TWO EARLIER VOLUMES(1) have revealed how faithfully India bore her share of Great Britain's heavy commitments in Middle East and in the great deserts during the first four years of war.
During that period Italy's East African empire toppled into ruins. Iran, Iraq and Syria were made secure. In Western Desert, the tide of advantage ebbed and flowed, but the Mediterranean campaign steadily became a heavier drain not only on Italian but on German resources. Finally the United Nations mustered their strength, and in a great drive destroyed the last vestiges of Axis power in Africa. The Indian troops who at one time had been the only infantry division in Middle East, remained in the van of the battle for three years, and it was justice that at the finish in Tunisia they should have added to their already remarkable bag the German Commander-in-Chief, and many thousands of his men.
With the war in Africa over, Fourth Indian Division withdrew from Tunis to Tripoli. There the King Emperor came to thank his men in person. The Indians moved eastwards across a score of familiar battlefields, and concentrated during the summer of 1943 at Alexandria. The sepoys took their case, knowing well that when the battle mounted in vehemence, the call again would come to them.
Near at hand comrades likewise were waiting for the word. Eighth Indian Division, which had lost a brigade at El Alamein, was again at full strength, and eager for employment. Tenth Indian Division, which had swept through three little wars in Iran and Iraq only to meet unmerited disaster in Western Desert, had trained earnestly in Cyprus and Syria for more than a year against the campaign to come. Further east, Sixth Indian Division and Thirty-First Indian Armoured Division, in garrison in Iran and Iraq, hopefully scanned the west, seeking some portent of battle. Thus five Indian Divisions stood waiting for the call---no small contribution to the war against Germany at a time when the Japs stood at the gateways of Bengal.
It was quite impossible that all these fine troops should be employed in Europe. Indeed, in the summer of 1943 many believed the services of Indian forces in the Western theatres to be at an end. Although Middle East and the deserts were tranquil, garrison requirements there continued to be substantial. Moreover, Burma was India's chief anxiety, and it seemed probable that the tough seasoned veterans of Western Desert would be redeployed against the still unshaken Japs. There was another important consideration. Day by day the conflict had become more and more a technician's war. Every new weapon bred a new defence. Specialist cadres multiplied. To win battles against the Germans the private soldier must not only know something about a great many subjects, but he must supplement his courage and determination with exceptional adaptability and resource. In such a war, thought some wiseacres, the Indian soldier, in spite of his unmatched bravery and discipline, would be too greatly handicapped. On this account the supreme test of the European theatre would be denied him.
Such speculation betokened ignorance of much that had happened in the first four years of war. The sepoy, although no longer recruited exclusively from the so-called "martial races", still for the most part came out of the Indian countryside, and brought with him the ryot's limited horizon. The limits were those of opportunity rather than of intelligence, for when once the Indian recruit stepped into the outside world, he speedily caught the ferment in the air, and responded to the stimuli of new ideas. By 1943, Indian troops were singularly well informed, not only regarding the business of battle, but also concerning the world at large. As an illustration, their Army newspapers now appeared in eleven languages, instead of two as in peace time. Even the impassive Gurkhas had their Gurkhali news sheet, which they read with avidity. The increase in general knowledge, induced by the sight of new lands, contacts with diverse peoples, training. in new routines, was reflected in the alacrity with which Indian troops became adept in the latest devices of war. Over and over again, in the course of this narrative, episodes will supply illustrations of the quickness of mind and ingenuity of Indian soldiers on critical occasions. Mastery of new weapons challenged, but did not impede, the progress of their education. Under stress of necessity the sepoys learned the new trades of warfare easily and thoroughly, in a manner which astonished their mentors.
Nor was this quick-mindedness only characteristic of the fighting troops. In the long array of ancillary services essential to modern warfare, Indian units undertook new duties with enthusiasm and ability. As far back as 1941, New Zealand engineers, building a standard gauge line in Western Desert, undertook to teach two companies of Indian Sappers and Miners the routine of railway construction. Within three months, to the joy of their Kiwi instructors, the Indians were laying daily yardages of track equal and even superior to those of the New Zealanders themselves. Under similar circumstances, in the three thousand miles between Teheran and Tunis, hundreds of miscellaneous Indian units had skilled themselves in new occupations. No less than 224 of these formations followed the Indian divisions to Italy, and if their names do not appear prominently in this story, it is because of the exigencies of narrative, and not because they did not make a full contribution to the final victory.
Whatever the speculations of clubs and messes, Field-Marshal Alexander knew the facts. Soon after the fall of Tunis he let it be known that he proposed to employ Indian troops in Europe. The Anglo-American thrust, in Mr. Churchill's phrase, into "the soft under-belly of the Axis", opened with a landing in Sicily in July. 3/10 Baluch Regiment, 3/12 Frontier Force Regiment, and certain pioneer companies, participated in these landings, as elements in the administrative "Brick" which controlled the beachheads. The invasion swept northwards and cleared Sicily; with scarcely a pause Eighth Army leapt the narrow straits into the toe of Calabria. In early September Fifth Army stormed ashore at Salerno, to the south of Naples. Here under Beachmaster's Command went the Jodhpur Sardar Light Infantry, a fine State Forces unit, whose services in this tricky enterprise were recognized by a D.S.O. for Major Ram Singh and five other awards ---the first decorations for Indian troops in Europe in this war.
Two armies abreast, the advance up Italy began. The Italians surrendered, and at first it seemed possible that rather than maintain a battle line with two seaward flanks, the enemy would abandon the Kingdom and would withdraw to main defensive positions along the great wall of the Alps. This hope was unfulfilled. Fresh German formations rushed south to reinforce the stubborn rearguards which slowed down the Allied advance. A captured document gave the following succinct reasons for the decision of the Germans to turn Italy into a battlefield :
(1) It was best for Germans to fight as far as possible from the Fatherland.
(2) The United Nations should be denied the use of Italian airfields from which fighter-bombers might attack the Reich.
(3) The United Nations should be denied the use of the ports of Genoa, Trieste and Venice, which would continue to be used as German bases for harrying the sea supply lines of the Mediterranean.
(4) Germany should continue to draw plentiful supplies of war material from Italian factories. The German Army could live on the Italian countryside, and could even export food to Germany.
(5) Italy was the first and last member of the Axis in Europe, and could not be abandoned without loss of prestige.
It seems possible that these excellent reasons were implemented in the minds of the German General Staff by a further pertinent consideration. Much of Italy consisted of terrain which lent itself to military defence. On such battlefields resolute garrisons might sell ground at an extortionate price in blood. The flat narrow peninsula of Calabria offered few obstacles to invaders, but eighty miles north of the Gulf of Taranto, where the ankle of Italy begins to swell into a calf, a mountain chain emerged in the centre of the Kingdom. These mountains created watersheds which directed the Italian rivers to the east and to the west, into the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas. Scores of such rivers on each coast lay across the path of any invader from the south, and each of these watercourses offers an individual obstacle to mechanized forces.
As the Italian peninsula widened, the central mountain spine thickened and increased in substance, until it towered into the Sierra-like ridges and lofty crests of the High Apennines. This mighty natural fortress commanded both the eastern and the western littorals of Italy. Beyond the Apennines lay the flat fruitful plains of Emilia and Lombardy, but here likewise the water barriers continued; instead of brawling torrents in gashed ravines, great rivers, of which the Po is the mightiest, wound across the land between artificial dykes raised above the plain. These fertile provinces grew much food, and in the midst of their rich fields stood the arsenal cities of Milan and Turin, where behind blued windows the machines roared for twenty-four hours daily, shaping the tools of war. Italian agriculture and industry alike made handsome contributions to the German war machine. It was inconceivable that such resources should be surrendered without a struggle.
Enemy strategy, therefore, was based on the possibility of bleeding the Allies white at low cost to Germany. Every advantage of terrain would be exploited to the full, and enemy forces would be committed to decisive battle only in key positions. Such positions would be covered by new fortifications in the rear. The entire Italian peninsula would be transformed into a fortress which would engulf as many Allied formations as possible, pinning down large bodies of troops which otherwise might be free to strike elsewhere.
Such strategy, however, imposed two necessities on the enemy. A large body of troops must be kept available not only in order to man the battle lines but also to garrison successive reserve positions. Comparatively few of these troops at any one time would be in action. The German plan required a great many men, and it likewise required the presence of high class shock troops; for if men are to be thin upon a battlefield they must be both competent and indomitable. Field-Marshal Alexander revealed long afterwards, that there were always more enemy than Allied troops in Italy, and a comparatively high percentage of such troops consisted of the flower of the German Army---paratroopers, Panzer Grenadier divisions and other specialist formations.
Faced by such concentration and such quality of opponents, a stem task awaited the soldiers of the United Nations in Italy. On the other hand, their mounting labours were lightened by new tools of battle. Gone were the days when emergencies must be met by improvisations out of the scrap of battlefields. Behind the Allied armies now stood the greatest industrial mobilization the world has ever seen. A vast array of scientists, technicians, organizers and craftsmen, sensitive to the vagaries, instant to the necessities of battle, built and delivered a spate of equipment and machines for the new campaign. Among a thousand devices, two were of such paramount importance as to make the difference between defeat and victory. Bulldozers, long the envy of commanders in the desert, multiplied their functions to meet a hundred emergencies. These great scoops and their crews became integral elements of every battlefield. Whatever the malice of the enemy or the whim of nature, if earth and stone could repair the damage the bulldozers speedily would open the way. A brigade of artillery or a heavy concentration of bombers might wreak fantastic destruction on a vital target. Yet in a matter of hours a half-dozen grimy drivers with chugging caterpillars would mend and make workable. The bulldozer was surgeon-on-the-spot to all wounded terrain.
As the bulldozers served with solid earth, so the Bailey Bridge served with unstable water. The simple magic of these Meccano-like frames and sections ranks only behind Radar and the atomic-bomb as the greatest development of the war. Neither enemies nor Allies possessed comparable equipment. A bridge of any length and height, of any tensile strength or carrying power, would grow to completion in a few short hours. The versatility of this equipment equalled its simplicity, and as a result, in the heroic chronicle of the Italian campaign, the bulldozer-driver and the bridge-sapper stand with the infantryman, the gunner and the airman in the front rank of those who made victory possible.
To Indian soldiers the Italian campaign came as a fresh challenge. After bitter ordeals among the saw-toothed peaks of Eritrea, under the thirsty glare of the desert, in the steaming swamps of Burma, a greater strain, a more complicated enterprise awaited them. This book will tell how they met the. challenge.
AT DAWN ON SEPTEMBER 1943, six liners entered Taranto harbour, in the instep of the foot of Italy. This convoy bore Eighth Indian Division, whose battle order on arrival was as follows:
The Division possessed a leavening of veteran units. Royal Fusiliers had been engaged in the first Jebel Campaign in 1940, and afterwards against the Vichy French in Syria, 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles had fought in Eritrea, 3/15 Punjabis in Somaliland, 1/3 Mahrattas and the Royal West Kents, together with 3 and 53 Field Regiments, had been blooded in Western Desert as part of 8th Army.
Major-General Dudley Russell had had a distinguished career. After commanding the battalion of Frontier Force Rifles which now served under him, he had completed the East African campaign as a staff officer with Fifth Indian Division. In the autumn of 1941 he took over command of 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, and became known in Western Desert as a tenacious and resourceful leader. "Pasha" was a man of immense energy, with a highly retentive memory and a flair for organization. His men knew him by his broad-brimmed slouch hat, his long staff, and by his contempt for danger. Like many Desert leaders he dressed to please himself; only in the coldest weather were shorts, grey shirt and chaplies replaced by battle dress. Those who knew him intimately found him to be a charming personality, with a wide knowledge of the world and a rare fund of military experience.
Eighth Indian Division concentrated to the east of Taranto and immediately began to follow north in the path of Eighth Army. A screen of rearguards had confronted General Montgomery's men as they pushed northwards through Calabria, Basilica and Puglia. These provinces comprise the foot and ankle of Italy, where the land is flat. The rivers tend to empty into the south, and so constitute no obstacle to troops advancing from that direction. One hundred and forty miles north of Taranto the broken land begins. Thereafter, for many miles along the Adriatic, rolling ridges and valley bottoms succeed in monotonous procession. Where spurs from the central mountain spine approach the coast, the ridges are sharper and more irregular, the valleys narrower and more abrupt. Twenty miles west of the mouth of the river Sangro, the Maiella massif abuts into the lowlands; the countryside between the sea and the mountains increases in ruggedness. The ridges are high, hog-backed, and even razor-backed; the water-courses are deep-cut and steep-banked. The roads are of secondary class, and usually traverse the crests of the ridges, in exposed positions. The countryside is intensively cultivated, even steep rocky hillsides being terraced for garden, patches and vines; the ditches and terrace walls are lined with pollarded willows and larches. On stony and sparse ground unfit for cultivation, thick clumps of scrub and bramble grow. The tightly clustered houses of the villages stand on the crests of the higher ridges. These hamlets offered excellent observation points, and afforded cover for men and guns.
It was in such countryside that the enemy elected to make his first stand. A flexible defensive zone had been created, which the Germans called the Gustav Line. Its positions began on the Adriatic coast near the mouth of the Sangro river, south of the port of Pescara. The zone traversed the valley of the Sangro, to the southern slopes of Monte Greto. Thereafter the fortifications followed the line of the Volturno Valley through Central Italy, thence through the Mignano Gap to Monte Camino, and on down to the Tyrrhenian coast.
Eighth Army confronted the Gustav positions between the Maiella mountains and the sea with three corps in forward positions. Eighth Indian Division went forward to join 5 Corps under Lieut.-General C. W. Allfrey, C.B., D.S.O., M.C., who had made acquaintance with Indian troops in the last stages of the Tunisian Campaign. Seventy-eighth British Division, with an unsurpassed record in the North Africa fighting, Fourth Army Tank Brigade and Special Service Brigade comprised the other troops in Fifth Corps. Prior to the arrival of Eighth Indian Division the Corps had been harassing the retreating Germans vigorously in the Termoli area, where the River Biferno interposed a water barrier across the path of the advance. The enemy was sufficiently sensitive to this pressure to bring up a fresh division from reserve.
This new division was of less concern to General Montgomery than that age-old enemy of the offensive, bleak winter. The weather had broken; autumnal rains filled the valleys and softened the hillsides. Placid streams became brawling torrents overnight. Sodden roads crumbled under the unaccustomed traffic and retaining walls slid from under along steep hillsides. The fields and pastures churned into mud, so that lorries skated on their way, or skidded into the ditches with wheels spinning helplessly. All bridges had been systematically destroyed and the approaches to fords and to likely diversions had been heavily mined. Every resource of military science had been enlisted to impede advancing troops, to expose them to fire, and to shelter the defenders.
Battlefields more unlike the open ranges of Western Desert could not have been imagined. Distances now must be measured by hours rather than by miles. Traffic was pinned to a few highways. Moreover, secrets could not be kept. The countryside swarmed with civilians, homeless and vagrant, giving enemy agents cover for their activities. Surprise, like speed of movement, was impossible to attain. The battle therefore had to be fought the hard way. The enemy must be found and destroyed in his strength.
On October 18th, 17th Indian Infantry Brigade relieved a British brigade at Larino, four miles south-cast of the Biferno. Fifteen miles beyond the Biferno the river Trigno, a more substantial stream, runs parallel to Route 86, one of the main roads from Central Italy. The advance from the Biferno was resumed with Seventy-eighth British Division in the coastal sector, moving on the right flank of the Indians, and Fifth British Division keeping pace on the left of 17th Brigade.
On the night of October 20th the Divisional Artillery fired its first rounds in Italy. That same night two companies of Royal Fusiliers crossed the Biferno and seized high ground to the north of the river. For the next three days patrols worked, forward through the rolling countryside towards the Trigno. Except for skirmishes with similar enemy patrols, no opposition was encountered. On the night of October 24th 1/12 Frontier Force and 1/5 Gurkhas passed through the Royal Fusiliers and took up the running. 17th Brigade now widened its front, with the 6th Lancers in touch with Seventy-eighth Division, and the Gurkhas linked up with First Canadian Division on the left. Five miles short of the Trigno, 19th Brigade passed through 17th Brigade, with 1/5th Essex and 3/8 Punjabis leading. An ominous portent was the identification of First German Parachute Division on the front, one of the most skilful and belligerent of German formations. Nevertheless, only sharp skirmishes ensued when 19th Brigade took a firm grip on the south bank of the Trigno through occupation of Monte Mitro and Montefalcone.
In this neighbourhood the Trigno ran between steep escarpments, whose crests stood fifteen hundred feet above the bottom of the valley. In many places the banks were sheer. The river was one hundred yards wide and in full view of the enemy on the ridges to the north. Ordinarily no more than two feet deep, the stream had risen sharply as a result of the autumnal rains. All bridges were blown, and all approaches mined. The arrival of 13th and 34th Indian Mule Companies, those ubiquitous carriers of yesterday who have justified their survival over and over again in the present war, solved the immediate supply problem. 19th Brigade (Brigadier T. S. Dobree, D.S.O., M.C.) immediately prepared to force the Trigno, in order to seize Tufillo Village and Monte Ferrano on the high ground. Intelligence reported the positions to be defended by paratroopers, who were fully aware of the purpose of the Indians.
For three days before the attack, heavy rains hampered preparations. Tracks deteriorated into quagmires. The roads had been so thoroughly destroyed that it was necessary for bulldozers to work upon by-passes and diversions, often in full view of the enemy. Under lowering skies, pelted by cold rains, the infantry waited dourly. By the end of October the approaches to the Trigno were organized, and at 0345 hours on November 2nd, 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles silently defiled into the icy stream and began to cross. The supporting barrage burst on the ridge ahead of them, and Eighth Indian Division was committed to its first action in Europe.
Frontier Force Rifles, though out of timing with the barrage, surged up the spur for nearly 2,000 yards, and by 0800 hours had mustered on their start line for the attack on Tufillo Village. The Frontiersmen's assault was launched against a typical German "hedgehog" position. All approaches were mined and booby-trapped. A curtain of mortar bombs covered the minefield. Every house held a sniper. Attempts to close were met with showers of grenades. Quick savage sallies were flung against any ground won. Eventually the battalion was held up, a few hundred yards short of its objective.
On the left of the Frontier Force Rifles, when dawn broke, the Essex began to cross the Trigno. Enemy artillery laid down an accurate shoot on the line of the river. The leading companies pushed through the barrage and up the hillside under murderous machine-gun fire, from front and flanks. The convex curve of the slope prevented Frontier Force Rifles from aiding their British comrades as they strove to come up into line. The forward companies pushed on manfully, and reached their first objective. Mounting casualties, however, made the position untenable, and the Essex withdrew to the north bank of the Trigno, taking their wounded with them.
This success stimulated the enemy, and throughout the day Frontier Force Rifles, pinned down on the approaches to Tufillo, remained under heavy, harassing fire as prelude to counter-attack. In the late afternoon a strong force of paratroopers, making good use of natural cover, assembled close to "D" Company on the right fringe of the village. This possibility had been foreseen, and the Divisional Artillery were standing to, hands on lanyards. As the paratroopers dashed to the attack, the range flashed back the exact yardage to "D" Company's outpost line. Subedar Sawar Khan, commanding the forward platoon, cannily realized that the Germans in the open must suffer more than his own men in their foxholes; so he had shouted over his radio for defensive fire to fall on his own positions. As the shoot came down, the attack faltered and the enemy fled.
That night 3/8 Punjabis joined Frontier Force Rifles in a new assault upon Tufillo. The attack went in on a crescent around the front and right flanks of the village. Two companies were caught in cross fire and lost heavily. Dense darkness made communications difficult. Nevertheless the attack was gallantly pressed home, until German tracer fired haystacks and silhouetted the Indians as they advanced. This ruse revealed to the enemy how few continued the assault. The paratroopers counter-attacked at once, forcing the Punjabis and Frontiersmen back to their start lines.
On November 3rd/4th, for the third night in succession, the same two gallant battalions struck for Tufillo. On this occasion each battalion was reinforced by a company of Mahratta machine-gunners. Enemy concentration shoots swept down on the outskirts to the village, and in the darkness companies scattered and lost touch. The same defensive fire caught the mule trains carrying consolidation weapons and ammunition. The consequent disorganization rather than the enemy impeded the advance, for the recurrent assaults had had their effect, and the Germans were already retiring to their main battle positions. It was not until the following night that the patrols discovered that Tufillo was empty, and that the front was open.
During the fighting, 21st Brigade (Brigadier B. S. Mould, D.S.O., O.B.E., M.C.) had been moving up in support. (While passing through Montefalcone 3/15 Punjabis detected an enemy agent signalling by means of peals on the church bells.) By November 5th the two brigades were abreast, and in the next forty-eight hours they pushed forward for several miles beyond the Trigno. The Divisional problem no longer was to eject the enemy, but to maintain the troops on the move. Sapper and transport services laboured for twenty-four hours daily at the task of preparing roads and of passing supplies forward. On the main Divisional route Montefalcone exhibited a museum piece in road construction. A flight of steps on a steep hillside had been levelled off with concrete to form a skidway on which vehicles were winched up and lined down. A senior officer who visited Eighth Indian Division refused to believe that the forward Brigades could be maintained over such improvisations, but within forty-eight hours of the evacuation of Tufillo, Divisional communications were sufficiently stable to warrant intensified pursuit of the enemy.
During this advance, 6th Lancers on the left of the Divisional front ferreted deeply in enemy territory. A detachment of the Cavalrymen rushed the village of Castello behind the enemy's lines. The patrol seized prisoners, only to be charged by motor-cycle combinations armed with machine-guns. The alacrity with which the enemy struck back on such occasions was characteristic of the perfect training and exuberant morale of the German troops who confronted Eighth Army.
On November 7th, 17th Brigade, which had been serving under Seventy-eighth British Division, returned to the fold, and on the same day 166th Newfoundland Field Regiment joined Eighth Indian Division---another of those contacts with far-flung parts of the Commonwealth which this war has made memorable. 17th Brigade came into the line on the right flank of the Division, and Royal Fusiliers, with a quick rush, captured a valuable bridge over the Senello ravine. Demolition charges were already in place, and the crossing was deemed of sufficient importance for a German engineer patrol to return next night in the hope of discovering careless sentries. This party was destroyed. 1/5 Gurkhas passed through, and under severe shell fire seized a dominating knoll near the river Osento. The hamlet of Atessa stood on still higher ground, sheer above the river. When night fell the Gurkhas advanced to attack the village with three companies in line, reached the enemy's outposts without being discovered, and went in with the bayonet. In a lively account their commander, Major Morland-Hughes, described the assault.
"It was a nightmare trying to call the lads to heel and to point them in the right direction. They were having the time of their lives winkling fat Jerries out of barns and hotting up the less mobile ones with bursts from their tommy-guns. All through the night I kept encountering Jemadar Pitragh Pun (later killed near Caldari), as he roved in the hunt with his revolver in one hand, a grenade in the other, and his kukri between his teeth."
BY 2100 hours the Gurkhas had overrun the village and were digging in. A fierce counter-attack was repulsed by the expenditure of nearly all small arms ammunition. Signallers, artillery officers, and the transport services worked feverishly to establish communications and to get supplies forward. With only scattered clips of ammunition remaining, the dauntless Gurkhas awaited the next assault. At midnight a strong enemy force, covered by flanking machine-gun fire, tried to crash through "C" Company. As the Germans closed, the Gurkhas countercharged with kukris. Their knives took a terrible toll, and the enemy fled in disorder, sped upon their way by Rifleman Okel Gurung, who had snatched a machine-gun from his first victim, instantly to bring it into play upon its former owners. Among the bodies found next morning was that of a much-decorated officer. (It is sad to record that Rifleman Gurung, a most courageous youngster, who afterwards won both the Indian Order of Merit and the Military Medal, was killed in the final battle of the Italian campaign.)
Next morning Gurkha patrols exploited beyond Atessa without contacting the enemy. The way to the Sangro was open. 19th Brigade passed through 17th Brigade and spread out across the countryside to the north-west. This extension of the Divisional front was designed to screen the New Zealanders, who had recently landed in Italy and were coming into the line on the left of the Indians. 3/8 Punjabis turned directly into the west and attacked Pirano with tanks in close support. After some bickering the enemy withdrew. Concurrently 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles moved almost due south on Archi, a small town on a cone-shaped mound about 2,000 yards south of the Sangro. Before dawn on November 18th a carrier patrol explored the outskirts of the town without encountering opposition. Unfortunately the troops sent to seize and to consolidate approached the village by a different road, and bumped into a last-stand rearguard dug in among the tombstones of the village cemetery. Brisk fighting ensued, in which Captain Whitehouse, commander of the Sikh company, was killed. It was not until next day that the town was cleared, and patrols of the Essex passed through the Punjabis to explore the swollen Sangro in search of crossings. The position at Archi gave excellent observation over the valley as far as the river mouth twelve miles away.
(The Sangro sometimes flows east and west, sometimes north and south, and sometimes in between. As the general axis of advance lay into the north, to avoid confusion this narrative will refer only to the north or south bank of this river.)
The comparative ease of the early advances of Eighth Indian Division did not deceive anyone as to the rigours to come. It was obvious that with the first spurs of the Maiellas extruding only 15 miles from the coast, and with a substantial river like the Sangro thrown as a moat across these miles, the enemy would stand stubbornly in such a position. Detailed reconnaissance revealed, as one officer put it, "the lie of the land to be distinctly Boche". South of the river a high ridge breaks sharply into the valley bottom. On the northern bank, half a mile beyond the bed of the stream, a well-defined escarpment rises, covered with stunted trees and slashed by gullies. This escarpment gradually mounts for a further 1,000 yards, where a series of humpy knolls mark the highest ground of all. Upon these knolls stand the villages of Fossacesia, San Maria, Mozzagrogna, Romagnoli and Andrioli. These scattered hamlets on the crest of the escarpment provided ideal sites for characteristic German defensive positions, and they had been "hedgehogged" as the anchor strongholds of the eastern flank of the Gustav Line.
From look-outs on this high ground the enemy had complete observation over the southern approaches to the Sangro. Any attempt to close up on the river could be instantly detected. The villages had been transformed into fortresses, with shelters 20 feet deep, machine-gun nests and connecting tunnels proofed against the heaviest shelling. Houses in key positions had been reinforced with concrete. Pill-boxes had been built. Often different floors or different rooms in the same building were converted into separate strongpoints, so that if assailants broke into one side of the house, the other side still could be defended . Escape tunnels connected the houses, and the storming of one strong point usually left the victors under fire from a nearby redoubt.
Before the villages could be reached, it was necessary to traverse deadly ground seeded thickly with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Minefields in aprons and belts covered all approaches, and constituted an. even greater impediment than the pillboxes and weapon pits of the villages. In the two years since the land mine became a specialized weapon, the enemy had continued to improve his types and sowing technique, until these devilish devices were a fearful obstacle in the path of every advance. No longer could mine detectors guarantee clean ground, as the enemy used mine-cases of wood, pressed paper, plastic and other non-metallic materials, which gave no response to the sweep. The little Schu-mine, of cheap manufacture yet powerful enough to shear off the feet of anyone luckless enough to tread upon it, was broadcast in millions, not only on tracks and possible diversions, but at random over the countryside. This abominable machine inflicted more casualties on troops in attack than any other weapon. Delayed action mines, which absorbed a number of pressures before exploding, added new terrors on tracks and highways. No braver acts have been performed in this war than the rescue of men trapped or wounded on minefields. It was felt by many to be invidious that a distinction should be made and that the Victoria Cross and other usual military decorations should be withheld for outstanding heroism on minefields. No battlefield afforded greater risks or evoked colder courage.
The plan of battle for assault on the Gustav Line by Fifth Corps called for heavy concentrations on narrow sectors. The Corps front extended fifteen miles inland from the Adriatic coast, and was held from right to left by Seventy-eighth British Division, Eighth Indian Division, and Second New Zealand Division. An elaborate deception plan was employed to conceal the focal point of attack. On the adjoining Thirteenth Corps front a false picture was built up by aggressive patrolling, dummy guns and false dumps, together with a fictitious Army Sending Station which continuously filled the air with pseudosignals.
The attack would be opened by Seventy-eighth Division in the coastal sector. When a bridgehead had been established, Eighth Indian Division would break into the main defensive positions on the crest of Mozzagrogna-San Maria ridge. Simultaneously, on the left of the battlefield, the New Zealanders would strike with a double thrust, to the north-west with Chieti as objective, and to the south-west down Route 5, to cut German lines of communications east of the Maiella mountains.
This ambitious plan had been adopted in spite of one incalculable obstacle---the weather. The winter rains had set in, and no reprieve from bitter cold, swollen streams, and sodden earth could be expected. The Sangro in spate averaged five feet in depth, and was of such turbulence that patrols on more than one occasion had been drowned. The infantry bivouacked miserably in boggy fields under pelting showers. Transport speedily churned the water-logged earth into mud soup; vehicles slithered and skidded uncontrollably on the greasy tracks. Heavy transport and guns were winched and manhandled into position by their shivering, mud-soaked crews. Sappers and transport services toiled unceasingly to keep the roads open, and to get supplies through to the advanced positions. The Provost Corps---those battlemasters whose names so seldom appear in the record---manned their posts for twenty-four hours in the day, clearing traffic jams, sorting out priorities, and keeping the tide of vehicles flowing. By herculean efforts preparations for the assault were completed, and in the dense darkness of 0415 hours on November 20th, troops of Seventy-eighth British Division, whose patrols for some days had dominated the northern bank of the Sangro, attacked in the coastal sector. By first light a bridgehead had been established. The enemy chose not to fight back, but to stand at bay in the midst of his maze of defences among the villages on the crest of the ridge.
No sooner had the attack began than rain poured in torrents. The Sangro rose and spread across its valley. Vehicles were unable to traverse the morass, and vital bridging material could not be brought to the launching sites. Without bridges Eighth Indian Division dared not attempt a frontal assault on such a heavily fortified position, since without consolidation weapons and materials gains could not be held. It was necessary therefore to postpone the Indian attack, and the operation opened inauspiciously with one brigade of Seventy-Eighth marooned in a shallow bridgehead on the north bank of the Sangro. The commander of the British Division felt that at all costs he must thicken his troops on the enemy's side of the river. In the next night a second brigade forded the Sangro and dug in on the rising ground under the escarpment.
For thirty-six hours the Sappers toiled without ceasing on the vital bridges. The quagmire approaches greedily sucked down every type of revetting material---road rail, road metal, logs, faggots, fascines and railway sleepers. Many tons of every type of reinforcement were hammered in to assure firm abutments. By the morning of November 22nd, the first bridge was ready for vehicles. That afternoon three crossings were available. All night tanks and anti-tank guns rumbled over, and came up into close support of the infantry. November 23rd was fine and one hundred fighter bombers battered the villages on the crest of the ridge. No deception could conceal the imminence of a major, operation, and Field-Marshal Kesselring, who visited the front on November 22nd, ordered another Panzer Grenadier Division to reinforce the Adriatic sector with all haste.
The next stroke, however, came from General November. A fair day on the coast coincided with a cloudburst in the Maiella mountains. Storm water came surging down, and by the evening of November 23rd the bridges were awash and the spate had undermined the approaches and abutments. One bridge collapsed, the others were unusable. The two brigades north of the Sangro were still marooned, and short of supplies essential to battle. If their predicament were detected, the enemy was in a position to destroy them.
To British forces a river may be a barrier, but an ocean, never. Two detachments of DUKWS, those queer amphibious carriers, appeared out of nowhere, and began to ferry supplies and ammunition from the southern to the northern beaches adjoining the mouth of the Sangro. They worked without ceasing for forty-eight hours, and transported two thousand tons of supplies. No sooner had this ferry service been established than the Sangro subsided as rapidly as it had risen. Damage to the bridge approaches, however, held up the movement of troops on the Indian front, and it was not until the night of November 24/25th that 3/15 Punjabis of 21st Infantry Brigade crossed the stream and relieved a battalion of Seventy-eighth Division in the gully below Mozzagrogna.
A fine day on the 25th gave the dive-bombers a second outing. British and Indian troops in reserved seats on the edge of the escarpment observed the display with the utmost satisfaction. That night, 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment and part of 1/5 Mahrattas, came up on the left of the Punjabis. By dawn, thirty-six hours later, all of 17th and 21st Brigades were across the river, with mule transport trains busily establishing dumps of equipment and supplies. It was boldly decided to use the bridges by day, in full view of the enemy. The Germans shelled the crossings continuously, but the flow of vehicles and tanks was unimpeded. The shallow bridgehead was now crowded to bursting with the troops, supplies, and supporting arms of two divisions.
While these preparations were in hand, the battle had opened elsewhere. It will be remembered that 19th Brigade had spread out on a wide front on the left of the corps sector, in order to screen the deployment and advance of the New Zealanders. It was decided to use this screen to establish a bridgehead at Calvario, eight miles inland from Mozzagrogna. At 0300 hours on the morning of November 23rd 3/8 Punjabis advanced to force the Sangro in a silent attack, and to seize a high, wooded knoll on the north bank of the river.
In the darkness, "C" Company under Captain Gardhari Singh, led the way, wading through turbulent floods up to the men's chests. Wet and shivering, the Punjabis emerged and began to clamber towards their objective. Other companies of the battalion followed in close support. One hundred yards short of the crest the alarm was given, and enemy machine-guns and tanks opened fire. Alert New Zealand gunners instantly pinpointed the flashes from the tank guns, and sent the panzers scurrying with salvoes of well-placed shells. The leading Punjabi sections, undeterred by the traversing spandaus, stalked the machine-gun posts and destroyed them. The crest was won.
Behind the Punjabis, 1/5 Essex followed across the river in pouring rain. New Zealand engineers had stretched a rope from bank to bank, and two Sappers stood in the bed of the stream for hours, pinioning it against the current in order that the waders might have a steady guideline. By dawn the Essex were mustered on the far bank, and at the height of the storm launched an attack on a three-company front on the right of the Calvario knoll. The Home County men were met by withering machine-gun fire. In spite of heavy casualties they gallantly forged ahead and established themselves in houses on the fringe of Calvario village. A clump of Germans dashed to the counter-attack at the moment when Private Bishop, an Essex machine-gunner, appeared with his weapon at an upper window. The bulk target was a marksman's dream, and Bishop broke the rush single-handed.
When day came Punjabis and Essex clung to their positions in a shallow crescent around the precarious bridgehead. Once again the malice of the weather intervened. The Sangro suddenly rose four feet, and made the fords impassable for wheels. Mule trains were rushed up, but the animals were swept off their feet and carried down the river. Several wounded were drowned when attempts were made to evacuate them in mule litters. Detecting the difficulties the enemy concentrated a heavy shoot on the crossings and threw in a strong counter-attack. On the right flank a company of the Essex was forced back to the river bank. The Punjabis smashed three similar assaults in quick succession. Most of the officers were down, one company losing three commanders before noon. In the late afternoon Jemadar Sumerze Ram took command of the 12 remaining men of one Punjabi company, and beat off a fourth attempt to overrun the position.
That evening Essex and Punjabis were so thin on the ground that the forward companies were withdrawn from the positions which they had won at such a heavy cost. Captain Gardhari Singh, however, having led the attack, felt a proprietary interest in Calvario, and withdrew unwillingly. Next morning he signalled to the brigade commander that the enemy could be in no better ease than themselves. He was sure, he said, that the Boche had been fought to a standstill. He asked permission with his handful of gallant survivors to attempt to reoccupy Calvario. Permission granted, he advanced without opposition---the enemy was gone. The Essex and remaining Punjabis came forward and consolidated the objectives which they had abandoned a few hours before. A bridgehead across the Sangro had been established for the New Zealanders.
Its task completed, 19th Brigade moved back to join Eighth Indian Division in the Mozzagrogna area. Before its arrival the main attack had begun.
AT MIDNIGHT ON NOVEMBER 27th, 1/5 Gurkhas advanced through the inevitable rainstorm towards the outskirts of Mozzagrogna. A concentration shoot crashed down on the village, but as it lifted enemy machine-guns clattered, sweeping the greasy slopes up which the Gurkhas scrambled to the close. Two companies penetrated the outpost line covering the village, and began to mop up house by house. In this grim game of night fighting, of surprise and sudden death, there are no finer soldiers in the world than the little hillmen from Nepal.
Bedlam broke loose. Above the crash of exploding mines and bombs, the staccato rattle of machine-guns and the screams of the wounded, the high voices of the Gurkhas could be heard guiding each other from quarry to quarry. One large house at the corner of the village was held in strength. Deadly hand-to-hand fighting ensued as the Gurkhas came leaping out of the darkness. Fifteen German dead were picked up in or around this building.
Moving up in close support of the Gurkhas, Royal Fusiliers were strung out along the track between the river and the village. They had been ordered to pass through Mozzagrogna before turning north-east along the main ridge to attack San Maria. They waited for the word in most uncomfortable surroundings, for they were in the midst of a minefield. The road and its verges were heavily sown, and enemy shell fire, searching the track, caused the mule trains to stampede. Many animals blew up on box mines. It was impossible to move bodies from the road without detonating other mines, and when Fusiliers dived into the ditches to avoid shells, death often awaited them. Half-way between the river and the ridge a giant crater blocked the road. This obstacle was ringed by a curtain of mortar fire. On either side the ground was stiff with mines, and every diversion fraught with mortal risk. After nightmare hours the order to advance was received with utmost relief. But the plan had been changed. The enemy in Mozzagrogna had proven too strong for a single battalion. Instead of attacking San Maria, Royal Fusiliers were ordered to move to the aid of the Gurkhas.
As the British troops approached the village, the battle grew about them. A leading Fusilier section spotted a German mortar crew crawling along a wall to man their weapon, well in the rear of the Gurkha positions. A quick traverse by a Bren gunner tumbled six dead Germans on to the ground. As they entered the village enemies appeared everywhere. Every alley or upper window held a sniper or machine-gunner. Tanks could be heard milling about on the northern outskirts of the village. After the Gurkhas had passed, other enemies had reoccupied strong points and weapon pits, and the battle resolved itself into a vicious and confused hurly-burly in which small groups hunted each other to the death.
Major Morland Hughes had established battle headquarters in the church in the main square. A first-aid post was set up in the shelter of the altar. The roar of enemy tanks grew louder, and Fusiliers took station at the doors with limpet bombs to meet the panzers, should they endeavour to break in. Major Morland Hughes climbed to the belfry to reconnoitre. At that moment two enemy tanks, a flamethrower and a Mark Four, lurched into the square and bore against the church. The flamethrower hosed the walls with blazing oil. Across the square Major Warner of Royal Fusiliers swiftly swung a PIAT by rope to a roof top. The first well-aimed bomb blew off the flamethrower's turret. As its commander climbed out, Major Morland Hughes shot him. Detecting the sniper high overhead the Mark Four sprayed the belfry with its light guns, missing the marksman but hitting the peal of bells. The carillon rang wildly as Major Morland Hughes climbed down in some haste. Before the Fusiliers' PIAT could score again the second panzer withdrew and no equivalent liberties were attempted thereafter. The battle reverted to a man to man struggle.
Jemadar Ram Singh Rana, Intelligence Officer of the Gurkhas, heard noises in his cellar. Dropping map boards and pencils, he and his draughtsmen leapt downstairs with their kukris, killing nine Germans. While establishing quarters in another building, the Jemadar again heard noises. Quietly he stepped into the adjoining room, to discover an enemy observation post manned by two signalmen. One he slew with the knife as the other sprang screaming through the window.
At broad daylight, although Gurkhas and Fusiliers held half the village, the situation remained fluid. No sooner would an area be mopped up than paratroopers would emerge from undetected hideouts to kill or to be killed. Above the rattle and crash of artillery and small arms, the roar of bulldozers could be heard fighting the second and no less vital battle of communications. Enemy tanks and self-propelled guns could enter Mozzagrogna freely from the north, whereas the tracks forward from the Sangro were still blocked. No diminution of enemy strength and will to resist could be discerned, and as the forenoon passed it became evident that if the Germans struck in strength they could regain Mozzagrogna before 17th Brigade's consolidation groups arrived. Towards noon it was decided to withdraw the Gurkhas and Fusiliers to positions south of the village. The fracas by now was of such a confused nature that some groups never received the order. Other parties were so deeply engrossed in individual stalking matches that they ignored it. In the centre of the village, however, where a cohesive battle still raged, Gurkhas and Fusiliers argued as to who should withdraw first. The Fusiliers insisted upon the honour of covering the retirement. "Run, Johnny!" they shouted. On the word the Gurkhas in groups of four or five sprinted across the open square, while their British comrades pinned down the spandau teams with fusillades. The Fusiliers slipped away leaving the church and square to the enemy, but elsewhere bitter fighting continued throughout the day. The count of survivors was not complete until late that afternoon when 100 Gurkhas returned, bringing their wounded with them, and expressing deep satisfaction with the morning's work in the village.
Throughout the day the Sappers had laboured unceasingly on the track leading up from the Sangro. By nightfall repairs had progressed to a point when it seemed probable that 50th Royal Tank Regiment, which was standing by, would be able to reach Mozzagrogna within a few hours. General Russell thereupon ordered a fresh assault that evening. Corps artillery was concentrated for a terrific shoot on the village, and at 2100 hours 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment moved forward to attack. It is perhaps worth recording that some of the Royal Fusiliers, who had survived the ordeal of the previous night, and who now had been detailed to cover Sapper working parties along the road, deserted their comparatively safe tasks and joined the Frontiersmen as they went by to Mozzagrogna.
Once again the bombardment held the enemy garrison in the deep dug-outs, and once again as it lifted the Germans rushed to their surface posts. Again the battle resolved into dozens of sudden deadly encounters in cellars, on roof-tops, in alleys, and behind the angles of broken walls. In a crypt a number of Germans who had taken refuge in the wine vats were despatched. A platoon of Dogras passed a house cleared shortly before. A shot rang out. As the Dogras burst in, 22 Germans including an officer threw up their hands. Every now and then a squat, cheerful Gurkha would emerge from hiding and join the hunt. One had killed his guard after capture. Another had leapt on a flame-throwing tank with no other weapon but his kukri, and had cut down its observer. The hours of night passed, and the grim game went on until the streak of dawn showed in the east. In the first light a roar from the south of the village drowned the chatter of small arms fire. The road from Sangro was open, and the British tanks were crowding through. The leading troop had been given a pin-point on three enemy tanks which had shelled the Sappers during the night. The troop commander searched them out and came upon them at point blank range with their guns facing the wrong way. They were destroyed in a twinkling.
With the arrival of British armour the defences of Mozzagrogna collapsed. As the battered but triumphant survivors of 17th Brigade mopped up the village, a special message of congratulation came in from Field-Marshal Montgomery. Unfortunately delayed-action mines on the road between the river and the village continued to take toll. Lieut.-Colonel G. E. Russell of 50th Royal Tank Regiment had been killed earlier in the day when his jeep went up. Seven sweepings were necessary before the tracks and verges were clean.
During the Mozzagrogna fighting, Seventy-eighth British Division had been heavily engaged on the right of 17th Brigade, where it had taken over and completed the original task of Royal Fusiliers, the capture of San Maria. The armoured brigade supporting the British Division could only advance through the Indian front, and in order to clear the way, 17th Brigade was instructed to secure an essential crossroads to the north-west of Mozzagrogna. On the night of November 29th the tough team of Gurkhas and Royal Fusiliers pushed forward, seized this position and effected a link-up with Seventy-eighth Division. At 1030 hours next morning the enemy struck at the junction with infantry and self-propelled guns. Fortunately a counter-attack had been foreseen, and all arms stood ready. For fifty minutes artillery, planes and armour plastered the approach area, severely mauling the enemy. The British tanks came through and the way was open for the battle to swing into the east, pinning the Germans against the sea. All anchor positions of the Gustav Line were now in British hands. One thousand prisoners had been taken, and a number of German units had been decimated. That evening Field-Marshal Kesselring ordered additional fresh divisions from Northern Italy to hasten to the Adriatic sector.
Nevertheless Allied High Command believed it possible to sustain the momentum of the advance. 21st Indian Infantry Brigade turned west from Mozzagrogna along the top of the ridge with Romagnoli, the next hedgehog position, as objective. 5th Royal West Kents led the advance, and came under heavy fire as they approached the hamlet. The two leading companies lost 3 officers and 85 men killed or wounded within ten minutes of opening the assault. Major Stocker brought up the reserve company and laid a heavy mortar shoot upon a line of trenches concealed behind hedges on the outskirts of the village. Pinning down the defenders he attacked from both flanks in the rear of the entrenched position, and stormed the village. Three counter-attacks, shattered in quick succession with the aid of close support from the fighter-bomber "cab-rank", convinced the enemy that Romagnoli could not be regained.
Simultaneously 1/5 Mahrattas, with two troops of tanks in close support, endeavoured to seize the Redecoppe feature which barred advance on the important centre of Lanciano. Once again heavy fire swept the front as the Mahrattas dashed forward. Lieut-Colonel W. R. Thompson, M.C., fell mortally wounded, with many of his gallant men about him. When night fell the Mahrattas were still short of their objective, and it was necessary to consolidate before attempting to advance further.
On December 2nd, 3/15 Punjabis passed through the Mahrattas and reached the road junction a few hundred yards south-east of Lanciano. Simultaneously Royal West Kents attacked into the north, to ease the flank pressure on Seventy-eighth Division. Tanks of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade supported the Kentish men, and good team work forced the Germans out of Treglio. On the opposite flank of the division, 6th Lancers probed until they found a comparatively open road into Lanciano. along which the armoured cars bowled merrily until they turned a last corner to come face to face with a German tank. The cavalrymen withdrew hurriedly, but established and held a road block cutting off Lanciano, from the west. The town was now closely invested on three sides. That night the enemy made a virtue of necessity and cleared out. "D" Company of 3/15 Punjabis entered next morning and received a rousing welcome from the liberated civilians.
Roads from north, south. east and west met at Lanciano. Exploring and mopping up gave 6th Lancers much to do. The enemy had prepared many bridges and culverts for demolition, but had failed to blow them. The armoured cars raced along the roads to surprise numerous stragglers and rearguard groups. If resistance stiffened, Canadian tanks were on call close at hand. In such fashion the ground up to the river Moro was speedily cleared of the enemy.
Under the original plan, the rôle of Eighth Indian Division in these operations was now completed. First Canadian Infantry Division on the sea coast had relieved the valiant Seventy-eighth British Division, which went out to rest after having suffered over 7,000 casualties in less than six months. The two fresh divisions, Canadians and New Zealanders, were briefed for the next attack. with the Eighth Indian Division in the centre in a more or less static role. The-New Zealanders had been probing in the broken ground beyond the Sangro. Their advanced elements reached Orsogna, but fell back before a panzer attack. (In a scuffle the Kiwis took a few prisoners, and found them to be men from Nineteenth Panzer Grenadier Division, a re-constituted version of Ninetieth Light Division, which had refused to surrender to anyone except the New Zealanders in Tunisia.) On December 7th. in shocking weather which limited air and armour support, the Kiwis attacked Orsogna with two brigades, and fought their way into the centre of the town. Once again German armour massed against the invaders, and forced a withdrawal.
The situation on the left flank of the Indians, therefore, was stalemate. On the right flank the Canadians likewise were in trouble. They had established bridgeheads over the Moro, but could make little headway in the difficult ground to the north of the river. In order to concentrate their strength, the Canadians asked Eighth Indian Division to take over the left sector of their front. On December 7th, 21st Indian Brigade moved up to Frisa, about two miles north of Lanciano, to relieve a Canadian brigade. The Indians were not intended to enter the battle, but were instructed to demonstrate and to employ deception tactics in order to draw German reserves from the Canadian and New Zealand fronts.
It has already been noted that deception had become highly organised. In order to convince the enemy, tangible deceits had to be provided. General Russell decided that a convincing deception would be to build a bridge over the Moro on his front, and to build it at such a place and in such a manner that the enemy could not choose but believe it to be meant for use. A reconnaissance of the Moro banks revealed a point at which a right-angled bend in the road made it an impossible site from which to launch a bridge from the south bank. But, argued Lieut.-Colonel C. M. MacLachlan, O.B.E., commander of the Divisional sappers, if it is impossible to build a bridge from the near bank, why not build it backwards from the enemy's bank? Thereafter, if the Germans discover it, they will be certain that we needed this crossing badly. If they do not discover it, we might surprise them by using it.
(There is an ecclesiastical flavour about this reasoning which suggests dominies among Colonel MacLachlan's ancestors.)
Thus originated the project which became famous as "Impossible Bridge". The area surrounding the bridge site was extremely active. German fighting patrols often crossed to the south bank of the Moro looking for trouble. While the bridge remained no more than a project, the forward companies of Mahrattas and Royal West Kents endured a series of savage counter-attacks. One such assault broke into the Indian positions from the rear. The situation remained critical until the artillery intervened and a squadron of tanks rushed up and ejected the enemy.
On the morning of December 8th, the Canadians in the coastal sector launched a major assault. Bitter fighting ensued and progress was slow. Simultaneously the New Zealand Division had renewed the attack on Orsogna. Here likewise the going was heavy. With both flanks more or less pinned down, Eighth Indian Division entered the Corps attack. 21st Indian Brigade was ordered to seize Caldari, on the extreme right of the Divisional position. With no crossing available for this sector, Colonel MacLachlan's shrewd project now became an urgent necessity: "Impossible Bridge" must be rushed to completion for immediate use. On the night of December 8/9th, Sappers of 69th Indian Field Company crossed the river, swept the approaches for mines, and cut steps in the bank. When day broke, 4th Mahratta Anti-tank Regiment and 50th Royal Tank Regiment moved up to cover the Sappers, who worked steadily under the noses of the enemy. The bridge was completed by day, and that night 3/15 Punjabis, with one company of 5th Royal Mahratta Machine-Gunners, and other supporting arms, crossed the Moro to establish a bridgehead.
The Germans reacted violently to this incursion. From patrol clashes the fighting mounted into a tense struggle. The Punjabis went forward to clear a strong-point with the bayonet. The mules bearing the Mahratta machine-guns had strayed, and Jemadar Rajwam Sowant was in no mood to wait for his weapons. He ordered his machine-gunners to fix bayonets and to charge beside the Punjabis. That night, "Impossible Bridge" was strengthened, and next morning British tanks crossed to come up in close support of the Punjabis and Mahrattas. Mopping up continued, but the area remained unhealthy with enemy snipers and mortar teams infiltrating audaciously. In destroying these pests a number of cat-eyed, soft-footed Indians compiled remarkable individual bags. Havildar Badlu Ram of the Punjabis slew sixteen Germans, and others were not far behind his total. The ground was cleansed and a firm bridgehead established.
On the night of December 9/10th there was thunder on the right when the Canadians struck in great strength against San Leonardo on the road to Ortona. Once again the enemy confined the advance by desperate resistance. In order to allow the Canadians to regroup, a second Indian brigade was ordered into the battle: but before entry it was necessary to enlarge the bridgehead. On the night of December 12/13th, a composite force of 1/5 Mahrattas, Royal Mahratta Machine-Gunners and 50th Royal Tank Regiment, passed through the Punjabi outposts and probed the enemy positions to the west.
When this force cut the lateral road cast of Consalvi, a number of German lorries, laden with rations, obligingly drove into the trap. Closing up on a pin-pointed German position, the air was rent by the Mahratta war cry, "Shivaji Maharaj Ki Jai", as two companies charged. The outpost line of trenches and weapon pits were overrun, but in a number of houses and fortified emplacements the enemy held out and threw back the attack. British tanks roared up, asking for targets. Captain H. J. M. Pettingell, M.C., instructed his men to indicate enemy strongholds by tracer fire. Wherever flights marked centres of resistance the tanks bored in to destroy the defenders. This co-operation saved many Mahratta casualties, broke down resistance, and cleared the strongpoint with a bag of sixty prisoners.
The enemy was in no mood to accept this reverse. At 1700 hours on the next afternoon a fierce artillery shoot swept over the Mahratta position. Panzers approached along the lateral road from the west, and by clever use of dead ground avoided retaliation from British support weapons. Night closed over a noisy scene. Almost twelve hours of harassing fire and "softening-up" prepared for the infantry assault. Just before dawn a company of Panzer Grenadiers supported by seven tanks smashed at the position. The Mahrattas were waiting unshaken, and hurled back their assailants. No further attempts were made to retake this ground.
Adjoining the Canadians on the right of "Impossible Bridge", the Royal West Kents were similarly tested. On four successive nights they stood off determined counter-attacks. Until "Impossible Bridge" was opened, this battalion was isolated. Casualties were substantial, but the Kentish men remained in good heart, and gave the hard-fighting Canadians a firm flank. Everywhere 21st Brigade had taken the shock, had enlarged the 'bridgehead, and had made its gains secure.
Eighth Indian Division was now ready to move to the assault. On the night of December 13/14th, 17th Brigade, under command of Brigadier J. Scott-Elliott, D.S.O., M.C., advanced against Caldari. Royal Fusiliers stormed the village after a wild night's fighting. Forty German dead were found among the ruins. 1/5 Gurkha Rifles seized Point 198 and beat off every attempt to oust them. On the next afternoon a troop of Panzers appeared out of nowhere and assailed the Gurkha position. PIAT mortars blew a leading tank to pieces, and the others withdrew. That evening 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment worked up on the left of the Gurkhas and seized positions along the lateral road which ran parallel to the Moro about 1,000 yards north of "Impossible Bridge". An enemy tank force which included flamethrowers charged the consolidation groups and cut off the Dogra Company. British tanks hurried up. At dawn the Sikh and Dogra companies of Frontiersmen hurled back the enemy in headlong flight, and captured two disabled tanks. On the following evening, 1/5 Essex of 19th Brigade relieved the Royal West Kents, who moved at once to attack on the left flank of the Frontier Force Regiment. The British infantry swept forward in great style, overrunning a number of enemy positions for a bag of 36 prisoners and 4 Mark IV tanks. Twenty-four hours later, 3/15 Punjabis passed through the Mahrattas and seized fresh positions along the lateral road.
The Indians were now firmly embedded in the main German defences. From December 14th onwards the crescendo of battle steadily rose. The New Zealanders slogged their way up to the lateral highway. Day after day the Canadians smashed for small and hard-won gains. Attack and counter-attack followed in quick succession. Toe to toe the adversaries battered each other, refusing to yield ground. By December 15th no less than seven heavy Canadian attacks had failed to storm a key position. On both flanks of the battlefield the great fighting men from the Dominions found it necessary to fight for every yard. A swift break-through was impossible.
In the Indian sector the front was more fluid, and General Russell decided to exploit his advantage. He brought up his reserves from 19th Brigade and threw them into the fray. 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles, with 50th Royal Tank Regiment and Mahratta anti-tank gunners in close support, pushed across the lateral highway and commenced to work towards Tollo, two and a half miles to the north-west. Such an advance would have gouged a deep salient in the German defence system at its most sensitive spot, for the heavily fortified hamlet of Villa Grande, half-way to Tollo, served as the hinge upon which the defences of the coastal sector swung. To bring still greater weight to bear, 13th Corps returned Fifth British Infantry Division, which now came into the line between the Indians and the New Zealanders. The new troops took over a sector from 21st Indian Infantry Brigade on the left, and General Russell was thus able to concentrate his three brigades on the key point of Villa Grande.
Between December 17th and 21st the battlefield was tidied for a decisive trial at arms. Food, ammunition, equipment, and consolidation weapons were assembled in close support of the fighting line. On December 18th the indomitable Canadians renewed their attacks, and after two days' bitter fighting crashed into Ortona. In the broken streets of the seaport ferocious battles ensued. For seven days the men from the Dominion grappled with paratroopers in a death struggle. The hour had struck when the full weight of Eighth Army should be brought to bear. 19th Brigade was ordered to mount an immediate attack against Villa Grande, and to exploit any gains as far as the line of the Arielli river, which wandered southwards from the Adriatic through Tollo.
In the early hours of December 22nd, 1/5th Essex of 19th Brigade mustered on a start line south of Villa Grande, with "C" Squadron 50th Royal Tank Regiment in close support. It was a night of bitter frost. Infantry, tank-men and gunners had much ado to keep warm, and to keep their weapons serviceable. They walked up and down in little groups, stamping their chilled feet and swinging' their arms. At 0530 hours, hundreds of guns crashed in a fearful concentration on Villa Grande. Flashes ringed and stabbed the southern horizon. Ankle-deep in freezing mud, the Essex waited until the barrage lifted. The leading company swept up to the southern edge of the village and plunged into the murk of smoke and fumes, in an endeavour to pin down the defenders before they could man their emplacements.
In their dug-outs and tunnels, the paratroopers had waited alertly for the instant when the storm of shell lifted. They sprang up the stairways and into the open with weapons blazing. Fierce and deadly fighting raged along the fringe of broken houses. On one or two positions, where the Essex had overrun strong-points, quick counter-attacks forestalled every a attempt at consolidation. The Home County men were obliged to relinquish their precarious footholds. The attack on Villa Grande had failed.
Twenty-four hours later to the minute, this same gallant battalion once more threw themselves at the village. With the waves of infantry came the tanks, and when the Germans clambered from their deep shelters, bombs and cannon shells greeted them. Dawn broke. with the outskirts of Villa Grande firmly held. At noon the Essex formed up for a, fresh advance. As the infantry deployed, German artillery and nebelwerfers intervened with a heavy shoot which blasted the British positions. Close behind the barrage the paratroopers counter-attacked. A blaze of fire greeted them, and the assault was shattered. The Essex immediately advanced to mop up the remainder of the village.
Then followed a second Mozzagrogna, in which from house to house, from cellar to loft, from one rubble pile to the next, the Essex and the paratroopers hunted each other to the death. Quick, deadly encounters marked every yard of progress. A British section races for the shelter of a, blind wall. Bren gunners edge cautiously round the corner to the door. A kick shoots it open; tommy guns spray the hall and stairs; the remainder of the section spring to the windows, and roll grenades over the sills. On the blast of the bombs the tommy gunners charge inside to the close. In the cellar, on the stairs, under the eaves, Germans are dead and dying. With all speed the British section mans observation posts from which to rake the next house, and to cover their own approaches. Often they are too late. Paratroopers emerge from a near-by hide-out, and crawl stealthily into the shelter of the blind wall. Once again the battered door bursts in. Bullets hose the hall and stairway, and the house rocks with the shock of grenades. Over the sprawled bodies of British and Germans, the paratroopers feverishly mount their weapons to meet the next assault, which may be only minutes away.
A score of such small deadly battles marked the progress of the Essex as they extended their hold on Villa Grande. All day the crash of artillery and mortar bombs, the sudden chatter of tommy guns, and the springing boom of grenades, bespoke the ebb and flow of the fighting. The grim struggle spread. That morning, 3/15 Punjabis, also with tank support, had thrown the enemy out of Vezzano, half a mile south of Villa Grande. Before the consolidation groups could link up with the Essex, a counter-attack penetrated the Punjabi position, inflicting forty casualties. With equal speed, however, a reserve company raced forward and flung back the intruders. A continuous brigade line was established.
December 24th passed with thrust and counter-thrust which occasionally flared into heavy fighting. The Essex found the area around the village church to be infested with paratroopers, who clung to their broken burrows and fought fanatically until the last. Brigadier Dobree sent 3/8 Punjabis forward on the right of the Home County men, to threaten the village from that flank.
Christmas morning was heralded by intense artillery bombardments along the entire Eighth Army front. The Canadians were finishing off the enemy in Ortona. The Indians were softening up the German positions for a new thrust. In the west Fifth British Division and the New Zealanders were pounding the obstinate defenders who still barred the way into Orsogna. That afternoon 3/8 Punjabis struck at Villa Grande from the east. On the outskirts of the village, enemy machine gunners who had reoccupied weapon-pits and dug-outs previously cleared by the Essex, opened heavy fire. Without hesitation the leading Punjabi company changed direction and swept to flank to deal with this menace. The Mussalman company then resumed its attack on its original objective, only to be pinned by cross fire. Advance against this deadly sleet was impossible. Major Gardhari Singh spotted some haystacks, and the wind lay in the right quarter. Three captured German machine-guns with tracer ammunition were trained on them, and within a few minutes the sodden ricks emitted dense smoke which drifted across the front, cloaking the village. Behind this screen the Punjabis raced for the nearest houses and seized two of them. Paratroopers closed from all sides; a gangster's battle, from window to window, from door to door, ensued. Ammunition began to run low. A mule laden with grenades had tried to reach the houses, only to be shot down thirty yards away. Every yard was swept by spandau fire at point-blank range. Darkness promised to bring the inevitable counter-attack, against which grenades would be indispensable. But how to get them? To Lance Naik Allah Dad the situation presented no problem. "Why are you worrying, Sahib?" he said to his Company Commander. "This is a simple matter. 1 shall run to the mules and fetch the grenades."
He sprang across the open amid the crackle of bullets, and flung himself behind the shelter of the dead mule. His astounded comrades saw him rise, not with one but with four boxes of grenades---a mule's load---on his back. He bore a charmed life, ---and reached shelter exhausted but unhurt. With ammunition replenished the Punjabis held their ground, and that night made contact with the Essex on the southern perimeter of the village. The Royal West Kents likewise began to press in from the south-east. The ring around Villa Grande tightened.
Fighting continued throughout Boxing Day. The ground had dried, and British tanks were able to come forward. Riding on the outside of the leading tank, Major Gardhari Singh pointed out enemy posts. As high explosive and armour-piercing shells crashed into the emplacements, the paratroopers bolted into the open. As they ran, machineguns brought them down. On the northern fringe of the village a few last-stand covering parties stuck it until mopped up. Otherwise the battle for Villa Grande was over.
The Indians entered the village to find a shambles, with dead Germans sprawled on the rubble heaps, in the entrances to dug-outs, or floating in water-filled slit trenches. Villa Grande, as one correspondent put it, looked "as though a giant had trodden on a child's box of blocks". Out of this desolation emerged men, women and children---the villagers who had cowered in cellars and crypts while the battle raged above them. They stared unbelievingly at the insane tangle of wreckage which was all that remained of their homes. A simple community had been threshed under the flail of war.
As the year drew to its close, the Germans on the Adriatic front were reeling from the mighty buffets of Eighth Army. In the coastal sector the Canadians having cleared Ortona were probing towards Pescara. On the Indian front the bastions of the Gustav Line had been stormed. On the left the Germans flinched under the resounding blows of the New Zealanders and Fifth British Division. Now was the time to intensify the assault. But as fresh formations moved up to take over the battle, and with their added weight to strike the mortal blow, winter supervened. On the last day of the year a blizzard swept in from the Adriatic, with biting cold winds, drifting snow and driving sleet. Visibility and ceiling fell to nil, controlled movement was impossible. Communications failed; men floundered and lost themselves between company and company. Long lines of frost-bound vehicles stood starkly immobile by the roadside. Before the wrack of the weather the offensive slowed to a standstill.
The end of the year, and the end of the active campaign, also saw the end of a memorable association. General Montgomery left the men whom he had led from El Alamein. The memory of that small bereted figure, its highly individual clothes, its pungent speech, will remain with soldiers of the Eighth Army as long as they live.
NOTE.---The Tiger Strikes---the narrative of the Eritrean campaign, the battle of Sidi Barrani, and the Syrian campaign. The Tiger Kills---Western Desert from 1941 onwards, and the Tunisian campaign.
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