Forward Maintenance Centre there,106 and every afternoon long convoys arrived from the east with vast stocks of the complex paraphernalia of war. Under the energetic direction of the 1st Division’s A.A. and QMG, Lt-Col. W. P. Gilbride, Auxiliary Service organizations – the Canadian Legion, the Knights of Columbus, the YMCA and the Salvation Army – provided recreational facilities for the troops, Canadian and British, in the area. Within a week of the German withdrawal officers and men to the number of 4000 a day were being brought into “Maple Leaf City” to see moving pictures at the “Savoy” and the “Capitol”, and enjoy the hospitality of the “Aldershot Officers’ Club” or the soldiers’ “Beaver Club”, which a certain sense of dramatic justice had established in the former local Fascist Youth Headquarters.107 On the second day of the city’s occupation the RCR initiated the practice of units in turn mounting ceremonial guards in the town square. The newly appointed Town Major read a proclamation and the pipes of the 48th Highlanders played. But German shells were still falling on the city, and, according to the Brigade Major, the gesture was “rather wasted, as the population very sensibly remained deep in their cellars.”108
At this point, before continuing with the Canadian advance across the Biferno, we must shift our attention, in both space and time, to follow the fortunes of the Three Rivers Regiment, which had been sharing in a dramatic episode on the Adriatic coast.
The Three Rivers Regiment at Termoli, 5–6 October
At the end of September the small port of Termoli, situated three miles north of the mouth of the Biferno near the junction of the coast road with Highway No. 87, anchored the extreme left of the German defences in Italy (see Map 8). It was not strongly garrisoned. On the last day of the month Heidrich, disturbed by the possibility of an Allied landing, had sent one platoon of paratroops to reinforce the weak railway company and the company of medical troops in the town,109 but he could not provide more substantial forces without authority from his Corps Commander. Late on 1 October General Herr revealed his concern for the security of his left wing by signalling the Tenth Army: “Situation Heidrich further aggravated. Help required, including help from higher up.”110 By the afternoon of the 2nd the 16th Panzer Division (commanded by Maj-Gen. Rudolf Sieckenius), which only a few days earlier had been withdrawn from the 14th Panzer Corps into army reserve along the Volturno north of Caserta to recover from the effects of the Salerno battle, was speeding up Highway No. 87 towards the east coast.111 That night the armoured columns rolled into Campobasso, where early on the 3rd they received word that Allied troops had landed at Termoli.112
This surprise seaborne assault, which has been called “the most concentrated Commando landing in Mediterranean operations”,113 was made by a Special Service Brigade, commanded by Brigadier J.F. Durnford-Slater, which had sailed from Manfredonia at midday on the 2nd. Its task was to seize Termoli and prevent the destruction of the harbour. It would then be reinforced by the 78th Division’s 11th Brigade, which was advancing up the coast road (Highway No. 16). The amphibious force – which included the 40th Royal Marine Commando, comrades of the 1st Canadian Division in the Pachino landings – went ashore at 2:15 a.m. on 3 October, and took the garrison completely by surprise. Within six hours the port and town had been secured undamaged; before dark elements of the 11th Brigade crossed the Biferno near the ruined road bridge and joined the Special Service troops in forming a defensive perimeter about the town114 (see Sketch 3).
During the next two days the bridgehead was reinforced by the arrival by sea of the 78th’s remaining brigades – the 36th and the 38th (Irish) –
and by such guns and tanks as could be moved across the Biferno.115 Spitfires of the Desert Air Force provided a rapidly growing air cover to combat German fighters and bombers attacking Allied troops and shipping,116 and two destroyers of the Royal Navy rendered timely service in bombarding enemy positions.117
The enemy quickly matched this strength. On the morning after the initial landing two battle groups of the 16th Panzer Division, hastening down the west side of the Biferno valley, reached the road fork at Palata; from there they closed in on the bridgehead in a two-pronged movement – Battle Group von Doering (79th Panzer Grenadier Regiment) from the south through Guglionesi, and Battle Group Stempel (64th Panzer Grenadier Regiment) in a wide left sweep to the coast road west of Termoli.118 They attacked early on the 5th, and in a series of sharp infantry-tank thrusts drove the defenders back to the outskirts of Termoli itself and all but broke through to the vital junction of Highway No. 16 and the Larino road.119 The position of the Termoli force was precarious (at one stage, when the enemy was reported within “three cables”*
* A cable is 600 feet.
of the town, the Senior Naval Officer began preparing for an evacuation);120 for more than 36 hours it had been virtually without armour – only six tanks of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters), which was supporting the 11th Brigade, had been able to ford the rain-swollen Biferno. By mid-afternoon, however, the completion of a tank-bearing bridge enabled the remainder of the Sharpshooters to cross the river and enter the fray.121
Such was the situation when, shortly after 3:00 p.m., two squadrons of the Three Rivers Regiment arrived at Campomarino, a small village overlooking the right bank of the Biferno from Highway No. 16.122 On the night of 2–3 October Brigadier Wyman had been hurriedly ordered to place the Three Rivers under command of the 78th Division, as Eighth Army intelligence staffs gave warning of a probable armoured counterattack against the Termoli bridgehead.123 The long move from Manfredonia, where the regiment’s tanks had just arrived by sea from Taranto, was made by forced stages over a route which followed many miles of muddy cross-country trails.124
The area of Termoli offered attractive tactical possibilities to both the attack and the defence. The generally flat terrain lent itself to the manoeuvre of armour; but from some relatively high ground stubborn resistance was possible. Occasional gullies thickly clothed with vineyards and olive groves provided covered approaches for the advance of infantry and tanks, but might at the same time conceal hostile machine-guns or anti-tank weapons. Nevertheless, the region was, on the whole, better tank country than Canadian armour had found in Sicily or elsewhere in Italy. West of the
broad Biferno flats the ground rose above Highway No. 87 in a low clay ridge, which was overlooked by the Piano della Croce, a long plateau about a mile wide stretching southward from Termoli and rising to a height of 1200 feet at Guglionesi. Along its western edge ran the secondary road from Termoli to Palata, passing through the village of San Giacomo about four miles inland. To sweep this double barrier from east to west and clear the San Giacomo road became the tasks of the Three Rivers Regiment.
The next day (6 October) saw the 16th Panzer Division’s supreme effort. The seizure of the eastern hinge-pin of the German line in Italy had caused concern at the highest enemy level. “The eyes of the whole Armed Forces High Command are on Termoli”, the Tenth Army Operations Officer telephoned to his opposite number at Corps level late on the 4th, and added significantly, “The Führer wishes to be informed about the situation. ...”125 Vietinghoff’s headquarters recorded: “The developments of the battle of Termoli are being watched at AOK* 10
* Armeeoberkommando (Army Headquarters).
with extreme suspense.126 “The attack is of considerable importance, and must succeed”, the Army Commander told Herr.127 At the actual scene of operations the effect of this cumulative pressure appeared in von Doering’s order of the 5th: “Termoli will be captured on 6 October.”128
But Sieckenius had missed his chance by one day.†
† Some units of the 16th Panzer Division did not reach the Termoli area until 6 October because a short-sighted quartermaster had skimped on petrol supplies.129
By the evening of the 5th all three brigades of the 78th Division had joined the Special Service Brigade in the bridgehead, and with the timely reinforcement by the Canadian armour, the Divisional Commander, Maj-Gen. Vyvyan Evelegh, gave orders to go over to the offensive.130
At 7:00 a.m. on the 6th the Three Rivers “C” Squadron, placed under command of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry, struck westward across the lower ridge, with the object of cutting the lateral road and taking San Giacomo from the south. An infantry battalion of the 36th Brigade – the 5th Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) – followed the armour to consolidate its gains. Progress was slow, as Canadian and British tanks met heavy fire from a strong screen of anti-tank guns which von Doering had placed in front of Guglionesi. The Sharpshooters lost four tanks and the Canadians two; by mid-morning, in spite of small local successes, the attack had been halted short of the Croce plateau.131
While this left-flanking move was still in progress, “B” Squadron, in support of the 38th Brigade, advanced south-westward from Termoli down the road towards San Giacomo. In the face of heavy enemy fire, which quickly knocked out three tanks, the Canadian squadron cleared the way for an attack by the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria’s) and the 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and then skilfully supported the infantry on to the objective.132 Besides killing a large number of Germans “B”
Squadron’s gunners claimed the destruction of eight enemy tanks and much transport. This well executed thrust was the key to success in the battle for Termoli. With the enemy’s hold on San Giacomo broken the 36th Brigade resumed its attack from the left and mopped up disorganized pockets of resistance on the Piano della Croce.133 At 4:35 p.m. the 16th Panzer Division reported to Corps Headquarters: “Enemy attack in brigade strength has crushed exhausted left wing of Battle Group Doering. ... Orders have been given to withdraw to the area north of Guglionesi.”134
The remaining Three Rivers squadron, which had come up from reserve on the morning of the 6th, was in time to assist the Irish Brigade to extend and secure the extreme right flank. Advancing westward from Termoli with the 2nd London Irish Rifles, “A” Squadron cleared the ground between Highway No. 16 and the Torrente Sinarca (which entered the sea two miles west of the port), destroyed enemy machine-gun positions across the river and took a heavy toll of the retreating German infantry.135 By the end of the day the battle was over, and a thoroughly disorganized enemy was withdrawing to positions well inland and up the coast.136 On 7 October the Three Rivers went into divisional reserve. Their losses of ten all ranks killed or wounded and five tanks destroyed or disabled137 were light compared with the damage they had inflicted on the enemy. Before the Regiment left the 78th Division the Commander of the Irish Brigade, Brigadier N. Russell, bestowed the brigade battle flag on Major J. R. Walker,*
* For their part in the fighting at Termoli Major Walker and another officer of the regiment, Lieut. J. F. Wallace, were awarded the MC, and two other ranks, Cpl. R. C, Campbell and Tpr. J. W. Collins, the MM.138
commander of “B” Squadron.139 A warm tribute reached Brigadier Wyman from the 13th Corps Commander. “I have been speaking during the last two or three days to several of the units of the 78th Division and the S.S. Brigade which took part in the operations at Termoli”, wrote General Dempsey. “Wherever I have been I have heard nothing but praise of the way in which Lt-Col. Booth’s regiment fought. There is no doubt that they played a very important part in bringing about the defeat of the 16th Panzer Division.”140
On the evening of 7 October Field-Marshal Kesselring appeared in person at the headquarters of the 16th Panzer Division near Palata to conduct a post mortem into the causes of the defeat at Termoli.141 One month later General Sieckenius left the Division to enter the “Reserve of Higher Commanders” of the Armed Forces High Command.142
Clearing the Right Bank of the Upper Biferno, 15–24 October
When, during the third week of October, the 1st Canadian Division began reorganizing in the Campobasso area, it had been assumed that the
enemy’s withdrawal would continue across the Biferno, and that occupation of the half-dozen villages between Highway No. 87 and the river could be entrusted to patrols of platoon strength.143 But it soon became clear that neither the 26th Panzer Division nor the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division intended to relinquish without a fight their line of outposts east of the river; for from these villages they could bring down mortar as well as artillery fire on the Campobasso and Vinchiaturo areas. As events proved, ousting the enemy from some of these positions was to be a task of company or even battalion proportions.
An observation post high up in the Campobasso citadel provided an extensive view of the 20-mile Canadian front. Less than four miles to the west a white cluster of houses on a high ridge above the Biferno gorge marked the village of Oratino, overlooking the twisting road from Campobasso to Castropignano, on the left bank. North of Oratino the Germans held San Stefano* and Montagano,
* See p.497,
two villages standing among low rolling hills which sloped gradually to the river. South-west of Campobasso the whole country-side between Highway No. 87 and the Biferno was dominated by Mount Vairano, which from a height of 1500 feet above the river overlooked Busso at its western base and Baranello, two miles to the south. From Baranello the line of the enemy’s forward positions extended south across Highway No. 17 to Guardiaregia, high up the face of the great Matese rampart which filled the south-western horizon. The enemy’s interdivisional boundary crossed the Biferno at Oratino, which was included in the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division’s sector.144
Early efforts by the 1st and 2nd Brigades to establish standing patrols in these villages met determined reaction. On 14 October the Hastings and Prince Edwards did succeed in placing a platoon in Montagano, near the boundary with the 5th British Division, but attempts on three successive days to secure San Stefano failed.145 The enemy clearly regarded San Stefano as necessary to his retention of Oratino and its control of the main crossing over the Biferno; and from both villages he continued to bring down fire on Campobasso. On 19 October Brigadier Graham ordered a brigade attack against Busso, Oratino and San Stefano.146
In the meantime the 2nd Brigade, charged with clearing the western approach to Vinchiaturo, had been having trouble with Baranello, which was held by troops of the 67th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. On 17 October the village was taken by a Seaforth company, supported by Saskatoon Light Infantry mortars and machine-guns and a battery of the 165th Field Regiment RA. But the enemy quickly brought up reinforcements from divisional reserve,147 and in the face of a threatened counter-attack in some force, the Seaforth detachment withdrew to a hill 1000 yards to the east.148 Next day,
Lt-Col. J. D. Forin, who had succeeded Hoffmeister in the command of the battalion, attacked on a more ambitious scale. After “A” Company had seized some dominating high ground south of Baranello, “B” Company assaulted from the east. There was stiff fighting at the edge of the town, but late in the afternoon the enemy withdrew, leaving behind 35 all ranks killed or captured. The Seaforth casualties for the two days were fifteen, four of them fatal.149 During the action on the 18th the infantry received useful support from a squadron of the 11th Canadian Army Tank Regiment, now commanded by Lt-Col. H. R. Schell. It was the first fighting in Italy for the Ontarios, who had only recently relieved the Calgaries.150
“And then the pressure at Baranello increased”, Wentzell telephoned to Kesselring next morning. “The enemy penetrated from the rear and threw out our troops. Our company there fought bravely.151
This ousting was followed within 24 hours by the 1st Brigade’s capture of Busso. During the 19th, “B” Company of the RCR worked its way around the south side of Mount Vairano, from whose wooded heights, according to German reports, a battalion of the 71st Panzer Grenadier Regiment had earlier withdrawn into Busso.152 About sundown, supported by a battery of the 1st Field Regiment RCHA the RCR took the town in what its CO later described as “an excellent example of an infantry company using battle drill”.153 With Baranello and Busso lost, the enemy soon surrendered the rest of his hold on the right bank of the Biferno. Early on the morning of the 20th a company attack on Oratino by the RCR and a more elaborate effort by the Hastings and Prince Edwards. with substantial fire support, against San Stefano met no resistance; during the night General Fries had pulled his threatened outposts back across the river to Castropignano.154
While these operations were taking place, on the extreme left flank the Carleton and Yorks had begun the task of freeing Highway No. 17 as far as Boiano.155 This involved clearing Guardiaregia and its companion villages of Campochiaro and San Polo Matese, which, clinging like swallows’ nests to the huge Matese wall, commanded the narrow plain through which the highway ran westward from Vinchiaturo. The mutual inaccessibility of these mountain hamlets added to the difficulties of the Carletons, who could not use the lateral approaches from the main road because of the continuous enemy fire. Guardiaregia was occupied without resistance on 18 October, and as infantry detachments felt their way along the edge of the mountains,156 a squadron of the Ontario tanks gave a measure of support by shelling opportunity targets from extremely exposed positions in the plain.157 On the 20th Lt-Col. Hangman’s men dispersed German outposts along the Torrente Quirino, a small tributary of the Biferno,158 and next morning “A” and “C” Companies attacked and cleared Campochiaro,159
The remainder of the Carletons’ task was completed under the command of the 2nd Brigade, which had begun operations against German positions on the Biferno’s left bank. On the morning of the 23rd “D” Company pushed forward to San Polo and in an all-day fight drove the Panzer Grenadiers from the last of their vantage points south of Highway No. 17.160 Finally, on 24 October, all companies joined in an attack on Boiano. They met virtually no resistance. Boiano, huddled at the foot of the Matese near the highway-crossing over the infant Biferno, had been under our artillery fire for days and had been bombed twice in the preceding week by the Desert Air Force;161 by the time the Carleton and Yorks attacked, the 2nd Brigade’s capture of Colle d’Anchise and Spinete on the high ground north of the highway had made the badly damaged town untenable to the enemy.
The Carletons’ expedition into the mountains created an unusually complicated supply problem. Unit pioneers had to build a route westward from San Giuliano, basing it on the ruins of an old Roman road. In spite of the efforts of the indispensable mule trains and the use of all available jeeps, the provision of rations and ammunition, and even medical supplies, to the forward troops was difficult at all times and frequently impossible. The Carletons suffered only thirteen battle casualties in these operations, but there were 40 cases of illness. Some of these were caused by excessive fatigue, as their exacting role frequently required the infantry to scale the heights above their objectives and “outflank” the enemy from above. The unit medical officer attributed much of the sickness to the unsuitability of the normal “bulk” rations to an enterprise of this nature. The inconvenience and danger of preparing and serving food in such adverse conditions emphasized the superiority of the “compo”,* box-type ration, which Canadian troops had received in Sicily.162 But provisions were only occasionally issued in this form during the campaign in Italy, and “Q” officers, cooks and the troops themselves were quick to learn how improvisation could meet the problem of feeding in the most unfavourable circumstances.
The Fighting West of the Biferno
On 21 October the last enemy shells fell on Campobasso,163 but any hopes that the cessation might bring the Canadians in the area an undisturbed rest were quickly dispelled. On the same day General Dempsey ordered the 13th Corps to regroup for a new offensive.164
The pause on the Termoli–Campobasso line had enabled General Montgomery to build up his administration for a resumption of the advance in strength, and already in the coastal sector the 78th Division had begun
* See above, p.208n.
“squaring up to the defences of the River Trigno”.165 With his eyes on the Pescara end of the “Rome Line” (the lateral which crossed the peninsula through Avezzano and Popoli*),
* See map at front end-paper.
Montgomery planned that the main effort against these defences should be made by the 5th Corps on the Eighth Army’s right. The thrust up the coast would be preceded by “diversionary operations” on his western flank. “In order to focus the enemy’s attention inland”, he writes, “I intended that 13 Corps should deliver a strong attack on the axis Vinchiaturo–Isernia prior to the 5 Corps operations on the Trigno.”166 Furthermore, the capture of Isernia would deprive the German Tenth Army of one of its main front-line communication links and would open the way to a junction of the Eighth and Fifth Army troops after the Americans had cleared the Volturno valley.
For his drive on Isernia Dempsey brought the 5th Division over from his right flank to the Vinchiaturo area, and assigned the Canadians the task of establishing a firm base for the attack. At a divisional conference on 22 October, General Simonds, who had returned from hospital on the 15th, gave his orders for the Canadian undertaking, which was designed to gain the high ground west of the Biferno, and to “hit a good hard blow at the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division” before the British attack towards Isernia and the more crucial offensive in the coastal sector.167 The operation had two phases. That same night the 2nd Brigade was to cross the Biferno and attack Colle d’Anchise, a village perched on top of the far bank opposite Baranello, and then secure Spinete, three miles to the north-west. Consolidation of this high ground west of Vinchiaturo would complete the Division’s task on the left. The ultimate objective on the right was the region about Torella and Molise, two villages on the height of land between the Biferno and the Trigno. The 1st Brigade was to secure this ridge by the evening of the 26th.168
At four o’clock on the morning of the 23rd the Edmontons, whom Hoffmeister had charged with the capture of Colle d’Anchise, waded across the waist-deep and ice-cold Biferno just below its junction with the Torrente Quirino. While the pioneers went to work with engineers of the 3rd Field Company on the preparation of a tank crossing, the rifle companies, shunning an easier but more obvious approach, turned northward along the bank and began to scale the 700-foot escarpment leading to their objective. Even in the heavy fog which had descended they met some enemy fire, but left it unanswered in order to press home the advantage of surprise. By daybreak “A” Company had reached the top of Point 681, an eminence at the eastern end of the single straggling street which is Colle d’Anchise. Caught unawares, the garrison – members of the 1st Battalion, 67th Panzer Grenadier Regiment169 – tumbled out of their billets to engage the attackers in bitter hand-to-hand
fighting. Soon all the Edmonton rifle companies were involved in the struggle, which continued throughout the morning without producing a definite decision.170 At one point an NCO, Sgt. R. B. Whiteside, of “A” Company, single-handed and armed only with a rifle, successfully engaged two German machine-gun posts, inflicting an estimated eleven casualties. He was awarded the DCM.171
In the meantime the supporting tanks of the Ontarios’ “A” Squadron were experiencing the greatest difficulty in establishing contact with the Edmontons. The heavy mist which lay in the gorge of the Biferno was as embarrassing to the armour as it had been of assistance to the infantry. Although the tanks got down into the rocky river bed at 6:30 a.m., two hours elapsed before the busy sappers, toiling heroically under continuous machinegun and mortar fire, had finished carving an exit in the precipitous far bank. Ten minutes later seven tanks were across the river.172 They found no Edmonton guides (battalion pioneers left at the crossing had been dispersed by sniper fire), and repeated signals to Brigade Headquarters in Vinchiaturo failed to establish liaison with the infantry in Colle d’Anchise, whose wireless had failed and who seem to have been ignorant of the proximity of Canadian armour.173 Towards mid-morning the two Ontario troops began working their way up the long slope towards Colle d’Anchise, but half a mile south of the village an ambush by German Mark IVs – identified in German documents as a troop of the 26th Panzer Regiment174 – knocked out three Shermans, killing three men. The remaining tanks bogged down or were immobilized by thrown tracks, and were of no further use that day.175
Now the situation in Colle d’Anchise took a turn for the worse. The presence of the Canadian tanks west of the Biferno had not prevented the enemy from bringing up infantry from Boiano, and these joined with his three Mark IVs in a counter-attack which forced Lt-Col. Jefferson’s “D” Company from the western end of the village. Anti-tank guns and other support weapons were still held up by heavy mortaring at the Biferno crossing, so that the hard-pressed Edmontons had only their PIATs with which to oppose the German armour, and PIAT ammunition ran short when the mule supply column failed to get forward.176 At 3:30 p.m. the enemy reported having recaptured three-quarters of the village.177 But the counterattack was not followed up, for the Commander of the 76th Panzer Corps had authorized a withdrawal from the Colle d’Anchise–Spinete area.178 During the night the enemy pulled back to the Cantalupo–Torella lateral – the Lüttwitz position179 – and early next morning the Edmontons consolidated their hard-won positions. They had suffered 30 casualties in the action; the German losses were estimated at more than 100. The fierce and confused fighting for Colle d’Anchise had once again demonstrated that lack of coordination between tanks and infantry which was to lead to the introduction of new training methods and closer cooperation in the campaigns of 1944.
The PPCLI attack on Spinete on the 23rd involved a daylight crossing of the Biferno at an exposed ford, to be followed by an advance uphill of two and a half miles which would carry the battalion far beyond the protection of flanking units. In the absence of a crossing suitable for vehicles the Patricias had to rely exclusively on mules (sixty were available for the 2nd Brigade’s operations), and considerable delay might be expected in the provision of supporting arms. At midday Lt-Col. Ware led his companies to their forming-up places in the river bed west of Baranello.180 At one o’clock Spinete was bombed by 24 Bostons of the South African Air Force;181 an hour later, as the infantry moved across the Biferno, the greater part of the divisional artillery joined in a bombardment of the objective.182 Success for the Patricias depended largely on what the Edmontons might achieve on the left, and the latest report from Colle d’Anchise was favourable. Uninformed of the near loss of that position, Ware proceeded with his own attack as planned.183 Fortunately, however, his advance encountered practically no resistance, for it coincided with the enemy’s withdrawal. By early evening the Patricias had entered Spinete without suffering a single casualty.184
It was now the turn of the 1st Brigade to strike a still stronger blow with all three battalions against the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division lower down the river. In order to reach his final objective – the “Torella–Molise feature” – Brigadier Graham had first to secure Castropignano and Roccaspromonte, two villages standing about a mile apart on the edge of the almost sheer rampart which formed the left bank of the Biferno opposite Oratino. Patrols had discovered that the only crossing-place in the brigade sector that could be developed for vehicles was at the demolished bridge below Castropignano; and this site, like the section of the Campobasso – Torella road between Oratino and the river, was entirely under enemy observation. Graham’s first intention was for the 48th Highlanders to ford the Biferno in the neighbourhood of Casalciprano, about two miles upstream from the broken bridge, and then capture Roccaspromonte and Castropignano from the south. Major D. W. Banton (who was temporarily commanding the battalion) sent “C” Company across the river on the morning of the 24th; but the absence of enemy opposition brought a change of plan, and the task of taking the two villages was given to the RCR The 48th Highlanders would then follow through and take Torella, four miles up the road from Castropignano. The capture of Molise, two miles south-west of Torella, was to be carried out by the Hastings and Prince Edwards in a thrust along the left flank behind Roccaspromonte.185
In the late afternoon of the 24th “A” Company of the RCR forded the Biferno below the Roccaspromonte cliffs, and guided by civilians, ascended to Roccaspromonte itself, finding it free of enemy. During the night “B” Company, crossing the river immediately below the demolished bridge,
climbed the steep slope by which the main road spiralled up to Castropignano, and took the town in the face of fire from only one machine-gun. But although the enemy had yielded the two villages without a fight, the succeeding 48 hours showed his determination to deny to us as long as possible the Torella road, which formed the main axis of withdrawal for the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division just as Highway No. 17 through Isernia provided a means of retreat for the 26th Panzer Division. A German outpost still held a hill west of Castropignano – Point 761 – which overlooked the junction of the road from Spinete and Roccaspromonte with the main route. Here “C” Company, moving up through the darkness from “A” Company’s positions, ran into the RCR’s first serious opposition. German machine-guns opened up by the light from parachute flares, killing the company commander and compelling a withdrawal. Not until noon next day, after effective shelling by our artillery, was Point 761 reported clear of enemy.186
The attack on Torella could now go forward. On the morning of the 25th 35 Kittyhawks and twelve US Warhawks bombed the village,187 and early in the afternoon the 48th Highlanders passed through the RCR and began advancing up the road from Point 761. Heavy shelling and mortar fire soon brought them to a halt, and there was no further movement that day.188 Since the treeless, rolling uplands between them and their goal looked promising for armour, Brigadier Graham ordered “B” Squadron of the Ontarios to cross the river. During the previous night the Engineers had completed a diversion at a demolished bridge where the main road crossed a gully below the Oratino hill, but nothing could be done to construct a vehicle crossing over the Biferno itself. Late in the afternoon on Graham’s insistence the Ontarios attempted the impossible, and after several tanks had bogged down, the remainder succeeded in scaling the far bank. They carried the dismantled 75s and the gun crews of a battery of the Airlanding Light Regiment, now badly needed to give close support to the 48th Highlanders.189
Early on the 26th the infantry began to advance with the armoured squadron, whose appearance provoked a considerable increase in the fire sweeping the bare ridges in front of Torella. Progress was slow. It was not until dusk, after the full weight of the divisional artillery had pounded the enemy’s positions continuously for half an hour, that the Highlanders, who had suffered more than a score of casualties, were able to close in on their objective. But the enemy did not await their coming. Reacting to the steady Canadian pressure, the Commander of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division had already ordered a withdrawal from Torella and Molise to take place that evening,190 and early morning patrols on the 27th reported Torella clear.
Before the morning was over the Hastings and Prince Edwards had come up on the left flank after an arduous, though unopposed, cross-country march
from the Biferno. Under cover of thick fog and driving rain they climbed the conical hill on which Molise stood, “to be met with a formidable array of Italian flags and a very shifty looking mayor.”191 The people of Molise proved far from friendly; some, indeed, evinced strong Fascist sympathies. There seems little doubt that they gave the Germans details of the Hastings’ defences, for the harassing fire which the enemy inevitably directed against his abandoned positions was more than usually effective, his shells landing with unpleasant accuracy upon slit-trenches dug around the perimeter of the town, and causing twenty Hastings casualties in a few hours. In view of this and other instances of civilian interference the battalion commander found it necessary to threaten the populace with drastic punitive measures. “That” – to quote Lord Tweedsmuir – “quieted them down.”192
The Canadian Division had successfully completed its part of the 13th Corps operation in time for the 5th Division’s attack on the left to be made on schedule. On 27 and 28 October two British brigades relieved the Carleton and Yorks at Boiano and the 2nd Canadian Brigade in the Spinete–Colle d’Anchise area. On the next night the advance along Highway No. 17 began in the worst kind of weather, with a Three Rivers squadron providing armoured support for the leading troops. Light rearguard resistance supplemented by road demolitions and mine craters retarded progress, and it was 4 November before patrols of the 13th Brigade entered Isernia, to find it abandoned by the enemy.193 By that time the 78th Division, making the main 5th Corps assault on the night of 2–3 November, in bitter fighting had broken the German hold on the lower Trigno, and across the Eighth Army’s entire front the enemy had begun pulling back to the River Sangro.194
While these major gains were being measured off on either flank, units of the 1st Canadian Brigade followed their patrols into the rolling uplands overlooking the headwaters of the Trigno, to take over scattered hill towns abandoned by the retreating Germans. A company of the Hastings entered Frosolone, on the Cantalupo–Torella lateral, on 29 October, and on 4 November the RCR moved from Molise to Duronia. On the same day the 48th Highlanders sent a company into Pietracupa, three miles north of Torella, and patrols subsequently ranged five miles beyond to occupy Salcito.195 The infantry was assisted in such operations by detachments of the divisional reconnaissance regiment. The Princess Louise had been given the formidable task of filling the gap created by the transfer of the 5th Division from the 13th Corps’ right flank, and during the last week of October and first week of November their far-flung patrols, reaching north from the Montagano–Petrella area into the hills between the Biferno and the Trigno Rivers, secured a number of isolated villages midway between the Eighth Army’s two axes of advance.196
For most of November the Canadian Division, with the exception of the 3rd Brigade, for which an important independent role was in the offing, was able to enjoy a period of rest and preparation for the bitter December battles on the Adriatic coast. The forethought and energy which had gone into the development of Campobasso as a recreational centre paid gratifying dividends; the amenities enjoyed on 48-hour leaves in “Maple Leaf City” were particularly appreciated by the units of the 1st Brigade, who continued to occupy cheerless billets in the unprepossessing villages across the Biferno. The arrival of more than 1500 reinforcements during the month brought the Division to within 350 other ranks of full strength.197 The advance from the Foggia plain and the fighting at Termoli had cost the 1st Division and the Army Tank Brigade 630 casualties, of which 170 were fatal. Of the armoured units The Calgary Regiment, which had furnished the bulk of the tank support along Highway No. 17, had sustained the greatest losses – 16 killed and 15 wounded. Most depleted of the infantry battalions was the 48th Highlanders, which, in spite of a relatively unspectacular role during most of the October fighting, had lost 26 killed and 70 wounded – striking evidence of the exacting nature of the routine infantry task.
On 1 November the Division said good-bye to General Simonds, who left to take over command of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, soon to arrive in the Italian theatre. With him went his GSO1, Lt-Col. Kitching, to command the armoured division’s infantry brigade. Brigadier Vokes, promoted to the rank of Maj-Gen., succeeded Simonds; Kitching was followed by Lt-Col. C. M. Harding, RCA. Two changes in command affected the infantry brigades. Hoffmeister, now brigadier, was confirmed in his command of the 2nd Brigade; and on Brigadier Penhale’s appointment as Brigadier General Staff at CMHQ, Brigadier T. G. Gibson (who had been commanding the 3rd Canadian Division’s 9th Brigade in the United Kingdom) took over the 3rd Brigade.
The German Plans for the Winter Campaign
By the autumn of 1943 their reverses compelled German leaders to pay increasing attention to the defence of the Fatherland and (as Hitler had emphasized at the Feltre meeting) those areas of Europe, particularly the Balkans, which provided the raw materials essential for the prosecution of the war. The Russian front could no longer retain its priority. “The danger in the East remains”, announced the Führer in a directive to the Armed Forces High Command early in November, “but a greater one is looming in the West.198 The High Command expected that the Allies would attempt a
cross-Channel invasion by the spring, and this influenced any over-all disposition of German forces. Hitler’s directive set forth clearly the policy that would be followed:
In the East the territories involved are so large that in the worst case loss of a considerable area can be accepted without seriously endangering Germany. In the West it is different. Should the enemy succeed in penetrating our defences there on a broad front, the consequences within a short time would be incalculable. ... Hence I can no longer tolerate that the West should be further weakened to benefit other theatres of war.199
Such were the conditions governing enemy strategy in the Mediterranean. German reaction to events there since the landings in Sicily had been rapid, thorough and consistent. Operation “Achse” had rendered impotent the Italian armies in the north, and had laid the foundations for the Fascist Republican Government which Mussolini proclaimed after he had been snatched from his place of confinement on the Gran Sasso.*
* This “rescue” was carried out on 12 September by a force of 100 glider-borne S.S. troopers, led by S.S. Hauptsturmführer Otto Skorzeny, a notorious Hitlerian aide.200
German formations could thus to a great extent be released from security duty in Northern Italy for employment against the Partisans in Istria and Slovenia, or for reinforcing Kesselring in the south. Rommel’s Army Group “B” Headquarters had been brought from Munich to Lake Garda, and with additional forces was now to safeguard the industrial cities of the north from Allied seaborne operations. Hitler had clarified the relationship between Rommel and Kesselring by an order which brought both men under his direct command; any right of the former Commander of the Afrika Korps to control the C-in-C South would become effective only if decreed by the Führer.201 By the end of September, the number of German divisions in Italy had increased to eighteen.202
In attempting to forecast the probable trend of events south of the Alps the High Command was worried about the disposition of the large forces available to the Allies after the North African campaign, the majority of which had not yet appeared in the fighting in Italy. That it seriously considered the possibility of landings in Northern Italy or in the Balkans indicates its failure to appreciate the shortage of landing craft which was to worry Allied Commanders so greatly in the coming months. A question of immediate concern, particularly in the light of Salerno, was whether or not the fighting was to continue in Central and Southern Italy.203
From the beginning there had been two main conflicting opinions on the future conduct of the campaign. One, advanced by Rommel, was that to commit German troops down the peninsula was to expose them to landings in the rear, which would make retreat impossible. He favoured a withdrawal
to the Northern Apennines,*
* This was in keeping with an operations order issued by the High Command on 18 August which stated that in the event of Italy withdrawing from the war “Southern and Central Italy will be evacuated, and only Upper Italy, beginning at the present boundary line of Army Group B (line Pisa-Arezzo-Ancona) will be held.”204
where the forces available would be better able to hold seaborne attacks on Genoa and Spezia or along the Adriatic coast.205 Against this Kesselring argued that experience had already shown the mountainous country of the Southern Apennines to be ideally suited to defence, and that since there was no need at the moment to retire, the ground should be held. He had already selected a series of lines across the peninsula which he considered could be defended. Should there be a landing in the north-which he doubted – he could still extricate the six or seven motorized divisions in the south. “It is very doubtful”, he reported on 15 September, “whether the enemy will proceed with his attack against Central and Northern Italy.” He believed that the Allies would be satisfied with the Foggia airfields, and could be denied those about Rome, thereby diminishing the air threat against Northern Italy and Southern Germany.206
Any scheme which favoured retention of ground was bound to find favour with Hitler, and Kesselring’s arguments soon convinced the High Command. On 19 September Keitel directed that since landing operations in the north were not expected in the near future, Army Group “B” was to concentrate on cleaning up Partisan activity in Istria and Slovenia, and to cooperate with the German Commanders in the Balkans, whose urgent task was to prepare for an Allied invasion, particularly on the Dalmatian–Albanian coast.207 On 30 September Hitler conferred with Rommel and Kesselring at “Wolfschanze” (his headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia),208 subsequently issuing orders which reflected his acceptance of the C-in-C South’s plan.
I expect that the enemy will direct his main operation from Italy against the south-east area, perhaps also with some forces from Africa. However, it cannot yet be determined whether the enemy will turn from Southern Italy toward Albania, Montenegro and Southern Croatia, or whether he will first try to push the German forces in Italy further north in order to create for himself a base in central Italy for attacking Northern Croatia and Istria.
I order as follows for further warfare:
1. a. C-in-C South will fight a delaying action only as far as the line Gaeta–Ortona. This line will be held. The time necessary for organizing the defences and for bringing up the infantry divisions† will be won by operations forward of the line to be held.
b. 5 Divisions, including the two infantry divisions (305th and 65th) are to be used at the Gaeta–Ortona front. One division is to be kept in reserve behind each of the two wings. ...209
Army Group “B” was to secure Kesselring’s lines of communication and continue its activities against uprisings in the north-western Balkans with the infantry divisions moved from the coastal areas – a risk which
† German divisions in the fighting in Italy up to this time were either Panzer (Armoured), Panzer Grenadier (Motorized) or Parachute.
could be taken now that Allied landings were considered less imminent. Included in the Führer’s order was the demand for plans for a counter-attack on Apulia, in the event that the Allies turned from Italy into the Balkans.210
There were certain secondary considerations behind the decision to hold south of Rome. After the long withdrawal from El Alamein to Naples the German Army was in need of the stimulant which a successful defensive stand might provide. The importance of repairing morale was stressed by von Vietinghoff in an order calling on personnel of every rank to “use their entire energy to make good the inroads in the fighting spirit of the troops. which are the inevitable result of a long delaying action.”211 The new plan of campaign also meant that it would be possible to release to the Eastern front some armoured formations no longer considered necessary for the defence of the Po Valley.212 Not least important were the political implications. Denying the Italian capital to the Allies would not only give substance to Mussolini’s new state; it would serve to reassure the puppet regimes of the overrun European countries, and give a fillip to civilian morale at home.
As we have seen, the slow withdrawal of the German forces which took place during September and October followed the pattern which the C-in-C South had forecast – gradual yielding of the less important trans-peninsular lines until the one from Ortona to Gaeta was reached. This, the Bernhard Line, was well chosen. It crossed the narrowest part of Italy, a distance of only 85 miles. On the eastern slope of the Apennines it was based on the River Sangro, and on the western slope on the Garigliano; in the centre the peaks of the Abruzzi, some of the highest in the entire Apennine range, provided a natural impregnability surpassing that of the river barriers on either flank. Although near the western end of the Line the Liri and Sacco valleys opened a corridor to Rome, this avenue might only be entered through the narrower gateway of the Mignano defile between the Matese massif and the Aurunci Mountains in the coastal area. The few roads which wound their way across these rugged ranges were poor and unsuited to heavy military traffic. Autumn and winter rains could be expected to make them virtually impassable and bring the rivers into flood. All these advantages of terrain the enemy augmented by skilful demolitions and by extensive defence works.
His preliminary measures have already been noted.*
* Above, p. 237.
As early as 26 September General Hube, temporarily in command of the Tenth Army during a brief absence of von Vietinghoff, had ordered, in anticipation of confirmation from Berlin: “During the course of the next few weeks 10 Army will withdraw to the defence line ‘Bernhard’ in a delaying action.”213 While this retirement was taking place, both Kesselring and his Army Commander issued instructions for the preparation of the position. “The main requirements
for ‘Bernhard’”, ordered von Vietinghoff on 4 October, “are security from mechanized attack and protection from concentrated drum-fire by enemy artillery.”214 This security was to be achieved by having “everything underground”, defence works on the rear slopes shielded from artillery fire, heavy minefields in the coastal areas, and artillery placed to bring concentrated fire upon troops in the open defiles. Construction plans called for anti-tank ditches, strongpoints protected by wire, thorough clearing of the field of fire, and dummy installations. With all this came the demand for “the will to fight stubbornly down to the last soldier in my army.”215
It was easier to order the construction of the Line than to find the labour, and resources with which to build it. Early in October the Tenth Army, with a special engineering staff and additional engineering battalions and rock-drilling companies, became responsible for the work. It was also given a police battalion for “the seizing of Italian labour”.216 Kesselring, determined that the Line should hold, was as dissatisfied with the progress of its construction as he was disappointed with the failure of his formations appreciably to delay the Allied advance. On 1 November, in an “Order for the Conduct of the Campaign”, he delivered an exhortation to greater effort, and prescribed remedial action where the work had not come up to the standards he demanded. In the mountains, “mule tracks, high-lying valleys and gorges must be made secure by strongpoints, mines, wire entanglements, barricades of tree limbs ...”;217 because of the expected snowfall these strongpoints must be stocked with fourteen days’ supply of ammunition, food and fuel, and in more difficult sectors overhead cable railways were to be installed. On the coasts strongpoints must be “well covered against fire from naval guns and air attack.”218
Comprehensive as these instructions were, with the limited resources available to him Kesselring’s object “to create an impregnable system of positions in depth, and so save German blood”219 must be regarded as too ambitious. When performance fell short of intention, he found it necessary to censure his Army Commander. In an extraordinarily crisp message to von Vietinghoff he charged that command within the Tenth Army was not being carried out “with the energy and farsightedness required by the situation”; his own personal intervention had been “necessary to point out to the 14th Pz. Corps the shortcomings of the work on the Bernhard position.”220
General Vietinghoff, who was ill and about to leave for medical treatment in Germany, found time to write a lengthy rejoinder.221 He pointed out that it was already three days past the target date for the withdrawal into the defences, and nowhere were the Allies directly before them. In some sectors they were 40 kilometres away. If the construction was not satisfactory it was because, he complained, “no construction troops worthy of the name
* This stricture apparently did not apply to German engineers. Early in November von Vietinghoff’s headquarters reported to O.B. South that up to 7 November these had laid 75,127 mines in the area of the Bernhard Line and its approaches. By 31 October railway engineers had carried out the following demolition: Bridges destroyed – 12,210 metres, Culverts – 1830 metres, Tunnels – 6565 metres, Railroad tracks – 667,000 metres, Railroad engines – 77, Railroad carriages – 2043. A further 116,300 metres of railroad track had been pulled up by “rail rooter”.222
Police battalions had arrived late, and were not the number originally promised; yet nevertheless Tenth Army formations had rounded up 6000 Italian civilians. Comments by a visiting general and by subordinate commanders showed that in one of the sectors “more positions exist than troops can occupy”; and “defence construction in the Mignano defile may be looked upon as a model for the entire army command.” Finally the Army Commander drew attention to the grave shortage of ammunition and to the much reduced fighting strength of the panzer grenadier divisions.223
Having thus defended the performance of his Army, von Vietinghoff went off on sick leave, and so missed the November and December battles in the Bernhard Line. Until his return at the beginning of the year, his place in command of the Tenth Army was taken by General of Panzer Troops Joachim Lemelsen, a former Corps commander on the Russian front, who had been described by his seniors as “an average corps commander, not suitable for the next higher command.”224 His handling of the Tenth Army, however, was to win him favourable reports from Kesselring.225 One more important change of command in Italy came with the departure of Rommel’s Army Group “B” Headquarters for a new assignment in North-West Europe,†
† In mid-October orders had been drafted for Rommel to take sole command in Italy, but Hitler had changed his mind before confirming the appointment. Rommel’s new task was to check and strengthen the defences in the west against invasion.226
and the creation of the Fourteenth Army under the command of Colonel-General Eberhard von Mackensen. On 21 November Kesselring assumed control of all German troops in Italy with the title of Commander-in-Chief, South-West. His two armies became Army Group “C”.227