Chapter 10: The Upper Sangro Diversion and the Battle of the Moro River
The Allied Decision to Take Rome
This German decision to stand south of Rome”, wrote General Alexander later, “did not affect my general plan of campaign though it was, of course, destined to affect its timing.”1 As we have noted, the Allied Armies had embarked on the campaign in Italy with the intention of forcing Italy out of the war and containing the maximum number of German troops. With the surrender of the Badoglio government on 9 September the first part of this mission had been accomplished; the extent to which the second aim was achieved would depend largely on what the enemy might do next.
If, in pursuing a policy of shortening his lines around Europe in order to create reserves, he made an orderly withdrawal with a comparatively small force to a selected line either in the Alps or on one of the major rivers in north-eastern Italy, he would be aided all the way by the defensible terrain and by the administrative difficulties which a long pursuit would impose upon the Allies. When the need arose there would be time to install the larger force required to hold such a line, for Allied preparations to assault a defensive position of this type would necessarily be slow. The initiative was clearly with the Germans, to the extent that, as Alexander observed, “had they decided to withdraw altogether ... instead of us containing them, they would be containing us.” Hitler’s decision to try to hold Rome was therefore welcomed by the C-in-C 15th Army Group as a “positive assistance to me in carrying out the Combined Chiefs of Staff directive. ... From the moment of that decision the German Army undertook a commitment as damaging and debilitating as Napoleon’s Peninsular campaign.”2
The Führer’s choice of central Italy, as a battleground settled one further problem for the Allied planners – it ended, at least for the time being, the necessity of considering an offensive across the Adriatic. General Alexander had not excluded the possibility of attacking the Balkans after the capture
of Foggia and Naples, for German sensitiveness there was well known, and there is little doubt that an Allied venture in that direction would have produced a violent enemy reaction. Such seaborne operations could not, however, be carried out with the existing resources of amphibious equipment and troop reinforcements in the Mediterranean. It was accordingly a matter for satisfaction that the business of “containing and manhandling” German formations which might otherwise be used against OVERLORD could now be conducted exclusively in Italy.
The immediate objective was Rome. For every reason for which the enemy wished to retain the Italian capital there was one equally pressing on the Allied side for its capture. Strategically, its possession meant the availability of all-weather airfields, closer to the industrial heart of Germany than those at Foggia. Politically, the city had all that significance to the Allies which it had to the Germans. The Badoglio government, buttressed by a discredited royalty, had turned up in Brindisi and had offered co-belligerency in exchange for leniency. It was to the Allied interest to invest this shadow rule with some substance. Reinstatement of an Italian government on the banks of the Tiber could present a serious threat to the enemy’s security by encouraging the Italians to forsake the new Mussolini regime. The prestige of that German-bolstered Republican Fascist administration would dwindle without Rome in its possession, for (as Mr. Churchill was to put it at the Cairo Conference), “whoever holds Rome holds the title deeds of Italy.”3 Furthermore, if Italy’s volte face could be made a reality, other countries, despairing to remain in the German orbit, might follow her example. Above all, the enemy’s obvious determination to dispute strongly the possession of Rome presented the Allies with the opportunity which they continually sought to draw him into battle and destroy his forces.4
First, however, the Allies had to solve the vital problem of getting the shipping for the build-up on the Italian mainland. It had been decided at the Quebec Conference that “as between Operation ‘Overlord’ and operations in the Mediterranean, where there is a shortage of resources, available resources will be distributed and employed with the main object of ensuring the success of ‘Overlord’”5 This meant, wrote Alexander later, a withdrawal from Mediterranean waters of “eighty percent of our Landing Ships, Tank and Landing Ships, Infantry and two-thirds of our assault craft of all natures.”6 Most of these craft were to be under way by early November. Whilst there was no disputing the prior claims of OVERLORD, some way of overcoming the lack of shipping had to be found if the campaign in Italy was to fulfil its role. “At 15 Army Group conference today”, Alexander signalled General Eisenhower on 12 October, “it became evident that the removal of craft as ordered by CCS [Combined Chiefs of Staff] will seriously prejudice our operations to gain Rome.”7 Such a withdrawal would curtail the coastal maintenance which the enemy’s systematic destruction of road and rail facilities
had made necessary if the advance were to be pressed, and prevent the mounting of amphibious operations designed to reduce the need for costly frontal attacks.
It may be noted that not only the ground forces had a call on shipping. In September it had been decided to establish the Strategic Air Force as quickly as possible at Foggia rather than wait for the capture of bases in the Rome region.8 The task of transporting this Force was about equal to that of moving two divisions, and its maintenance required almost the same amount of resources as the whole of the Eighth Army. This seriously delayed the build-up of the Allied Armies at a time when there was urgent need for rapid expansion. “The monstrous block of Air, in its eagerness to get ahead”, wrote Mr. Churchill late in November, “has definitely hampered the operations of the Army.”9 Unlike the Tactical Air Force, whose close support of the ground operations made its transfer to Italy a matter of prime importance to the 15th Army Group, the Strategic Air Force was to be used in POINTBLANK, the heavy bombing programme against Germany, and thus from a purely local viewpoint, as Lord Alexander notes, “the move represented a positive disadvantage*
* But not, of course, to the total war effort. The Commanding General of the US Army Air Forces was to write: “The capture of the air bases on the plains of Foggia in the early stages of the Italian campaign may go down in military annals as one of the keys to the liberation of Europe, for it was there that the Allies drove in order to base the strategic heavy bombers which were to fly in Adolf Hitler’s ‘back door’ and help destroy his war machine.”10
to the progress of the Italian Campaign.”11
By the last week of October Allied ground formations in Italy numbered eleven divisions; it was estimated that because of the reduction in the Mediterranean sea lift the number of divisions in the country by the end of 1943 would not exceed fifteen.12 Allied Intelligence, piecing together information gained from enemy prisoners and deserters and from the thousands of Allied soldiers who had escaped from Italian prison camps after the Armistice, estimated the number of German divisions in the peninsula at “a known total of twenty-four, and perhaps as high as twenty-eight divisions”.13 (This was an over-estimate; enemy documents show an actual German order of battle, on 26 October, of just under 21 divisions, of which five were in transit.14) Although the Tenth Army was employing only nine divisions against the 15th Army Group, Rommel’s formations in the north represented a reservoir of reinforcement or replacement which could neutralise any slight superiority which the Allies might hold on the battlefield after allowance had been made for the defenders’ advantage in terrain. Furthermore the enemy’s adequate lines of communication would make it possible for him to increase his total forces in Italy to “a theoretical 60 divisions and a logical 30”, should these be available, and to maintain them during the coming winter months.15
These two factors – the slowness of the Allied build-up and the superior strength of the enemy – formed the background to a discussion of future operations at a conference between Alexander and his Commanders-in-Chief at La Marsa, near Tunis, on 25 October. Two alternatives were open to the 15th Army Group: either to continue the fight to Rome, or call a halt. Alexander’s appreciation pointed to the obvious choice.
A stabilized front south of Rome cannot be accepted, for the Capital has a significance far greater than its strategic location and sufficient depth must be gained before the Foggia airfields and the port of Naples can be regarded as secure. This being so, the seizure of a firm defensive base north of Rome becomes imperative.16
Yet the fact had to be faced that with the resources then available, the Allies would be committed to “a long and costly advance to Rome, a ‘slogging match’ “ which might result in an arrival north of the Italian capital in such a weakened state as to invite a successful counter-attack by the enemy.17
The Commanders-in-Chief, agreeing that the Allies must keep the initiative, accepted the plan which General Alexander outlined to capture Rome. Briefly, this was for the Eighth Army to launch a heavy attack across the Sangro River, thrust northward to gain control of the Rome–Pescara highway, and then turn south-westward into the mountains towards Avezzano so as to threaten the capital from the east. Timed with the Eighth Army’s attack, the Fifth Army on the left would strike northward towards Rome. The operations of both armies would be assisted by amphibious operations on the enemy’s exposed flanks: that of the Eighth Army to the extent of a brigade group, that of the Fifth Army by at least an infantry division and some armour.18
General Eisenhower urged the Combined Chiefs of Staff (on 31 October and again on 3 November) to allow him to hold in the theatre until 15 December the landing ships (56 British and 12 United States LSTs) due to return to England, in order to assure the build-up and maintenance of the formations in Italy, and enable a divisional amphibious assault to be mounted.19 Their acquiescence on 6 November meant that planning could now proceed with greater certainty, although Alexander was still not satisfied that the resources were adequate for the major operations ahead. He faced a deficiency of 10,000 vehicles by the end of the year, and he pointed out to Eisenhower that unless the time limit for holding the landing craft could be extended to mid-January, it would be necessary to postpone the proposed amphibious operation and the arrival of the Strategic Air Force.20 The Supreme Commander asked the Combined Chiefs for a further extension.21
With the shipping question still unsettled, on 8 November Eisenhower issued a new directive, instructing the Allied Armies to secure Rome as quickly as possible. Apart from the establishment of six heavy bombardment groups of the Strategic Air Force in Italy by 31 December, priority in shipping
would be governed solely by the requirements of this immediate objective. After the capture of Rome and the occupation of a general line to include Civitavecchia and Terni, sufficient in depth to allow the use of the former as a port, the armies would pause to regroup, repair communications and bring up reserves for the next big advance. At that time, too, the movement of the Strategic Air Force would be completed.22
On the same day General Alexander issued new instructions to his two armies. Their joint effort to break through the Bernhard Line was planned in three phases which followed the pattern outlined at the La Marsa conferences. The first was the Eighth Army’s attack – the main thrust of which would not begin before 20 November – to gain the Rome–Pescara highway between the Adriatic coast and Collarmele, a town half way across the peninsula (map at front end-paper). From this area Montgomery would threaten, through Avezzano, the communications of the enemy facing the Fifth Army. The second phase was the Fifth Army’s drive up the Liri and Sacco valleys as far as Frosinone, fifty miles south-west of Rome. Because of the expected deficiencies in shipping after 15 December there was considerable uncertainty about the third phase, which was to be the landing south of Rome, aimed at the Alban Hills.23 Not until after the “Sextant” Conference in Cairo at the end of November, when the Chiefs of Staff agreed to leave the vital LSTs in the Mediterranean until 15 January,*
* This deadline was subsequently postponed to 5 February in order that the landing craft might be used in the Anzio operation.24
could a firm decision be made to proceed with this operation.25 Planning, however, proceeded on the assumption that craft would be available, and when in January the amphibious assault was made at Anzio, it had grown from a landing by one division with some armour into a full-scale corps operation. Before that event, however, there were heavy battles for the Eighth Army in its advance from the Sangro to Ortona, and for the Fifth Army in front of the Cassino bastion.
The Allied Armies Reach the Winter Line
By the middle of November, both armies had drawn up to the Bernhard Line. Earlier in the month the Fifth Army had begun a series of attacks on the mountain defences which dominated the path of Highway No. 6 through the Mignano gap, but by the 13th the momentum which had carried General Clark’s troops from Naples, across the Volturno and through the “Barbara” Line, the last delaying position before the Bernhard, was spent. Rugged mountain slopes, tenaciously held by a reinforced enemy, and the autumn fog and rains which brought bitterly cold nights and aggravated already difficult
supply problems, produced a situation in which further attacks “would exhaust divisions to a dangerous degree.”26 On orders from the 15th Army Group Clark called a halt.27 Assuming a temporary defensive role the Fifth Army waited out the remainder of the month as it rested and regrouped in preparation for a renewed attack.28
During this lull in the fighting the enemy was not idle. Although he had been successful in holding these initial penetrations of the Bernhard Line, the Allied encroachment spurred him to a more rapid development of his rearward positions, where, a dozen miles behind the Mignano gap, the rampart of Monte Cassino formed the anchor to the deep system of defences designed to block the broad Liri Valley. Organization Todt was now called in to assist in the construction.29 With forced generosity, Berlin authorized a “tobacco premium” as incentive to the unenthusiastic Italian labour forces.*
* Among the measures taken against Italian civilians after the capitulation, the German Tenth Army had ordered the conscription of 120 Italian labour groups, of 500 men each, as construction battalions.30
On the Adriatic, troops of the Eighth Army advancing from the Termoli–Campobasso–Vinchiaturo line had reached the Sangro – the 78th Division, under the 5th Corps, on 8 November, and on its left the 8th Indian Division eleven days later.31 Once the Adriatic end of the “Barbara” Line (which was based on the Trigno River) had been broken, the enemy had lost little time in withdrawing to his Bernhard positions. In the mountainous central sector the 13th Corps had taken without opposition the important road junction of Isernia. North of Campobasso active patrolling continued in the gap between the two main axes of advance.32
While his leading units were probing forward from the Trigno, General Montgomery was considering how best to break through the Bernhard Line and put his forces on the Rome–Pescara road – the ancient Via Valeria, now Highway No. 5. To present a significant threat to the enemy defending Rome it would be necessary to gain Avezzano in the centre of the peninsula. The problem was how to reach this fifteenth-century city in the heart of the highest Apennines, surrounded by peaks of more than 9000 feet. On the Eighth Army’s left flank two roads led north-westward from Isernia through defiles in the forbidding Abruzzi region to join Highway No. 5 east of Avezzano. Although a division might be put on each route, the hill ranges between would prevent mutual support, nor would either have room to manoeuvre. The approach of winter brought the prospect of roads blocked with snow, and the prevalence of cloud and mist in the mountains promised little opportunity for effective air support. The enemy was known to have constructed defence positions at the entrance to each defile, and even if these were overcome, extensive demolitions could be expected along the mountainous routes to the rear.33
The only alternative was to smash the defences in the foothills of the coast region. In this area two roads led to the Via Valeria, one edging along the base of the Maiella mountain range through Guardiagrele to Chieti, the other following the coast through San Vito Chietino and Ortona to Pescara. This corridor – about fifteen miles wide – between the Apennines and the Adriatic, opposed immense obstacles to an advancing army. The coastal plateau, rising abruptly from the water’s edge, was deeply scored by a series of streams and rivers which flowed north-eastward from the Apennines into the sea, transforming the intervening terrain into a corrugation of gully and ridge. Once the Eighth Army had overcome these difficulties and reached the Rome–Pescara lateral in the coastland area it would still have to turn south-westward through the defile at Popoli and fight up into the mountains. The plan had one saving feature, however. Should this turn inland be impossible of achievement, the drive to the north could be extended to threaten the port of Ancona – a worthwhile objective in itself.34
General Montgomery decided to make his offensive on the right. Of the two available roads on this flank he selected the good coastal route, Highway No. 16, as his main axis.35 He ordered the 5th Corps, with the 78th and the 8th Indian Divisions, the 4th Armoured Brigade and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade*
* On 26 August 1943 HQ 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade was redesignated HQ 1st Armoured Brigade, and its three regiments became the 11th Armoured Regiment (The Ontario Regiment), 12th Armoured Regiment (Three Rivers Regiment) and 14th Armoured Regiment (The Calgary Regiment) Canadian Armoured Corps.36 It was November before the new designations were adopted in the field.
(which moved over from the 13th Corps on 15 November),37 to concentrate on a narrow front and deliver the main assault, the target date for which was to be 20 November. Lt-Gen. Sir Bernard C. Freyberg’s experienced 2nd New Zealand Division, which had been brought from Africa to rejoin the Eighth Army, was to relieve the Indian Division on the 5th Corps’ left flank and mount a strong attack to threaten the inland road through Guardiagrele.38
“My detailed orders”, writes Montgomery, “ ... were based on achieving surprise by deceiving the enemy as to the direction of my main thrust.”39 Accordingly his planners devised an elaborate scheme to create the impression that the assault would be made by Dempsey’s Corps through the mountains, rather than by the 5th Corps along the coast. This meant concealing the concentration on the right and, before the main assault was launched, presenting a strong threat by the 13th Corps against Castel di Sangro and Alfedena – two towns on the upper reaches of the River Sangro commanding the roads which led north-westward to Avezzano (see Map 10). The deception was heightened by building false dumps of materiel in the 13th Corps Maintenance Area, moving reinforcing troops towards the mountains by day and the coast by night, and masking the arrival of the New Zealanders by active patrolling by the Indians. Wireless messages in Urdu were designed
to give the impression that the Indian Division was to join the 13th Corps; and in the hope of persuading the enemy to spread his forces along the coast the Royal Navy and the 1st Airborne Division made fake preparations to repeat the Termoli landing in the area of Pescara.40
Although, as we have seen, the 13th Corps had entered Isernia on 4 November, it was then still some distance from the Bernhard Line. In order to bring his forces level with the upper Sangro General Dempsey now ordered the 5th Division to advance towards Alfedena and Castel di Sangro, and the 1st Canadian Division to cover the 5th’s right flank by patrolling along the narrow road which ran northward past the headwaters of the Trigno River to Carovilli. The Canadians were to occupy and hold this town as a base for further operations.41
This uncompromising region reaching across Montgomery’s left front from the 5th Division’s position at Isernia to the 8th Indian Division thirty miles farther north represented an enemy salient of loosely held outposts to the Bernhard Line. Along the sparse communications between Highway No. 17 and the River Sangro German engineers had excelled themselves in demolition. Every bridge had been blown, and the narrow, twisting roads were blocked by yawning craters and broken culverts. Any movement forward by the 13th Corps, other than patrolling, must be delayed until the damage had been repaired – a task which became increasingly difficult as heavy rainfall kept the rivers high and made the diversions hazardous and troublesome to maintain.42
The 3rd Brigade’s Demonstration on the Upper Sangro,
While patrols of the 1st Canadian Brigade and the Princess Louise using mules ranged across the barren area between the upper Biferno and Trigno Rivers,43 the 3rd Brigade, which, except for the Carleton and Yorks, had been battle-free since 13 October, was put on 48 hours’ notice to move up to Carovilli.44 From the first reconnaissance on 5 November it was clear that the group would reach its destination only through the good services of the Engineers. Two poorly surfaced roads were the sole routes from Campobasso. One, already referred to, left the main Corps axis (Highway No. 17) about ten miles west of Boiano, to run northward through the hills past Carpinone and Sessano to Carovilli. The other (and less promising) was an extension of the minor road by which the 1st Brigade had crossed the Biferno to Castropignano and Torella in late October. From Torella a trail zig-zagged in a generally westward direction (although at one time or another during its winding course it pointed everywhere except east), and
having climbed into the hilltop hamlets of Duronia and Civitanova joined the former route three miles north of Sessano.
Brigadier Gibson had a grim choice to make. Immediately north of Carpinone the first route was blocked by a landslide which had been dynamited out of the overhanging cliff. At a sharp U-turn immediately beyond this obstruction 150 feet of the ledge which carried the road had been blown into the ravine below. One hundred feet farther a demolished bridge called for a 60-foot Bailey span, precipitous river banks making any diversion impossible. Between this last point and Sessano, a distance of a mile and a half, von Vietinghoff’s engineers, continuing their task with zealous thoroughness, had left three large craters and two more gaps where they had blown the road completely away.45 For the rest, sappers of the 4th Field Company reconnoitring as far as Carovilli, reported that within the eight miles between Sessano and Carovilli they had lifted their motorcycles over fourteen blows.46
The Civitanova route was equally uninviting. Difficulties began at the Biferno, when heavy rainfall threatened the 250-foot pontoon crossing below Castropignano. Between Duronia and Civitanova the retreating enemy had destroyed five bridges and three culverts, and beyond Civitanova two more bridges and another culvert.47 It was decided on 8 November to move the brigade by this route, although it was clear that it would not be opened for several days.48 In the meantime small detachments occupied the towns and villages which the enemy, confident that his demolitions would block a major advance, had abandoned. The PLDGs., now covering the entire front between the 5th Division and the 8th Indian Division, established a standing patrol in Carovilli on the 8th. This was joined one week later by members of The West Nova Scotia Regiment’s “C” Company, which had already occupied Sessano in order to give protection to the exposed 4th Field Company repairing the road.49
On 14 November Headquarters lath Corps defined the leading role assigned to the 3rd Canadian Brigade in the deception plan. The 5th Division, simulating an attempt to link up with the American Fifth Army, was to cut the lateral road between Castel di Sangro and Alfedena, and launch an attack on the 18th against the latter town. The Canadian Division was to get its brigade group up to Carovilli as soon as possible, gain control of the upper Sangro from Castel di Sangro to Ateleta (a dozen miles downstream), and be prepared to attack across the river on the 21st, with the purpose of subsequently advancing a brigade group up Highway No. 17 to Sulmona. The maximum air effort was requested; and a special artillery group was to support the 5th Division until the 20th, and the Canadians afterwards. To give the impression that the whole Division was moving forward from Campobasso, the Canadians were to open a tactical divisional headquarters in the Carovilli area.50
The success of the scheme depended on how rapidly the Engineers could repair the routes to Carovilli. On the Sessano road the break in the U-turn at Carpinone meant that no bridging material could be moved forward for the gaps beyond. The task of blasting a new road from the face of the cliff required the special drilling equipment of the detachment of No. 1 Canadian Tunnelling Company which had followed the Division to the Mediterranean.*
* The detachment had moved from Sicily to Italy on 18–19 September, serving as Eighth Army Troops.51
For three days the tunnellers bored into the rockface, preparing it to take a ton of explosive; but when they blew the charges in the early hours of the 12th, the result was disappointing. At the suggestion of the Chief Engineer of the 13th Corps 24 six-pounder anti-tank shells were fired into the cliff in an attempt to dislodge the rock which the blast had loosened, but with negligible effect. Nothing was left but to resort to compressors, picks and shovels, and smaller charges; it was another two days before the road was opened and all gaps bridged as far as Pescolanciano, five miles to the north.52 Meanwhile, in friendly rivalry with the 4th Field Company, on the Civitanova route the 1st and 3rd Companies were leapfrogging towards the junction between Sessano and Pescolanciano, the 13th Corps Engineers having taken over the Biferno crossing in order to release all the Canadian sappers for work on the Carovilli routes. Continual heavy rain brought need of constant vigilance to ensure that the softened river banks did not give way beneath the weight of the Bailey bridges, which in some cases had to be jacked up so that bank-seats might be reinforced.53
By the 15th the Engineers were putting the finishing touches to the Civitanova road and the 3rd Brigade was preparing to move forward from Campobasso to Carovilli next day, when a sudden rise in the Biferno washed out the pontoon bridge below Castropignano. In this new emergency, Corps Headquarters gave permission for use of the highway through Vinchiaturo and Boiano.54 On 16 November Brigadier Gibson opened his headquarters in Carovilli, and Tactical Divisional Headquarters was established in Pescolanciano – an old walled town dominated by a massive square castle (which provided somewhat draughty accommodation for an officers’ mess in its great hall while housing large numbers of refugees in its upper levels).55 Two days later the whole brigade group had completed the move.56
The uplands region of the Molise Apennines about Carovilli formed the watershed from which the Trigno flowed north-eastward to the Adriatic, while a tributary of the Volturno started southward towards the Tyrrhenian Sea. Numerous small streams laced this high, bleak valley, cutting through stunted oak forests and dodging around rocky peaks. The vine country stopped at Isernia; up here the peasants wrested with muscle and mattock a hard living from the poor, windswept fields, which were at too great an
altitude to mature good crops. Communications were few and difficult. The only good road was the Isernia–Vasto lateral highway (No. 86) which twisted its way north-eastward from Highway No. 17 through Carovilli to Agnone and Castiglione. Two other routes running north-westward from Carovilli to the Sangro were narrow and badly surfaced. The left-hand trail crossed the swampy pasture-land in which the Trigno had its source, and then climbed sharply through a rocky pass into Vastogirardi, a gray, fog-infested village, 3700 feet above sea-level. Then it descended, skirting the southern base of two rocky peaks, Mount Capraro and Mount Miglio, and coming by way of San Pietro to the Sangro valley. The second road, equally rough and tortuous, passed to the east of Mount Capraro to serve the lofty winter resort of Capracotta, five miles north of Vastogirardi, before zig-zagging down into the Sangro valley, where it joined a river road which linked the communities of Sant’ Angelo, Castel del Giudice and Ateleta with the market town of Castel di Sangro.
This sector of Kesselring’s defences was the responsibility of Heidrich’s 1st Parachute Division, which early in October had been picked to hold the 76th Corps’ right flank in the Bernhard Line.57 General Herr now had only three divisions in the line – the 16th Panzer Division’ on the paratroops’ left,*
* The 16th Panzer Division was scheduled for transfer to the Russian front. Allied action however delayed completion of its disengagement from the Sangro area until 28 November.58
and the 65th Infantry Division in the coastal sector. His boundary with the 14th Panzer Corps ran north-westward from Carovilli, to intersect the main defence line about three miles south-west of Castel di Sangro.59
The 3rd Canadian Brigade’s immediate task was to clear the enemy outposts from this wide area south of the Sangro, and exploratory patrols from the West Novas immediately probed forward into the hamlets and villages beyond Carovilli. First contact came on the afternoon of the 17th, when an enemy party entering Vastogirardi was surprised by a Canadian standing patrol and forced to withdraw, leaving four dead, which were identified as members of the 1st Parachute Division.60 Next day the Royal 22e Regiment set up headquarters in Vastogirardi and pushed its “B” Company on to San Pietro, in order to establish there one of the strong patrol bases ordered by Brigadier Gibson.61 On the way the company came to the assistance of a platoon of West Novas skirmishing with a German patrol at the foot of Mount Miglio, and aided by artillery fire sent the enemy hurrying back towards the Sangro.62
When the Quebec unit reached San Pietro in the early evening of 18 November, a scene of desolation and misery met their eyes. The village of 2000 inhabitants was in flames, and not a house was standing. It was the first of the ill-fated communities in the upper Sangro valley marked by the retiring Germans for deliberate destruction. A zone ten miles long and five
miles wide, extending along the river from Castel di Sangro to Sant’ Angelo in the area where the enemy had expected to hold our troops during the winter, had been subjected to a pitiless “scorched earth” policy. With typical thoroughness the Germans had seized all food stocks and cattle, evicted the unfortunate inhabitants and then demolished and burned their homes.63 On the 19th the brigade war diary entered terse reports from forward patrols: “Castle del Giudice visibly burning ... S. Pietro flattened, also burning. Ateleta observed burning. Capracotta also burning.” In all, ten villages were deliberately and systematically destroyed, with no house left standing. The enemy had spared little thought for the peasantry, who now homeless*
* It should be borne in mind that in this region, as in the greater part of Southern Italy and Sicily, the entire population live in the towns and villages, and dwelling places are rarely to be found in the intervening country.
were trekking, some with carts and mules, into the brigade’s forward areas, blocking the roads and bringing with them the problem of their care and transportation to the rear areas.
For the next few days Gibson’s infantry battalions were to engage in “hide and seek” patrolling through the woods and gullies. There were short and sometimes bitter skirmishes with enemy parties who had remained in isolated positions east of the Sangro, or who had recrossed the river in quest of information.64 On the 20th the West Novas moved forward to San Pietro, and established Battalion Headquarters in a tunnel beneath a demolished tile factory. That night a patrol from “D” Company scaled the high ridge to the west and made its way down into Castel di Sangro. It stayed for several hours in the shattered town and encountered no enemy; but on its return journey it was fired upon from a high jagged pinnacle – Point 1009 on the map – which formed a rocky acropolis overtowering the north-eastern corner of Castel di Sangro. Three members of the patrol, left in hiding in the town for another 24 hours, learned from civilians that 20 to 30 Germans were holding an old monastery at the summit.65 At first light on the 21st Lt– Col. Bogert established an observation post on Nido del Corvo (the Raven’s Nest), a lofty crag on the long ridge behind San Pietro. From here there was an excellent view of Castel di Sangro, three miles to the west, with the main road beyond running north towards Sulmona, and to the north-west, on the far bank of the river, the still smouldering ruins of the hill villages of Rocca Cinquemiglia and Pietransieri.66
Meanwhile “A” Company of The Carleton and York Regiment, which had moved up to Capracotta on the 20th, was patrolling the river line in the brigade’s right sector. To their surprise patrols discovered the Sangro still bridged in two places. A pontoon bridge was in position half a mile below Ateleta; and two miles farther downstream, at Sant’ Angelo, which lay on the Canadian side of the river, stood a permanent concrete bridge in which demolition charges had been prepared. This seeming lapse in the
enemy’s defence measures was explained when word came from another patrol that 50 Germans were in the village of Pescopennataro, two miles east of Sant’ Angelo, apparently holding a small bridgehead on the right bank to protect engineers who were still laying mines and completing their. demolitions. An intercepted wireless message revealed their fear that they were trapped (like “a housewife who has scrubbed herself into the corner”, wrote the 3rd Brigade’s Intelligence Officer), not only by the few Canadians at the Sant’ Angelo crossing but by their own minefields, which made a withdrawal lower down the river extremely hazardous.67
The attempt by the small Carleton and York patrol to preserve the permanent crossing was thwarted by the arrival on the far bank (shortly after midday on the 21st) of a superior enemy party, armed with machineguns. In the ensuing skirmish the Germans suffered three or four casualties but retained possession of the bridge, which they destroyed just before midnight. While it was still dark the enemy removed the pontoon bridge below Ateleta, leaving the swiftly flowing Sangro unbridged along the Canadian front.68
Thus it was that reinforcement by the Carleton and Yorks’ “C” Company, supported by a battery of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, came too late. It was not until the morning of the 22nd, several hours after the bridge had been blown, that the road leading to Capracotta had been repaired sufficiently for the passage of the battery’s jeeps and guns. While the maroon-beretted gunners went into action in Capracotta, shelling enemy outposts dug into the rocky slopes across the Sangro, the infantry advanced to join “A” Company’s platoon in Sant’ Angelo. Heavy mortars and machine-gun fire from the far bank killed three men and wounded eleven, and delayed their arrival at Sant’ Angelo until long after darkness had fallen. In the meantime the German paratroopers in Pescopennataro, risking their own minefields, had withdrawn by means of a wide detour to the north. The Carleton and York patrol which had been watching them entered the village and reported it completely demolished.69
The Fighting for Point 1009, 23–24 November
Except for the high pinnacle at Castel di Sangro, the 3rd Brigade now controlled the whole of the east bank of the Sangro. From General Dempsey came a note to the Brigade Commander, congratulating him “on the splendid way in which your Brigade has operated during the last few days.”70 In the centre of the brigade front, the Royal 22e, which had joined the West Novas in San Pietro, continued to patrol down to the river searching for possible crossings. In this they had little success, for the current was swift with the rains of early winter, and in most places five feet deep; but from
observation posts near the bank they were able to direct the fire of the 3rd Field Regiment, which had arrived from Campobasso to furnish the diversionary operation with plausible artillery support. Refugees, risking the dangers of “no man’s land”, came over from Rocca Cinquemiglia and other ruined villages on the far bank. They brought pathetic stories of ruthless destruction and of women being held as hostages because their menfolk refused to work on the German defences. Canadian patrols which crossed the river were held up by machine-gun posts, well dug in and skilfully concealed.71
It was important that the near bank should be completely cleared before the 3rd Brigade launched its main attack, which had been postponed because of heavy rain along the Eighth Army’s entire front.72 Early on the 22nd Gibson and Bogert viewed Point 1009 from the Raven’s Nest observation post, and decided to take it by a company attack. “B” Company of the West Novas, commanded by Capt. F. H. Burns, was ordered to leave at one o’clock on the following morning. Soon after the marching troops had disappeared into the rain and darkness wireless communication with them failed, and not until they returned seven hours later did Battalion Headquarters learn what had taken place in their attempt to reach the objective.
After descending the west side of the San Pietro ridge the company began climbing the muddy slopes to the great rock which rose sheer out of the hilltop. It rained continually. Breathless and soaked, the leading platoon reached the summit by the only possible route, a narrow path ascending the west side. Without delay the Canadians streamed across the plateau to attack the monastery, firing their Brens and hurling grenades through the windows.
But the platoon had been lured into a trap. The defenders, some of the 1st Parachute Regiment’s 3rd Battalion, had held their fire, apparently feigning weakness to avoid engagement by Allied artillery.73 Now machinegun posts skilfully sited around the perimeter of the plateau caught the West Novas in a severe cross-fire. A few managed to escape; the others, not hearing the dying platoon commander’s orders to withdraw, were killed, wounded or captured. Efforts of the rest of the company to gain the plateau failed. One platoon, following up the first, was driven back by a murderous fire; the other, attempting a flanking movement from the right, could not scale the sheer cliff. Both were now caught in a perilous position on a shelf of rock half way up the pinnacle, as the Germans increased their fire and began to throw grenades down on them. With the approach of daylight a thick mist coming up from the valley provided a screen which aided escape, although several men of one section broke arms and legs in jumping from the high ledge.
The cost had been heavy. Four men and their platoon commander had been killed and ten others wounded. Evacuation of the casualties from the plateau involved a long and arduous descent through mud and slipping rock, and several wounded had to be left behind. In all 16 of the battalion were taken prisoner.74
While the West Novas were struggling on Point 1009, off to the left the 5th Division, after a delay of three days caused by severe weather which brought a serious rise in the Sangro, had begun its part in the deception.75 Air bombardment and heavy artillery concentrations supported the feint attack. By the early hours of the 23rd Alfedena, on the inner fringe of the Bernhard defences, had been cleared, but further progress was halted by the strong enemy resistance.76
On the Eighth Army’s right, in preparation for the main assault across the lower Sangro, the 78th Division was enlarging and consolidating a footing gained by its 36th Brigade in preliminary operations on 19 and 20 November77 (see Map 11). It was time for the 3rd Brigade to play its role as the vanguard of a simulated major attack. The main effort would consist of a heavy artillery demonstration, staged by the three regiments already with the brigade and by all the guns which had been supporting the 5th Division. General Vokes ordered Point 1009 to be taken on 24 November, and Rocca Cinquemiglia on the 25th.78
All day on the 24th the thunder of the guns of nine artillery regiments*
* The 1st Field Regt. RCHA, 2nd Field Regt. RCA, and the 1st Airlanding Light Regt. RA – all with the 1st Division; the 91st, 92nd and 156th Field Regts. RA, of the 5th Division; and the 75th Medium and 78th and 165th Field Regts. RA, under 13th Corps command.79
rolled through the valleys and echoed from the hills. During the past few days targets had been noted from the numerous observation posts on the south bank, and the entire firing programme was controlled from the Raven’s Nest, the highest of them all. Five field regiments concentrated on Rocca Cinquemiglia alone. There was spirited reply from the enemy’s big guns in the Bernhard Line, and two batteries of the 3rd Canadian Field Regiment in positions forward on San Pietro suffered casualties and had several guns put out of action. The 75th Medium Regiment, also hit by enemy shells, was transferred to a counter-battery role; but the German guns were so well concealed in the mountains that “sound and flash” bearings, essential to effective action, were almost impossible to obtain.80
Under cover of this day-long bombardment The West Nova Scotia Regiment again tackled the pinnacle which had proved so costly to “B” Company two nights before. This time it was no stealthy foray against an enemy feigning weakness. Five thousand rounds from eight of the artillery regiments fell on the position within half an hour. The plan was for a flanking assault by “A” Company, while “C” provided fire cover from the
front. Mules carried the battalion’s three-inch mortars and the medium machine-guns of a platoon of the Saskatoon Light Infantry down the muddy slopes, Lt-Col. Bogert’s headquarters moving with the attacking force to direct operations. By three in the afternoon, after the column’s progress had been considerably delayed by enemy shelling, “C” Company was in position on a crest 800 yards east of the objective. An hour later, “A” Company had reached the top of the plateau without firing a shot: the enemy had withdrawn the previous night. In the cellar of the monastery the West Novas found three wounded men of their “B” Company, left behind by the Germans. Protected by walls four feet thick they had safely survived the artillery bombardment. At last the enemy had been driven north of the Sangro, and the Canadians held an excellent observation post which commanded long stretches of the river valley.81
Throughout the night of the 24th and all the following day the artillery kept up harassing fire, and as a result the attack on Rocca Cinquemiglia by the Royal 22e which had been scheduled for the 25th was cancelled. A reconnaissance patrol across the river on the following morning found the enemy well dug in on the steep approaches to the town. The party fell foul of an “S” mine,*
* See below, p. 497, footnote.
and came under severe machine-gun fire, so that before it finally rejoined the battalion every member had become a casualty.82
By 27 November preparations for the Eighth Army’s main drive up the Adriatic coast had been completed, and the diversionary operations in the mountains came to an end. After several days’ fighting in what General Montgomery termed “quite disgusting conditions” the 5th Corps had secured a bridgehead across the flooded Sangro six miles long and 2000 yards in depth and had held it against repeated counter-attacks.83 Farther inland the New Zealanders were ready to strike across the river, so that there was no longer need for deception on the left flank. On the 25th, as the Canadian Division received warning to move to the Adriatic coast to relieve the 78th Division in its bridgehead, all troops had listened to a personal message from the Army Commander emphasizing the assistance which they were giving to the Fifth Army in its efforts to secure Rome. “We will do our part in a manner worthy of the best traditions of the Eighth Army and the Desert Air Force ... WE WILL NOW HIT THE GERMANS A COLOSSAL CRACK.”84 The following day the Division’s Tactical Headquarters returned to Campobasso; the 3rd Brigade came under the direct command of the 13th Corps, and its relief by units of the 5th Division began.85
Two observers at the Raven’s Nest post before it was taken over by a British battalion were the Minister of National Defence, Colonel J. L. Ralston, then visiting Canadian troops in Italy, and General Crerar, who had recently
brought the 1st Canadian Corps Headquarters, Corps Troops and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division to the Italian theatre.*
* See Chapter XII.
Before leaving the brigade front Colonel Ralston sent a personal message to the battalion commanders, extending to all ranks “the warmest greetings and remembrance from their folks back home”.86
While they “thinned out”, the Canadians continued to patrol the river line, but without becoming involved with the enemy. Half a dozen miles to the rear all three RCE companies with the Division toiled at opening the important Isernia–Vasto lateral, which the 3rd Brigade’s operations had made available to the Eighth Army. The numerous ridges and rivers which the road crossed in the region had given German demolition parties ample scope, and the toll on permanent bridges had been heavy. Rising to the challenge, Canadian sappers quickly built ten Bailey bridges; one of them, across a 180 foot gap, was completed in less than 18 hours. General Montgomery himself had ordered that the route be opened as far as Castiglione by the 28th. The deadline was met. Two days later, after a brief inspection in Agnone, General Dempsey gathered the Canadian engineers around him and personally thanked them for their “splendid work.”87
Other arms had performed well their role of serving the brigade sixty miles beyond its base in Campobasso. The 3rd Infantry Brigade Company, Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, for the first time since landing in Sicily dropped its role of transporting rations for the Division and became a composite company.†
† Brigade companies of the RCASC had functioned as composite companies in the United Kingdom, each maintaining a particular brigade with ammunition, petrol and rations. In Sicily, however, it was found more practicable for each company to supply the whole Division with one of these commodities.88
Although the roads were muddy and the diversions difficult, it kept up the supply of rations, petrol and ammunition, the last amounting to 12,000 rounds of 25-pounder shells a day during the heavy artillery bombardments. Medical services were efficiently provided by the 4th Field Ambulance, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, working under conditions anything but favourable. The wild terrain enforced long stretcher carryings over mountain trails to bring the wounded to a road or track along which jeeps could travel. Because the forward troops were far from surgery, No. 2 Canadian Field Surgical Unit moved forward on 24 November to join the Field Ambulance’s advanced dressing station at Civitanova.89 Now that the rain and snow of winter had come to “sunny Italy”, ordnance services gave special attention towards supplying winter clothing for the brigade on the upper Sangro, where shelter of any kind was virtually unobtainable.90
A major administrative problem was presented by the unfortunate victims of the Germans’ “scorched earth” policy, thousands of whom flocked into
the Canadian forward areas, homeless and helpless. Corps Headquarters ordered firm measures to prevent the blocking of essential traffic. All carts were put off the narrow roads, and the oxen turned on to the land to graze. Refugees were collected in San Pietro and Carovilli, and loaded into RCASC vehicles returning to Campobasso. Here they were held overnight, and after being screened by the 1st Canadian Field Security Section for the presence of possible enemy agents, were carried in 13th Corps lorries to the railhead at Lucera, and shipped thence by train to reception centres near Bari.91 Not all could join this constant stream back to the rear areas. “We have many unsheltered civilians sick and wounded”, the Medical Officer of the Royal 22e Regiment at San Pietro notified Divisional Headquarters.92 To avoid overtaxing the resources of the medical units with these unfortunates, an emergency civilian hospital to care for them was set up in Carpinone.93
By such means was the refugee problem dealt with promptly and efficiently. If, in blotting out the communities of the upper Sangro, the enemy indeed had it in mind to repeat the defensive technique – so skilfully and ruthlessly developed in France and the Low Countries in 1940 – of using a civilian population to create interference with the opposing forces, the attempt was a complete failure.
The degree of success attained by the 13th Corps’ operations in the mountains must be judged by the enemy’s reactions and on the evidence of his commanders. In the early stages the effect desired by Montgomery seems to have been partially obtained: on 15 November Kesselring’s headquarters reported the possibility of renewed commitment of the Canadians between the 5th British and the 8th Indian Divisions.94 Three days later, however, the acting Tenth Army Commander signalled Kesselring: “The concentration of Eighth Army on the Adriatic front leads 10 Army to expect an early attack on our left wing.”95 German commanders were quick to realize the impracticability of a major offensive in the centre of the peninsula. Indeed, on 24 November, the day of the 3rd Canadian Brigade’s big artillery demonstration, the 1st Parachute Division began extending its front towards the east, as though confident that the Sulmona road – now the only snow-free axis in central Italy – might be thinly held with the aid of the weather and substantial support from German guns. In the Adriatic sector the persistent rain and the consequent fluctuations in the level of the Sangro had forced Montgomery to sacrifice some of the measures taken to achieve surprise and to adopt a policy of advancing by short methodical stages.96 It was a pattern which the enemy could recognize, and on the 25th General Lemelsen accurately assessed Allied intentions: “By means of a thrust towards Pescara, Eighth Army are trying to force 10 Army to commit its reserves and to take troops from the right wing thereby facilitating the main thrust towards Rome.”97
The Eighth Army Breaks the Bernhard Line
On 28 November General Montgomery had delivered his “colossal crack”. The attack was successful, and by darkness on the 30th the whole ridge overlooking the Sangro river flats had been overrun and the backbone of the winter line in the Adriatic sector had been broken (see Map 11). Next to the sea the 78th Division, supported by the 4th Armoured Brigade, had taken Fossacesia on the coastal road. Farther inland the 8th Indian Division had gained the village of Mozzagrogna atop the ridge, and in fierce fighting had thrown back the counter-attack of a battle group of the 26th Panzer and the 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions, which Kesselring had rushed to the scene. On the 5th Corps’ left the New Zealanders had forced their way across the Sangro and joined their bridgehead to the main penetration on their right.98 Direct Canadian contribution to this Commonwealth effort came from the skies, as Spitfires of the City of Windsor Squadron patrolled overhead to prevent the Luftwaffe from destroying the Allied bridges across the Sangro. It was the 417th Squadron’s last good hunting of the year. In clashes on November 30 and December 3 and 8 its pilots claimed five enemy aircraft destroyed, two probables and one damaged.99
Montgomery’s intention now was to establish a firm base on the vital ridge while supply and support continued to cross the river. The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, which had been in reserve under the 5th Corps, was ordered forward to join the 8th Indian Division in this task. On 1 December The Calgary Regiment crossed the Sangro and came under the command of the Indians, and by the following day Brigade Headquarters and The Ontario Regiment were also on the ridge.100
When his positions were firm the Army Commander decided to push one division up the coastal axis to Ortona, and subsequently to Pescara; a second (the New Zealand Division) would follow the inland route through Orsogna and Guardiagrele to Chieti. There was every prospect of difficult fighting, for the intervening Moro River would provide the Germans with an opportunity of making a stand before the Pescara River, and the weather, already allied with the enemy, might at any time deprive our infantry of close air support. It was in these circumstances that the 1st Canadian Division was called forward to relieve the tiring 78th – which in six months’ fighting had had 10,000 battle casualties – and to take the lead in the 5th Corps’ advance.101 While Brigadier Gibson’s battalions were handing over their responsibilities on the upper Sangro to British units, the other brigades of the 1st Division had already moved to the coast. On the last day of November the 2nd left Campobasso for a staging area north-west of Termoli,* followed next day by units of the 1st.102
* Around San Salvo and Petacciato at the mouth of the River Trigno.
Late on 1 December Brigadier Hoffmeister’s units crossed the Sangro and relieved the 78th Division’s 11th Brigade south of Fossacesia,103 and on the next afternoon General Evelegh turned over command to the Canadian Division. In order that there might be no pause in the advance up the coast, the 38th (Irish) Brigade and the 4th Armoured Brigade, which by now had passed through Rocca San Giovanni and were approaching San Vito, remained temporarily in the battle under General Vokes’ command.104
The 1st Canadian Division at the Moro River
Canadian troops were now to fight across the gullies and ridges which furrowed the coastland plateau east of the Maiella. The main rivers dissecting this wide tableland were the Feltrino, the Moro and the Arielli, which entered the Adriatic respectively seven, nine and fourteen miles up the coast from the mouth of the Sangro. The whole well-farmed area was covered with olive groves and with vineyards which produced some of the finest table grapes in Italy. Narrow, poorly-surfaced roads connected the scattered hamlets and villages with Highway No. 16, which in general remained on top of the plateau. From San Vito, standing above the mouth of the Feltrino River, a newly-constructed portion of the highway followed the coast northward across the Moro. The old road (the only one shown on available maps) climbed the plateau again after crossing the Feltrino, and turned inland to Sant’ Apollinare, a farming village overlooking the Moro two miles from the sea. Bending sharply to the north it made a long, gradual descent into the river valley – here about 500 yards across (the Moro itself was a mere trickle) – and mounted the far bank into San Leonardo. Thence it struck north-westward, on gently rising ground, and traversed a pronounced gully just before it joined the lateral road running north-eastward from Guardiagrele through Orsogna to Ortona. The newer road (which subsequently became Highway No. 16) kept to the beach until about half a mile from Ortona, where it mounted the high ground to join the Orsogna lateral.
The road through Sant’ Apollinare and San Leonardo had been selected as the Canadian main axis. On assuming command in the coastal sector, Vokes ordered the Irish Brigade and the 4th Armoured Brigade to push on after taking San Vito. By the night of the 4th they were on the ridge between the Feltrino and the Moro.105 On the left, troops of the 8th Indian Division, having captured Lanciano on 3 December, had reached Frisa, three miles inland from Sant’ Apollinare.*
* These operations were supported by the 14th Canadian Armoured Regiment, which came under command of the 8th Indian Division on 1 December. On the night of 2-3 December Calgary tanks carried Sikh troops of the 21st Indian Brigade to the outskirts of Lanciano, and then joined the 5th Royal West Kents (of the same brigade) in a noisy demonstration towards the coast, designed to assist the 78th Division’s capture of San Vito. On the 4th they formed part of the flying column which occupied Frisa.106
Vokes now ordered the 2nd Canadian Brigade
to occupy positions facing the Moro between Sant’ Apollinare and the Indians. The 1st Brigade was concentrated on the San Vito plateau, while the 3rd, still south of the Sangro, was ordered to cross on 5 December.107
At this time, however, the weather demanded its price for having temporarily forsaken the enemy. The fair skies which had aided the efforts of the Allied air forces had also begun to melt the snow in the mountains, deepening the rivers in the narrow valleys and widening them across the silty plains. During the night of the 4th the Sangro rose six feet. All the bridges serving the 5th Corps were awash or carried away, paralysing traffic on both sides of the river.108 While Eighth Army Engineers strove to complete an all-weather bridge, operations north of the Sangro were kept supplied from a large dump which had been built up on the beach near Fossacesia by DUKWs*
* This amphibious supply line enabled the RCASC to fill large orders for the fighting across the Moro. On 7 December these included more than 50,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, 10,000 gallons of petrol, and 40,000 rations.109
plying around the mouth of the river.110 Gibson’s brigade, caught on the wrong side of the stream, was prevented from rejoining the 1st Division for two more days. When it moved forward on the 6th, 200 of its heavier vehicles had to remain south of the Sangro.111
Intelligence staffs appreciated correctly that the enemy, having been thrown out of the Bernhard Line, would try to check the Allied advance on the Moro. Intentions of the 76th Panzer Corps on 1 December were “to hold main battle line as far as Melone [two miles east of Guardiagrele]. To develop a new line from Melone to Ortona. To stop enemy attacks in the area of the outposts by obstinate delaying actions.”112 Montgomery’s “colossal crack” had completely smashed the inexperienced 65th Division, whose remnants were ordered on 2 December to move north to the Fourteenth Army.113 The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division (200th and 361st Regiments), brought down in haste from Venice, had taken over the coastal sector by the afternoon of 3 December.114 On its right the 26th Panzer Division had already relieved the 16th Panzer Division, whose move to the Russian front Berlin would no longer postpone.115 The inter-divisional boundary paralleling the coast, ran through Lanciano, about seven miles inland.116
Although the 5th Corps Intelligence Summary of 4 December reported that “recent air photographs reveal no large-scale preparation south of Pescara”, it soon became known that the enemy was busy digging in on the reverse slopes of the gullies.117 They had good reason. Recorded telephone conversations between the German commanders disclose the crushing blow which air attacks had dealt to enemy morale during the few good flying days at the end of November. Colonel Baade (whose efficient command of the defences of the Strait of Messina will be recalled) was temporarily replacing the wounded commander of the 65th Division,118 and he had declared that not even in Africa had he seen anything like the Allied air offensive. “With
Montgomery you could count on that”, commented Kesselring.119 The enemy might well expect a repetition of the concentrated air and artillery bombardment which had hit him on the Sangro ridge, and in ordering the preparation of a new defence line in front of the Ortona–Orsogna lateral road the commander of the 76th Corps gave as the “watchword for one and all: ‘Into the Ground’.”120 Thus as Canadians and Irish looked across the Moro at the patchwork of vineyard and olive grove which rose gradually to the horizon from the top of the far bank, they saw nothing to indicate the presence of a division of fresh troops warily lying in wait for the next Allied blow.
On the morning of the 4th General Allfrey signalled the Canadian headquarters, “Indians are in Frisa with some tanks over river. New Zealanders held up at Orsogna and Guardiagrele. ... You must get over River Moro as soon as possible.”121 At once General Vokes ordered both the Irish and the 2nd Canadian Brigades to send patrols, accompanied by sappers, across the river during the night.122 They were to investigate three possible areas in which a crossing might be forced: on the right flank, along the new coast road; on the old highway leading to San Leonardo; or on a narrower road which crossed south of Villa Rogatti,*
* A typographical error which persisted in all maps used during the fighting resulted in this village being consistently referred to by Allied troops as Villa Roatti, and by the Germans as Villa Ruatti.
a village on top of the left bank about two miles upstream from San Leonardo.123 On the long slope behind these two villages lay the hamlets of La Torre, Villa Jubatti and Villa Caldari, separated from one another by deep gullies which cut back sharply from the Moro Valley. These re-entrants might provide a useful approach to the top of the plateau.
PPCLI patrols reconnoitring below Villa Rogatti reported the river fordable by infantry and its bed sufficiently hard to carry tanks, although the route up the far side was very steep. Two hundred yards beyond the west bank (the general course of the Moro from Villa Rogatti to the coast being almost northerly) these scouts heard considerable activity of half-tracked vehicles and motorcycles.124 Reports from 38th Brigade patrols indicated that farther downstream the river was deeper and wider and the approaches more difficult.125 Vokes decided to continue the advance along the old Highway No. 16 with the object of establishing one of his brigades as soon as possible at the junction with the Guardiagrele–Ortona lateral. He could then exploit first to Tollo, four miles to the north-west across the Arielli River, and secondly, seawards against Ortona. The Engineers were ordered to prepare a crossing below San Leonardo, while the infantry established diversionary bridgeheads near the coast and at Villa Rogatti. Although the central route had been selected for the main crossing, the possibility of developing the other two approaches was not excluded.126
The First Crossings and the Capture of Villa Rogatti, 6 December
The plan which emerged was for an assault by the 2nd Brigade to the south of the central axis, and a diversionary attack on the right flank by the 1st Brigade (which relieved the Irish Brigade on the afternoon of the 5th). At midnight on 5–6 December Brigadier Hoffmeister would strike at two points – the Seaforth Highlanders storming San Leonardo to form a bridgehead which would protect the Engineers working in the valley, and the Patricias attacking in the area of Villa Rogatti, from where they would attempt to cut the lateral road farther inland. The Edmontons would remain in reserve on the east bank. To aid surprise no barrage was to precede the attacks, but the divisional artillery would remain “on call”. Each Canadian battalion was to be supported by a battalion of the 4th Armoured Brigade. To counter the enemy’s expected armoured support there was need to get anti-tank guns into the bridgeheads as soon as possible, towing them over with tanks, if no other means availed.127
Throughout the 5th patrols continued to reconnoitre the river line, and tank crews checked the crossings for themselves. Occasionally enemy aircraft ventured over the battlefield against the Spitfires of the Desert Air Force, but the bombing was negligible. So complete was the Allied air superiority that even the inviting target of halted vehicles crowding the area forward of the broken Sangro bridges brought no enemy attack.128
Little was known to the PPCLI of the enemy defences in Villa Rogatti, although patrol reports indicated that it was held by a perimeter defence with a central garrison, later identified as belonging to the 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (of the 90th Division). The defenders had the advantage of ground, for the village, besides being protected from the east by the sharp escarpment of the Moro, lay between steep gullies to north and south and was itself divided by a smaller ravine which intruded from the east. The only level ground was to the south-west, and carried a rough track leading to Villa Caldari. Lt-Col. Ware decided to cross the river on a one-company front. Tanks of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment would descend a winding road which crossed the Moro a mile south of Villa Rogatti, and having forded the stream, move down the valley under the lee of the far bank to a gully 500 yards north of the village, which offered a more gradual climb to the high ground.129 (See illustration facing page 304.)
At midnight “B” Company forded the river and did not draw fire until the leading platoon reached a track linking the two parts of the village. Assaulting from the left, the Patricias rushed and silenced two machine-gun posts before ineffective firing broke out around the perimeter. The Panzer Grenadiers, unwarned by any preliminary artillery fire, were taken by surprise;
some indeed were captured in their beds. Slowly “B” Company forced its way into the central square, routing the defenders, who clung tenaciously to the houses and swept the open places with severe cross-fire. “A” Company, which had closely followed “B”, swung to the right towards the northern part of the village, and began clearing the houses and caves in the intervening gully.130 By daylight the Canadians were established in Villa Rogatti, but still under intense mortar fire and sniping. To meet the inevitable counter-attack they needed ammunition, which they had heavily expended, and the support of the armour which was struggling up a winding mule track to reach the top of the plateau.131
While the Patricias were fighting through the darkness to their objective, the Seaforth were finding the approaches to San Leonardo stubbornly defended. Like the smaller Villa Rogatti the town had a natural eastward defence in the high river bank, and it was flanked on the south by a long gully cutting 2000 yards through the plateau to La Torre. Of the enemy defences even less was known than at Villa Rogatti. Constant shelling of the Seaforth positions on the near side of the river and the crossing on which the Engineers were working had restricted reconnaissance and observation. “It sounded like a rush job,” wrote the Seaforth commander afterwards, “and always rush jobs have spelt to us unfavourable settings and advantage with the Germans.132 Lt-Col. Forin had planned his attack in two phases. At midnight “B” Company was to take up positions in the gully on the left flank, in order to block any enemy assistance which might come from La Torre; at the same time “C” was to attack up the road towards San Leonardo. Thirty minutes later “A” Company would carry out a right-flanking movement by a more covered approach to the town. Action against La Torre, which was to be included in the Seaforth bridgehead if possible, depended on the earlier progress made by the battalion. Supporting tanks were to follow in daylight.133
In silence the Seaforth waded the Moro. “B” Company reached its allotted positions without interference and dug in. “C” Company, less fortunate, had progressed only 100 yards beyond the river’s edge when it was stopped by a hail of bullets from machine-guns on the high ground firing through the darkness on fixed lines. On the right, “A” Company met equally strong resistance from an estimated 15 to 20 machine-guns. The company commander was wounded, and his sergeant-major killed. Communication with Battalion Headquarters failed. One of the platoon commanders, making several gallant but unsuccessful attempts to work small parties forward, was finally forced to withdraw the company to the south bank. Once again “A” Company forded the muddy stream, following “C” up a mule track 150 yards south of the road. But the effort accomplished little. After five hours’ fighting the two companies had succeeded in gaining only a small bridgehead
which fell far short of the original objectives and left the enemy free to dominate with his fire the main crossing where the Engineers were working. Under incessant shelling and mortar fire, the Seaforth clung to their precarious foothold in the hope that with the coming of daylight armour and artillery would be able to break the hard core of enemy resistance on the high ground.134
The third action of the night, the 1st Brigade’s diversionary attack on the right, had found the enemy fully alert. Brigadier Graham’s troops had relieved the Irish Brigade on the evening of the 5th, and it was already dark when The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment took over from The Royal Irish Fusiliers on the seaward flank. Patrols were immediately sent forward to discover suitable crossings, and on the strength of their reports it was decided to make the feint at a point about 200 yards from the sea. Should the forward company gain a bridgehead on the edge of the plateau, the battalion was to follow and consolidate for the night.135 Two hours before midnight the leading platoon of the Hastings’ “A” Company forded the river and disappeared into the darkness. It reached the top of the bank, but a faulty wireless set prevented it from calling the remainder of the company forward. In due time the other platoons followed, but never caught up with the leaders. Both parties became pinned down in sweeping fire from machineguns which the enemy had carefully laid in daylight to oppose attempted crossings by night. With the company radio also out of order, it was impossible to call for supporting mortar fire. Mindful of their diversionary role, the Hastings engaged in a chaotic exchange of small-arms fire, before withdrawing at 1:00 a.m.136
At nine on the morning of the 6th, after the enemy had shelled Rogatti for two hours, infantry of the 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiment counterattacked from the west, advancing through the mist which still lay heavy over the valley and plateau. As the Grenadiers worked their way forward through the olive groves, Ware’s “A” Company in the isolated northern part of the village received the brunt of their fire. A determined stand by a forward platoon gave time for the company commander, Major W. de N. Watson, calmly and skilfully organizing his remaining platoons in the thick of the enemy fire, to hold off the threat to the main battalion positions until the first tanks had struggled up from the river.*
* Major Watson (who was holding acting rank at the time) won the Military Cross in this engagement.137
The cheering sound of 75s and a seemingly inexhaustible stream of machine-gun fire raised the spirits of the hard-pressed Patricias. Tank commanders leaned out of their Shermans to receive the shouted directions of the infantrymen. At the height of the action the first mule train of ammunition climbed into the village. Finally,
at 11:30 a green flare shot up, and the counter-attack subsided. The Grenadiers fell back, leaving many dead among the olive trees. They had not lacked courage: during the action one group of their machine-gunners engaged a British tank, and persisted until all of them had been killed by its answering fire.138
Quickly the Patricias strengthened their grasp on the village, reinforcing their positions from the reserve company. Eight of their supporting tanks had now arrived, and these were placed in hull-down positions covering the only possible approach for enemy armour – the narrow plateau and road to the south-west. The remaining tanks had bogged down or fallen victims to the mines along the route.
The second counter-attack developed from the expected quarter at half-past two. This time the Grenadiers, supported by a company of the 26th Panzer Regiment with nine Mark IV tanks, struck at “B” Company, which was holding the main, or southern, part of the village. But the defenders were ready, and as the enemy force came into sight through the vines and olive trees, it was hit by what the German commander described as “a terrific bombardment”.139 Three tanks were knocked out in short order, one of them by the Patricias’ anti-tank guns firing from across the Moro. In spite of the setback, the attackers, returning fire, split into two groups and gamely moved in on the PPCLI company from both flanks.
For two hours the bitter struggle continued, as the action surged right up to the village outskirts. Although their tank support was failing them, and they were being heavily shelled, the Grenadiers five times re-organized and returned to the attack. Always they were met with searing fire from the Patricias’ small arms and from the machine-guns of the British tanks. When they finally limped off towards Caldari they left behind them more than 40 prisoners and an estimated 100 dead. Five of their Mark IVs had been destroyed, and much of their gear had fallen into the Patricias’ hands. The Canadian losses of eight killed, 52 wounded and eight taken prisoner had been the battalion’s highest casualties of any single day’s fighting. But “B” Company’s determined stand saved the bridgehead.140 From the war diary of the 26th Panzer Division comes a tribute to “the excellent fire discipline of the enemy, who let our tanks approach to within 50 metres and then destroyed them.”141 With the approach of night, Ware regrouped his battalion, and stretcher bearers began the two-mile trek back with the wounded.
Meanwhile, the Seaforth had unsuccessfully attempted to enlarge their narrow bridgehead below San Leonardo. Efforts to bring sorely needed tanks across the Moro were frustrated by the soft river bed, the heavy vehicles bogging down at four attempted crossing-places. Accordingly the Shermans were aligned along the escarpment on the Sant’ Apollinare side, from where
they engaged at long range enemy machine-gun posts in San Leonardo, although with uncertain effect in the morning mist. A new plan for an attack with strong artillery and mortar support was cancelled when German tanks appeared in San Leonardo early in the afternoon. At 8:00 that evening word came from Brigade Headquarters that it had been decided to abandon the Seaforth bridgehead in favour of exploiting the Patricias’ at Rogatti.142
As the Seaforth withdrew across the river, the achievements of “B” Company came to light. It had spent most of the day on the La Torre spur, out of communication with the rest of the battalion. Engaged at daybreak with heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, the Canadians pressed on towards the village, overrunning sixteen machine-gun posts and taking 40 prisoners. In the late afternoon the company commander, realizing that he had penetrated a dangerous distance into enemy territory, and seeing that La Torre was being reinforced by some 200 men, adroitly withdrew his platoons.143
Before the day was over, on the Division’s right flank the 1st Brigade had succeeded, in establishing a bridgehead of battalion strength in the area of the new coast road. The diversion by the Hastings and Prince Edwards on the previous night, though short-lived, had provided their CO, Major A.A. Kennedy, with a clearer picture of the enemy defences in the area, and he shared Brigadier Graham’s confidence that with sufficient support a bridgehead could be gained there. Vokes gave permission for the attempt to be made.
The objective was a junction, about 500 yards beyond the Moro, where a secondary road left the coast road to traverse the plateau into San Leonardo. At 1:40 p.m. the guns of the 2nd Field Regiment began pounding the suspected enemy positions on the high ground, and twenty minutes later the Hastings’ “C” Company forded the stream under cover of the Saskatoons’ 4.2-inch mortars. The line of approach was less steep than elsewhere along the far bank, but the defenders, members of the 90th Division’s 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment, had it well covered. When severe fire from the left flank held up the advance, Major Kennedy ordered “D” Company to cross and, reduce this opposition. Success was only temporary; the Hastings soon came under fire from new positions which could not be spotted by observers directing the mortars. Both companies lost their wireless sets, and in the fog of battle the situation appeared hopeless from the east bank. Orders were given to withdraw, but “D” Company, out of communication, received no message, and continued fighting until it had won a commanding position on the high ground. By 4:30 the effect of this aggressiveness was evident on the near side of the river, and Kennedy took “A” and “B” Companies across to exploit “D’s” success. The enemy fell back from his dominating escarpment,
and by eight o’clock the Hastings were holding a small bridgehead somewhat short of the objective. They had suffered 28 casualties, including five killed. Further advance without support of armour or anti-tank weapons was not practicable, and the battalion dug in for the night among the tangled grape vines.144
While Kesselring reported to Berlin “powerful” Canadian assaults over the Moro and the “sealing off” of the “points of penetration at Ruatti”,145 General Yokes’ plan to switch his axis to the left and advance through the Patricias’ bridgehead ran into difficulties. Engineers reconnoitring the crossing south of Rogatti on 6 December reported that there was no straight stretch of road on the near bank which would allow a bridge to be assembled and launched*
* Three days later, however, engineers of the 8th Indian Division, carrying every piece of equipment across the river and working from the far bank (while infantry posted on the crest kept German patrols out of observation range), succeeded in completing a Bailey crossing, which they labelled “Impossible Bridge”.146
from that side.147 Accordingly late that night, the Edmontons, already preparing to pass through the Patricias, were halted.148 Early the next morning, the Corps Commander directed the 8th Indian Division to take over the Rogatti area, in order that Vokes might shorten his front for a more concentrated blow at San Leonardo.149 It was a significant decision, for it meant that instead of outflanking San Leonardo from the left and then advancing along the grain of the country the Canadians were now to become involved in a series of costly frontal assaults in which advantages of topography lay with the defenders. Throughout the 7th the PPCLI “stood to” against further attack, but the enemy was not disposed to repeat his costly ventures of the previous day, and confined his activity to shelling and mortaring. By midnight a battalion of the 21st Indian Brigade had taken over Villa Rogatti, and the Patricias were back on the east bank. “After nearly sixty hours of fighting and ‘standing to,’ “ recorded the unit diarist, “the troops are beginning to look tired; the strain and excitement has keyed them to a pitch higher than has ever been reached in any previous battle during the Italian Campaign.”150
The Hastings were now the only unit across the Moro on the contracted divisional front. The river barrier was too great for tanks, but two anti-tank guns were manhandled across into the bridgehead. With this slight support, and despite heavy shelling and mortaring, before the end of the day Major Kennedy had advanced one of his companies forward to the road junction. Here the Hastings hung on, while their pioneers laboured to improve the crossing, and mule trains brought forward food and ammunition.151 What had started as a diversionary measure on the Division’s flank was assuming increasing importance. It was the retention of this bridgehead between the coast road and the sea that eventually led to the successful crossing of the Moro.
The Battle for San Leonardo, 8–9 December
On the evening of 7 December General Vokes issued his orders for another crossing of the Moro, having planned it as an operation by two brigades to secure the main axis and its junction with the Orsogna–Ortona lateral. The plan called for an initial two-pronged assault by the 1st Brigade to capture San Leonardo, and a subsequent breakout by the 2nd to seize the divisional objective. From the Hastings and Prince Edward bridgehead on the right the RCR would thrust south-westward along the plateau against San Leonardo, while at the same time the 48th Highlanders would make a frontal attack across the river on to the spur of ground between San Leonardo and La Torre. Once the 1st Brigade had secured a firm base on the San Leonardo escarpment, a strong infantry and armoured force would cross the Moro and strike at the junction on the Ortona road. The tanks would be those of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, which relieved the 4th Armoured Brigade at six o’clock that evening.*
* In place of the Three Rivers Regiment, which was still with the 13th Corps, Brigadier Wyman had the 44th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment under command.152
Full-scale support was available from four field and two medium regiments of artillery,†
† The 1st Field Regiment RCHA, the 2nd and 3rd Field Regiments RCA, the 57th Field and the 4th and 70th Medium Regiments RA. The 98th Army Field Regiment (SP) and the artillery of the 8th Indian Division were included in the final fire plan.153
and from fourteen squadrons of Kittyhawk bombers.154
The narrow road along which the attack from the right was to come left the coast road at the top of its climb from the river valley and a few yards west of the little chapel of San Donato – which was later to mark the entrance to the Ortona (Moro River) Cemetery. It struck almost due south over the plateau, keeping about half a mile from the river bank, and making three right-angled jogs before it became San Leonardo’s main street. It was unnamed even on large-scale maps of the area, but by Canadians who fought at the Moro River this mile and a half of lane stretching between tangled vines and crooked olive trees will always be remembered as “Royal Canadian Avenue”.
The Royal Canadian Regiment’s “right hook” was the vital part of the 1st Brigade plan. To drive laterally across the 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment’s front was a bold measure, even given every support except tanks. The plateau offered the enemy good runs for an armoured counter-attack, and the river barred assistance to the Canadians should one be launched. Realizing this danger, Brigadier Graham instructed Lt-Col. Spry to start manhandling six-pounders across at dusk on the 8th, and emphasized the necessity of clearing the bridgehead area of machine-gun posts in order that the Engineers could work on the crossing. The RCR start line was approximately at the coast road on the left of the Hastings’ positions. The battalion plan was that
the four companies should advance successively in bounds to occupy four predetermined areas between the road and the river bank. In a succeeding phase the two leading companies would leapfrog through to seize San Leonardo itself.155
There was no lack of support for the main effort. Good flying weather during daylight on the 8th allowed the Desert Air Force to hit the enemy along the whole of the Adriatic sector. In the Ortona area altogether 108 fighter-bomber and 72 light bomber sorties were flown in support of the Canadians.156 For 60 minutes before H hour the supporting artillery “searched” the far bank from the coast to the divisional main axis, and in the last half-hour the Saskatoons’ 4.2-inch mortars and medium machine-guns added their fire to the general cannonade.157 At three o’clock the RCR began to form up in a small gully in the Hastings’ bridgehead, while opposite San Leonardo the 48th Highlanders moved into position for their frontal assault. At half-past four both battalions attacked.
By an unfortunate coincidence the enemy now counter-attacked what he apparently supposed to be the Hastings’ position. Hardly had the leading RCR company crossed the start line when it was caught in a heavy barrage of artillery and mortar fire. All members of one section were either killed or wounded.158 The RCR beat off the enemy, and took several prisoners. But the delay disorganized plans. It was not until 7:00 p.m., after slow and cautious progress through the olive groves, that “A” Company reported having reached its first objective, code-named “Halifax” – the second of the reverse bends on the San Leonardo road, about 1000 yards from the start. Without waiting for this success signal, “B” Company had set out ten minutes after H Hour, swinging to the right of its axis in order to avoid the enemy’s artillery fire. It was hard to keep direction, for in the close vineyards visibility was obscured by the tangled vines, which hung in a dense curtain from wires stretched six feet above the ground. Some time elapsed before the company, finding itself too far to the west, regained its bearings and reached its objective, “Toronto”, about 400 yards east of “Halifax”. In the meantime the battalion commander, deciding against further delay, ordered “C” Company to pass through “Halifax” to its objective just north of San Leonardo. Almost immediately it ran into heavy machine-gun fire, which swept the road from both sides. Mounting casualties and the appearance of an armoured car and a tank from the direction of the town forced a retirement to the second road bend, where the weakened platoons were reorganized and incorporated into “A” Company’s defensive positions.159
By this time “D” Company, which was to pass through “B” to a position astride the main axis between San Leonardo and the river, had dispatched its leading platoon from the start line. It was now 9:45 p.m. and bright moonlight. The platoon, meeting little interference, quickly reached a point near the second jog in the road, but a violent artillery and mortar barrage
suddenly struck those following, wounding both platoon commanders and killing the signaller who carried the wireless set. Attempts by these two platoons to find either the advanced detachment or the other companies failed, and soon a second and more damaging barrage drove them to seek shelter on the reverse slope of a small gully, where some caves gave protection to the wounded. Meanwhile the forward platoon, which was commanded by Lieutenant M. Sterlin, was put under “A” Company, and began preparing defences around a small farmhouse between “Halifax” and “Toronto”.160
The Royal Canadian Regiment’s attack had come to a halt. The outlook was not bright. Only half way to San Leonardo, the battalion was on an exposed tableland without armour or anti-tank guns. It had hardly begun to dig in when an armoured counter-attack rolled in from the north-west. Having only artillery with which to meet this threat, the CO, in full knowledge of the narrow margin of safety about his own troops, called for a concentration. The risk proved justified: although a few shells landed in “A” Company’s area, causing three casualties, the counter-attack was broken up. Realizing that his positions would be even more untenable by daylight Spry decided to withdraw to a reverse slope, where the plateau dropped away towards the coast road and the Moro. Only Lieutenant Sterlin’s platoon remained in its battered house near the bend in Royal Canadian Avenue.161
On the La Torre spur to the west of San Leonardo the frontal assault of the 48th Highlanders had been more successful, for both infantry and artillery had benefited from several days of observing enemy positions from the Sant’ Apollinare side of the river. After the preliminary bombardment, Lt-Col. Johnston sent two companies across. The enemy’s artillery caught one in the river bottom, but there was no other resistance. By eight that evening all companies had crossed and were dug in against counter-attack.162
As day broke on the 9th, the enemy still occupied San Leonardo and dominated the river below. But now armour could cross the Moro. At 4:30 a.m. Brigadier Graham had signalled General Vokes, “It appears that it is not possible for me to form the bridgehead as ordered by you, but at least the operation enabled the diversion to be prepared ... It would be of great assistance if tanks were pushed over as soon as possible ... It has been an exceedingly busy night.”163 On the previous evening, after waiting in vain for a success signal from across the river, sappers of the 3rd Field Company RCE had begun constructing a diversion around the blown bridge on the main axis, coming under harassing shellfire and sniping in the river bed. One of the heroes of the night was a bulldozer operator, Sapper M. C. McNaughton, who drove his cumbersome machine across the exposed river flat, making “as much noise as an entire tank brigade”164, and “under continual machine-gun, mortar and shellfire ... quickly and skilfully cut down the far bank.”165 At 6:00 a.m. the diversion was ready for use. Unfortunately
the sappers, who had survived the hours of darkness with very light casualties,*
* Much of this immunity can be attributed to the protection given by a troop of Calgary tanks on the near bank. It was the beginning of a routine provision by the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade of covering parties for RCE troops working in the face of the enemy.166
were caught in a barrage which met the Canadian armour as it began to move across at seven o’clock. One man was killed and 21 wounded.167 McNaughton’s contribution to the success of the operation was typical of the fine support given by the Engineers throughout the campaign, and won for him the Military Medal.
Although the task originally conceived for the 2nd Brigade was a breakout from San Leonardo across the plateau to the lateral road, the unfavourable situation on the morning of the 9th made it obvious that San Leonardo itself must first be secured. As “D” Company of the Seaforth, under command of the Calgaries’ “A” Squadron, and mounted on its tanks, began to descend the exposed road to the river, there was little doubt that they would have to join in the fight for the town. They soon ran into trouble. Two tanks failed to negotiate a sharp bend and rolled over a thirty-foot cliff. Down in the valley heavy shell and mortar fire forced the infantry to dismount and cross the river on foot. On the climb up to San Leonardo, the leading tank struck a mine and blocked the road. Major E. A. C. Amy, the squadron commander, immediately led his tanks off to one side to continue the attack through the olive groves. Finally at ten o’clock, five tanks – all that were left – broke into San Leonardo. The Seaforth company arrived with 39 effective men.168 A platoon commanded by Lieutenant J. F. McLean, after leading a frontal attack on the town during which it silenced a number of machine-guns and killed or captured 26 Germans, cleared the place from one end to the other, enabling the tanks to pass through. McLean won the DSO, one of the very few junior officers to receive this award in the Italian campaign.169
But the enemy was not yet ready to relinquish his hold on San Leonardo and the Moro escarpment. Hardly had the remnants of Amy’s small force worked their way into the town when twelve German tanks approached the town from the east. Amy, ordered to hold on, dealt with these in “a determined and gallant manner” (in the words of the recommendation for his MC), knocking out several, and driving off the rest. By noon the remainder of the Seaforth had joined the struggle which was still going on in the northern part of the town; their arrival turned the scale, and by 5:40 p.m. San Leonardo was firmly in our hands. As night fell the Calgaries strengthened the infantry’s defensive positions about the town. Of the 51 battle-worthy tanks with which the regiment had entered the fight that morning, only 24 remained.170
The enemy’s main effort of the day, however, was directed not at San Leonardo but against the Hastings’ positions near the coast and The Royal Canadian Regiment in its precarious foothold on the edge of the plateau. In the early morning light the RCR could see the Calgaries farther upstream
struggling to get their tanks into the battle. At nine o’clock they received the cheering message from Brigade Headquarters, “one sub-unit Wyman’s boys are across. They should be very close. ...” Fifty minutes later they were told, “Brothers No. 2 [2nd Canadian Brigade] in town ... move over and contact.”171 After his bitter experience on the top of the plateau the CO decided to reach the San Leonardo bridgehead by moving under the lee of the escarpment. His numbers were small, for “D” Company was with the Hastings, and “C” had been sent back across the Moro as a carrying party for the wounded and an escort for prisoners. Shortly after “B” Company had been dispatched towards San Leonardo, the enemy launched a counterattack which appeared to be in battalion strength. Spry sent his command group down to the river and ordered “A” Company and “D” Company’s No. 16 Platoon, who were still in their positions of the previous night, to disengage. As the pressure of the counter-attack increased, “A” Company withdrew as instructed. But Lieutenant Sterlin’s platoon was now isolated, and received no order to retire. There followed the fight which was to give this Abruzzi farmhouse its strange name of “Sterlin Castle”.
During the morning the building had served as an outpost to the battalion positions, and when the enemy struck, riflemen held all the doors and windows, and the platoon’s Bren guns were in weapon-pits outside. After a furious fire fight which exhausted all their ammunition the Bren-gunners escaped towards the river. Eleven men of No. 16 Platoon were left in the farmhouse, which had become the target of six German machine-guns. About mid-afternoon the enemy assaulted the house, “leaving their dead literally leaning against its wall. ... An Oberleutnant was shot in the act of forcing a stick grenade through the bars of one window and a soldier wearing the ribbon of the Iron Cross was killed within four feet of the same window while giving ... covering fire.”172 When the artillery, which had been fully occupied in breaking the attack elsewhere, came to the rescue with a concentration about the house, thirty Germans had been killed and the platoon’s ammunition was running out. An hour later, Sterlin* and the survivors of his little band were able to join the Hastings.173
* Lieutenant Sterlin was killed in the fighting for Ortona and was posthumously Mentioned in Despatches.
It was against the Hastings’ bridgehead on the coast road that the main force of the 90th Panzer Grenadiers’ counter-attack had come. Over-estimating the importance of this sector to the advancing Canadians the enemy had thrown in most of his divisional reserves. It was his misfortune to strike too soon – before the Hastings and the RCR had made their planned move into the San Leonardo bridgehead. He found the Hastings still in position behind well-prepared defence zones, which had been carefully registered for artillery and mortar fire and covered by machine-guns set up to fire on fixed
lines. The enemy preceded his attack with heavy concentrations from self-propelled batteries and mortars; then the Panzer Grenadiers entered the defence zones. What followed, as described in the Hastings’ war diary, was decisive.
‘A’ Company on the left flank withheld their fire until the Germans had reached a vineyard some two hundred yards to their front, and then called for observed mortar fire and opened up with small arms, catching at least a company, and cutting them up completely. On ‘B’ Company’s front another company was allowed into an enfiladed ravine and then decimated by crossing machine-gun fire.174
The counter-attack faded with the daylight; when the enemy withdrew it was estimated that he had suffered 170 casualties in killed or wounded, besides losing 30 prisoners.175
Having so disastrously committed its reserves in a counter-attack which failed, the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division conceded to the Canadians San Leonardo and the line of the Moro, and looked to the rear for some feature upon which another defence might be prepared. It selected the deep gully before the Guardiagrele–Ortona lateral. At the same time the Tenth Army took steps to strengthen the defences of Ortona, by sending to the coastal sector the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Regiment. Asked why by Kesselring, Wentzell replied, “so that he [the enemy] will be prevented from getting there at all costs.”176 In subsequent weeks of struggle Canadians were to feel forcibly the impact of both these decisions.
When the fighting on the 9th was over the diarist at the Canadian Division’s Headquarters could well write, “This day will be remembered by the 1st Canadians for a long, long time. We had our first real battle on a divisional level with the Germans.”177 In the evening General Montgomery signalled, “Hearty congratulations on day’s work and on throwing back counter-attack.”178 The Hastings were left in their bridgehead near the coast, possession of which they had undeniably established in three days’ fighting.
Of all the Canadian battalions which had taken part in the action, The Royal Canadian Regiment had suffered most heavily. When the CO was able to gather his companies from the various directions in which the course of the fighting had taken them, he counted casualties of 21 killed and 53 wounded or missing.179 The dead were buried at the scene of their struggle. In the little farm beside the bend in the road atop the Moro plateau the passing years would heal the splintered olive trees and bring repair to bullet-scarred walls, and not much would remain to remind an Abruzzi peasant that a battle had passed through his orchards and vineyards. Perhaps he might never know that by a few Canadians his house would be remembered as “Sterlin Castle”, and the narrow road along which he journeyed to the sea, “Royal Canadian Avenue”.