Chapter 7: Ordeal by Stalemate
I: The Winter Line
IN his memoirs Macdonald, one of Napoleon’s marshals, described the battle he lost on the Katzbach with hardly a reference to the enemy but with exhaustive detail about the mud and the rain. At this point in his narrative the historian of 2 New Zealand Division feels sympathy for the disingenuous marshal. For though the pugnacious spirit of the Germans suffered no one to forget their existence, the weather now became chief arbiter of the field.
For more than three weeks after Christmas Day the Division’s war was an affair of silent watches and ambuscade, sharp patrol encounters, spasmodic but often highly disagreeable exchanges of fire, anxiety over communications, the discomfort of cold, damp and mud. Unpleasant as it was for all the fighting troops, life was especially miserable and tense for the infantry forward on Fontegrande, where on still nights the two front lines were almost within whispering distance. There, movement by day or noise by night invited the attention of the sniper or the mortar crew. Shelter had to be sought in stone farmhouses. Reliefs had to be frequent. Supplies of all kinds had to come up after dark on the backs of mules. Rain was followed by snow and snow by slush. But the war had to go on, and the New Zealanders’ part in it was to prevent the reinforcement of other fronts from theirs. While counterfeiting aggressive aims, they were content to hold the ground they had already won. On 17 January they were relieved to join the Fifth Army for the offensive just beginning west of the Apennines.
If any hoped that the attack of 24 December might have a profitable sequel they were quickly disappointed. The ground, soggy from the rain and whipped into creamy mud by the tanks, was too slippery for movement in the fog and cold of Christmas Day. The minefields ahead of 28 Battalion and the critical state of Duncan’s road also discouraged exploitation by the tanks. Christmas Day was
the first of the defensive days that filled up the Division’s calendar until it left this front.
Little distinguished it from other days for troops in the line, but those in reserve or not on urgent duties, making the best possible imitation of Christmas at home, managed to animate an observance into a festival. Special rations of meat, fruit and beer were supplemented almost everywhere by local supplies of wine, and every man received a Patriotic Fund parcel. To their men assembled at dinner commanding officers repeated the annual wish that this should be their last Christmas away from home and were rewarded with the annual applause, now perhaps more credulous than in the past. Among other ways, jollity found an outlet in the wearing of irregular headdress, and the General took occasion to remonstrate mildly against the appearance of straw hats and hats of purple paper, which, according to his diary, ‘did not appear particularly appropriate for Italy’s winter weather’.
Tactically, the last week of 1943 was an interim. Deadlock on the divisional front was a palpable fact, but not until New Year’s Eve was a policy formulated to acknowledge it. As the year drew to its close, General Montgomery recommended a temporary halt in the Eighth Army’s offensive. Though Ortona fell to the Canadians on 28 December, every inch of the advance was as fiercely contested on the coastal sector as on the New Zealanders’. Montgomery feared that if the attack was pressed in conditions forbidding the full deployment of armoured and air support, the infantry would be so depleted as to leave an unbalanced force when spring came. He was also aware that he would leave soon for the United Kingdom to take command of 21 Army Group and wished to hand over a tidy front to his successor. General Alexander agreed with this reasoning and planned to transfer the main weight of his armies to the western side of the peninsula, where the country in which the Fifth Army was fighting promised better progress. In the east it remained for the Eighth Army to exert continued pressure.
Accordingly, on 30 December 13 Corps defined its task. It was ‘to contain on its front at least the present number of German formations; to inflict on them as much loss as possible with patrols and artillery fire; and by every possible means to lead them to suppose that an attack is imminent’. The New Zealand Division was to hold its present front and to site its armour and reserves to secure the Castelfrentano ridge in all circumstances.
Freyberg’s instructions of 31 December designated the future policy of the Division as one of ‘offensive defence’. To hold its ground, to contain the enemy and to keep up its active spirit, the Division was to patrol and fire aggressively. Static methods of defence, such as the use of wire, were to be avoided if possible. In
order to allocate and relieve troops more systematically and to clarify their tasks, the Division’s area was divided into four sub-sectors: Fontegrande-Orsogna, the main front, then held by 6 Brigade and 6 Parachute Battalion; Salarola, facing the Melone road-fork, held by 4 Parachute Battalion; Castelfrentano ridge, the reserve area occupied by 5 Brigade; and Bianco–Barone, the steep south-western flank, lightly held by a company of 5 Parachute Battalion and two squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry.
Decisions on high policy entailed not only this reorganisation within the Division but also new dispositions on its flanks. On 27–28 December 13 British Infantry Brigade had relieved 2 Independent Parachute Brigade of responsibility for the Aventino River sector, including Casoli, and the New Zealanders were now flanked on both sides by 5 Division, with its 15 Brigade on their right in the Poggiofiorito sector and 13 Brigade on their left. The 5th was the first of the British divisions destined to be transferred in Alexander’s shift of weight to the west, and early in the New Year it had to be replaced. On the left, the New Zealanders’ new neighbour was 78 Division, which extended to its right in the Casoli area and passed from the command of Eighth Army to that of 13 Corps. On the right, however, the New Zealand Division had to fill the vacancy from its own means. This it did by moving 2 Parachute Brigade into the sector between Crecchio and Arielli, where it was in touch with 8 Indian Division, the left-hand formation of 5 Corps. The paratroops’ commitments on the left were redistributed among New Zealand units. On Brecciarola ridge D Company 28 Battalion took over from 6 Parachute Battalion, in the Salarola sub-sector 4 Parachute Battalion was relieved by 22 Battalion, and on Colle Bianco a company of 5 Parachute Battalion by B Squadron Divisional Cavalry. These adjustments, as tedious in the execution as in the telling, were anticipated and hindered by a great snowstorm.
The snow set to rest any doubts about the wisdom of coming to terms with the Italian winter. ‘General January’ turned traitor. For though it had been predicted, the snow caught the Division tactically with its plans only just laid and physically prepared hardly at all. The weather, which had been sometimes wet and always cold for a week past and overcast and threatening on New Year’s Eve, broke in the last two or three hours of 1943. A blizzard blew out of the mountains to lay one of the heaviest snowfalls within living memory as a boundary between the old year and the new. On New Year’s morning snow lay about a foot deep, with drifts up to four feet deep in places.
‘This stops things all right,’ wrote the General in his diary, ‘and it is a question of existing without worrying much about the war.... We won’t use up too much sympathy on the front line troops but ... the joy of occupying a forward weapon pit (with no special rates for rain, or sleet or snow) can be imagined. People in houses last night were lucky. Canvas does not stand snow too well. On the bivvies, indeed on all tents, the snow banked up till they fell on the occupants. There are a lot of wet and bedraggled people about this morning, many with nothing dry at all and that includes blankets.’
Every possible building was requisitioned, and troops already under the shelter of roofs moved up to make room for the involuntary heroes of the storm.
But many had more pressing duties than the drying of blankets, boots and clothing. Like a man frozen, the Division had first to restore the circulation to its body. The civilian telephone lines which had been adapted for the Division’s use collapsed under the ice-loading, dragging the poles down into the snow in a tangle of wires. Field cables had to be laid to replace them. Meanwhile, all wireless links were kept open. Vehicle movement came to a standstill. Roads blocked by snowdrifts had to be cleared by shovel, bulldozer and grader in sleet and snow that continued into the afternoon of the 1st. On Route 84, a mile west of Castelfrentano, and the northern Guardiagrele road, where the drifts were exceptionally deep, the work after New Year’s Day went on by night, since both points were targets for German gunners, Tiki bridge was temporarily closed. The slit trenches of the infantry filled with water when the thaw set in. Pits for guns, machine guns and mortars were likewise flooded and weapons had to be moved to new pits or fired from ground level beside the old.
The snow fell on all alike. The Germans, too, had lines down and roads impassable. The men of 146 Regiment, coming up to replace the paratroops on the right wing of 26 Panzer Division, arrived wet to the skin and dog-tired after being on the march continuously for about twenty hours. They were in such poor shape and they had lost so many mules by the way that the relief, planned for 4 a.m. on 1 January, was not complete until 9 p.m. on the 2nd.
Except for blizzards on the night of 4–5 January and again on the 6th, the weather was fine and sunny until the Division left the Orsogna region. The thaw and the traffic converted roads into channels of mud that could be kept open only by uninterrupted hard work. Off the roads, the snow still lay on the ground, and the Division’s last fortnight at Orsogna must be pictured against a background of white. Men plugging across country found that at every step they broke through the thin, hard crust into a cold slush that oozed in over their boot-tops. The weight of battle order or
any heavy load drove troops to the surer footing of worn tracks, however muddy.
The three weeks after Christmas call for description rather than narration, and for the most part particular events must sink their identity in the general impression. On Fontegrande ridge (to begin with the most important of the four sub-sectors) occasional raids, the continual expectation of them, and constant exposure to short-range fire kept nerves on edge and necessitated frequent reliefs. Brigades were rotated within the Division, companies within battalions and platoons within companies.
Sixth Brigade became complete in the line after dark on 27 December, when 24 Battalion, earlier relieved on Brecciarola by 6 Parachute Battalion, replaced the Maoris in the cemetery area immediately north of Orsogna. The timetable issued with the operational instruction of 31 December envisaged the relief of infantry brigades every eight days. Accordingly, the two brigades exchanged sub-sectors on the night of 2–3 January, 5 Brigade resuming charge of the Fontegrande front and 6 Brigade going back into reserve near Castelfrentano. These dispositions remained unchanged until the Division left the Eighth Army in mid-January, as warning of an early move was received before the next relief was due to be made. Of the three 5 Brigade battalions, the 21st and 23rd went up during 2 January and that night and the 28th the next night to hold the line in that order from the right. During these reliefs telephone lines and sometimes the heavy weapons of supporting units were left in place for the incoming troops.
Opposite the New Zealanders comparative stability succeeded the hectic switchings and the chopping and changing of the German formations before Christmas. With the weather for a staunch ally, the German command no longer had to juggle so desperately with sparse resources. On the Division’s right the tried 26 Panzer Division received I and III Battalions 146 Regiment as replacements for 6 Parachute Regiment on its right flank, extending to about the cemetery, in circumstances already described, but this was the only change. Farther south, 65 Division gave way at the end of December to 334 Infantry Division, an inexperienced formation which had recently been re-formed in France after being wiped out in Tunisia, but which came to win a reputation second only to that of 1 Parachute Division among German divisions in Italy. Profiting from his experience with 65 Division and 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, General Herr deliberately allotted this new division the easier sector next to the mountains. Its left flank, which was opposite the forward New Zealand brigade immediately north of Orsogna, was committed
to one of its own units, I Battalion 755 Infantry Regiment, but the town of Orsogna remained in the devoted care of III Battalion 4 Parachute Regiment. These were finally the only paratroops facing the Division; the rest had been filtered eastwards to the coastal sector, where 1 Parachute Division gradually assembled.
For the infantry manning the crucial defences in the Fontegrande area, the holding of the winter line was no occasion for relaxing. Neither side essayed any large attack, but if there was no spectacular onset there was a great deal of lethal bickering. The opposing troops were at such close quarters that something like personal venom crept into their exchanges, along with a determination not to be outwitted. Yet even this vendetta was tempered by a soldiers’ compact against the weather, and some mutual restraint was observed in the destruction of the buildings that alone made life supportable in the front line.
The siting of the farmhouses and outbuildings largely governed the pattern of the defences. Infantry posts centred on these stone structures were organised to catch the whole of the front in a net of interlocking fire. The houses themselves were fortified. Doors and (where they existed) windows were sandbagged, and loopholes were driven through the walls to open up fields of fire – a precaution all the more necessary since most houses had doors facing east and were blind toward the enemy.1 Shelters were dug under the floors to give protection from shells and bombs. Slit trenches and weapon pits, mostly occupied by night, guarded the approaches to houses, and sentries, as statuesque as the cold would permit, kept watch. Tripwires attached to warning igniters were laid but little use was made of barbed wire or mines, those parents of a defensive mentality.
Many platoon posts were open to close enemy inspection, some from the flank by observers in Orsogna, others on forward slopes from the front by observers across the gully of the Arielli. This fact imposed habits of stealth and immobility – and of inhospitality towards visitors, who were welcome only when they came by covered ways. The penalties of being seen or heard were usually prompt and severe. Snipers, machine-gunners and observers controlling the fire of mortars and guns were posted at vantage points in houses occupied by the Germans, and familiarity with the ground lent accuracy to the fire. By day both sides carried on the war and beguiled their leisure by harassing each other with all the weapons they could command, and by night the guns fired their prearranged tasks and machine guns were laid on fixed lines. Targets were suggested by direct observation, indirect deduction from the study of maps, the reports of patrols and listening posts, and by sheer guesswork.
The spur north of the Arielli stream which the Divisional Commander had refused to relinquish was of all tenements the most uncomfortable. The Germans knew that it looked into their lines and pounded it with mortar and. artillery fire in the hope that it would be given up as not worth the casualties. Day after day ‘the feature 1 km. north of the cemetery’ was noticed by the panzer division’s diarist as having been engaged by mortars and artillery. It was also a favourite destination for enemy patrols, and after 27 December sentries had to be posted each night on the flanks. Surprisingly little harm came to the New Zealanders on this beaten patch of earth, but about twenty-four hours after their departure the Germans seized twelve prisoners from the relieving force without loss to themselves.
‘Jittery Ridge’ earned its name, and so did the whole of the Fontegrande area, to which the name came to be applied. For war has a kind of Newtonian law, whereby the strain on troops varies directly as the product of the opposing masses and inversely as the square of the distance between them. Fontegrande was a close front and a congested one. The tension of lying in wait for prowlers or listening for the soft sibilance of a mortar bomb in flight became exhausting, for no hour of the day or night would be certainly undisturbed. Supplies came up on mules after dark or before dawn, and for those not on patrol or picket duty there was always work to be done in the strengthening of defences. The scrape and clink of digging heard nightly in the enemy’s lines showed that he was doing the same. Life was monotonous without the restfulness that monotony normally implies.
Like other occupations, soldiering can be divided into doing and suffering. The suffering of the infantrymen on Fontegrande has been sufficiently indicated. The doing, apart from the firing of infantry weapons, appeals to tank crews and gunners to fire theirs and the construction of defences, consisted mainly in the sending and receiving of patrols. At all times during this static period it was necessary to maintain standing patrols, contact patrols to guard gaps between defended localities and listening posts. Nevertheless, the war of patrols may be said to have passed through three phases.
Until the New Year both sides seemed satisfied to explore each other’s layout and to follow up the discovery of defences by bombarding them. Patrols from 6 Brigade reconnoitred houses, tracks and likely natural features, and attempts were made to set booby-traps in houses frequented by the enemy. Germans were seen and heard on these excursions and once or twice when they returned the visit; but considering the confined area in which the patrols were working, skirmishes were remarkably few.
The second phase, in the opening week of the New Year, was more exciting. The unusually spirited patrolling of the Germans won them brief but undeniable mastery of no-man’s-land. The New Zealanders took time to digest the implications of the Divisional Commander’s instruction of 31 December, the snow brought fighting to a temporary standstill, and the relief of 6 Brigade by 5 Brigade extended over two nights early in January.
The Germans, too, had been snowbound and on this front they were fresh in the line, but they were quicker to go to work. One reason may have been that they were on their mettle, I and III Battalions 146 Regiment with a reputation to repair, I Battalion 755 Regiment with one to make. More certainly, they were under orders to patrol strongly from a command that was still apprehensive of an early attack. In an appreciation of 4 January, 26 Panzer Division noted the movement of troops in the area east and south-east of Orsogna and the massing of artillery in the same area. These guns were ‘quietly but continuously ranging on our supply routes, headquarters and FDLs. The enemy is keeping his wireless traffic very secure. All enemy patrols are carefully stripped of papers or insignia which might betray their formation. All these indicate an attack in the near future. The division thinks that the main thrust will come along the roads leading north from Orsogna and Guardiagrele.’ The discomfiture of the New Zealanders was therefore due to their success in tactical deception. For five days after coming into the line 5 Brigade was too intent on securing a firm base to send out reconnaissance or fighting patrols and in that time the enemy held the upper hand.
The first shock of German audacity fell on 15 Platoon 28 Battalion, occupying a house west of the cemetery and only about 150 yards from the enemy line. Snow fell again on the night of 4–5 January, and before dawn twelve or more raiders in white clothing approached with muffled steps under cover of the blizzard. They caught the Maoris asleep and entered the house unchallenged before opening fire. Once awake, the Maoris ran smartly back towards the Ortona road for help, giving the alarm to three supporting tanks. Machine-gun fire from the tanks and from neighbouring infantry posts drove the patrol away, and when the Maori platoon returned to the house it found it empty except for one dead German. He belonged to a battalion of 755 Regiment which was already known to be holding the sector. The affray cost the Maoris one killed and two wounded.
Next night, though the infantry were alert, it was the turn of D Company 23 Battalion, thrust forward on the spur beyond the Arielli. A house occupied by 18 Platoon was attacked about 2.45 in the morning by a patrol of eight or ten Germans, who, like those
the night before, were dressed in snow-suits. They converged on the house from windward, concealed in a flurry of sleet and by the pitch darkness. They exchanged hand grenades with the sentries posted outside and then fired machine carbines into the house. In this way they wounded four men without entering the house and made off before the platoon could organise its defence. These daring and skilful raiders from 146 Regiment apparently crowned their night’s work by speedily reporting the location of the house, for immediately after their withdrawal D Company was severely mortared until the New Zealand artillery silenced the fire. The patrol also took back the body of a dead New Zealander, thus fulfilling its main purpose. From the body the Germans were able to identify 23 Battalion and, from the report of the patrol, to fill in some enemy-defended localities on their intelligence maps.
The losses inflicted by the two enemy raids led Brigadier Kippenberger to make suggestions to his battalion commanders for the more efficient defending and picketing of posts by night. Instructions were given that the sentries guarding houses should be at least twenty yards away from the buildings and that some means of quick communication between them should be instituted. Doors and entrances were to be barricaded and made secure against sudden entry. Such precautions were far from superfluous, for on the night of 6–7 January – the third in succession – white-clad German patrols were on the prowl round the New Zealand lines. A Company 23 Battalion saw about sixteen men moving across its front just after midnight and a little later C Company dispersed a party of eight Germans with a few volleys. It was a night of uneasy vigilance along the Fontegrande front. Vague scuffling noises and shadowy movements announced the presence of German patrols, but the night was so dark and stormy that no direct contact was made. Next morning, however, the fresh footprints of men and dogs were found round some of 23 Battalion’s infantry and mortar posts. Rumours having previously circulated that the enemy was using dogs on his patrols, the order was now given to shoot on sight any dog seen on the front.
After passively enduring German provocation for three nights, 5 Brigade was thoroughly roused, and the night of 7–8 January brought an opportunity for reprisal and for dampening the enemy’s ardour. First, A Company 23 Battalion warded off a party of Germans approaching its spur, but it was left to the Maoris to strike a more stinging blow. About half an hour before midnight sentries of 12 Platoon of B Company 28 Battalion (Second-Lieutenant Takurua),2 watching from the top story of a house a few
hundred yards forward of the cemetery, observed movement in the moonlit snow. Coming towards them along the railway line from the south-west were seven Germans in extended order. The alarm was given. Two sections manned the top windows and waited in silence until the patrol approached to within 30 yards. At that short range the defenders’ bursts of fire killed five of the Germans and appeared to have wounded the two who escaped. About quarter of an hour later mortars and machine guns engaged the house, perhaps in response to the signal flare put up by the Germans when they came under the sudden attack. So heavy was the enemy fire that a Maori sent out to search the corpses could examine only two which carried no means of identification. The patrol had come, in fact, from 755 Regiment.
The Maori success was more than a well-managed stroke of vengeance; it helped to swing the tactical pendulum in favour of the Division, for after this reverse German patrols no longer seriously troubled the New Zealand forward posts on the Fontegrande front. The Germans were by no means willing to resign the initiative. On the contrary, they were under the most authoritative orders to maintain it. Even as the ill-fated patrol was leaving on its mission, Tenth Army was urgently directing 76 Panzer Corps to discover the movement of formations on its front. The German High Command (OKW) had called for preliminary reports by 14 January, if humanly possible, and the corps was to patrol methodically and to take prisoners from every enemy division. On the morning of the 9th Kesselring told Vietinghoff that he was certain the enemy had ‘got something prepared’ north of Orsogna and at Melone, and received an assurance that strong fighting patrols had been ordered out to take ‘a lot of prisoners’.
Yet on the 8th and again on the 11th 26 Panzer Division affirmed a policy of caution, instructing its regiments to confine their patrolling to observation, to putting out listening posts at night and carefully probing the enemy outpost line. In part (the facts must not be over-dramatised) it was the moon, now nearly full, that determined this decision. ‘If the bright nights continue,’ read a directive of the panzer division, ‘patrolling is to be limited to observation patrols. No strong fighting patrols until the weather changes’. And in its report on the patrol losses of 7–8 January, 334 Division blamed the deep snow and the brightness of the night. But moonlight does not kill, and it was in part the lively reactions of the New Zealanders, described by the Germans as ‘jumpy and alert’, that led the two enemy divisions to interpret their orders with such wide discretion.
During the last week before its relief – the third phase of the ‘line-holding’ on Fontegrande – 5 Brigade patrolled actively within
the limits set by the weather and the somewhat crowded and hugger-mugger state of the front. Despite General Dempsey’s orders to obtain identifications of the German units opposite the Division, the moonlight kept all patrols home for two nights running and on a third night almost caused a serious mishap when a Maori patrol, having postponed its starting time until moonset without notice, was fired on by one of 23 Battalion’s posts.
More than once New Zealand patrols, sent to leave observers or booby-traps or to lay ambushes in houses, found themselves forestalled by the enemy. On the forward slope of 23 Battalion’s spur north of the Arielli there was a house which a German outpost had been seen to occupy nightly at 6.30. At 5 p.m. on the 8th, therefore, six men left A Company to form a reception party for that evening, but instead it fell to them to be received. Thirty yards from the house the patrol was challenged and fired on by three sentries, one of whom was killed in the ensuing exchange. Summoned by a tracer signal, about eighteen Germans in white ran into the house and appeared at the windows. They were greeted by violent fire from the patrol, and in high excitement and some confusion pursued the withdrawal of the New Zealanders with wildly erratic bursts from their machine guns.
The Fontegrande area, it will be remembered, was only the most active of four sectors facing the enemy on the Division’s front. On the other three we may dwell more lightly. The sector on the right between the villages of Crecchio and Arielli became a responsibility of the Division when 2 Parachute Brigade relieved 15 Brigade of 5 Division there, as noted earlier. The relief took place by stages between the night of 4–5 January and the next evening. The right flank was occupied by 4 Parachute Battalion, with companies in the hamlets of Salciaroli and Consalvi; the centre by 5 Parachute Battalion, with its most advanced company pushed forward to within a few hundred yards of the eastern outskirts of Arielli village; and the left, neighbouring 21 Battalion, by 6 Parachute Battalion, with company positions around Poggiofiorito.
The paratroops held their line in conditions similar to those farther south and west. The going was no easier, the peasant’s casa, as elsewhere, was the nucleus of each system of local defence, the same desultory rain of shell and mortar fire was endured and returned. Poggiofiorito, indeed, was more persistently battered by gunfire than any other spot in the New Zealand area. But in one respect life was simpler. Between the Germans manning the Arielli stream and the FDLs taken over by the paratroops lay about 1000 yards of no-man’s-land. Even after the night of 9–10 January, when
all three battalions advanced their forward posts between 200 and 600 yards towards the enemy line, contact was not so oppressively close as on Fontegrande. The paratroops took full advantage of the room they had to work in and gave the enemy a bitter taste of their quality.
Events conformed to the familiar pattern. At first the enemy ruled the front. A raiding party inflicted casualties at Salciaroli before dawn on the 5th and an outpost at Le Piane wounded two and captured six of a fighting patrol of paratroops the following night. After the forward move of the battalions, however, the paratroops had their front firmly under control. The enterprise of their reconnaissance and fighting patrols is well illustrated by their tally of eleven prisoners taken in seven different actions within four days. These captures from 26 Reconnaissance Unit and I and II Battalions 67 Panzer Grenadier Regiment gave a picture, though not quite a complete picture, of the enemy dispositions opposite the brigade. The achievement was the more impressive since 5 Brigade had not by this time identified the two battalions of 146 Regiment facing it in the line, nor was it even thought that fresh troops had been brought in to replace the German paratroops, whose departure was known.
The Salarola sub-sector, on the left of 5 Brigade, had seen no more than skirmishing for a month past when 22 Battalion relieved 4 Parachute Battalion on 3 January. The road junction at Melone had always loomed larger in the German than in the New Zealand mind as a potential point of attack, and the Germans continued to watch over it with a jealous and suspicious eye. The fact was that on this front the Division desired nothing better than to be left alone; and the configuration of the country helped it to have its way inexpensively. Although the sub-sector covered a front of more than two miles from Colle Chiamato to Colle Bianco, only about 600 yards of it, on either side of the northern Guardiagrele road, needed to be held in strength. This road ran along the crest of a watershed, through country impassable to any but small patrols, with steep ravines carrying the headwaters of the Moro running away to the north-east on one side, and on the other to the south the rugged gorge of the Sant’ Antonio stream.
Consequently, most of the action in these days occurred on the negotiable high ground between the two gorges, where the village of Salarola was the pivot of the New Zealanders’ defences as Melone, with Colle Martino behind it, was of the Germans’. Here both sides employed their artillery, mortars and machine guns on harassing tasks. The main enemy line between Orsogna and Guardiagrele
which followed the road linking the two towns, was manned by two battalions of 754 Regiment and one of 756 Regiment, all belonging to the new 334 Division. Twenty-second Battalion had its strength in and around Salarola, the forward company being astride the road ahead of the village and about 1000 yards short of Melone. Of two long ridges running north-east off the road the nearer, the Piano delle Fanti, was regularly patrolled, and the other was visited by patrols. Most of the houses on the forward ridge were booby-trapped, but one was found to be occupied by Germans, who allowed the patrol to withdraw in peace.
Clashes were the exception on this front. The only casualty certainly inflicted by 22 Battalion was that of a signaller of 111 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, one of a party repairing lines which was mistaken for the enemy as it approached an isolated observation post at dead of night after the post had earlier been put on the alert by a German patrol.
The last sub-sector, to the south-west of the Division, from Colle Bianco to Colle Barone, was wild country overlooked by the great white flanks of the Majella, where the Germans sometimes patrolled on skis; but it was more restful than the other fronts. The trade in harassing fire was slack, and no direct encounter with the enemy is recorded, though patrols explored westwards towards the lower slopes of the mountain.
The area was taken over from a company of 5 Parachute Battalion early in January by a composite New Zealand force of non-infantrymen cast in an infantry role – B Squadron Divisional Cavalry, 34 Anti-Tank Battery and two troops of 33 Anti-Tank Battery, and 7 and 9 Machine Gun Platoons. The main posts were on Colle Bianco and at other points on and forward of the southern Guardiagrele road, but some anti-tank men and machine-gunners defended the secluded village of Fontana Ascigno to the south, accessible only by rough mountain tracks. On the 6th this post among the snow-covered hills made neighbourly contact with men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had come in on the right flank of 36 Brigade of 78 Division when it relieved 13 Brigade of 5 Division.
The troops in the Bianco–Barone sector had to be supplied by mule trains, which made heavy weather of the journey up over slushy, winding tracks, and it became necessary to clear alternative tracks to the forward posts. A Vickers machine-gunner who helped to carry wire up to Fontana Ascigno wrote of ‘an exhausting trip with the bloody mules stumbling and slipping in deep drifts of snow, packs slipping, the Ites yelling and tugging’.
What of the supporting arms during the winter stalemate? January in the Abruzzi was no time for tanks, and few calls were made on the services of the armoured regiments. Tracked movement was, of course, harsh to road surfaces and difficult or impossible off them. The policy was therefore to use tanks sparingly in the forward areas and not as a rule in advance of infantry battalion headquarters. Thus as soon as enough anti-tank guns had been deployed on Fontegrande the tanks were withdrawn behind the Ortona road. Here, at Poggiofiorito on the right, on Brecciarola in the centre and around Salarola and San Eusanio on the left, elements of the armoured regiments were stationed to support the infantry by the harassing fire of their guns and as an insurance against the unlikely (and unrealised) chance of enemy tank attack. Several of the squadrons used the time to rest and refit, and the work of retrieving disabled and bemired tanks was pressed on with much energy and with little concern for the hindrances of mud, snow and mortar fire. Between 1 and 16 January twenty-five tanks were recovered from the forward areas, some from the upper end of Sfasciata and the Ortona road being dragged out of minefields by a tractor. Even so, several tanks stranded in or before the FDLs were made a bequest to the incoming division. The tank strength of the armoured brigade was further restored by the delivery of six new Shermans to the regiments.
However listless and inert a front may be, occupation can always be found for the artillery, provided there is ammunition for the guns. For a week after Christmas supply difficulties in the rear made it necessary to ration 25-pounder ammunition to thirty rounds a gun daily. After receiving 20,000 rounds on 24 December alone, the field regiments had to economise upon no more than 15,000 in the following week, but candour demands the comment that, in supplies of gun ammunition, what was penury to the New Zealanders was often to the Germans fabulous wealth.
The New Year’s snow was as uncomfortable for the gunner as for other soldiers, but it presented him in addition with certain technical problems. Guns had to be winched out of snow-filled pits. It seemed more difficult to keep ammunition dry from an insidious thaw of snow than from honest, beating rain; and while damp charges gave shells an uncertain travel, damp primers caused misfires that put guns temporarily out of action. The sleet blinded observation posts or shortened their vision, and even when the air was clear and the sun sparkled on the snow the obliteration of all but the boldest features of the landscape made observed fire slow and less efficient. Predicted fire suffered too; for it seems that the abstruse
and scrupulous mathematics of the command posts was often made futile by changes of temperature swift and extreme enough to invalidate meteor telegrams, range tables and other technical aids.
To crown all, our own troops on the busiest sector, Fontegrande, were no more than a few hundred yards from the enemy, and the fire they called for at short notice was frequently upon ‘close targets’, which require the most deliberate and meticulous ranging. The worst fear of the gunner is to drop rounds among his own troops, and when this mishap occurred and recurred during this period it must have been small consolation to the New Zealand artillery to know that a curious conjunction made it almost inevitable.
The main tasks of the New Zealand gunners were to fire by day upon opportunity targets and both by night and day to harass Orsogna and Guardiagrele, the enemy infantry localities and communications. Targets deeper into the enemy lines, including his gun positions, were mostly reserved for the heavier guns of 6 Army Group, Royal Artillery, but roving sections of 25-pounders were sited well forward to disturb the enemy as far away as the southern outskirts of Chieti. One of these sections dropped its trails among the FDLs of the British paratroops. Though not allowed to fire by day and by night only simultaneously with rearward guns, this section attracted so much notice from enemy mortars that it rejoined its battery after about three nights.
Psychological warfare – the fact if not the name – has long been a function of artillery: the guns have been classic diffusers of the terror. Modern techniques, which were largely evolved in the desert, of rapidly massing the fire of many guns on a single target have tended to confirm this traditional role. Orsogna itself during this time was almost a daily target for divisional concentrations. Sometimes the drubbing it received from the ground was accompanied or preceded by the attack of fighter-bombers. A combined bombardment on the 12th, after an earlier raid in which Kittybombers dropped a new and destructive type of bomb, offered the defenders an impressive show of violence. The same day 26 Panzer Division forbade all traffic movement by day because of the recent heavy casualties to motor transport. But the Division’s artillery did not omit more refined means of sapping the German morale. On 30 December propaganda pamphlets were showered into Orsogna by air-bursting shells, and on 2 January, after a day’s postponement, the four field regiments gave a display of virtuosity by spelling out the words ‘HAPPY NEW YEAR FRITZ’ in letters 500 yards high on the snowy slopes west and north of Orsogna. To press home the advantage, as well as to burnish their skill, the gunners also fired towards the end of their stay in the line a practice barrage lasting twenty minutes in the area west of Arielli.
Air support was unavoidably intermittent. Though a Spitfire patrol was flown daily over the lines, a low cloud ceiling or some other impediment kept close-support aircraft out of the sky on many days. When they could fly they proved the variety of their usefulness by bombing Orsogna and Guardiagrele, rest and billet areas farther to the rear, gun positions and roads, by strafing traffic and by directing the fire of the New Zealand guns. Especially welcome was their attack on two 170-millimetre guns which, firing from positions about eight miles behind the front line south and east of Chieti, had been like two nagging teeth in the head of the Division. One of the guns was hit directly and did not trouble the Division again. German airmen ventured out over this front very rarely. A sharp raid by about twenty fighter-bombers on Poggiofiorito on the 11th cost the enemy at least one aircraft, which was hit and exploded in mid-air. The credit for its destruction was officially divided between 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and a British regiment in the area.
For the engineers the phrase ‘static warfare’ has only an ironical application to the three weeks after Christmas. Theirs was a dynamic war, with so much to do that Italian civilians again had to be recruited to help, with ample scope for improvisation and with even more than the usual need to undertake errands of mercy to drivers, tank crews and gunners in distress. Engineers were employed in hauling guns from waterlogged pits and excavating new ones, constructing a landing ground for observation aircraft and erecting Nissen huts, but these were slight drafts on their energies, and almost the whole of their effort went into the road systems, especially after the snowfall. They had responsibility for all roads north and west of Route 84, but not for Route 84 itself. Their most constant preoccupation was with Duncan’s road, which, it will be recalled, ran from the crossing of the Moro at Hongi bridge up the stiff slope to Sfasciata and along the ridge to the Ortona road. The track was formed throughout its length by the end of December, but there was a never-ending struggle to metal the road and keep it metalled. Houses were blown up to provide brick and rubble for the foundations and thousands of tons of metal were transported from a nearby quarry and laid. After it had been softened by weeks of wet weather, snow blocked the road and then flooded it, slips came down in cuttings and the sappers had to stand aside while passing traffic cut deep ruts and buried the hard-won metal and corduroy in the morass.
As the condition of the road varied, so restrictions on its use were imposed and lifted, relaxed and tightened up. On Christmas Day a divisional order confined the road to essential vehicles fully loaded, forbade crowding and halting, instructed front-line troops to use local water supplies where possible, and established a provost post
at the Moro crossing to check all vehicles using the road. Two days later it was closed for a few hours to virtually all traffic and then reopened to jeeps only. On the 29th it was possible to relax the prohibition in favour of 3-ton trucks carrying essential supplies as far as the turning point on the crest of the ridge. So it went on while the engineers slaved at their unforgiving task, sometimes screened from enemy eyes by draped camouflage nets.
Everywhere roads had to be kept under continuous repair by men wielding shovels, whose patience was sorely tried as thrashing wheel chains and hissing tyres bespattered them with mud. The blockage of roads by the snow dammed up the stream of traffic and drew shellfire, and the work of clearing them engaged parties of men from nearly all units. The northern Guardiagrele road was not fully restored until the 7th, and it was the night of 7–8 January before a bulldozer cleared the last few yards of slush from Duncan’s road.
Though on New Year’s Day no supply vehicles could leave the Division to bring up supplies because of the snowfall, thereafter Army Service Corps convoys maintained their regular services, where necessary deviating from the usual routes. On all three of the front-line sub-sectors mules served the forward troops. Jeeps would bring supplies from unit rear echelons to agreed points as near the front as possible, where the mule packs would be made up. The superiority of primitive means of transport in rough weather was not, however, without exception; and a certain piquancy attends the experience of Lieutenant Brownlie3 and his party of fourteen trucks which was despatched from 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company on Boxing Day in search of mules. Before they could reach Agnone, where the mules were to be loaded, he and his men became snowbound at Capracotta and had to be fed from the skies by parachute.
The six weeks or more spent before Orsogna gave the lineaments of the region time to impress themselves on the minds of the New Zealanders. It is not always the lasting features of a landscape but often those of a very transient nature that soldiers remember, for whenever an army pauses it insensibly works a change upon its environment. It builds new roads and alters the course of old ones, lonely places suddenly become the signposted hub of a busy traffic and fortuitous landmarks appear – the burnt-out tank pushed off the road to rust, the festoons of signal wire, the wayside encampments or dumps of ammunition. Memory may fix upon some such temporary
grouping of objects and dub it for ever Orsogna. Or it may dwell on more permanent sights – the narrow streets and sharp corners of Castelfrentano; the squalor of Spaccarelli; the gaunt majesty of the Majella; the grandiose pile of the brickworks, useful to the Division as a source of rubble for roadmaking and to the enemy as a ranging mark; or the thin, tutelary church tower of Orsogna, which in spite of all that airmen and gunners could aim at it continued to stand and to sprinkle its chimes indifferently across the snow to soldiers from afar and to peasants born and bred within sound of its bells.
Another part of the subtle interplay between armies and places is the bestowal of names to supplement those on the map, names that begin in utility and end in sentiment, surviving in the traditional lore of an army when the places that bore them have long been left behind. West of Castelfrentano, for example, there was the ‘Mad Mile’, a notorious stretch of road that could be viewed end on from Orsogna. No one dawdled on this registered target, for the enemy could and often did bring down upon it the almost instant fire of a weapon indubitably large and reputedly a 170-millimetre gun beyond the range of our own artillery. ‘Shell Alley’ was a less frequented but equally hazardous stretch of road between ‘Hellfire Corner’ and Spaccarelli. Besides names horrific like these and ‘Jittery Ridge’ and names coined by the mere indolence of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, which corrupted the Italian’s Archi into the New Zealander’s Archey, there were names personal (like Armstrong’s road and Hunter’s bridge), names nostalgic (like Tiki and Hongi bridges), and names arbitrary (like Lobe bridge).
Orsogna’s genius loci expressed itself in its inhabitants as well as in its landmarks, and of these inhabitants the Division saw more than it might have expected. Desert experience supplied no parallel to the incongruous way in which civil and military life went on together cheek by jowl. In such places as Castelfrentano houses were often shared with the families who owned them and were at Once homes and billets. Even farther forward, some peasants preferred the chances of war to separation from hearth and home, accepting danger with an uncomprehending resignation. In such circumstances, when a New Zealand patrol found footmarks in disputed ground near Arielli, it could not be known whether they had been made by Germans or Italians.
Civilian movement in the fighting zone was particularly noticeable after Christmas when, with the front stabilised and comparatively quiet, many Italians returned to their farms and villages. Numerous refugees crossed from the German lines, some of them poorly clothed and nourished and suffering from cold and exposure. The New
Zealand troops gave them what assistance they could before they were taken back to Castelfrentano by the Field Security Section for handing over to the Italian civil authorities.
II: The Lessons of Experience
War is an expensive tutor, and only folly pays for its lessons without absorbing them. Even before leaving the Orsogna front, the formations were asked by Divisional Headquarters to reflect on their experience and to summarise its lessons – tactical, technical and administrative – for guidance in future training and operations. Grown to maturity in the desert and transported to the rougher terrain and bitterer weather of Italy in winter, the Division on the face of it was an old dog set to learn new tricks. But the proverbial difficulty of its task was lessened by two facts among others: the dog was not wholly old (it had an armoured component for the first time and many of its men did not have to unlearn desert ways) and the tricks were not really new.
For here was the first lesson to be learned by all the fighting arms – the principles advocated in the service manuals were essentially sound in Italian conditions. After the mild tactical heresies that had paid rewards in the African campaigns, orthodoxy stood vindicated once more, and all commanders were agreed on the need for stricter adherence to ‘the book’, which had, after all, been written with continental warfare in mind. More thorough reconnaissance, for example, was shown to be necessary, not only by tank and infantry formations but also by artillery in deployment. Aerial photographs were widely praised as an aid to the preliminary study of the ground and they were sought in larger numbers for distribution down to company and troop commanders. Again, rigid traffic discipline had to be revived to prevent such a heavily mechanised division from choking the roads and immobilising itself from its very surfeit of transport. Large-scale movement was an operational matter, requiring careful control by the staff; but precise timings had proved impracticable owing to unpredictable delays in getting vehicles on to the roads from muddy ground and off again to disperse, and because of detours at blown bridges, interloping convoys and the like. Other commonplaces that had to be reaffirmed were the need in every man for physical fitness and skill in the handling of personal weapons and in every unit for greater self-reliance in the elements of field engineering, including the lifting of mines and booby-traps, in order to lighten the burden on the overworked sappers.
Besides this general fund of wisdom, each fighting arm had its own experience to consult. Among the most costly and most profitable was that of 4 Armoured Brigade, fighting its first campaign as an armoured formation in conditions the reverse of favourable. At first the limitations of tanks in mud, on steep slopes, in close country and in fording rivers were not fully realised. If mobility was overestimated, vulnerability was underestimated. Casualties, however, soon demonstrated the hazards of sending tanks in to lead an attack, either alone or with infantry support, where there was no room for manoeuvre or where movement was confined to a single road. Anti-tank guns, well dug in and concealed, remained the greatest menace. They could be countered to some extent by the use of smoke and by the skilful fire and movement of tanks in mutual support, but the method best attested by experience was a covering screen of infantry. In other words, success was gained rather by infantry attacks with tank support than by tank attacks with infantry support.
The presence of tanks was shown to be indispensable to infantry consolidating on an objective, and for this reason they should have absolute priority on roads leading forward. At the same time, tanks should withdraw from the FDLs as soon as possible to allow their crews to rest and carry out maintenance. Hitherto, they had been detained forward unduly long because of the infantry’s difficulty in bringing up their six-pounders. Once withdrawn into a defensive or counter-attack role, tanks should not be sited forward of battalion headquarters areas. Here and elsewhere they had found few opportunities for indirect fire.
Because tank movement always attracted fire, it was recommended that in a normal attack tanks should move by bounds on the flanks or in the rear of the infantry and not closer than 500 yards. Nevertheless, liaison could not be too close, and the wireless link was essential. The No. 38 set worked well, provided the tank aerial was kept vertical – a lesson learned in one action in which tanks and infantry had suffered as a result of the failure among trees and buildings of the horizontal aerial used in Egypt. In defence, armoured movement about the front was found to be safest in the half-light periods of dawn and dusk. By night there was the danger of bogging, by day of shellfire, and at all times of mines, which might be concealed in such seemingly innocuous places as standing crops and road puddles. Among the administrative problems of the armoured brigade, the supply of fuel was not the least. In this type of country the ‘worst average’ rate of consumption was estimated at two and a half gallons a mile.
The fate of infantry attacks made one conclusion inescapable – objectives should not be too distant. An advance of 2000 yards was
set down as a maximum, with not more than one large natural obstacle on the way. The need for this limit sprang partly from the nature of the ground and partly from the depth of the enemy defences, which commonly stretched back 4000 yards. The Germans, it was admitted, were fighting stubbornly and with skill. Their outposts were held by troops few in numbers but strong in the fire-power of their automatic weapons and of supporting mortars. Then came the main line, where well-camouflaged platoon posts lay usually on the reverse slopes but increasingly on the tops of ridges; hence assaulting troops should aim to capture the high ground. This layout, together with the limited thrust of attacks, meant that it was impossible as a rule to breach the enemy line (or rather his defended zone) in a single operation. Infantry rarely penetrated deep enough to capture the enemy’s mortars or to force him to shift headquarters and so disrupt his signals and network of command. Assuming that the initial assault would always be halted in the midst of the enemy defended localities, it followed that exploitation was work for fresh troops directed to clearly defined objectives. As pockets of resistance were likely to be overrun during an advance, especially by night, it was urged that battalions should attack with two companies up, each on a frontage of 300 or 400 yards, leaving one company to mop up and the fourth in reserve. The recommended rates of advance in fair going – three minutes for 100 yards by day and five minutes by night – were asking a good deal of heavily-loaded infantrymen.
At least in 5 Brigade, infantry commanders showed an overwhelming preference for attacks by night rather than by day. Silent attacks found little favour anywhere, but it was recognised that, however much the supporting arms might exert themselves, the men on foot must still expect to fight their own way forward. If enemy positions were accurately known, timed concentrations by the artillery were thought to give better results than barrages, particularly in broken country. During consolidation, the direct support of tanks should be supplemented where necessary by the defensive fire of artillery on prearranged tasks.
In defence, the infantry were invited to take a leaf from the German book by holding the FDLs with few men more heavily armed. Only so could frequent reliefs be made within battalions and sub-units and the necessary advantage taken of buildings that offered observation posts and shelter from the weather and enemy fire. Patrolling, infiltration, street fighting and camouflage were technical skills that would call for practice during training. Fighting in Italy made severer demands on the physical fitness of infantrymen than in Africa, where it had usually been possible to carry the infantry
into battle on lorries. It was found, however, that leather jerkins and gas capes made it unnecessary to take the heavier greatcoats and groundsheets into action. Straw, usually plentiful round farmhouses, could be used to give extra warmth. Though mules were satisfactory supply carriers in steep places – seventy was the suggested scale for a battalion – infantrymen could still not neglect to carry hard rations, full water bottles and as much ammunition as possible.
The campaign taught the artillery the need for the early and detailed reconnaissance of gun positions, with a special eye to their accessibility. The gunners were aware that they had not been fully effective in neutralising the enemy during the attack and asked for more time in which to prepare their plans and for a delay fuse able to penetrate well-built defences before exploding. Apart from the disturbing effects of the weather, one of the main troubles of the gunners was the poor detail of the Italian maps, which handicapped observers and made map-shooting unreliable.
The Division was happy in its artillery weapon. By this time the 25-pounder gun-howitzer had outlived its novelty and proved its worth and was moving inevitably along the road that leads through familiarity to fame. Given the time that sanctifies, this lovable gun was clearly destined for a legendary prestige to be matched only by that of the French soixante-quinze. It had no rival for the loyalty of field gunners, who, a war and a generation earlier, had divided their devotion between the 18-pounder and the ‘four-five how’. Its very universality reminded the New Zealand gunners how many allies shared their craft. At any given time some layer would be centring the same bubble with the same deft anti-clockwise flick of the elevating gear, and reporting ready – in some strange tongue or accent. The furniture of the gun and the jingle of the drag-ropes as it bounced round the bend of a road made bonds of alliance. But the prime purpose of the 25-pounder was less to unite friends than to scatter enemies.
For this purpose it combined the usefulness of the gun and of the howitzer. As a gun, firing exceptionally at the highest charge, it could send its shell 13,400 yards, and a range of 11,000 yards was within its normal capacity. Since it was small enough to be sited and concealed well forward, its long reach could be used to harass crossroads or bridges or dumps far behind the enemy’s front and to make life a misery for his supply troops. Perhaps even more advantageous in Italy was its ability as a howitzer to deliver a shell of lower velocity and higher trajectory. Problems of crest clearance almost disappeared. This in turn conferred a wider choice of gun
positions, permitted the best use to be made of gun areas where batteries were often thick on the ground, and improved the protection of guns by enabling them to be tucked close in under the shelter of hills, which hid their flash and made them difficult to hit. The lobbing flight of the howitzer shell could find targets behind crests and in gullies that were inaccessible to the mere gun, and the steep angle of descent prevented the undue dispersal of the canisters thrown out by the air-bursting smoke shell – no slight asset in a country where the humid atmosphere in winter favoured the use of smoke, where the enemy’s excellent observation often made it necessary, and where the deeply wrinkled terrain sometimes required smoke for ranging. The Germans deplored the 25-pounder high-explosive shell for its deafening burst and wide zone of fragmentation, and so high was the rate of fire that they occasionally mistook the 25-pounder for an automatic weapon. Experienced crews knew, indeed, that the five rounds a minute of the drill book was not a maximum. Normally it was an accurate gun, but rapid wear of the barrel in the long spells of firing that were not uncommon in Italy could cause rounds to fall short.
In this campaign the field gunners were not called on to kill tanks over open sights. It was therefore possible to dig the guns in or surround them with parapets of sandbags without much fear of obstructing a necessary field of fire. In more mobile operations the circular steel platform carried under the trail of the 25-pounder was a great advantage in the Italian winter, for it enabled the gun to be brought into action quickly and traversed easily on muddy ground. If the moral factor in war is as great as the gunner Napoleon thought, one other virtue of the 25-pounder demands mention: it possessed a shield. This thin plate of armour offered psychological reassurance and perhaps some real protection from flying splinters or bullets. More than that, it offered a flat surface upon which the gunners could inscribe the name of their choice, cocky or sentimental, homely or proud.
From this inventory of virtues, one subtraction must be made, and it springs from the fact that the 25-pounder was the weapon of a mechanised army. Its pneumatic tyres made it fast on the road or on firm ground, but in the mud of the fields it was not such a handy gun to manoeuvre as those carried on the old spoked, iron-shod wheels. Sweaty labours were often needed to manhandle it out of a pit or across sodden ground; the balance which made it easy to traverse on the platform also made it perilously easy to tip muzzle-down in the mud – the most humiliating of sights; the low trailers loaded with ammunition were particularly awkward to move and keep moving; and the winching gear of the gun-tower was not always equal to the
strain, even supposing the tower could approach near enough to use it. Gun for gun, the 25-pounder was less well served in Italy by its petrol-driven ‘quad’ than the medium guns by their diesel-engined ‘matador’.
The machine-gunners ruefully contrasted the Orsogna country with ‘the limitless vistas of flat desert’. Now their work was extremely strenuous and, with its scope for indirect fire, technically exacting. But they had the satisfaction of knowing that, given the required man- or mule-power, the Vickers machine gun was more easily able to keep up with advancing infantry than other supporting weapons. Nevertheless, in such exhausting terrain men could not be expected to carry their guns more than 1000 yards without temporary loss of fighting efficiency. The usual practice had been to attach two companies of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion to each brigade, one company in close support of the battalions, the other under brigade command to provide harassing fire and support in depth. Machine-gunners in forward posts were wise to reserve their fire for the main counter-attack.
The engineers had so much to do on the Orsogna front that no sapper effort could be wasted. Two economies specially recommended were unit self-help and the direct control by the CRE of all engineer resources for as long as possible. Another realistic doctrine that served the same end was the rule that it was generally better to avoid the nuisance of mines and shellfire by constructing a new route than to court them by taking the obvious and topographically easiest crossing of an obstacle. Though the new heavy equipment had proved itself, experience brought to light fresh needs – the armouring of bulldozers, assault bridging that could be erected more rapidly than the Bailey type, and improved mine-detecting apparatus.
Despite the state of the roads and the weather, the New Zealand Army Service Corps was able on the whole to run a smoother supply service in Italy than in Africa. Distances to railhead and bulk issue depots were shorter, the divisional front was less mobile, and in country of such strongly-marked natural features it was less easy for convoys to go astray. The medical services were also able to bring the whole chain of evacuation posts closer to the front line. Indeed, they had no choice but to do so because traffic congestion often delayed evacuation, though ambulances took precedence on the roads. In view of the difficulty of bringing back the wounded from the front line, a return was made to the practice of having large stretcher-bearer teams in readiness before an attack, sometimes with as many as six men to each stretcher. From the regimental aid post casualties would be carried, usually by jeep, to the advanced dressing
station, accommodated well forward in some suitable farmhouse, and thence by ambulance to the more elaborately equipped stations farther back. The primary lesson learned by the medical services was the need for flexibility in the handling of units.
The reports of the various formations were collated at Divisional Headquarters after the New Zealanders had left the Orsogna front. Comparison between the materials of the abstract and the abstract itself suggests that to General Freyberg daylight attacks were less repugnant than they were to most of his infantry commanders, and that he was by no means convinced of the unwisdom of attacks led by armour. He seems, too, to have been most insistent on the simple infantry virtues of physical fitness, discipline in camouflage and movement, and the skill-at-arms needed to obtain the maximum killing power from every weapon. This divisional stocktaking was carried out nearly always with thoroughness and sometimes even studiously. It was entirely characteristic of a division that appeared to observers to take a tradesmanlike interest in the craft of war.
But – perhaps because it fell within the terms of reference of none of the contributors – one salient topic was omitted from this review of experience: how suitable was the structure of the Division for campaigning in Italy? By January it was abundantly clear that in conditions like those of Orsogna two brigades of infantry were insufficient. Although the Division had had the assistance at different times of one Indian and two British brigades, it had still to improvise to find enough infantry to hold its front, as the mixed force of Divisional Cavalry, machine-gunners and anti-tank gunners in the Bianco–Barone sub-sector testified. Even then, they were weary infantrymen who came out of the line in mid-January. Was it to be the perverse fate of the Division to be under an obligation to others for armoured support in Africa, where the race was to the swift, and for infantry in Italy, where the battle was to the strong? It is just as easy for soldiers to be efficient in winning the last campaign as in winning the last war. ‘As a result of our experience in Africa,’ asked one commander in retrospect, ‘were we not magnificently equipped and organised for the break-out and pursuit phase, but lacked the strength and were over-encumbered for the break-in and dog-fight battles?’4
The lack of a third infantry brigade becomes more significant in the light of the extremely heavy burden that falls upon the comparatively few men in contact with the enemy. Infantry strength is a subject sufficiently critical to warrant a resort to figures, but it is not a subject
upon which statistical certainty is attainable. Strength returns made during battle are never dependable. Some of the returns have not survived. Calculation is further confounded by the variety of the bases upon which the figures rest.5 Still, across a bridge of dubious assumption and arbitrary definition, it is possible to arrive somewhere near the truth and certainly to gain a general view of the problem.
About the time of the Sangro crossing, the posted strength of all New Zealand units in Italy was more than 19,000 and of the seven infantry battalions (including 22 Motor Battalion) about 5200. This last figure agrees closely with the field return of all ranks present with the battalions. By 18 December, however, the battalions had only 4600 men with them, of whom fewer than two-thirds could be counted as assaulting troops – perhaps 3000 in round figures. Thus, about the height of the fighting at Orsogna, a force of nearly 20,000 was devoting five-sixths or more of its numbers to supporting and supplying the other sixth. This proportion was by no means exceptional for British troops (or, it seems, for the Germans)6 but it must be borne in mind if the meaning of battle casualties is to be appreciated. Losses seemingly light – a few score men a day for a week – could soon blunt the cutting edge of the Division, for the losses fell on the fighting infantry with grave disproportion. The New Zealand casualties in the Sangro-Orsogna phase totalled about 1600. Of these nearly 1200, or 72 per cent, occurred among the infantry battalions, and overwhelmingly among the assaulting troops. If it were possible to break down casualty figures so as to show
|Ration Strength||Fighting Strength||Infantry|
|29 Pz Gren Div||12,889||5,217||1,734|
|90 Pz Gren Div||11,840||3,954||1,339|
|356 Inf Div||10,909||3,927||2,269|
|4 Para Div||9,161||4,050||1,850|
Establishments varied for the three types of divisions, but all normally had six infantry battalions. It appears that ‘infantry’ comprised only men fighting with personal weapons– rifles and light automatics. ‘Fighting strengths’ included tank, gun, mortar, and heavy automatic crews, engineers and signals personnel. The proportion of ‘infantry’ to ‘ration strengths’ varies between 11 per cent and 21 per cent and to ‘fighting strengths’ between 35 per cent and 56 per cent. This is very much the same as in 2 NZ Division at this time.
the losses of sub-units, the rifle companies would undoubtedly be found to have suffered losses very much higher than the 25 per cent or so inflicted on the infantry battalions as a whole.
The experience of a single battalion may serve to typify that of all. It so happened that on 28 November 23 Battalion’s field strength coincided precisely with that of its war establishment; though slightly oversupplied with officers and undersupplied with other ranks, it had the regulation 783 all ranks. After a fortnight’s fighting this figure had shrunk to 694, and when it went into the attack in operation Florence on 15 December it had about 670 men, of whom only about 400 can have taken part in the assault. On the 15th alone the battalion lost 100 men (28 killed and 72 wounded). It must be assumed, therefore, that its assaulting strength was reduced by about a quarter on this day and its fighting efficiency as a unit by far more. With two drafts of reinforcements, the battalion’s field strength recovered to 759 all ranks on 8 January and then declined slightly in its last week in the line. Upon such narrow margins as this brief record reveals lived the infantry battalions, and upon the continued effectiveness of the infantry battalions depended the existence of the Division as a fighting force.
Conditions on the Sangro and round Orsogna made casualties among tank crews numerically much lighter than among the infantry. Weather and terrain usually prevented the armoured regiments from getting more than half their squadrons into any one action, and the crews often escaped unharmed from disabled tanks. Several individual battalions of infantry lost more than the 143 casualties of all three armoured regiments in this campaign. Yet casualties were severe enough, falling as they did almost solely upon the tank crews, who numbered perhaps two hundred men of the six hundred or so in a regiment. Take away fifteen or twenty of them, and a regiment had lost heavily in skill and leadership, since tanks were manned by highly trained gunners, drivers and wireless operators, with a very high proportion of officers and NCOs.
Apart from the infantry shortage, experience had shown other structural weaknesses. Some parts of the Division which had pulled their full weight in the desert were of greatly impaired usefulness in Italy. Reconnaissance, the raison d’être of the Divisional Cavalry, could hardly be carried out in armoured cars once the weather had broken and it devolved almost wholly upon infantry patrols. Line-holding as infantry and the guarding of vital points behind the lines became the occupation of the Divisional Cavalry in the latter part of the Orsogna campaign. Again, the anti-tank and and anti-aircraft gunners were equipped respectively with defensive weapons of a single purpose, and neither of these purposes was so
urgent as in Africa, on the one hand because large tank battles did not occur, and on the other because the Luftwaffe’s visits were short and far between.
Whether the most economical use was being made of the fighting troops was thus a pertinent question. Though it was a question not formally asked or answered on paper at this time, the equipment and organisation of the Division were much in the minds of the senior commanders, and the shortage of infantry was discussed. Any substantial reorganisation, however, would have put the Division out of action for months at a time when the reinforcement of the armies in Italy was going so slowly as to cause Alexander concern. Besides, the Division’s experience at Orsogna was partial and limited, and the opportunity might yet arise for using it in the pursuit role for which it was especially trained, equipped and organised. To such a role, indeed, it was now summoned.