Chapter 2: The Road to Avezzano
I: The Division Begins to Advance
WHEN the last battle for Cassino ended on 18 May with the Poles entering the ruins of the monastery and the British 13 Corps occupying the wrecked town, the Germans still held the slopes of Monte Cairo, which overlooked the Liri valley, and the heights farther north which commanded 10 Corps’ front, on which 2 New Zealand Division held the sector nearest to the Poles.
After occupying Montecassino the Polish Corps was ordered to secure 13 Corps’ right flank in the Liri valley by capturing Piedimonte San Germano and the high ground at Passo Corno, on the southern slopes of Monte Cairo. Piedimonte was defended by about 250 Germans, most of them from 1 Parachute Division, and although a Polish battle group managed to enter its outskirts on 20 May, the town was not finally clear until the 25th. The Poles, supported by New Zealand artillery and mortar fire, captured the crest of Passo Corno on 21 May, but made little progress beyond that point until the Germans withdrew from Monte Cairo.
Meanwhile the New Zealand Division watched its front for signs that the enemy was preparing to withdraw, and discussed the action it was to take when he did. Plans were mooted, amended, cancelled and revived before it was finally decided that the Division should advance towards Atina with its 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades. Both 2 Independent Parachute Brigade and 12 South African Motor Brigade, which occupied the northern and central portion of the Division’s sector, were wanted for tasks elsewhere and would have to be replaced.
Fifth Brigade, which had begun to relieve 6 Brigade in the Belvedere–Terelle sector on the night of 16–17 May, completed the changeover two nights later, not without incident. About 1 a.m.
on the 18th, while 23 Battalion was moving into the line partly on Colle Abate and astride the road to Terelle, a German patrol attacked the left-hand company (A Company) of 26 Battalion, which had not yet vacated the position, but was driven off with the loss of three men killed and three taken prisoner, at the cost of one New Zealander killed. Next night 23 Battalion staged a ‘demonstration’ by firing its weapons to see if the enemy was still there, and received retaliatory mortar fire which killed one man and wounded seven others. Brigadier Stewart warned his battalion commanders on the 19th that they were to be prepared for an immediate advance but were to avoid heavy engagements and casualties.
On the night of 20–21 May and the two following nights, 12 South African Motor Brigade was replaced by the composite Pleasants Force.1 The portion of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade’s sector east of the road leading from the Volturno valley to San Biagio was relinquished to the command of the Italian Corps of liberation2 on the night of 21–22 May, when the Italians relieved the parachute battalion in that position. The parachute brigade, having already withdrawn another of its battalions, now held its reduced front with only one unit (5 Battalion), and the road became the boundary between 2 NZ Division and the Italian corps. Sixth New Zealand Infantry Brigade assumed command of the parachute brigade’s sector on the morning of the 27th. By that time the Division had begun to advance.
When the New Zealand Division moved into the Apennines from Cassino in April, the German 44 Infantry Division (under 14 Panzer Corps) held the sector from Terelle to Monte Cifalco, astride the defile through which the road led from the Rapido valley to Belmonte Castello and Atina; in the line to the north was 51 Mountain Corps. Shortly before the Allied offensive began on 11 May, the enemy reorganised his front: the boundary between 14 Panzer Corps and 51 Mountain Corps was moved into the Liri valley, and 51 Corps then held its front from south to north with 44 Division, 1 Parachute Division, 5 Mountain Division and 114 Light Division. Headquarters 44 Division took over the forces just south of
Cassino, while 1 Parachute Division, in and around Cassino, and 5 Mountain Division extended towards each other to meet on a boundary about half-way between Terelle and Belmonte Castello. Still opposite the New Zealanders in the Terelle sector, therefore, was 132 Grenadier Regiment (of 44 Division) under the command of 1 Parachute Division, and in the Belmonte sector 134 Grenadier Regiment (also of 44 Division) under the command of 5 Mountain Division. The Monte Cifalco area was held by 100 Mountain Regiment of 5 Mountain Division, and the line from Monte Cifalco to beyond San Biagio by 85 Mountain Regiment of the same division. North of the road which passed through San Biagio was 114 Light Division.
On 10 May General Valentin Feurstein, commanding 51 Corps, gave his opinion to the commander of Tenth Army (General von Vietinghoff) that the troops under 44 Division were not strong enough to hold the Liri valley sector ‘against such great enemy superiority’ and that ‘it would be better to evacuate Cassino and Montecassino and retire to the Senger support line [the Hitler Line] before the troops of the division were smashed. ...’3 But Feurstein’s superiors did not share this view; Cassino and the present line were to be held as long as possible. Nevertheless Eighth Army’s attack had been in progress only three days when, on 14 May, the commander of 44 Division (Lieutenant-General Bruno Ortner) insisted that either his division was reinforced or it would have to fall back on the Hitler Line. Reinforcements were provided by transferring troops from 51 Corps’ northern flank. The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division took over the sector in the Liri valley on 15 and 16 May, and 44 Division went back to a position north of Terelle, where it resumed command of 132 and 134 Regiments in the sector between 1 Parachute Division and 5 Mountain Division. By the time this reorganisation was completed, on 22 May, Cassino had been evacuated, and the southern flank of 51 Corps, pivoting on Monte Cairo, had fallen back to the Hitler Line.
The demands on 5 Mountain Division for troops to reinforce the formations bearing the brunt of the battle in the south brought the complaint from its commander (Major-General M. Schrank) that he could no longer guarantee to hold his sector under attack. Nevertheless a battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment was called for on 23 May and had to be pulled out from the Monte Cifalco area ‘in full view of the enemy’4 in daylight, and its positions left in the charge of small standing patrols.
In a withdrawal planned for the night of 24–25 May, following
the breaking of the Hitler Line, 51 Corps was to conform with the forces falling back on its right by taking up a line running from the confluence of the Melfa and Liri rivers across the hills north of Monte Cairo to the vicinity of Monte Cifalco. An order from Tenth Army to hold the Melfa line ‘at all costs for several days’5 did not reach the corps until midday on 25 May, by which time Eighth Army already had crossed the Melfa River in the Liri valley. The British were expected to attack in force next day. ‘It was certain that the troops of 90 Pz Gren Div would not be able to stand up to such an attack, as they were dog weary physically and mentally, and their units were split up into makeshift groups. ... it was clear that only a withdrawal would save a collapse in this sector.’6
The divisions of 51 Corps were told that the line behind the Melfa was to be held on orders from Tenth Army. The 1st Parachute Division was to withdraw its troops to strengthen the Melfa front, and 44 Division was to take over the sector extending eastwards across the northern slopes of Monte Cairo to the vicinity of Terelle. This line was to be held until further orders – but 44 Division, 5 Mountain Division and 114 Light Division were to prepare to withdraw. Later 44 Division was told to re-man battle outposts on the Monte Cifalco line which it was evacuating.
Shortly before midnight on 25 May 51 Corps ordered the immediate withdrawal of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division to a line behind the Liri north of Ceprano (where it would come under the command of 14 Panzer Corps), and of 1 Parachute Division and 44 Division to a line running eastwards from the Liri over the hills to a point of contact with 5 Mountain Division west of the Belmonte-Atina road. Less than four hours later 51 Corps received orders from Tenth Army to retire to a line behind the Melfa River, to which 44 Division and 5 Mountain Division were to go as quickly as possible. The Germans covered their retreat by battle outposts left out in front of the new line.
Before the enemy began to withdraw, nightly patrol activity on one part or another of the New Zealand Division’s front and shell, mortar and machine-gun fire had shown that he was still there, if not in any strength. On the evening of the 23rd, however, the shelling of ground he had previously occupied suggested that he might be preparing to go. That night listening posts heard
the noise of much movement, especially in the Monte Cairo area. The Poles reported that Terelle was clear – they had made similar reports a few days earlier – but their patrols encountered German working parties on the northern side of Passo Corno and did not reach Terelle. The general impression on the Division’s front on the morning of 24 May was that, although the enemy might be preparing to go, he was still present in sufficient numbers to make an advance difficult.
Towards evening the Division came under heavy shellfire, which caused some casualties. The artillery observers were not sure whether the enemy was firing to register his guns in fresh positions or whether he was using up ammunition before he pulled them out from their old sites. In any case it was felt that he intended to cover the withdrawal of at least some of his forward posts, especially as the village of Valleluce, which he had held just south of Monte Cifalco, received many of the shells.
Fifth Brigade was directed to follow up any withdrawal but not to make a set assault on German positions. Before the brigade could advance it had to have access to the tracks between its front line and Terelle, and Terelle itself would have to be clear of the enemy. Brigadier Stewart instructed 23 Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel McPhail7) to make a noisy demonstration with all available weapons and, if the enemy did not react, to send out patrols at once to reconnoitre. The demonstration drew little reaction, but the patrols came under machine-gun fire.
The enemy, after firing only intermittently during the night, began to shell the New Zealand positions heavily at dawn on 25 May. Observation posts reported hearing or seeing demolitions in locations which suggested that he already had taken his heavy weapons back or was abandoning them. Once again the Poles claimed that Terelle had been vacated, and by evening they had a patrol of platoon strength on the summit of Monte Cairo.
Shortly after midday two of the tanks with 5 Brigade, manned by crews from the Divisional Protective Troop, advanced along the road towards Terelle. They had reached a point about a mile from the village when two anti-tank guns opened fire and knocked out the leading tank. The crew bailed out and retired to the second tank, which had halted in cover. Patrols from 23 Battalion were then told not to try to advance until nightfall, but when it was noticed that the enemy was shelling some buildings south of the road, which he had previously held, the battalion was granted
permission to investigate. A patrol from B Company, covered by the surviving tank, approached slowly and carefully over very exposed ground. The tank opened fire with its 75-millimetre gun and machine gun on the nearest building, and some men, thought to be Germans, made off hurriedly, but the patrol found no other sign of enemy occupation.
Stewart ordered 23 Battalion to send out more patrols and to be prepared to reinforce them if they met no opposition. At 8.40 p.m. the battalion asked that no artillery fire be laid on its front because its companies were following up its patrols. Soon the battalion reported that it was on the ridge across the road where the original German forward posts had been, without having met opposition, and was sending a patrol north-eastwards along the ridge to make contact on Colle Abate with 28 (Maori) Battalion. This patrol was held up by minefields, but the remainder of 23 Battalion, after some hard climbing over the rocky slopes, took up positions on a line covering the road. About a dozen casualties were sustained on mines or booby traps and from shellfire. ‘The bright flash with which one large mine exploded brought enemy shellfire down on the area. Had it not been for the fact that many shells were duds, casualties would have been heavy.’8
Fifth Brigade warned 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy9) to be ready to pass through 23 Battalion with Terelle as its objective if the 23rd had encountered no opposition by 11 p.m. About that time mortar shells began to fall across the Terelle road, so the battalion was told to wait until counter-mortar tasks could be fired on Monte Cifalco, from which the mortaring appeared to come. The mortaring continued intermittently, but as no small-arms fire was reported, Stewart released 21 Battalion shortly after midnight. The leading troops entered Terelle before dawn without meeting any Germans, except three who were surprised in a house and surrendered, and others who were rounded up by patrols searching near the village. Altogether about 15 prisoners, mostly of 132 Grenadier Regiment, were taken. After daybreak guns of heavy calibre began to shell the New Zealand sector, especially the road into Terelle and the village itself. Five men were wounded in 21 Battalion before this fire slackened off when the New Zealand artillery bombarded known gun positions between Belmonte and Atina.
While 5 Brigade was patrolling to Terelle, Pleasants Force also sent out patrols, one of which, from 1/5 Essex Regiment10
(which had relieved 24 Battalion the previous night), located the enemy on a ridge south of the precipitous Monte Cifalco, probably part of the protective screen for the mortars operating there. Another Essex patrol ran into the counter-mortar fire which was being directed on these mortar positions. A patrol from 22 Battalion entered Valleluce and found that both the enemy and civilians had gone. While reconnoitring beyond the village the patrol became entangled in mines and booby traps; three men were wounded, and when others went to their assistance, two were killed and two more wounded. The officer who led the patrol died of his wounds two days later.
Fifth Brigade was instructed on the morning of 26 May to push through to Belmonte Castello and Atina, provided this could be done ‘without getting into too much trouble.’11 After Brigadier Stewart had examined the situation and the ground, he ordered tanks and carriers to Terelle. These vehicles came under heavy shellfire when they appeared on the ridge east of the village. One of the carriers was hit, and one of the tanks, while turning to go back, ran on to a mine on the verge of the narrow track and was lost. The vehicles were then ordered to remain below the ridge until dark, when they were to join 32 Anti-Tank Battery’s ‘infantillery’, who were to take over Terelle from 21 Battalion.
Both 21 and 23 Battalions were to ‘ease forward gradually as opportunity permits’.12 The 23rd was to use a track leading down a gully north of Colle Abate to Belmonte, and the 21st a route parallel to the 23rd’s but farther west and joining the Belmonte- Atina road about midway between those two places. As the tracks were mined, the infantry would be accompanied by sappers from 6 Field Company.
Sixth Brigade, which was to assume command of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade’s sector on the morning of 27 May, was to have the role of covering the Division’s right flank and clearing the road though San Biagio to Atina so that this route could be opened up as a possible main axis for the Division. The brigade was to dispose of any German rearguards and protect the engineers who were to remove mines and repair demolitions as quickly as possible. B Squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment was to go under the direct command of 5 Brigade and A Squadron under 6 Brigade. Divisional Cavalry was to revert to divisional command, and its troopers, who
had been acting as infantry with Pleasants Force, were to be rejoined by their armoured cars.
General Freyberg told Brigadier Stewart, ‘Whoever (5 or 6 Brigade) gets to Atina first, will go on to Sora. The other brigade will follow. Don’t get involved, but keep the enemy on the run.’13 The GOC did not want the Division to get embroiled with a strong German rearguard.
It was obvious on 26 May that, although his mortars were still firing from Monte Cifalco and his large guns from positions back in the mountains, the enemy was on his way out from the New Zealand front. A deserter who came into the Maori Battalion’s lines at Colle Belvedere said his unit (a battalion of 132 Regiment) had withdrawn two nights earlier and had left his company to demonstrate its presence until the next night, when it also had fallen back. The Maori Battalion came under mortar fire late in the afternoon, which killed two men and wounded two. After counter-mortar fire was directed on the Monte Cifalco area, a party of Germans bearing a wounded man on a stretcher and carrying a Red Cross flag was seen marching down the Belmonte road.
During the night 23 Battalion advanced to some houses beyond Colle Abate and down the track to Belmonte, which B Company entered without opposition about 6 a.m. on the 27th; 21 Battalion, advancing northward from Terelle, secured the high ground beyond Belmonte. After exchanging a few shots with a German observation post on Monte Piano, A Company of 21 Battalion took four prisoners from 134 Regiment.
The 23rd Battalion, led by A Company, which took 11 prisoners, continued down the road to Atina, the outskirts of which were reached late in the afternoon. The battalion learned from civilians that the enemy had gone back behind the Melfa River, about a mile from the village. Bad demolitions were found on all the roads entering Atina, and the bridge over the Melfa had been wrecked, but the river was fordable. The 21st Battalion, which had kept pace on the left, also reached the Melfa.
Meanwhile Pleasants Force had been advised of the capture of Belmonte, and one of its units, the Essex battalion, set out on the task of protecting the engineers under 7 Field Company, including a section with bulldozers, who were to clear the mines, shell damage and demolitions on the road which climbed from the Rapido valley through the defile between Colle Belvedere and Monte
Cifalco, and then descended beyond Belmonte to Atina. Patrols of the Essex made contact with 23 Battalion at Belmonte early in the afternoon, but a large demolition delayed the engineers short of the village. Next day, however, they opened the road to Atina.
Brigadier Stewart ordered the Maori Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel Young14) in mid-morning on the 27th to move from Colle Belvedere to the brigade’s concentration area near Sant’ Elia in the Rapido valley and to get ready to advance along the road to Atina. The Maoris marched down the Terelle track, which no longer offered any terror. Fifth Brigade’s support units, which included 32 Anti-Tank Battery (reverting to its anti-tank role), the detachment of five tanks operated by the Divisional Protective Troop, 1 and 3 Companies of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, and 2788 Field Squadron of the RAF, also were ordered to concentrate near Sant’ Elia in readiness to follow up the infantry. B Squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment had arrived during the night; on the way one of its tanks had gone over a bank in the darkness, killing one and injuring two of the crew.
Sixth Brigade began its advance from the east towards Atina early in the afternoon of the 27th. The 25th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff15) had moved up during the night from the brigade rest area in the Volturno valley to the vicinity of Cardito, and after 5 Parachute Battalion (temporarily under 6 Brigade’s command) had patrolled to the road north-east of Monte San Croce without seeing the enemy, resumed the advance about 1.30 p.m. No opposition was met, but many demolitions and mines on the road had to be cleared before the tanks of A Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, and the support weapons could catch up with the infantry, who reached the outskirts of shell-battered San Biagio late in the afternoon. A patrol found the village unoccupied. Some of the demolitions were so bad that it seemed unlikely that the tanks and other vehicles would rejoin the battalion overnight, although sappers of 572 Field Company, Royal Engineers (in support of 6 Brigade), proposed to work by moonlight.
In the triangle of hills between the two routes along which 5 and 6 Brigades were advancing, Pleasants Force searched for any Germans who might remain on the Division’s front. Patrols from 22 Battalion had seen the enemy on the night of 26–27 May north of Valleluce and on Monte Cifalco, but after daybreak found only vacated positions, many of them mined and booby-trapped. One
patrol pushed to the top of Cifalco, where the enemy had abandoned his defences. The Italian troops in the mountains to the north of the New Zealand Division reached San Biagio on the evening of the 27th and occupied Picinisco, a village near the Melfa River north-east of Atina, early next day. Farther north the Italians had sharp encounters with German rearguards.
II: The Pursuit to Sora
The valley of the Melfa ‘was bright green, cut by the silver ribbon of the river weaving its way through a carpet of blood-red poppies.’16 From the far side of the river near Atina a road led northward through San Donato to join Route 83 at Opi, in the upper Sangro valley; another led north-westward to join Route 82 at Sora, in the upper Liri valley. Routes 82 and 83 continued on through the mountains to Alveo del Lago di Fucino, a large oval plain reclaimed from a lake in the nineteenth century. Route 5, which crossed the peninsula from Rome to Pescara, was joined on the northern edge of the Fucino basin by Route 82 at the town of Avezzano and by Route 83 farther east. Other roads led northward again.
After 51 Mountain Corps’ withdrawal on the night of 26–27 May, 1 Parachute Division, on the southern flank, blocked the junction of Routes 6 and 82 at Arce; 44 Division held a line which extended north-eastwards to the Atina–Sora road below Monte Morrone, and 5 Mountain Division continued this line across the Atina–Opi road to make contact with 114 Light Division.
Although 1 Parachute Division had checked the British advance towards Arce, 51 Corps anticipated a heavy assault on this flank, and as it had few anti-tank weapons and considered the present line unsuitable for prolonged defence, requested Tenth Army’s permission for a further withdrawal. Army replied by directing the corps to extend 5 Mountain Division towards the Sora–Balsorano valley (part of the upper Liri valley through which Route 82 passed on the way to Avezzano), so that 44 Division could release reinforcements for 1 Parachute Division. The corps therefore ordered 44 Division to pull out two battalions and send them to 1 Parachute Division, which ‘would leave a wide gap in 44 Div’s FDLs, but that could not be helped.’17
In the evening of the 27th 51 Corps asked Tenth Army urgently
for anti-tank weapons ‘as the enemy tanks... could not be fought off with bayonets’,18 and again requested a withdrawal. Army repeated its order that 5 Mountain Division should extend farther out to the Balsorano valley and directed that ‘a large force’ of 44 Division be sent to block Route 82 five kilometres north-west of Arce, behind 1 Parachute Division, against attacks from the north; it also ordered 5 Mountain Division to hold firm on the Melfa line. This division was already behind the river. Although 44 Division complained that it was unable, with so many troops detached, to hold its 18-kilometre sector in the hills west of the Melfa, the two battalions were sent off to their blocking role at Arce.
Fifth New Zealand Infantry Brigade had received instructions in the afternoon of 27 May that, after the capture of Atina, the axis of advance was to be the Atina–Sora road. A light force was to lead.
The first of the brigade’s troops crossed the Melfa River during the night. Patrols from C Company, 21 Battalion, reconnoitring north of Atina, discovered an easy crossing place – it was only a shallow stream – near the wrecked bridge, and after midnight the whole company took up a defensive position on the far side. A small patrol sent to investigate a side road leading towards the village of Gallinaro ran into small-arms fire and withdrew.
The engineers working under 7 Field Company opened the Sant’ Elia – Atina road for tracked vehicles early on the 28th, and during the morning Staghound armoured cars of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, under 5 Brigade’s direct command, reached Atina. Later in the day, when further work on the road made it usable for trucks, 28 (Maori) Battalion motored through from Sant’ Elia in a platoon of 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company’s trucks. The convoy drove past Atina to disperse near the river. ‘The sun shining on the lorries’ windscreens heliographed the arrival of the column to the observant enemy. A sighting smoke shell was followed by high explosive and there were a dozen casualties... before the troops scattered.’19 Several vehicles were hit.
Meanwhile 23 Battalion reconnoitred beyond the Melfa. D Company found a bridge on the Atina – San Donato road prepared for demolition, and the engineers, who were sent for, quickly removed
the charges. B Company was directed to test out the strength of the enemy rearguard at Gallinaro, but made slow progress because of mines and the shellfire which fell along the road and around Atina. The company met and repulsed a German patrol, and encountered fire from Gallinaro itself. Artillery support was called for, and 6 Field Regiment’s 25-pounders and some 5·5-inch guns of 2 Army Group Royal Artillery harassed the village throughout the night. Next day the enemy vacated Gallinaro.
The engineers constructed a ford over the Melfa, which was passable by armoured cars and tracked vehicles by about 6 p.m. on the 28th, and began work on an 80-foot Bailey bridge, which they completed during the night; in addition their mine-clearing parties began sweeping the road towards Sora. The 21st Battalion concentrated just beyond the river in preparation for resuming the advance, which did not get under way until late afternoon. Four tanks of the Divisional Protective Troop and armoured cars of C Squadron of Divisional Cavalry followed when the ford was ready, but were hindered by demolitions.
B Company of 21 Battalion, which took the lead, had as its objective the village of Vicalvi, on the southern slopes of Monte Morrone, about half-way between Atina and Sora; A Company was directed on Alvito, a mile or two east of Vicalvi; D Company was given the task of getting on to Monte Morrone, which rose to a height of 3000 feet behind the two villages.
B Company met a German rearguard after crossing the Mollo stream, just beyond the Melfa, and took 17 prisoners. The company continued along the Sora road until it came under shellfire shortly before reaching the road which branched off to Alvito. The men took to the fields, ‘where they had to push through shoulder-high wheat crops,’20 and spent the remainder of the night in a large building. A Company halted below Alvito while a platoon reconnoitred to the outskirts of the village without meeting opposition. D Company was pinned down for an hour by shellfire near the turn-off to Alvito, and later headed towards Morrone along a track between Vicalvi and Alvito.
Early next morning (the 29th) A Company entered Alvito, but was met by small-arms fire in the upper part of the village, which was situated on two levels. The enemy, however, made a hurried departure when two Staghounds came to the assistance of the infantry. Meanwhile D Company began the ascent of Monte Morrone and, despite some hostile machine-gun fire, reached the crest by 9 a.m. B Company’s leading troops came under mortar and machine-gun fire when they turned on to the side road leading
to Vicalvi. The company halted and called for artillery fire, but owing to poor communications 6 Field Regiment did not answer this request until midday. When the shelling ceased B Company entered the village unopposed.
In the afternoon D Company’s troops on Monte Morrone were counter-attacked by about a company of Germans and, as they were running out of ammunition, were obliged to withdraw. Artillery fire was laid on the crest and reverse slopes, but as the enemy appeared to be in strength in a valley north of Alvito, no attempt was made to retake Morrone. Four tanks of the Divisional Protective Troop accompanied B Company into Vicalvi, and a troop of B Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, followed A Company into Alvito. A few tanks and Staghounds covered an advance by this company, reinforced by a platoon from D Company, to occupy high ground above the village. At dusk, however, the enemy had not been cleared completely from houses north of Alvito.
On 28 and 29 May 21 Battalion had taken 39 prisoners from units of 5 Mountain Division and 44 Division, and had sustained 16 casualties, including three killed. Divisional Cavalry had lost three armoured cars on mines, without casualties to their crews.
General Freyberg decided to switch 5 Brigade’s attack to the left to bypass the opposition at Monte Morrone. The enemy could not be expected to hold this isolated position once his withdrawal route to Sora had been cut. Brigadier Stewart therefore ordered 21 Battalion with its supporting tanks, a section of Vickers machine guns and 5 Brigade’s heavy mortar (4·2-inch) platoon to establish a defensive line from Alvito to Vicalvi while 28 Battalion was brought up to its left to continue the advance to Sora.
The topography at Sora bore some resemblance to that at Cassino: the town was overlooked by a hill capped with a castle, behind which rose a 3000-foot mountain (Colle Sant’ Angelo); and through it passed the main road (Route 82) and the railway at the southern entrance to the steep-sided valley of the upper Liri River.
While 5 Brigade was occupying Atina and thrusting along the dusty road towards Sora, 6 Brigade continued its slow progress towards Atina from the east. The 25th Battalion paused at San Biagio while the road was cleared of demolitions to permit the tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, and the supporting arms to join the infantry. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel
Hutchens21) moved up from the Volturno valley and assembled at La Selva, where on 28 May it relieved 5 Parachute Battalion of responsibility for its sector. The parachute battalion returned to its own brigade, which was no longer under New Zealand command.
From the rocky hilltop on which San Biagio was situated the winding road descended steeply into the valley of the Mollarino stream, which flowed into the Melfa near Atina, about eight miles distant. The enemy had obstructed the road in so many places by destroying or damaging bridges and culverts, blowing craters and laying mines, that it would take the sappers (parties from 8 Field Company and 572 Company, RE) several days to clear, even with the assistance of other troops from 6 Brigade. General Freyberg suggested that, as the road was so badly damaged, the brigade should move back through Casale and Acquafondata and use the Sant’ Elia – Atina route. After some discussion this idea was abandoned because the San Biagio road, when cleared, would be a valuable alternative route, and because the engineers estimated that it would be cleared in less time than it would take 6 Brigade to go by the other route, which was already in full use by the transport supplying 5 Brigade and might also be wanted for 4 Armoured Brigade.
Pleasants Force, which no longer served a purpose, was disbanded on 29 May: its headquarters staff and 22 (Motor) Battalion returned to 4 Brigade’s command, and 1/5 Essex went to reserve under 2 NZ Division’s command. Fourth Brigade had been ordered the previous day to bring all its available units forward to Sant’ Elia. Arrangements were made for 534 Tank Transporter Company, RASC, to operate a shuttle service over the long and difficult route from Pietramelara, and by dusk on the 29th most of the tanks of 19 and 20 Armoured Regiments had arrived. The 20th Regiment (less A Squadron with 6 Brigade) was ordered to join its B Squadron under 5 Brigade’s command, and by the morning of the 30th had accomplished the move through Belmonte and Atina.
The start of the Division’s advance coincided with a visit from the Prime Minister of New Zealand (Mr Peter Fraser), who had attended the fourth Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference in
England. Mr Fraser, accompanied by Lieutenant-General Puttick22 (Chief of the General Staff and GOC New Zealand Military Forces), arrived at Caserta on 26 May and was met by General Freyberg.
The Prime Minister spent a week with the Division, during which he visited all formations. On 31 May he called at Divisional Headquarters, by that time well beyond Atina, ‘changed from a jeep to a staghound and with a protective troop went forward with the GOC towards Sora which is now in our hands. ... Prime Minister spoke to Maoris in the forward area and was within 400 yards of a shell-burst. The last armoured car in the protective troop fired its 2-pdr in error just as the party started off. Fortunately it was pointing skywards.’23
On 28 May the British thrusting up the Liri valley threatened to overrun 1 Parachute Division near Arce and roll up 51 Mountain Corps’ southern flank; the continuous bombing of German supply routes and the destruction of bridges caused traffic jams which prevented the delivery of ammunition; tanks were reported to be appearing north of Atina, and a push on Sora was expected.
The threat to the line of communication across the front between Sora and Arce necessitated a change of command in Tenth Army: the formations on the southern flank, including 1 Parachute Division and a large part of 44 Division, were transferred to 14 Panzer Corps, which left 51 Corps with only the troops covering the withdrawal routes through Opi and Sora. At first Tenth Army wanted to put the whole of 44 Division under 14 Panzer Corps’ command and to make 5 Mountain Division responsible for 44 Division’s sector covering Sora and the valley to the north, but General Feurstein managed to get this altered so that 51 Corps kept HQ 44 Division and a few of its units; nevertheless he had to release the units already in 14 Panzer Corps’ sector and a regimental headquarters and another battalion in addition. To defend the Sora–Balsorano section of the upper Liri valley, through which Route 82 passed on the way to Avezzano, 44 Division retained the headquarters and one battalion of 134 Regiment, one battalion of 132 Regiment, a light battery and an engineer battalion.
The rearranging of the front was settled at a conference at midnight on 28–29 May. The Tenth Army Chief of Staff
(Lieutenant-General Fritz Wentzell) claimed that 5 Mountain Division, in pulling back to the Opi pass, had abandoned and demolished the only road which it could have used to move across to take over 44 Division’s sector. General Feurstein replied that Tenth Army had authorised the withdrawal and that when the move had begun Wentzell had given orders to hurry up on the left because of the situation at Valmontone. The mountain division, therefore, had reached the Opi pass position when the new Tenth Army order arrived to hold the Melfa line. ‘The pulling out of one unit after another from 44 Div, 5 Mtn Div and 114 Lt Div had stretched the rubber band to its utmost, so that it was in grave danger of breaking. ...’24
Although Army Group C and Tenth Army were continually laying down lines on the map which were to be held at all costs, 51 Corps could only pretend that it was holding the latest of these lines or admit that it had already withdrawn behind it. The troops opposing the New Zealand advance probably were equivalent to one New Zealand brigade; they had few if any tanks (in any case, if they had tanks, they would have had to keep them well back to avoid getting them cut off by their own demolitions); they were short of anti-tank weapons, transport and ammunition, and were spread over a wide front in positions which often could not give mutual support.
Field Marshal Kesselring probably did the corps less than justice in a conversation with Vietinghoff and Wentzell in the evening of 29 May. ‘I get very unhappy,’ he said, ‘when I think how poor a fight 51 Mtn Corps has put up. ... If the enemy is already getting trucks through past Atina, the demolitions there cannot have been thoroughly carried out. In that case I am afraid he will simply barge straight through at Sora and Alvito. ... That sector must be reinforced more. ...’25
Tenth Army issued orders on the 29th for 14 Panzer Corps to prevent a breakthrough in the Sacco valley towards Frosinone and for 51 Corps to prevent a breakthrough in the Sora valley. The latter corps was to hold a line running north-eastward from Castelliri (near the Liri River) across the Atina–Sora road to a point north of Alvito, and then eastward across the Atina–Opi road towards the Sangro River. The 5th Mountain Division was given control of the mountains on the eastern side of the Balsorano valley, and the adjoining 44 Division was astride the valley south of Sora.
The commander of 5 NZ Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Stewart) gave orders in the evening of 29 May that 21 Battalion, with the support of the tanks, mortars and machine guns it already had, was to hold the Alvito-Vicalvi line; 2788 Field Squadron, RAF Regiment, was to relieve 23 Battalion in the Atina area and the 23rd was to concentrate north of the Melfa on the Atina-Sora road; and 28 (Maori) Battalion was to pass through the 21st and continue the advance towards Sora.
The Maori Battalion moved forward in the morning of the 29th to positions astride the Atina-Sora road south of the Alvito–Vicalvi line. After conferring with the Brigadier, Colonel Young gave instructions for the resumption of the advance in the evening: on the right C Company, followed by A, was to get on to Colle Monacesco, the high ground north of the bridge over the deep, silent Fibreno River, which crossed the valley two miles south of Sora; on the left D Company, followed by B, was to cover the bridge itself, which was known to have been blown up by the enemy, and occupy Colle Mastroianni, between the village of Fontechiari and the Fibreno. A troop of B Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, armoured cars of Divisional Cavalry, and sappers of 8 Field Company were to accompany the battalion.
When it was sufficiently dark on the evening of the 29th the Maori Battalion advanced towards the Fibreno River with C and A Companies along the main road and D and B travelling across country and along the road north of Fontechiari. By dawn on the 30th they were almost on their objectives. Men of C Company, who had met some slight opposition after passing Vicalvi, waded the waist-deep river and took up positions immediately north of the bridge; the other companies covered the south side.
The enemy had blown an 80-foot gap in the Fibreno bridge and a 60-foot gap in a bridge which crossed a stream at the junction of the roads from Atina and Fontechiari just south of the Fibreno. A bulldozer which had been working on the road through Fontechiari (where a cavalry patrol had been investigating an alternative route from Atina) came up to help on the Fibreno bridges, where work began as soon as reconnaissance proved that there were no suitable fords for tanks or trucks along this stretch of the river. As the daylight improved the bridges came under mortar and machine-gun fire, which made it difficult for the engineers to lay out their bridging equipment.
Headquarters 28 Battalion was set up at the road junction south of the river, where the tanks and other vehicles assembled to wait for the completion of the bridging. About 7 a.m. six aircraft with
United States markings dive-bombed the assembly, causing damage to some of the vehicles and wounding two men. This incident was remarked upon with satisfaction by the enemy: ‘In the absence of German aircraft, our hard-pressed troops received support from Allied fighter-bombers, which attacked British troop concentrations in the Vicalvi area. Direct hits and fires were seen in tank and MT concentrations.’26
As it appeared that the passage of the vehicles across the Fibreno would be delayed until the enemy posts responsible for the mortar and machine-gun fire were driven back from the hill to the north (Colle Monacesco) and from the nearby village of Brocco, Colonel Young directed C and D Companies to clear this area while A extended to the west on the southern side of the river and B protected the headquarters area. C Company gained possession of the hill without opposition, but shortly after midday observed an enemy force forming up as if to counter-attack. About 30 or 40 Germans approached the company but ‘a volley from rifles and automatics mowed them down; very few escaped.’27 Obviously they had not expected to find hostile troops in the vicinity.
D Company, which was on the southern bank of the Fibreno some distance west of the bridge, was unable to find a passable ford, but borrowed a flat-bottomed boat from an Italian and ferried its men across. The company advanced towards Brocco ‘over stone terraces, through half-grown grape-vines, and around scattered houses. Fire was heavy but wild. ...’28 The Maoris suffered a few casualties, but the resistance died away and they entered the village to find that the enemy had left hurriedly.
By 2 p.m. the enemy fire on the bridges and elsewhere had almost ceased. Reports from patrols and civilians gave the impression that the Germans were withdrawing. The sappers (8 Field Company) were able to make fast progress on their bridging and hoped to be able to get the tanks over the river before nightfall.
Patrols from B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, began to search the Posta area, between Vicalvi and Colle Monacesco, in the morning. Some of the armoured cars entered the village without meeting opposition, but others moving along a track around a small lake (Lago della Posta) were fired on from the ridge to the north of the village, and as they continued in an attempt to reach the far side of the Fibreno River, were mortared from the direction of Campoli, a village on high ground farther north. The enemy
mortars were quietened by artillery fire, but five of the armoured cars became bogged in marshy ground, and as none could be extricated without help, and no infantry protection was available overnight, the crews walked back to squadron headquarters. The cars were all recovered next day.
A patrol of C Squadron, after negotiating some small demolitions near Alvito, drove along the lateral road linking the Atina-Sora and Atina-Opi roads and entered the outskirts of San Donato in the morning of 30 May. The cars were halted by a demolition in a street and experienced some mortar fire. From a few captured Germans and civilians it was learned that the enemy had left San Donato earlier in the day on the road to Opi. An artillery stonk was called down on an enemy position north of the town. A platoon from 21 Battalion, a few tanks, and machine guns and mortars in trucks were sent to San Donato in the afternoon, but when German infantry were reported to be infiltrating back into Posta early in the evening, 21 Battalion was told to withdraw these tanks and troops and concentrate on defending Alvito.
Fifth Brigade’s plan for the continuation of the advance was for 28 Battalion with B Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, in support to advance through Sora along Route 82 to where a track led off to Campoli. A force of 20 Armoured Regiment’s tanks was to go up this track and was to be joined by infantry from 23 Battalion who (after having taken over the position vacated by the 28th) were to cross Colle Monacesco direct to Campoli. In the next phase 23 Battalion and the tanks were to proceed from Campoli to Pescosolido, another hill village about a mile and a half distant. The Maori Battalion was to assist the tanks up the main road and was to advance until about level with Pescosolido.
Fifth Brigade’s advance was to be supported by 6 Field Regiment and 2 Army Group Royal Artillery (with 74, 102 and 140 Medium Regiments under command), which were to fire stonks covering Route 82 and the side roads to Campoli and Pescosolido. The medium guns were very suitable for support of this nature; they could leapfrog forward in fewer but longer bounds than the Division’s field guns. Seldom if ever was the infantry without artillery support during the whole of 5 Brigade’s advance.
Towards nightfall on the 30th A and B Companies of 28 Battalion crossed the Fibreno River to assemble on the Sora road. D Company was to hold Brocco until relieved by a company of 23 Battalion; C Company, in reserve, was to follow A and B. B Company was
caught by mortar fire while making for the starting line, and had a few men wounded, but re-formed and had begun to advance with A when it was ordered to stop. On learning that the engineers were having more difficulty than expected in bridging the Fibreno, Brigadier Stewart sent urgent orders to 28 Battalion to hold the advance until the supporting arms could cross the river. A and B Companies, therefore, waited where they were on the road, while C, on Colle Monacesco, guarded the right flank.
Working in waist-high water and under intermittent shell and mortar fire, the sappers were unable to complete the Fibreno bridges until nearly 11 a.m. on 31 May. When the tanks began to cross to the northern bank, Stewart sent word to the Maoris to begin their advance. By midday 24 tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment, together with the carriers and supporting arms of 28 Battalion, were following close behind the infantry. The vehicles were stopped by a demolished culvert just short of Sora, and while this was being repaired by the sappers, again working under fire, the leading infantry entered the town.
A Company, despite mortar and machine-gun fire, pushed on into the streets; B Company met stronger opposition, including anti-tank guns, at the railway station. D Company moved across country to the right to cut the Balsorano road beyond the town. Tanks of C Squadron, which accompanied the Maoris into Sora, fired on numerous targets indicated by the infantry. The Germans manned some self-propelled or anti-tank guns until the last moment. One of the New Zealand tanks was lost to them before the combined action of tanks and infantry disposed of two guns. By late afternoon A and C Companies were in the town, C across the Liri River in its western part; B was to the north with the task of covering the junctions of the Sora–Balsorano road and the side roads to Campoli and Pescosolido, and D was a short way up the road to Campoli.
The Germans, who overlooked Sora from the hills, shelled the town and its environs spasmodically during the afternoon and until dark in spite of many counter-battery tasks fired by 6 Field Regiment and the medium guns on observed or suspected gun positions. Much information, most of it accurate, was obtained from civilians who claimed to be partisans working for the Allied cause; they assisted the observers to pinpoint gun positions, observation posts and enemy movement.
The advance to Sora had permitted Divisional Cavalry to be used in its proper role, as ‘the ears and eyes of the Division’, instead of acting, as had been its experience most of the time since arriving in Italy, as infantrymen to thicken up the defences. The Staghound
armoured cars were suitable for leading an advance and reconnoitring the side roads and tracks: when one ran over a mine, it might lose a wheel but otherwise would suffer little damage, and its crew probably escaped injury. When a Sherman tank exploded a mine the damage usually was more extensive and the crew badly shaken. On 31 May C Squadron remained in San Donato, which the cavalry patrols had been first to enter, A Squadron was responsible for holding Posta until relieved by 2788 Squadron, RAF Regiment, and B Squadron, overcoming numerous demolitions, worked its way down Route 82 from Sora to Isola del Liri, where it made contact next day with troops of 8 Indian Division who had come up from the south.
While concentrating in a wheat field, where the vehicles were crammed together, near the Atina-Sora road, 23 Battalion was shelled for about an hour on 30 May. Two men were killed and several wounded, and 20-odd trucks, most of them 4 RMT’s troop-carrying three-tonners, were damaged. The battalion moved to a less exposed position and that night drove up to the Colle Monacesco–Brocco area. Next day, about the time that 28 Battalion was entering Sora, the 23rd had begun to advance across country on Campoli.
The advance was hampered by lack of communication between the infantry and the supporting tanks of B Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, which were to work up the road from Sora. A Company claimed that it reached the road west of Campoli, but did not make contact with the tanks, which in turn reported that they could find no sign of the infantry. D Company also reported that it gained the road (on the right of A Company), and in doing so had taken 10 prisoners from 134 Regiment. A possible explanation of the inability of the infantry and tanks to join up may be that the tanks, proceeding in a compact bunch, had passed before the infantry reached the road.
Early in the advance the leading troop of B Squadron had been halted short of the Campoli turn-off on the Sora–Balsorano road by a German anti-tank gun firing down the line of the road. This and another gun were silenced by the combined action of the tanks and a party of Maoris, but the leading tank was disabled. Subsequently another two anti-tank guns were found abandoned on this stretch of road. Told by Brigade Headquarters that 23 Battalion’s men were approaching the Campoli road and needed tank support,
B Squadron sent up another troop (7 Troop) which, under smoke from the rest of the tanks, rounded the corner and continued up the Campoli road until held up towards dusk by a small but determined enemy post about a quarter of a mile from the village. The tanks spread out and brought concentrated fire to bear on this post, which the enemy abandoned, leaving six men to be taken prisoner. As darkness was falling and more enemy appeared to be ahead, 7 Troop withdrew a short distance to laager. The tank crews, being without infantry protection, provided their own pickets and a guard for the prisoners. The remainder of B Squadron tried to reach the high ground south of the Campoli road, where it could support 7 Troop, but could not negotiate a gully in the failing light and therefore laagered overnight near the Balsorano road.
Meanwhile C Company, 23 Battalion, directed on Campoli, came under some shellfire and was opposed on a hill just south of the village. Civilians informed the company that a strong force of Germans was entrenched ahead of it. Artillery and machine-gun fire was laid down on observed and reported positions before the company resumed the advance after dark. It was engaged on the hill south of the village by small-arms fire and grenades, which wounded two men. By this time it was midnight, and as the men were feeling the strain of the hard going over steep slopes and gullies, the company commander decided to halt and rest until contact could be made with the tanks and a concerted effort made against the enemy.
Because of the uncertainty of the tank support Colonel McPhail ordered C and B Companies to withdraw before dawn on 1 June. The tanks, accompanied by 23 Battalion’s carriers, which had joined them during the night, resumed the advance at dawn, overcame some opposition just outside Campoli and entered the village about 9 a.m. They collected altogether about 30 prisoners. When this news reached Battalion Headquarters, D Company was told to follow immediately and occupy Campoli. The company arrived about midday and the tanks then withdrew to firing positions south of the village.
For the next stage of the advance the infantry was accompanied by tanks of B Squadron, which used tracks from the Campoli road to Pescosolido. No opposition was met, except some long-range shellfire, and in the afternoon the tanks and D Company occupied Pescosolido. After a patrol had ascertained that the nearby village of Forcella was unoccupied, A Company entered it in the evening, and B Company took up a position on a hill near Pescosolido.
Kesselring had issued an order late on 30 May that ‘the enemy must be prevented at all costs from breaking into our positions towards Sora and entering the valley.’29 Next day, however, 51 Mountain Corps had to report that the enemy had brought up fresh forces to the Sora sector and ‘launched a 4-battalion attack between Sora and Colle Allino [north of Colle Monacesco], supported by tanks and artillery. Many of our A Tk weapons were destroyed, and towards evening 3 battalions of the enemy, plus 15 or 20 tanks and some armoured cars, forced a break through just east of Sora, losing heavily in men and weapons in the process. By 1930 hrs the foremost enemy troops were on the line 2 km north of Sora and 1½ km SW of Pescosolido. About a battalion of the enemy crossed the Liri NW of Sora.
‘To avoid complete destruction of our forces, Corps gave orders for a withdrawal from the present line and the formation of a blocking line farther north in the Balsorano valley to halt the enemy. ...’30
By this time the three divisions of 51 Corps, reduced to a third or less of their normal strength, were known as Battle Groups Ortner (44 Division), Schrank (5 Mountain Division) and Boelsen (114 Light Division). Schrank Battle Group was ordered to leave Monte Morrone (which the New Zealand Division had passed without capturing) and keep in close contact with Ortner Battle Group on its right. Most of the guns of Schrank Battle Group and some from Boelsen Battle Group were to be moved westward to points where they could be used in Ortner Battle Group’s defence. Ortner Battle Group, which had no reserves and was reported to have had heavy casualties, intended to hold until dusk in the Sora area and then fall back on the blocking line south of Balsorano, which was being manned in the meantime by an engineer unit and an anti-aircraft battery.
General Feurstein advised Tenth Army in the evening that he had ordered the entrance to the Balsorano valley to be held ‘to the last man. After that we must not expect Ortner Battle Gp to be fit for any more fighting.’ The group received permission from Corps on the morning of 1 June to make a fighting withdrawal to the Balsorano line and to ‘hold it to the last man. Commanders to stay in the FDLs.’31
The battle was approaching the stage when the Germans would be obliged to evacuate the country north of Route 6. The roads through the mountain valleys still open to the enemy offered easily defended positions where small but determined rearguards could block the pursuing forces. In the New Zealand Division’s sector, for example, on the axis of the Atina-Sora-Avezzano route, the nature of the terrain limited the operations to the road and its vicinity; there was little or no opportunity for manoeuvre, and a headlong attack might have proved more costly to the attackers than the defenders.
Beyond Sora Route 82 ran for 20-odd miles close to the eastern side of the Liri River through a valley enclosed by two 6000-foot mountain ranges, the Serra Lunga on the east and the Monti Simbruini on the west. The railway crossed and recrossed the river several times. At the narrowest part of the valley, near Balsorano, a small town some six miles from Sora, an abrupt escarpment on the eastern side overlooked the approaches from the south and was ideally situated for the enemy’s purpose of blocking pursuit.
General Freyberg had advised 5 Brigade on 30 May that, except for light forces which were to probe forward and keep in touch with the enemy, the main body of the brigade was not to proceed beyond the 49 northing, about two miles past Sora. The General’s policy had been to leapfrog the battalions of 5 Brigade until each had had some action, then to bring in 6 Brigade. By the time the Division had reached Sora, 5 Brigade’s battalions had all had some share in the little fighting that had occurred.
In the evening of 31 May 6 Brigade, on the GOC’s orders, warned its units to concentrate in the area immediately east of Atina in readiness to move forward next day. Divisional Headquarters issued instructions that, after 6 Brigade had assembled, the Division was to advance towards Balsorano on a two-brigade front, 5 Brigade on the eastern side of the valley and 6 Brigade on the western side, each with tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment in support.
On 1 June 24 Battalion (Major Aked32) relieved 28 Battalion in Sora and began to advance west of the Liri, and shortly after midday occupied a small hill just beyond the town without opposition. A strong patrol was sent to Colle Sant’ Angelo, where, according to civilians, the Germans still maintained observation posts and some mortar posts. An enemy party, estimated at 200 strong, was seen withdrawing north of Colle Sant’ Angelo and was engaged by the artillery and 4.2-inch mortars as well as by some of the tanks on the other side of the river. The patrol was recalled, and B Company, given the task of searching and occupying Colle Sant’ Angelo, by dusk had found no Germans but evidence of their recent hasty evacuation of several positions.
Other 24 Battalion patrols reported that, after about three miles, the road on the western bank of the Liri became merely a track hardly passable for vehicles. A patrol from A Company reached the village of Le Compre, about four miles beyond Sora, and was told by the inhabitants that the enemy had left a few hours
previously. He had abandoned much equipment, including seven ammunition limbers.
In Sora, where the enemy had blown two bridges, 7 Field Company built a 160-foot Bailey bridge over the Liri. Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the river, 28 (Maori) Battalion advanced along the axis of Route 82, with three tanks of B Squadron, 20 Regiment, in support, and in the late afternoon, having met little opposition except mortar fire, halted about two miles north of Sora, roughly in line with 23 Battalion on the high ground to the right.
Fourth Armoured Brigade, less 18 and 20 Regiments, was given the task of protecting the Division’s right flank in the Monte Morrone–Alvito area against the possibility of enemy infiltration from the Opi area, where he was thought to be in some strength. On the morning of 1 June 22 (Motor) Battalion took over the defence of the Alvito–Vicalvi area from 21 Battalion. Apart from a brush with a small party of enemy on Monte Morrone, 22 Battalion’s patrols met no enemy but found recently abandoned positions.
Under divisional command, 25 Battalion stayed in rear of 6 Brigade to protect Atina against infiltration from the north and north-east. Two companies covered the road junction north of Atina and sent out patrols, but were replaced on 1 June by armoured cars of 12 Lancers, which became responsible for the route through San Donato to Opi. The 25th Battalion was then recalled to 6 Brigade and moved to the vicinity of Sora.
The 24th Battalion resumed the advance up the western bank of the Liri River early on 2 June. A Company, on the right, supported by tanks of A Squadron, 20 Regiment, had to contend only with long-range shelling and machine-gun fire; B Company, starting from Colle Sant’ Angelo, had a strenuous clamber over steep country. Learning that 28 Battalion was advancing to another bound, A Company pushed on past Le Compre and came under machine-gun fire from Germans in caves in the escarpment near Balsorano. The tanks fired on these caves and also on movement in the vicinity of Balsorano.
An escaped South African prisoner of war, who had been hiding in this region for some time, came into the lines and gave detailed information about the enemy positions ahead. He said that the Germans were preparing a strong defensive position at Collepiano, across the narrow valley from the escarpment near Balsorano, and as late as that morning had been carrying ammunition into these
positions. This information proved to be correct. A Company was brought to a halt by small-arms and mortar fire when about a mile from Collepiano. The battalion’s carriers and D Company went forward to give support, and Major Aked ordered D to pass through A and engage the enemy with fire only, in the expectation that he might retire under pressure. By midnight A and D Companies held a line about half a mile from Collepiano, with C in immediate reserve and B south of Le Compre. The tanks laagered in rear of the forward companies.
The Maori Battalion advanced steadily all day on 2 June, meeting only light and spasmodic mortaring of the road, and by late afternoon was approximately opposite Le Compre. Although hindered by the demolitions on the road, the tanks of C Squadron, 20 Regiment, were up with the forward troops by evening. They accompanied patrols to a major demolition about a mile ahead of the battalion’s main position and not far from where 24 Battalion had halted on the other side of the Liri.
By the end of the day the Maoris were feeling the strain of continuous marching in such steep and broken country. When Brigadier Stewart was discussing a resumption of the advance, Colonel Young drew attention to the fact that his men were footsore and weary. The Brigadier then directed that next day 28 Battalion should take up positions on a line which its patrols had reached, while 21 Battalion came up overnight and passed through to continue the advance. Arrangements were made also for 23 Battalion to follow the 21st.
During the night 24 Battalion’s forward troops improved their positions and gained some ground, but at daybreak on 3 June were shelled and mortared. Confirmation having been gained of the enemy’s strength at Collepiano, Brigadier Parkinson arranged for an attack supported by fire from the artillery and heavy mortars and from the tanks on both sides of the Liri. Twelve 4.2-inch mortars were sent up to 24 Battalion by 6 Brigade for the purpose, and liaison was established with 5 Brigade’s supporting tanks, which had a clearer field of fire across the valley than had those with the 24th. The day was spent in preparation for the attack, and towards dusk patrols went out to study the ground, but as 5 Brigade was also held up at this stage, the operation was postponed and later cancelled. During the next two days, when heavy rain hampered cross-country movement for vehicles, 24 Battalion watched and engaged the enemy on Collepiano and around Balsorano. Fire from the tanks and 4.2-inch mortars caused several explosions, thought to be ammunition dumps.
On the night of 2–3 June 21 Battalion embussed from its bivouac
area near Sora and drove up the road in rear of 28 Battalion, whose carriers and tanks, covering the sappers who were working well forward at that time, were transferred to its command. Mortar and machine-gun fire had been coming from German positions on the escarpment south-east of Balsorano, and snipers were covering the demolitions on the road ahead of the Maoris, which made the engineers’ work on this section of the road practically impossible. The first bound of 21 Battalion’s advance was just beyond the escarpment, and obviously the battalion’s major task would be to clear out the defences along this escarpment.
C Company of 21 Battalion debussed shortly after midnight, set off up the road on foot and then turned off into the hills with a point at the eastern end of the escarpment as its objective; D Company, which followed, turned off on a track leading to the hamlet of i Ridotti, and then made north towards the escarpment, which both companies reported they had reached before dawn. Meanwhile a party from B Company relieved the Maoris covering the engineers on the road, and with tanks of C Squadron in support, advanced beyond the demolition where they had been working. They met heavy fire, however, and were forced to fall back. As the light improved the hostile fire also compelled the withdrawal of a bulldozer which had been brought up in the darkness to the demolition.
D Company made its way to the top of the escarpment and found itself among German defences, but appeared to be getting the better of close fighting until other posts in the vicinity opened fire. The company then fell back with the loss of two officers and three men wounded and two men missing, but with some 20 German prisoners. It was ordered by radio to break contact with the enemy and return to the battalion.
C Company, which was out of wireless touch with the battalion for most of the night, also reached the top of the escarpment and (according to a company report) got within a quarter of a mile of Balsorano; but as the light improved the company came under fire from posts ahead of it. It tried to get around the right of these defences, but was forced to ground in inadequate cover.
When he heard of the determination of the German defence, Brigadier Stewart asked General Freyberg whether he could prepare a set-piece attack on katipo (the codename for the bound just beyond the top of the escarpment). The GOC, however, did not give an immediate decision because he felt that the enemy resistance was only temporary, but permitted Stewart and Parkinson to start planning for a concerted attack by the two brigades. When these plans were prepared the General still withheld his decision.
The brigades therefore had to be content to continue with small probing attacks.
In the evening of 3 June D Company, 21 Battalion, with A following, led the way back to i Ridotti, and shortly before midnight A passed through D in an attempt to get around the eastern flank of the defences on the escarpment, while the artillery shelled the positions which had been observed during the day. A Company met men of C Company about 3 a.m. and, acting on their report of the strength of the enemy defences, both companies returned to i Ridotti.
On 3 June the three New Zealand field regiments were taken to a comparatively flat piece of ground on the floor of the valley about two miles north of Sora where, it seemed to a machine-gunner, they were too audacious in digging in so far forward in daylight. ‘A troop of guns is about 100 yards behind us and nearly stun us when they fire. ... A Jerry shell collapsed a wall and killed five out of six [artillerymen] standing behind it.’33 The 6th Field Regiment, which was worst hit by the German shellfire, was ‘bombarded with accurate and heavy concentrations’.34 The field and medium guns shelled enemy guns and mortars, which had observation posts well forward on the commanding heights, and the fighter-bombers also attacked some of these targets, but the New Zealand regiments were blitzed mostly by mountain guns which had been manhandled or mule-packed into the ranges by Schrank Battle Group of 5 Mountain Division.35 Altogether the Divisional Artillery had over 100 casualties, including 11 killed, during 3–5 June.
The 23rd Battalion, on the eastern side of the valley, sent a special ‘mountain’ platoon of volunteers with mules and muleteers to clear out the German observation posts on the heights. On 4 June, however, the platoon, apparently mistaken for an enemy party, was fired on by the New Zealand artillery and tanks, and was ordered to return. The same day 34 Anti-Tank Battery was deployed as
infantry to search the hills on the eastern side of the valley, but was also fired on by ‘friendly’ guns, which severely limited the extent of its reconnaissance. The enemy, therefore, still had observation next day.
Meanwhile 25 Battalion, which had just moved into Sora, sent B Company, with Italian guides, mules and muleteers, to search for German troops reported by the Italians to be on the high ground on the western side of the valley. The company climbed 3500 feet in an approach march of about six miles along narrow tracks, and on the way was drenched by a thunderstorm. A dawn patrol on 5 June captured four Germans who were still asleep. The company attempted to encircle an enemy party, but a German gave the alarm. Three of the enemy were killed, eight including an officer were caught, and an estimated dozen escaped. On the way back to Sora another German was added to the company’s prisoners.
The New Zealand Division had been brought to a halt on 4 June. Fearful of an outflanking movement on his left, the enemy kept up his fire around i Ridotti, without doing much harm to 21 Battalion, which was in the vicinity. His shelling, mortaring and sniping of the main road prevented the engineers from clearing demolitions and patrols from working farther forward. Fifth Brigade’s 3-inch and 4.2-inch mortars fired on the escarpment and paid special attention to a strongpoint from which most of the fire on i Ridotti seemed to come. Close liaison had been arranged between the tanks with 6 Brigade, which had the clearer field of fire across the Liri on the escarpment, and those with 5 Brigade, which had good observation on Collepiano.
The two brigade commanders expressed their opinion at a midday conference that the enemy showed no sign of falling back, and suggested that their plan for an attack on Balsorano should be timed for that night (4–5 June). The plan was abandoned, however, because news was received that the Americans had entered Rome, and a message came from 10 Corps directing 8 and 10 Indian Divisions and 2 NZ Division to form a pursuit force under its command. As soon as he received warning of this plan the GOC ordered 5 and 6 Brigades and the armour to withdraw from the Balsorano front and concentrate in readiness for the new role.
The front was taken over temporarily by Wilder Force, which was renewed under Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder’s36 command and
comprised Divisional Cavalry, A Squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment, D Company of 24 Battalion, C Company of 25 Battalion, 6 Field Regiment and detachments of machine-gunners and engineers. B and C Squadrons of Divisional Cavalry relieved 5 Brigade in Pescosolido and Campoli, and A Squadron patrolled towards Balsorano. The two infantry companies, each supported by tanks, occupied positions about two miles from Balsorano.
The artillery, tanks, mortars and machine guns all participated in a programme of harassing fire on observed enemy posts on the escarpment at Balsorano and on Collepiano during the night of 5–6 June, and after daybreak the tanks laid another concentration on the defences while a patrol from C Company, 25 Battalion, accompanied by armoured cars of A Squadron and by carriers, probed along Route 82. The infantry entered Balsorano unopposed on 6 June, but the numerous demolitions prevented the vehicles from getting into the town that day. D Company, 24 Battalion, found that the enemy had vacated his heavily mined defences on Collepiano.
General Ortner (commanding 44 Division) claimed on 4 June that the Balsorano line ‘was laid out in the most favourable position possible, tactically well sited, and adequately prepared beforehand. The division... brought all its persuasion to bear to instil into the troops the idea that this was to be the final and only line on which the enemy was to be halted indefinitely. Our obstacles forward of the line and our rearguards took the edge off the enemy drive for long enough to organise the defence of the Balsorano line thoroughly. This preparatory organisation, the ... insistence on the policy of “holding firm”, were the cause of the troops’ splendid achievements in this line. ... So far they have beaten off all attacks despite the terrific shellfire accompanying them. Unfortunately, heavy casualties have been suffered. ... Even in the pauses between attacks, the troops have been exposed to continual shell and mortar fire on their positions and supply routes. ... The position on the Army’s right seems to make another withdrawal inevitable.’37
In the late afternoon of 3 June Tenth Army had given 51 Mountain Corps permission to withdraw, and the corps had begun to retire in bounds that night. Light rearguards were left to cover the engineers, who blew some 37 prepared demolitions between Balsorano and Avezzano. Along the New Zealand Division’s line of
advance from Sant’ Elia Fiumerapido to Balsorano the Germans had laid 18 minefields and blown two tunnels, 18 bridges and 30 other demolitions.
Sixty parachutists were dropped behind the enemy’s lines on 1 June with the object of compelling him to withdraw through the Sora-Avezzano valley so quickly that he would be unable to complete his demolitions. The force was to come under the command of the New Zealand Division on landing, with orders to continue operations until joined by land forces or to infiltrate back to Allied lines.
The men chosen for this undertaking were drawn from 6 Battalion (Royal Welsh) of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade; they included signals and medical detachments and were equipped with two wireless sets linked with sets at HQ 2 NZ Division, HQ 2 Independent Parachute Brigade, HQ Eighth Army and HQ Allied Armies in Italy; they also had eight pigeons to carry messages. The parachutists were dropped by three of 11 DC47s, escorted by Spitfires; the other eight DC47s released dummies in the vicinity of the dropping zone, which was about half-way along the road between Collelongo and Trasacco, in a valley south of the Fucino basin and separated from the upper Liri valley by the Serra Lunga range.
New Zealand troops saw the aircraft pass overhead in the evening of 1 June, and later that night the Division was in wireless communication with the parachute force, which reported that the drop had gone according to schedule. Next day, as a result of the change in 10 Corps’ plans, the Division advised the parachutists that it was discontinuing its operations north of Sora. The instructions seem very casual: the parachute force was to act on its own discretion and was expected eventually to join the Division.
The commander of the force (Captain L. A. Fitzroy-Smith), with another man, walked into the Division’s lines on 6 June, when the New Zealanders were cautiously entering Balsorano. He had watched from cover while German motor-cyclists ignited fuses to demolitions on the road, but had been unable to prevent them because at that stage he had no arms or ammunition. He reported that his force, after landing, had been attacked and scattered by what was estimated to be a company of Germans. Some of the parachutists had been brought in on the evening of 4 June by 22 Battalion’s patrols in the Alvito area, and others were brought in later.
The German reaction had been prompt and adequate. As early as 1.50 p.m. on 1 June, 5 Mountain Division had reported to
51 Mountain Corps that it had intercepted wireless messages indicating the likelihood of a parachute landing in the Fucino basin. The corps had ordered the preparation of ‘alarm units’ and the siting of anti-aircraft guns. The mountain division then reported that at dusk 200 parachutists had been seen dropping in the Collelongo area. Several straw dummies were found early next day, and it was assumed that only a few saboteurs had landed. By midday, however, Italian civilians had informed the Germans that 800 men had dropped and moved off to the north-west. According to another story, the force was 200 strong and had requisitioned mules and horses.
Patrols were sent out by the German divisions in the vicinity, and one of these encountered a party of about 30 parachutists and took two prisoners, who did not deny the Italian reports that 800 men had been dropped. Already Tenth Army had directed that an armoured car squadron be sent out to assist the patrols, but on receipt of a report that another 200 men had landed (or through confusion of the earlier reports), Army ordered 51 Mountain Corps to use its main reserve, a battalion of 3 Brandenberg Regiment, because the corps was apprehensive that its left wing might be cut off. As a further precaution a makeshift force was formed, apparently to protect the line of communication against airborne landings. In subsequent encounters with the parachutists the patrols from the German divisions and the Brandenberg battalion claimed a total of 33 prisoners, more than half the original force. The Brandenberg battalion was recalled to the main road to act as rearguard for Ortner Battle Group, whose retreat from Balsorano was covered by demolitions, which it had been the object of the parachute force to prevent.
The failure of this enterprise was a bitter disappointment for the parachute brigade, which had waited long for employment in the role for which it had trained.
Separated from the New Zealand Division by the intervening Monti Simbruini, 8 Indian Division pursued the retreating enemy along the road which linked Route 6 with Route 5 by way of Alatri, Guarcino and Subiaco. On 6 June 10 Corps ordered 8 Indian Division to advance at speed, first to the Arsoli area on Route 5 (the Rome-Avezzano highway) and then to the Rieti area, about 40 miles north-east of Rome; the New Zealand Division was to be
prepared to pass through 8 Indian Division at 48 hours’ notice. In the evening of the 6th, however, HQ 2 NZ Division received confirmation of earlier news of a change in plan: the Division was to advance as rapidly as possible to Avezzano and clear Route 82 as an alternative way forward. Arrangements were made, therefore, for 6 Infantry Brigade to take under its command the units of Wilder Force and continue the advance from Balsorano to Avezzano.
Near Balsorano the Monti Simbruini rose almost vertically from the Liri River to the peaks of Pizzodeta and Viglio, the latter over 7000 feet, and at the foot of this great mountain wall most of the culverts and stone bridges, which occurred every few hundred yards along Route 82, had been demolished by the enemy. Except for the infantry, therefore, the rate of advance depended on how quickly the engineers could construct bridges and detours at these obstacles. While the leading troops of 6 Brigade (26 Battalion) came up the valley from the south, Divisional Cavalry continued its patrolling and the engineers their work of clearing mines and demolitions. A Squadron’s armoured cars passed through Balsorano and by dawn on 7 June were about a mile beyond the town, where they were held up by an obstruction. The wrecked German guns and the many shell craters around them testified to the effectiveness of the New Zealand artillery’s retaliation for the punishment it had received farther down the valley.
Sappers from the three field companies of the New Zealand Engineers and mechanical equipment of the field park company, including five bulldozers, were employed on Route 82 lifting mines (with the assistance at times of the infantry), repairing culverts, filling in craters and bridging the larger gaps. Mines and booby traps were found in houses, around demolitions, and even under cherry trees which were in fruit.
The Division did not regain contact with the enemy, but was so hindered by the demolitions and minefields that it took three days to reach Avezzano, less than 20 miles from Balsorano.
When the trucks of B Company, taking the lead in 26 Battalion, encountered obstructions which they could not pass until trimmed by the engineers’ bulldozers, the infantry debussed and set out on foot to catch up with the armoured cars, which by that time, 8 a.m. on the 7th, were stopped by a demolition three miles north of Balsorano. B Company lifted mines on the verges while the sappers cleared the road. The company passed Castronuovo and halted for the night about seven miles beyond Balsorano. The rest of the battalion, which followed as the road was opened to vehicles, laagered not far behind B Company. The same day 25 Battalion concentrated in the village of Urbani near Balsorano.
The advance was resumed early on 8 June, when A Company, 26 Battalion, passed through B to take the lead. The engineers continued to work ‘at top pressure’ so that the armoured cars, tanks and lorries could follow the infantry. Only A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry and one troop of tanks went ahead; the rest of Divisional Cavalry and A Squadron, 20 Regiment, moved into San Vincenzo, a little town among terraced hillsides which rose to the rocky heights east of the Liri. A Company of the 26th made steady progress, despite the mines and booby traps which wounded seven men during the day, and covered eight miles before halting near Capistrello, only four miles from Avezzano. The rest of the battalion stopped overnight between Civitella Roveto and Capistrello, and the transport, after being held up by bad demolitions farther south, also passed Civitella Roveto before stopping to laager. Some delayed-action explosions on the road during the night cut signal communications to the rear.
Another early start was made on 9 June, when C Company took over the lead from A and advanced to within about two miles of Avezzano. A two-man patrol went on ahead over low hills to enter the town, where the mayor and citizens had turned out in force to welcome the Allied troops but waited all day in vain. The two men were treated royally. A very bad demolition blocked the road just south of Capistrello, but the troop of tanks managed to get over a saddle and catch up with the infantry. Half-way up the last hill before Avezzano, however, they were held up by yet another demolition – the last one.
Early on 10 June C Company and the troop of tanks were on the Capistrello–Avezzano road, D Company and a troop of armoured cars on the road which linked Route 82 with Route 5 west of Avezzano, and the rest of the battalion in the vicinity of Capistrello. The 24th Battalion had arrived the previous day at Castronuovo, and the 25th was still back near Balsorano.
By this time, however, 10 Corps had advised the Division that Route 82 would not be needed. Sixth Brigade was ordered not to deal with any more demolitions but to continue searching the Avezzano area with reconnaissance parties. The GOC drove up to 26 Battalion in the morning and, together with Brigadier Parkinson, went to a point overlooking Avezzano and the Fucino plain. He told the Brigadier to hold his present positions and to send a strong patrol to reconnoitre Route 5 westwards from Avezzano and make contact with 8 Indian Division troops reported in Arsoli.
A patrol composed of two troops of armoured cars, two scout cars of the engineers and a platoon of infantry in 15-cwt trucks set out along Route 5 in the afternoon of the 10th, but was delayed
by a series of demolitions. Two days later it met armoured cars of 12 Lancers at Carsoli, six miles from Arsoli.
A platoon of C Company, 26 Battalion, and other troops entered Avezzano on the 10th. During the next few days patrols reconnoitred the side roads and villages around the Fucino plain, where ‘wild flowers of every colour grew in profusion and the squares and rectangles of cultivated land gave the appearance of being painted on a canvas.’38 The evidence obtained from civilians and the numerous escaped Allied prisoners of war who came into the lines confirmed that the enemy had gone quickly from this region, leaving only small rearguards to blow the demolitions. Many reports were received of the presence of parties of Germans, but only a few were rounded up. Most of them seemed to be marauders intent on reprisals against the Italians or the gathering of loot before they departed.
For A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, whose patrols explored the villages near Avezzano, the next few days were ‘a long riot of German prisoners, escapees, signorinas and vino, Fascist spies and partisans. ... The beauty of the countryside, the affection of the people and the lack of any and all restrictions and restraint together with the zest of chasing the odd Fascist spy is, in many respects, an ideal existence.’39 Among the Germans collected was ‘a very smelly bunch of ragamuffins’ from 85 Regiment of 5 Mountain Division, whom the partisans had locked in a house while working themselves up to murder pitch.
Many of the escaped Allied prisoners were reluctant to leave the Italian families with whom they had been sheltering. ‘Some came alone, some brought wives, and a few their wives and children.’40
The New Zealanders in the valley north of Sora visited Castronuovo, Rendinara and other villages on the lower slopes, among fields of wheat, barley, maize, clover and vines. The Italians said the Germans had brought the wheat seed from Russia and that it had been sown by Allied prisoners, but the enemy had departed before he had time to harvest or destroy the crops. The grain was not yet ready. The hungry Italians who clustered around the New Zealand camps were willing to do anything for bread or any kind of food; they brought cherries, eggs and wine, and offered to wash clothes. ‘Though it’s strictly against regulations, the chaps gave them odd tins of bully, or cheese or ... a few other items of rations which are not popular and pile up. At each meal we have a large audience
of kids mostly, all equipped with some sort of tin or billy and waiting for scraps. The boys scrape their plates into the kids’ tins and if anything is left in the dixies, L – shares that among them too.’41
While the two infantry brigades had been advancing in the valley north of Sora, 4 Armoured Brigade had continued to protect the Division’s right flank in the Monte Morrone – Alvito area.
Brigadier Inglis gave instructions on 3 June for the formation of a mixed patrol to search north of Alvito to see if there was a way into the hills by which assistance could be given to the paratroops who had been dropped near Collelongo. A force under the command of Captain Saxton42 and consisting of the Reconnaissance Troop and a troop of Shermans of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, together with a platoon of 2 Company, 22 Battalion, in trucks, started out the same day and reached the village of Fontana Lepore, about four miles from Alvito. Saxton’s force did not make contact with the retreating enemy ‘but must have been hot on his heels.’43 Civilians said he had left only that morning, with mules and mountain guns. The country beyond Lepore was too difficult for the tanks. They engaged what appeared to be German observation posts in the hills to the north-east, and received in return a heavy bout of shelling. As the result of the general revision of the Division’s role, Saxton’s force was recalled on 4 June.
The tanks of A Squadron, 19 Regiment, apart from those with Saxton’s force, took up firing positions near Alvito to engage suspected enemy observation posts and gun positions in support of the armoured cars of 12 Lancers which, with the assistance of 1/5 Essex, were advancing on the San Donato–Opi road. Patrols of the Essex had entered Opi by the morning of 6 June, by which time the country between Sora and Opi was clear of the enemy.
The New Zealand Division’s task had ended with the occupation of Avezzano. Eighth Army had sufficient troops deployed forward for the immediate operations against the still retreating enemy, and the congestion of the roads demanded that only essential transport should be allowed to follow the leading formations. At
midday on 11 June the Division passed from the command of 10 Corps to Eighth Army reserve. Orders were issued for Divisional Cavalry to hold the Avezzano sector with one squadron, 6 Infantry Brigade to withdraw on to 4 and 5 Brigades, and the whole Division then to go to a rest area at Arce.
Advance parties left on 12 June and the Division moved back during the next two days, Divisional Headquarters, Divisional Artillery and 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades to the Liri valley west of the junction of Routes 6 and 82 at Arce, and Divisional Cavalry (less A Squadron) and 4 Armoured Brigade (less 18 Regiment) a mile or two north of Fontana Liri. The 18th Armoured Regiment remained a few miles away in a valley below Veroli. A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, was recalled from the Avezzano sector on 16 June, when Canadian engineers arrived with orders to dismantle all Bailey bridging equipment for use elsewhere.
The remainder of June and part of July were spent in training and recreation near Arce.
The New Zealand Division’s casualties in April, May and June, during the occupation of the Apennine position north of Cassino and the advance to Sora and Avezzano, were 121 killed and died of wounds, 600 wounded, and two prisoners of war, a total of 723. The Division had covered about 60 miles in a fortnight. The policy had been not to run headlong into opposition and incur needless casualties. Had the advance been pressed vigorously regardless of casualties, heavier losses might have been inflicted on the enemy, especially in prisoners – altogether the Division collected just over 300 – but little more of tactical value would have been achieved.
The German tactics during the withdrawal on the Division’s front were designed to prevent a force breaking through to the Liri River south of Sora, which might have cut off a large body of troops. The 51st Mountain Corps therefore spread its troops over as wide a front as possible and tried to slow down the pursuit with rearguard actions and demolitions. Once the main weight of Eighth Army had passed Arce and crossed the Liri River, nothing further was to be gained by holding south of Sora; all that remained to be done was to delay the pursuit below Balsorano in the upper Liri valley long enough to allow the left-flank troops of 51 Corps time to fall back through Avezzano. This the enemy succeeded in doing.
The New Zealand Division made as much speed as it reasonably could under the circumstances. Demolitions were very largely
responsible for delays, especially at the crossing of the Melfa River near Atina and the Fibreno River south-east of Sora. The infantry got across quickly, but as the commander of 5 Brigade has since said, ‘I would not let them go far until we had supporting arms (i.e. wheels) across the rivers. Had we taken the risk of exposing our inf to tank attack, we might have taken Sora a day earlier than we did.’44
It was not known whether the enemy had tanks. Traces of tracked vehicles had been seen at Atina, but these might have been self-propelled guns. There is no indication in German records that either 44 Division or 5 Mountain Division disposed of any tanks, but they had a few self-propelled guns and towed anti-tank guns, which of course did not have much mobility in such hilly country and in any case had to be withdrawn behind the demolitions or abandoned.
The enemy made the most of his excellent observation from the high ground overlooking the roads along which the pursuit came, and employed his field and medium guns effectively, but perhaps his best artillery work was done by the mountain guns in the hills east of the Sora-Balsorano valley; these were the guns which inflicted so many casualties on the New Zealand artillery. The enemy also held up the advance at times with his mortars and automatic weapons, the crews of which sometimes maintained their fire until their ammunition was exhausted.
The advance to Avezzano was in pursuit of an enemy who was retreating. If it had little influence on the manner of his going, it at least did something for the morale of the New Zealanders who participated: for the first time in Italy, after the series of rebuffs, if not defeats, at Orsogna and Cassino, they had the enemy on the run. After months of wallowing in mud and snow and the other discomforts of static warfare, they found it exhilarating to be on the move again. It was reminiscent of the war of movement they had mastered in the Desert.