Chapter 5: Orsogna: The First Battle
I: Probing for Resistance
ORSOGNA is a town for the military manuals rather than for the guide-books. A stranger to beauty or fame, it became for half a year after the New Zealanders first saw it a byword far and wide for stubborn resistance – a Stalingrad of the Abruzzi. Of all the hilltop towns of this region, none is of greater natural strength. To the south and east it is aproned by rough slopes, rising steeply from ravines perhaps seven hundred feet in as many yards. It stands upon a watershed ridge, the highest of the parallel ridges that separate the rivers and streams draining the Majella massif into the Adriatic. Rather deceptively – for it is no towering eminence – it commands a broad prospect over the surrounding countryside, which watercourses have deeply engraved.
Along the ridge a good road runs north-east down to the coastal town of Ortona and south-west up to Melone and Guardiagrele. North-east of Orsogna it is possible to approach the road from the east by comparatively easy slopes, but round the town itself and southward to Guardiagrele the heights are forbidding and form a veritable rampart. The only other road into Orsogna is the track from the east along Brecciarola spur, but this is little more than a causeway. Possession of the town would give the New Zealanders use of the Ortona road and would permit them greater freedom of movement in the forward areas by depriving the enemy of the best point of vantage. Sooner or later it would have to fall if progress was to be made on this front.
Seen from the east, Orsogna was a line of grey stone buildings crowning a long ridge. From the centre rose a tall church tower, and even a fugitive glance – and glances sometimes had to be fugitive – caught an impression of scarred walls and arcaded foundations surmounting a cliff. The sight was to become familiar to New Zealand eyes.
Thinking and speaking like men habituated to success, to whom military stalemate was almost contrary to the natural order, the
senior officers of the Division, and the Army Commander himself, were reluctant to interpret the rebuff at Orsogna as more than a slight flicker of defiance from an enemy intent on escape to safety. The discovery round Castelfrentano of very deep dugouts, an elaborate system of communication trenches, wire, minefields and large amounts of abandoned material left no doubt that the winter line had been pierced, and it was too early to conclude that a second line would be held along the Moro. Late on the 3rd, General Montgomery thought that the Germans were retreating to Pescara, leaving rearguards consisting mostly of tanks – an appreciation that General Freyberg qualified only so far as to think that they were holding on long enough to destroy the roads. That afternoon, after Brigadier Parkinson had voiced the same opinion, aircraft and guns were directed on to the Ortona–Orsogna road to harass an enemy believed to be evacuating stores and equipment. Patrols that night were instructed to occupy Orsogna if the opportunity arose.
Little by little, however, the truth was pieced together, and within two days of the first sally into Orsogna the evidence revealed unequivocally that the town and the ridge on which it stands would be yielded only to a large-scale onslaught. Two more days were needed to redeploy the Division, to repair the line of supplies to the forward troops after its interruption by a flood in the Sangro, and to open tolerable road communications to those supplies and to supporting arms. On the afternoon of the 7th the attack opened, disconcertingly soon for the reckoning of the Germans, who had employed every hour of the preceding four days in making ready to repel it. Thereupon the experimental skirmishes and the probings for position gave way to a contest of massed force. The battles for Orsogna began in earnest.
After the clashes at Melone and Orsogna on the morning of the 3rd, both sides tacitly acknowledged the importance of the occasion by redoubling their gunfire and air activity. In its anxiety to safeguard Orsogna, 26 Panzer Division not only despatched a company of engineers there to form a reserve for counter-attack, but also took the advice of 76 Panzer Corps to bring heavy artillery fire on to the approach to the town by way of the Roman road from Castelfrentano in order to hinder the arrival of our tanks and other reinforcements. Because of this shelling, 26 Battalion’s transport could not that day reach the fighting companies, which had moved forward into the Moro valley south of the other two battalions of 6 Brigade; and a party from 26 Battalion working on the steep crossing of the track over the Moro became a target for several German batteries. Even the less exposed battalions of 5 Brigade,
facing north-west in the area of Castelfrentano, were harassed by gunfire. Three times during the day enemy aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the forward troops, but not without retaliation, in the morning from hovering Spitfires and in the afternoon from the Division’s light anti-aircraft guns, which shot one and possibly two raiders out of the sky. So lively was the German reaction that Freyberg expressed concern for Montgomery’s safety next morning on the road to Main Divisional Headquarters, a few hundred yards north of the Sangro, and there was jocular talk of sending ‘less important people as experiments’.
The New Zealand gunners meanwhile were engaged on a full programme in which enemy gun positions and the roads beyond Orsogna received special attention. With the arrival of Headquarters 6 Army Group, Royal Artillery, and 1 Air Landing Light Regiment came the first flight of a substantial reinforcement of British artillery. The generous allowance of air support was concentrated on Orsogna and Guardiagrele and on the gun positions of the panzer division, whose artillery regiments complained of incessant raids by fighter-bombers.
Intimations of the enemy’s plans continued to flow in on the 4th, though the tactical situation was still regarded at Divisional Headquarters as generally uncertain. Widespread artillery fire, which fell with special severity on Castelfrentano, and frequent sorties by aircraft presaged a dogged resistance. This hint was strengthened by the patrol reports of all three New Zealand brigades. Two patrols from B Company 24 Battalion, exploring the German defences round Orsogna on the night of 3–4 December, saw machine-gun posts east of the town and, at the western end, two guns firing towards Guardiagrele and heard vehicle movement. An A Company section returned from daylight reconnaissance of the Sfasciata ridge on the Division’s right flank with the news that it was being held in strength for about a mile east of the Ortona–Orsogna road. It had left behind in a farmhouse one man wounded in a brush with Germans manning a post on the ridge. Private Williams,1 an orderly of the regimental aid post, volunteered a work of mercy. He went up alone and, hidden in the house from enemy patrols, tended the wounded man and stayed with him until after nightfall, when a stretcher party brought him back. From C Company a patrol eleven strong approached the very walls of Orsogna from the east, closing to within fifty yards of an enemy tank before being fired on, but it gave as good as it received and escaped unharmed with a report that the town was very strongly defended, with posts dug in about fifty yards in front of the houses.
The southern defences of the town were tested on the night of 4–5 December by a D Company fighting patrol, which was greeted by bursts of machine-gun fire in exchange for its hand grenades. The expedition was enough to eliminate the gully to the south as a possible entry into the town, for the going was rough and steep.
Though the north-eastern approach to Orsogna by way of the broad Sfasciata spur was known after 24 Battalion’s patrol to be defended well forward of the town, it was left to 25 Battalion to discover just how far the enemy had extended his posts in this direction. When, after a day’s rest, the battalion returned to the line on the evening of 4 December, occupying San Felice ridge on the right of the 24th, C Company was instructed to establish a standing patrol on the more northerly parallel ridge of Sfasciata, about a thousand yards north-east of the enemy post attacked by the 24 Battalion patrol. Its coming was heralded by artillery and Vickers gun fire on the area from 10 p.m. The company (less one platoon), under Major Webster,2 made its way along the Moro bed before turning left about 3 a.m. to scale the precipitous eastern face to the top of the ridge. Enemy mortars and machine guns, firing from the forward slopes by the light of flares, harried the advance, but it was not until the company drew near the crest that it was finally halted at 4.30 a.m. Webster ordered a withdrawal to the battalion’s right flank on San Felice. Since the broad back of the Sfasciata spur was the best approach to the Ortona–Orsogna road, the enemy’s presence in strength near the top of the ridge where it drops into the Moro was a significant pointer.
Orsogna, then, was defended at short range from the east and south and at longer range from the north-east; but could it be bypassed? At this time the Divisional Commander was contemplating as possibly preferable to frontal attack a major thrust farther north and east to compel the enemy by the outflanking threat to vacate his troublesome western defences. But a party from A Company 26 Battalion on the 4th looked in vain for a tank route to circumvent Orsogna; and the report of a daring patrol of nine men led by Lieutenant Emery3 of C Company 23 Battalion showed that a drive on the right towards Poggiofiorito would be most difficult to supply and support. This last patrol, directed to shoot at traffic and lay Hawkins mines on the Ortona lateral some miles north of Orsogna, followed the Moro valley for two miles north of 25 Battalion’s outposts and then struck westwards across a gully and
up the slope to a point within a few hundred yards of the busy road. There, about midnight on 4–5 December, fifteen hours after leaving the battalion, the patrol ran into a party of Germans, fired on them, and made off before the enemy could recover from his surprise at being molested behind his own lines. Returning by the same route, the men reached their own area after being out twenty-six hours.
A further tentative on the right wing was made by the Divisional Cavalry, sent to find routes to the main Ortona road in the sector held by 8 Indian Division, but again the result was negative. While armoured cars of a troop of B Squadron met a patrol of 6 Lancers and Canadian tanks in the village of Frisa, a party from A Squadron reconnoitred on foot an old Roman road running westward to Poggiofiorito from the Lanciano–Frisa road, but turned back half a mile before the track crossed the Moro at the north-east extremity of Sfasciata ridge. The next morning, the 5th, the squadron returned to the area in its cars, shelled an offending enemy machine-gun post into silence and forded the Moro; but mud and shellfire compelled a withdrawal.
The same disappointment repaid the efforts of another Divisional Cavalry patrol reconnoitring for a route even farther north. With some Canadian tanks, it reached a blown bridge over the Moro no more than four miles from the mouth. Here the river could not be forded and the patrol retired under shellfire after an engagement with German infantry, who were numerous in the locality. Each of these patrols yielded three prisoners from 90 Panzer Grenadier Division. Yet, though they had searched far afield and well beyond the divisional sector, neither had found a practicable route whereby vehicles might skirt Orsogna from the north.
Nor was it otherwise in the south. Fourth Armoured Brigade, whose bid for the Melone road fork and Guardiagrele beyond it had been challenged from the outset, found enemy vigilance unrelaxed. On the 4th an early morning testing of the German defences by a patrol of 3 Motor Company 22 Battalion, following up an artillery concentration on the junction, drew mortar fire, and gun and machine-gun posts were observed on Martino hill, west of the junction, with concrete works north of it on the road to Orsogna. Similarly, an attempt by 5 Field Park Company to employ its bulldozers in repairing the gaping demolition in the road about a mile east of Melone was frustrated by instant enemy shellfire. Not content with treasuring up this old crater, the Germans a few hours later blew another in the same road. It was presumably this party of Germans which a patrol of 22 Battalion saw returning to Melone in the early hours of the 5th.
The 22 Battalion patrol was the first of two which found the road
junction unoccupied that night. This discovery encouraged the battalion to try to seize it after daylight. For the third time, however, the battalion’s infantry was foiled within a few hundred yards of the objective. Despite support from artillery and from tanks of B Squadron 18 Regiment posted on a nearby hilltop, two platoons of 1 Motor Company, as they got to within 300 yards of the empty road fork, came under a storm of fire from mortars and machine guns on the Martino feature. They had no choice but hasty retreat. Eleven men left behind in the rout made their way back to the battalion after dark. All tank movement started the German artillery into action. The paratroops defending this salient were clearly determined to stay there.
From 5 Corps, on the Division’s right, came news to confirm the enemy’s stiffening resolve. Though the capture of San Vito and Lanciano on 3 and 4 December completed our control of Route 84, the Moro, which lay midway between it and the parallel Ortona– Orsogna road, was being defended, and it was not until the night of the 5th that 1 Canadian Division, which had replaced 78 Division in the coastal sector, made a crossing. Opposition to the Canadian and Indian divisions composing 5 Corps was now in the firmer hands of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division. On coming into the line a few days before, this division had been told that, as a pure German formation, it was expected to give a better account of itself than the hapless 65 Division, which had shed less of its mixed blood than its casualty figures seemed to warrant.
By this time there was no mistaking the import of the evidence: nothing less than a measured blow with the gathered resources of the Division would loosen the German grip on Orsogna and its ridge. At the 7.45 conference on the morning of the 5th, the Divisional Commander initiated planning for a two-brigade attack on Orsogna.
Long before the detail of the plan was determined and even before the need for a full-scale effort was finally recognised, preparations for a resumption of the advance went on. The opening of supply lines to vehicles was a prime condition of progress. It entailed a struggle to overcome the obstacles thrown by the enemy across the path of his retreat and by nature contriving an awkward combination of weather and land forms. The diligence and almost sardonic ingenuity of the German sappers had free play, and within the competence of their equipment they missed few opportunities of balking their pursuers. In the war diary of 26 Panzer Division under the date 2 December there is a little compendium
of destruction that will serve to typify this kind of mischief-making:
In the course of the withdrawal 93 Panzer Engineer Battalion had blown 65 demolitions during the last two days, destroyed or mined 52 military installations in the intermediate line, blown eight power plants, laid 1600 booby-trapped mines and blown up several hamlets.
The weather, which for the most part had been mercifully fine, if cold and bracing, since the crossing of the Sangro, took a turn for the worse on 4 December. Draining into the river and melting the high snows inland, a steady warm rain caused the Sangro to rise in spate, in places by as much as six feet. Shortly after dark the folding boats of LOBE bridge were torn from their moorings, washed some 400 yards downstream, and stranded on a gravel bank. The sturdier TIKI bridge alone on the Army front remained undamaged and in place, but the swirling waters swept away part of the northern approach. The Sangro was therefore impassable.
By three o’clock the next morning the skies had cleared and the river had fallen sufficiently to allow a platoon of 7 Field Company to begin repairs. The flood water was dammed back from the approach to the bridge, the track was remade and at 11 a.m., after only sixteen hours, the flow of traffic over the river was restored. Lobe bridge was fit only for salvage. It was dismantled and the parts were taken back for repairs in the workshop. Consequently all vehicles crossing the Sangro from the north and from the south had to use TIKI bridge until another route was provided. Work had already begun on such an alternative – the reconstruction of the blown bridges over the Aventino and Sangro a few hundred yards upstream of the confluence. The Archi bridge over the Sangro was built by 8 Field Company and the northern bridge carrying Route 84 across the Aventino by Canadians of 10 Field Squadron. Despite the delay caused by the flooding and by the need for removing mines and rubble from the sites, the route was in use on the 7th.
In the right-hand sector of the fighting zone before Orsogna communications were peculiarly difficult. This was a sparsely roaded stretch of country, and off the roads wheeled movement at the best of times was impeded by the maze of ridges and gullies that formed the watershed of the Moro; now, with the surface soft and greasy from rain, to drive trucks and tanks across country was to invite trouble. Yet this ground had to be traversed and won before the Division could gain the secure communications of the Ortona road. The Roman road leading on to Brecciarola ridge was quite impracticable as a supply route, if only because of the steepness of the Moro crossing; and from the 5th, when 5 Field Company bridged the Moro a mile or more north of the Roman road, traffic going
forward left Route 84 west of Castelfrentano, travelled north over the hills known as Corato and Taverna as far as the Lanciano– Orsogna road, and thence turned west through the hamlet of Spaccarelli and across the Moro by Hunter’s bridge to San Felice ridge. Large convoys were not permitted west of the road junction, where they swung right and returned by way of Lanciano. This system of communications sufficed, but it became tenuous at the extremities, especially when fighting developed in the broken, roadless country north of San Felice ridge.
The Sangro flood might have caused more serious dislocation and delay but for two facts. One has been suggested – the speed of the sappers in making repairs and replacements. The other was the foresight of the Army Service Corps in beginning on 3 December to establish dumps north of the Sangro against just such contingencies as the flood presented. That day and the next stocks of petrol, oil and lubricants, and of ammunition were transferred to areas near Route 84 north of the river and, though the lift was interrupted by the flood, within a few days all units except those south of the river were drawing their petrol and ammunition from the new dumps. Rations and other quartermaster’s supplies, being less bulky, were brought up more slowly. The divisional supply point came forward in two stages, first to Atessa and then, in the middle of December, to an area near Archi station, still south of the river. These moves reduced the need for vehicles from the fighting units to use the Sangro bridges and, at least in the short term, the dependence of these units on the moods of the river.
A curious alarm on the left flank at this time might also have proved a distraction from the business of investing Orsogna had not the Divisional Commander firmly declined to be diverted from his main task. Since 1 December, when 2 Machine Gun Company left, the area south and west of the junction of the Aventino and Sangro as far as the Majella – a land of mounting foothills and musical place-names – was unoccupied by the Division. Over this broad expanse the patrols of either side might rove almost at will on missions of petty annoyance; but to both sides the area was chiefly of negative interest, a ground of apprehension rather than of hope. Wonder grows, as the Roman historian observed, where knowledge fails, and the wonder was here magnified, no doubt, by tales of civilian provenance. Certainly the German outposts in the area made reports of British activity which are hard to reconcile with the known movements of our own troops and which suggest a nervous credulity. The enemy feared infiltration behind his Moro defences
by way of the Majella massif and posted two battalions of a mountain regiment to picket the road running below its eastern face. Again, on 8 December, after he had thinned out in the mountains to reinforce his coastal sector, the commander of 76 Panzer Corps (Lieutenant-General Herr) spoke to Tenth Army of a thrust on Pennapiedimonte as an unpleasant possibility. The New
Zealanders for their part feared destructive forays from the west against their lines of communication and the inconvenience that could be caused by artillery observation posts overlooking them from a flank, but the demolition of the river bridges put any really dangerous enemy drive out of the question.
On 3 December 26 Panzer Division ordered IV Alpine Battalion to send fighting-reconnaissance patrols east and south-east from its mountain zone, and when next day Germans were reported at Casoli and villages to the south Freyberg was content to send a fighting patrol as a token of his vigilance. Men of the Divisional Defence Platoon and a troop of B Squadron Divisional Cavalry in armoured cars joined forces for the expedition. They spent a wakeful night at Casoli, alert for 200 Germans said to be in the locality, but neither that night nor the next day did they sight the enemy, though they heard demolitions which seemed to confirm civilian reports that the enemy was systematically destroying villages. Aircraft of the Royal Air Force therefore dropped bombs on Torricella, the village suspected of housing the headquarters directing this work.
More regular provision for filling the gap between the Division’s left flank and 13 Corps’ right and for protecting the Division’s supply route had been planned before these alarums and excursions showed the need for it; but it was not until the evening of 5 December that 2 Independent Parachute Brigade (Brigadier C. H. V. Pritchard), which had been placed under New Zealand command, was able to move in. It relieved the New Zealanders at Casoli and promptly set patrols to work hunting the enemy. Fourth Parachute Battalion, in the east astride the Sangro, and 5 Parachute Battalion, farther west under the lee of the Majella, despatched long-distance patrols which scoured the country and had skirmishes with enemy parties at widely scattered points. The vigour and watchfulness of the British paratroops freed the Division from the anxiety on its left and allowed it to give undivided attention to Orsogna.
II: Operation TORSO
The General’s decision on the morning of the 5th to launch a divisional attack set in train a regrouping. The right flank was buttressed by machine-gunners who took up positions to the right of 25 Battalion, whence they could harass the enemy across the Moro on Sfasciata ridge. The Maoris of 28 Battalion moved forward to a lying-up area behind the 6 Brigade battalions on the San Felice and Pascuccio ridges, gathered their supporting weapons about them
and reconnoitred routes forward for vehicles, only to find that neither Sfasciata nor Pascuccio was negotiable by tracks or wheels. The discovery was of tactical significance, for it dictated the decision to move all the vehicles of both brigades along 6 Brigade’s road over Brecciarola and through Orsogna – the only passable route on the Division’s front. On the left flank, 22 Battalion, which had observed continued enemy activity about the Melone road fork, was relieved by 6 Parachute Battalion. The arrival of fresh British field and medium guns strengthened the artillery. In the drizzling rain of the 6th, the preparations went on. By night the four 17-pounder guns of Q Anti-Tank Troop were with difficulty hauled up the San Felice ridge and dug in to command the Ortona road. The Bofors guns of 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery crossed the Sangro, leaving protection against air attack south of the river to the Eighth Army. Two bulldozers joined 24 Battalion across the Moro ready to fill craters on the road to Orsogna. In the three or four days before the attack the ammunition point issued 50,000 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition to the field regiments. In such ways the units toiled; and meanwhile the senior officers schemed.
The divisional plan of attack had a long pre-natal existence, and its career usefully illustrates the way in which broad tactical aims are gradually translated into the precise directions of operation orders. The conference on the morning of the 5th was followed by another in the evening lasting two hours and a half, during which the details of artillery support were debated at length. The plan was reviewed next morning, and after a reconnaissance with his brigadiers the Divisional Commander resolved on a daylight attack the following afternoon (7 December) to give the infantry time to occupy the objectives before dark, while denying the enemy time to counter-attack. Having discussed the outline plan with his staff officers, he visited the Army Commander and, while at Army Headquarters, talked over air support for the attack with the Air Officer Commanding. Back at his own headquarters in the late afternoon, he had to settle a difference of opinion between the two infantry brigade commanders as to the infantry rate of advance before conducting a further conference. That night the divisional operation order was issued. Even so, the General was still considering a preliminary attack the next morning, and he telephoned his brigadiers to discuss the possibility. At 9 a.m. on the 7th the final conference met at 6 Brigade Headquarters, where the General decided to adhere to the operation order issued the previous night, subject to modifications in the artillery and air programmes. Such flexibility of planning demands equal flexibility of execution by subordinate commanders; and the battalion commanders of 5
Brigade received their orders from Brigadier Kippenberger only about two hours and a half before the opening of the artillery barrage.
Freyberg had no illusions about the toughness of the task he was setting his troops. When he first decided on a two-brigade attack, he warned the Army Commander that, because of the poverty of communications, he expected the Division to be engaged in heavier fighting than hitherto. Characteristically, Montgomery extracted the most cheerful ingredient from the situation – the lack of depth in the German position, of which Herr was indeed uneasily aware. The hard going forced Freyberg to the reluctant choice of a frontal attack, but Montgomery found comfort in the ‘tremendous concentration’ that would accompany it.
In essence, the final plan for operation TORSO was for a direct infantry assault on Orsogna and a 2000-yard stretch of the ridge
running north-east from the town, with the weighty support of guns and aircraft and with tanks to exploit success. The objectives were to be approached from the east along two parallel spurs, with 5 Brigade on the right advancing along the Pascuccio feature as far as the Ortona road and 6 Brigade on the left directed along Brecciarola ridge to Orsogna and the high ground behind it. The vital thrust was that to be aimed by 6 Brigade at Orsogna; for though it could succeed independently, if it failed all was lost. Fifth Brigade could not be expected to hold its objective against tanks unless 6 Brigade cleared a way through Orsogna for its supporting weapons. This weakness in the plan, giving, as it were, only one chance instead of two, was perhaps unavoidable until the Sfasciata spur was in New Zealand hands.
The start line ran roughly parallel to the Ortona road, rather less than a mile from the objectives on both flanks. The assault on 5 Brigade’s front was to be made by 28 Battalion, and 23 Battalion, moving in under artillery concentrations and smoke, was to occupy part of the Sfasciata ridge as right-flank guard. Sixth Brigade gave the task of assaulting Orsogna itself to 24 Battalion. Of its other two battalions, the 25th in its existing position would provide the
firm base for 5 Brigade and the 26th would do the same for 6 Brigade by moving into the positions vacated by 24 Battalion after the attack began.
The forming up of the assaulting battalions was to be curtained by a standing barrage from 4 and 5 New Zealand Field Regiments and 111 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, 300 yards ahead of the start line from 1 p.m. to 2.30. The barrage would then move forward ahead of the infantry, lifting 100 yards in six minutes and finishing on the road 500 yards west of Orsogna.4 For three and a half hours from one o’clock, three troops of medium guns were to shell the town and the road west of it and one troop was turned on to Sfasciata, which was also the target for 6 Field Regiment, firing smoke for twenty minutes and then concentrations until 4.10. To impede the movement of enemy reinforcements, the main road on either side of Orsogna was to be shelled by 1 Air Landing Light Regiment, and a counter-battery programme lasting ninety-eight minutes was ordered. In sum, planned support was on the scale of 300 rounds for each field gun and 100 for each medium gun. Air support was to be continuous from 1.30 to four o’clock. First, for half an hour, thirteen squadrons of fighter-bombers would attack Orsogna, and then for two hours they would harass roads in the areas of Arielli and Filetto and the German artillery.
The state of communications limited the use of tanks, but 18 Regiment (less B Squadron) was to enter Orsogna along the road from Lanciano, and thence one squadron would go through the town to link up with 5 Brigade on its objective on the right. Two bulldozers were provided to fill demolitions on the Lanciano– Orsogna road. Each infantry brigade was assisted by the fire of 27 Machine Gun Battalion as well as by its 4·2-inch mortars. The security of the right flank was in charge of 5 Brigade, which, as already noted, was to occupy part of Sfasciata ridge, and the left flank was protected by 2 Parachute Brigade, which would stay where it was.
How were the Germans disposed to meet this attack? Not for the first time, they were surprised during a complicated reshuffling of their scanty resources. Herr’s first thought, as soon as 76 Corps had fallen back behind the Moro, was to reorganise his corps, rest his hardest-hit formations and order urgent defensive works. Strongpoints, well dug in, wired, and shielded by minefields, were to be organised in depth in a chessboard pattern, and drivers and supply
troops were called to man the rear portions of the defence zone. While this was being done, he could regroup. Ranging from the sea south-westwards to the mountains, 76 Panzer Corps had under command 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, 65 Infantry Division, 26 Panzer Division, and 1 Parachute Division. The sorely-tried 65 Division was the first to be pulled out. On 3 December its headquarters left the line and its sector and troops were divided between 26 Division and 90 Division, which extended their boundaries east and west respectively to meet on the line Arielli–Lanciano.
No sooner had this change been made, however, than a new tactical appreciation forced another. Reports that the New Zealanders were thinning out in the Melone area and that their tanks facing Orsogna had gone chimed in with evidence of the reinforcement of 5 Corps near the coast to convince the German command that the British were shifting their weight to the east, where the country was more suitable for tanks. The enemy felt it essential to conform, especially in view of the indifferent showing of the comparatively inexperienced and undertrained 90 Panzer Grenadier Division in the coastal sector. Herr therefore ordered 26 Panzer Division still farther east and recalled 65 Division to the line in the sector between 26 Panzer Division and the Majella, where it seemed less likely to be overstrained. The new boundary ran through Orsogna, as from 4 p.m. on 7 December. At this time, too, consequential reliefs were taking place, for the Germans had calculated that no big attack could come before 8 December.
When the New Zealand attack went in, the 5 Brigade front was held by the right-hand companies of 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which during a short period in reserve had been reinforced to a fighting strength of 930, and by II Battalion 146 Regiment, extending to the outskirts of Orsogna. The defence of Orsogna itself was committed mainly to three companies of 26 Panzer Reconnaissance Unit, which were about to be relieved by III Battalion 4 Parachute Regiment; and these companies had the support of one platoon of engineers and another of infantrymen from 146 Regiment, 28 machine guns, 4 anti-tank guns, 4 mortars and 10 tanks (including two with flame-throwers). Farther west towards Melone, on 65 Division’s new front, the line was held by paratroops, who had gradually been brought over from the untroubled mountain sector.
The enemy was thus deceived (or deceived himself) into expecting an attack later and elsewhere. The weather on the day deepened the deception. The 7th was showery, with poor visibility – ideal for
laying smoke screens but unsuitable for air support, without which the Germans did not think the British would attack. What the Division gained in surprise it lost in weight of metal. Precisely at 1.30, when the first wave of aircraft dropped their bombs west of Orsogna, the weather thickened, targets were obscured by cloud and smoke and accurate bombing became impossible. Spitfires patrolled continuously over the enemy lines during the afternoon, but it was too late for the bombers to operate with much success when the weather eventually cleared at four o’clock.
On the ground, however, all went well for a while. Though harassed by the enemy’s defensive fire on San Felice, 23 and 28 Battalions suffered few casualties in forming up and moving through 25 Battalion to their start lines. Both battalions had a hard pull to the start line, especially the Maoris, who had to breast the San Felice ridge, plunge down a steep gully, cross a stream and plod up the slippery and in places precipitous slopes of Pascuccio spur, some carrying Piat mortars and anti-tank grenades; but at 2.30, when the barrage began to move forward, the two battalions were ready to follow it into the smoke haze. The 23rd had a comparatively easy advance. There was a stiff climb but the objective was not distant, the only resistance was shell and mortar fire, and the battalion was protected by the fire of 2 Machine Gun Company and of 25 Battalion from San Felice. By 3.30 the battalion was firmly established along the crest of Sfasciata. The Maoris now had less cause to look with apprehension over their right shoulder.
The route of 28 Battalion took them along the razor back of Pascuccio spur to an escarpment rising almost sheer in places to the Ortona road, whence the enemy would have commanded the whole feature but for the smoke. On the right, C Company (Captain Wirepa)5 was harried by machine-gun fire across the valley from Sfasciata and slowed down by minefields, but it brushed aside lightly-held German posts, mainly in buildings, and by five o’clock had gained the road, where it dug in. Farther left, D Company (Captain Ornberg)6 found itself outrun by the barrage through having to scramble over muddy, broken country. Then came a climb, hand over hand, up the escarpment under fire from enemy machine guns emplaced on the brow. The fight that ensued threatened deadlock until A Company (Captain Henare),7 following up the two forward companies, worked its way between them and swung round to attack the German posts from the rear. In the gathering darkness D Company resumed the advance, the leading platoon
pressing on across the road to the railway line 200 yards beyond. With some hundreds of yards of the main road in its hands, the battalion had penetrated four or five hundred yards into the German defences and won a lodgment on its objective.
The opening barrage had wrecked the panzer division’s communications, leaving headquarters without news for two and a half hours after the attack began. Further, by a not uncommon chance, the Maoris’ attack overlapped a formation boundary. On their right they met the sturdy infantry of 9 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, but the right-hand company of panzer grenadiers gave ground. Their outposts, either destroyed or dazed by the gunfire, were overrun by the Maoris, who appeared suddenly out of the smoke close up behind the barrage. The gap in the defence was widened, and the partial outflanking of the panzer grenadiers made possible, by the poor effort of 146 Regiment’s left-hand company, which scattered in such disarray that by evening only ten of its men had been rallied.
The Maoris now had to face counter-attack from two flanks – on the right by a reserve company of panzer grenadiers and on the left by a reserve company of II Battalion 146 Regiment. The former was the more dangerous; it came earlier, it was made by better infantry and, above all, it was supported by tanks. It was C Company, on the right, that first bore the brunt of the enemy reaction. Aware of its vulnerability to tanks, the company had laid Hawkins mines on the road to the north; but shortly after six o’clock eight Mark IV tanks of 26 Panzer Regiment, with the panzer grenadier reserve company in support, opened fire on C Company’s position. The company was forced back to the escarpment and then downhill on to Pascuccio ridge, where it was reorganised and put in reserve. In its retirement it damaged two of the tanks by Piat fire. It was replaced by B Company (Major Sorensen),8 which only with difficulty and after some time established itself at the top of the cliff.
Meanwhile the German tanks, without their infantry, had passed on down the road towards the Orsogna cemetery. There D Company came under close-range attack and withdrew its foremost platoon across the road to the cliff-top. A Company, however, scaled the cliffs and, moving behind D Company, took up a position north of the road near the cemetery, where it dealt to its own satisfaction with some enemy posts. Finally, the German tanks returned to their starting point, apparently glad to escape the heavy shellfire.
It was now time for 28 Battalion to face left. The reserve company of 146 Regiment had bungled its first counter-attack by getting lost and when, towards eleven o’clock, it came at A Company’s
left flank, near the cemetery, it was repulsed by small-arms and artillery fire. The Maoris counted five distinct thrusts, but each was thrown back in close fighting. ‘In one attack,’ reported A Company, ‘the enemy had the temerity to charge with fixed bayonets, but it fizzled out when the whole company got out of their trenches and accepted the challenge’.
By midnight, then, the Maoris had weathered a succession of counter-attacks and had yielded some of their original gains only on their right to the panzer grenadiers. But all was not well. The ground they occupied was in a saucer, and even after the counter-attacks died down fire poured in on them from both flanks. Their ammunition was running short. Direct help from 23 Battalion was impracticable: earlier in the evening a patrol of the 23rd had tried but failed to make contact with the Maoris’ right flank. Most ominous of all, hopes of the early arrival of tanks and supporting arms were dying. The way through Orsogna was not, after all, to be cleared.
As soon as this was obvious 28 Battalion mobilised every available man to drag two six-pounder anti-tank guns along the route the infantry had followed. They were manhandled over San Felice, but herculean efforts to pull them up the slope of Pascuccio availed nothing. These hard facts drove the Maoris’ commander (Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother) to the conclusion that when day broke his men’s position would be untenable. Brigadier Kippenberger agreed; and, having satisfied himself that the order would not prejudice the operations of 6 Brigade, at twenty minutes past midnight on the 8th he instructed 28 Battalion to withdraw.
Disengagement was not easy. Despite the cover afforded by heavy artillery concentrations and by B Company in a rearguard role, A and D Companies were sped on their way by shell, mortar bomb and bullet as they straggled back with their wounded and their remaining ammunition. A Company succeeded in breaking off only after repeated calls for fire from the New Zealand guns. The Maoris’ withdrawal appears to have coincided with a renewed counter-attack from the north, which may account for its hazards. The six remaining tanks of the panzer company which had attacked earlier returned to the charge with the support of the last infantry that the panzer grenadier company could muster – the remnants of the reserve company and some engineers. They found the cemetery undefended and were able to plug the hole in the line; but two further tanks were damaged. Meanwhile the Maoris retired, and by 6 a.m. most of the battalion was reunited near its forming-up point, grateful after nearly twenty hours for the comfort of hot food.
The attack on the left by 24 Battalion, which was certain to be decisive for the whole operation, early lost momentum. Defensive fire, minefields and rough ground caused delay. It was five o’clock before C Company (Major Clarke),9 approaching along the northern slope of Brecciarola ridge, broke into the eastern outskirts of the town, and 5.15 before B Company on the left, having lost its commander (Major Thomson)10 by shellfire, penetrated the streets. The scraps of evidence from friend and foe for the battle that followed are not easily assembled into a coherent picture. Lucidity after the event would, indeed, misrepresent the real confusion of the event itself.
The advance of the two leading companies through the town was fiercely contested, and the rate of advance reported at one time – 100 yards in quarter of an hour – was, if anything, exaggerated. The Germans were firing automatic weapons from houses to which entry was barred by ‘S’ mines at doors and windows. Fighting developed at close quarters with exchanges of grenades. A flame-throwing tank of 6 Company 26 Panzer Regiment was detailed to clear enemy infantry from houses south of the main street. Heavy fire from the Ortona road north of the town halted C Company, which was still partly deployed on the hillside below the town; it was now without Major Clarke, who had been wounded. Nevertheless, by nine o’clock the attacking infantry had reached the square in the centre of the town. Here German tanks forced them to take cover and it became clear that further progress was impossible without armoured support.
By this time the New Zealand tanks were engaged in earnest. Working with the infantry of A Company (Major Aked),11 the leading tanks of A Squadron 18 Regiment (Major Dickinson)12 were held up by a mined crater at the entrance to the town. A platoon cleared out a pocket of Germans covering the demolition, but the bulldozer that began filling it was put out of action by shellfire. The armour was delayed by a further demolition, east of the first, which was blown just as a second troop of tanks moved up. A detour was found, however, and by dusk seven tanks had banked
up behind the first gap in the road. After dark this was repaired by the second bulldozer and the tanks drove on into the town.
Trouble awaited them there. Concealed from our own tanks but commanding their route of advance was a German tank, which it proved impossible to shift. When they tried to dispose of it with Molotov cocktails and sticky bombs, the New Zealand infantry were driven to earth by Spandau fire from surrounding houses. Minefields on the right and heavy fire on the left prevented the tanks from making an outflanking move; and all this time the forward companies, trying to clear an exit to the north-east to bring help to the Maoris, were fighting an unequal battle with the German armour.
In a last effort to punch a passage for our own tanks, B and C Companies withdrew on to A Company just outside the town for a concerted attack under cover of tank fire. The two forward companies were now so disorganised that they could collect no more than 4 officers and 39 men, who, with A Company, renewed the assault. Though our fire drove the enemy to the refuge of cellars and was closely followed up by the infantry, and though penetration was achieved, the Germans, now reinforced by paratroops, counter-attacked hotly and claimed shortly after midnight to have restored the position. Thus repulsed, the New Zealand tanks and infantry retired to make a defensive laager for the night near the demolitions outside the town.
At a conference at 2.30 a.m. with General Freyberg and Brigadier Parkinson, the battalion commander (Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly) urged withdrawal: his companies were faced with stalemate in Orsogna; the ground they precariously held was unlikely to be of use for future operations; and they could only stay where they were at an excessive cost in casualties. By now 28 Battalion had withdrawn. These considerations led the General to sanction the withdrawal of the 24th; but in addition, he desired to bomb Orsogna again by daylight and believed that 6 Brigade would be able to reoccupy it without trouble the following night. Behind a screen provided by D Company, still in reserve, the tanks and the rest of the battalion withdrew without incident.
For the second time the Division had failed to capture Orsogna by direct assault. Yet once again the defenders had been hard pressed, and they appear to have conquered confusion only by improvisation. Soon after the attack began, 76 Panzer Corps consented to postpone the relief of 26 Panzer Reconnaissance Unit in Orsogna by III Battalion 4 Parachute Regiment but did not agree to put the paratroops under command of 26 Panzer Division until
eight o’clock, when the last infantry reserves in the town had been committed. The parachute battalion was then ordered to send its strongest company (of about eighty men) to Orsogna, where they arrived in time to help repel the New Zealanders’ last attack. Corps also embarrassed the defence of the town by refusing, and then agreeing, to postpone the transfer of responsibility for it from the panzer division to 65 Division, and it had been unhelpful towards requests for the return of tank companies from 90 Panzer Grenadier Division on the left. The stalwarts in Orsogna were not pampered.
With charge and counter-charge, the battle in Orsogna swayed this way and that. But the determining cause of the Division’s defeat seems to have been the local tank superiority of the Germans. While the New Zealand armour was stalled by demolitions at the entrance to the town, the German tanks took up a commanding position on the high ground, from which they could outgun the attackers and from which they could not be outflanked. Against this handicap the dash of the New Zealand infantry could not prevail, even though, as on 5 Brigade’s front, they moved so closely behind the artillery barrage and concentrations that word went round among the Germans that the enemy was firing shells which exploded with a loud noise but without lethal effect.
Operation TORSO cost the Division in casualties about 30 killed or died of wounds, about 90 wounded, and between 30 and 40 missing.13 Two tanks had to be abandoned with broken tracks near Orsogna. Losses inflicted on the enemy included 14 killed, 40 wounded, and over 50 prisoners, and damage was done to several tanks.
The operation taught important tactical lessons, both general and specific. Among the general lessons, it encouraged a distaste for daylight attacks on prepared defences; it showed the unwisdom of attempting simultaneously to bomb a target from the air and smoke it from the ground; and it underlined (if emphasis was required) the need for bringing up tank and anti-tank support without delay to infantry on their objectives.
From this last general axiom, it was only a short step to deduce a specific application. Both assaulting battalions had been at the mercy of enemy armour. How, then, was armour of our own to find a way on to the main road? The route along Brecciarola ridge was securely stopped by the clustered buildings of Orsogna, the route along Pascuccio by the escarpment. In any case, both spurs were so narrow and bottle-necked near the road that they gave no room at all for tanks to deploy and were capable of sustaining the communications
behind a large-scale attack about as efficiently as an elephant could be fed through two straws. But north of them lay the broader, comparatively flat-topped spur of Sfasciata, offering easy access (topographically speaking) to a long reach of the Ortona road. And it so happened that the sole territorial gain of the operation was 23 Battalion’s footing on this spur. Henceforth tactical interest shifts to the possibility of exploiting Sfasciata as a springboard for a movement to envelop Orsogna from the north.
This was the tenor of the discussion at the Divisional Commander’s morning conference on the 8th. Twenty-third Battalion was therefore ordered to stand firm in its salient. Though exposed, it was in the meantime safe from enemy attack owing to the softness of the ground. Energies were now turned towards finding a route forward for supporting weapons.
Two possible crossings of the Moro were reconnoitred and the choice fell upon the more southerly. From the village of Spaccarelli on the Lanciano–Orsogna road a cart track ran north, dropped down into the Moro near the north-eastern tip of San Felice ridge, wound up the slope of Sfasciata, and ran along the top to join the Ortona road a few hundred yards north of the cemetery. For all but the last thousand yards or so this track lay within the New Zealand lines. Given a spell of dry weather – and the 8th was the first of three fine days – it promised access for tanks to the Ortona road without the necessity of blasting a passage through Orsogna. With machine-gun and artillery fire to drown the din, bulldozers began work on the ford on the night of 8–9 December, improving the approaches for tanks and hauling across the stream and up Sfasciata six six-pounder anti-tank guns. Four guns were sited to protect 23 Battalion, which further reassured itself by laying mines brought up by mules.
Freyberg’s inclination towards a thrust on the right by way of Sfasciata, which Kippenberger thought the most promising approach, must have been confirmed by events on the centre and left of the Division’s front. Orsogna was bombed or strafed no fewer than twenty-three times during the 8th, and two 26 Battalion patrols which inspected the demolition at the entrance to the town that night reported it untouched and found no sign of enemy movement. A 28 Battalion patrol to Pascuccio found that nine wounded Germans who had been left in a house there during the attack had not been claimed and brought them back. But evidence such as this, suggesting that the Germans were withdrawing from Orsogna, was easily outweighed. Undeniably hostile fire greeted a raid by
B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry towards the Melone road fork on the left. Even less ambiguous was the reaction to a provocative gesture by eight tanks of A Squadron 18 Regiment, which on the morning of the 9th stood off at 500 yards to shell Orsogna. The Germans demonstrated their abiding interest in the town by surrounding it with a smoke screen, moving tanks forward to its eastern edge to engage our own and bringing down heavy defensive fire. Interpreting this as a reconnaissance thrust, the Germans believed that a renewed attack was imminent in the Orsogna– Melone sector. Meanwhile, farther north, where they expected no attack, the Division was preparing one and was building up its strength in the Sfasciata salient.
It was to be launched by 5 Brigade on the night of 10–11 December, to give time for the ground to dry and for the armour to be moved into position on Sfasciata. With the support of 18 Regiment, 23 Battalion was to advance from Sfasciata under a barrage and cut the Ortona road north of the cemetery. At dawn 20 Regiment, with two companies of 21 Battalion and one of 22 Battalion, was to pass through and exploit south-west along the road to the high ground immediately north of Orsogna. Sixth Brigade would occupy Pascuccio on 5 Brigade’s left. As part of the necessary regrouping of the armoured regiments, the 18th vindicated the sappers’ workmanship on the Moro ford (and its own determination) by getting all of its twenty-eight tanks on to Sfasciata by 11 p.m. on the 9th, in spite of pitch darkness and the roughness of the track.
The 10th was a day of oscillating intentions. It began with a decision, announced by the Divisional Commander at the morning conference, to cancel the attack. While the Division was preoccupied with the problem of Orsogna, 5 Corps on its right had embarked on a full-scale offensive of its own. On the night of 8–9 December 1 Canadian Division established a bridgehead across the Moro near the coast, but to the ensuing fluctuations of its fortunes, and those of 8 Indian Division, the New Zealanders’ right-hand neighbours, the Division could not be indifferent. It was under the influence of a setback to 5 Corps that the New Zealand attack was cancelled, since it had been intended to keep step with the advance on the right. Freyberg now ordered active patrolling to prevent a diversion of enemy troops to the coastal sector.
More cheerful reports of Canadian progress, however, prompted second thoughts, and soon after midday the General was contemplating a silent attack by 5 Brigade, with the armoured follow-through as planned. Accordingly, 23 Battalion at dusk sent out two patrols, one to the Moro river east of Poggiofiorito to see if the ground was clear between the Division and the Indians, and another
to the Ortona road to discover whether it was being defended. If the road was not being held, it would be seized that night so that 20 Regiment might pass through next morning, mop up Orsogna, and exploit towards Filetto and Guardiagrele. The patrol to the Poggiofiorito area found it empty, but the other patrol heard movement suggesting that the road was being held in force.
It was finally decided, therefore, to abandon the more ambitious plan; but 23 Battalion’s left flank on Sfasciata was reinforced with infantry and anti-tank guns and extended to within 500 yards of the road. These dispositions were defensive and, at the same time, far enough forward to allow tanks to deploy and to emerge on to the road if daylight brought suitable opportunities. Overnight rain made the going sloppy and 5 Brigade could attempt no aggressive strokes. But in its tanks, well concealed in a position to strike from Sfasciata, it was keeping rods in pickle.
Meanwhile, wet weather and a regrouping of Eighth Army confined the Division’s active operations for a few days to the routine menaces implied by the Army Commander’s instruction to demonstrate against sensitive places. In the mountain sector on the left snow, rain and crumbling roads had ruled out the offensive, and General Montgomery now decided to transfer strength from this sector towards the coast, where he thought that a concentrated blow might yet achieve a break-through. Fifth Division, relieved in the mountains by the weaker 78 Division, would come into the line between 2 New Zealand Division and 5 Corps. The New Zealanders would then join 5 Division under command of 13 Corps (Lieutenant-General M. C. Dempsey), giving Montgomery four divisions to mount an attack between Orsogna and the sea. It would take some days to complete the move, and in the meantime 17 Infantry Brigade of 5 Division (Brigadier Ward) was ordered into the line under New Zealand command to fill the gap between the New Zealanders and the Indians. On the night 12–13 December it occupied the sector between Frisa and Lanciano, the Division’s right-hand boundary having been temporarily extended north-east.
Since 5 Brigade’s attack by way of Sfasciata had been postponed rather than cancelled, C Company continued to deepen 23 Battalion’s salient by edging forward at night, house by house, towards the Ortona road. The phrase used to describe this policy – ‘peaceful penetration’ – was a pardonable euphemism, though for a few days and nights patrols from both sides played a cat-and-mouse game among the fields and scattered houses between the battalion’s left wing and the road. The Germans laid mines and reconnoitred; our men lifted mines and reconnoitred, reporting traffic on the road so loud that it could be heard from C Company’s advanced posts; and the area attracted intermittent attention from the gunners of
both sides. All this time bulldozers and men with shovels laboured to improve the track across the Moro ford, over which 23 Battalion had to be supported and supplied.
During this quiet period from 11 to 14 December, when even in the skies there was little activity, 6 Brigade and 2 Parachute Brigade were content by night to patrol vigorously at short range and by day to lie low. Orsogna was approached by patrols from all directions open to the New Zealand infantry. Their reports left no doubt that it was still held as a fortress and that it was daily becoming more nearly impregnable to frontal assault.