Operation Ulysses (i)

This was a New Zealand operation to take Orsogna in east central Italy within the context of the Moro river campaign (24 December 1943).

With bitter fighting in Ortona and Villa Grande farther to the east down the Moro river valley between the Canadian and Indian divisions of Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s British V Corps of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army on the one hand, and the German divisions of General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 10th Army on the other, the German willingness and capacity to defend had become entirely evident. It was obvious that the Germans might well be able to hold onto the Moro river line, all the more so as the deteriorating winter weather was coming increasingly to their aid.

Farther to the west was Lieutenant General M. C. Dempsey’s British XIII Corps of the same army, and this included Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division and Major General G. C. Bucknall’s British 5th Division. As late as 20 December Freyberg believed that the Germans might abandon Orsogna, but together with Bucknall had to plan for the eventuality they they might not do so. Freyberg’s continued preference, after ‘Florence’ and ‘Torso’, was for a flanking movement with his division’s right. This demanded the construction of a motor route that would allow two brigades to be nourished adequately with all their needs. From 18 December, therefore, the New Zealand 7th Field Company (aided by Canadian engineer elements and a number of infantry units) worked to improve the current track on the axis of Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger’s New Zealand 5th Brigade, and indeed to develop it into a two-way metalled road for use in any weather. But pressure on the Germans could not be relaxed while the road was being completed.

Even though time and the winter weather had ben now clearly rendered it impossible for the Allies to realise their plan of a converging descent on Rome (Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army from the south and the 8th Army from the north-east via passes through the Apennine mountains), it remained a strategic imperative for the Allies to maintain pressure on the Italian front in order to pin the German forces, and indeed compel them to bring in reinforcements, and thus ease the burden on the Soviets on the Eastern Front, and improve the changes of the Allies when they opened their ‘second front’ in north-western France during the summer of 1944.

Thus Montgomery planned to reach the Arielli stream along its whole length by 24 December. Within this overall intention, on 21 December Dempsey ordered his XIII Corps to clear Arielli with the 5th Division so that the New Zealand 2nd Division, its right flank thereby secured, could turn to the south-west to roll up the German defences. An operation order of 22 December fixed the 5th Division’s attack for the afternoon of 23 December and the New Zealand 2nd Division’s attack for 04.00 on 24 December. The undertaking’s tactical purpose was to divide the Germans at the boundary between Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division, and to turn the Orsogna defences from the north. The assault was again entrusted to Kippenberger’s New Zealand 5th Brigade strengthened by the 26th Battalion: the brigade was to advance with three battalions from the Ortona road to seize both ridges in the Fontegrande area, and thence exploit with tanks and infantry to the north-west and west for 1 mile (1.6 km) or more across another system of watercourses to the two ridges known as Feuduccio and San Basile. The 21st Battalion on the right and the 26th Battalion in the centre were both given stretches of the first and second Fontegrande ridges as intermediate and final objectives respectively, whereas the 28th Battalion was to take its objective, the important ridge junction to the north of Orsogna, in one bound.

Powerful artillery support was provided by 272 pieces of artillery, including those of the 5th Division and the 6th Army Group, Royal Artillery, for 3,500 yards (3200 m) of front. The field guns were to fire a creeping barrage, finishing with smoke to screen the exploitation, while the medium guns were to bring down concentrations ahead of the objectives. After dawn Orsogna and the approach roads would be bombed. From its position at Brecciarola, Brigadier G. B. Parkinson’s New Zealand 6th Brigade was to support with the fire of its Vickers machine guns and mortars, and also to stand ready to send a battalion into Orsogna if the Germans left the town.

The role allocated to the armour of Brigadier W. B. Thomas’s New Zealand 4th Armoured Brigade was in part protection and in part exploitation. The 20th Armoured Regiment, under command of the 5th Brigade, allocated one squadron to the 21st and 26th Battalions and another to the 28th Battalion, with orders to support the infantry on their objectives and drive beyond them if possible. Should the 5th Brigade succeed and the battle become mobile, the breakthrough would be carried out mainly by an armoured force of the 19th Armoured Regiment and part of the 22nd Battalion, directed either through or around Orsogna to Filetto and beyond, and to the south with the paratroopers of Brigadier C. H. V. Pritchard’s British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade at Melone on the road to Guardiagrele. The paratroops would be assisted by a squadron of the 18th Armoured Regiment, and they and the Divisional Cavalry were to be ready to lend weight to the exploitation to Filetto.

The start of ‘Ulysses’ (i) was marred by a number of unfortunate circumstances. Many of the New Zealanders were extremely weary in the aftermath of much hard fighting in difficult conditions with rest periods that were both few and short, and there was some bewilderment among all ranks that the offensive was being pressed so relentlessly when the obvious course would seem to be a winter pause.

Regrouping for the attack necessitated some fatiguing moves by night, in particular that of the 26th Battalion, which had an arduous approach march of several miles. It arrived weary to launch a night attack under a strange command over ground it had never seen. The night itself was cold, wet and misty and was not made any more cheerful by the thought that it was Christmas Eve. Though as many as 500 reinforcements had reached the New Zealand 2nd Division a few days earlier, all three assault battalions were seriously below establishment strength, the 28th (Maori) Battalion having only about 630 men out of an establishment of 800 and no battalion more than 670. There were also tactical concerns, for as the 21st Battalion’s right flank was bent back, the artillery barrage had to wheel slightly to the left and the infantry commanders’ task of keeping up behind it was more difficult than usual. The two battalions on the right had a more northerly axis of advance than that of the Maoris, so their paths diverged. The 21st Battalion was concerned about a rough gully that lay across its advance and was disturbed about its right flank.

The British 5th Division’s attack on the afternoon of 23 December was reported to have taken all its objectives, Arielli being found that night to be deserted, but its left wing had not come forward, as arranged, to the stream bed on the right of the 21st Battalion, and the battalion went into battle with one eye cast anxiously over its shoulder. The unfamiliarity of some of the troops with the ground, its broken nature and the need to make detours, as well as the proximity in some strength of the defenders, made the attack unusually confused.

D Company, one of the 21st Battalion’s leading companies, clambered across a gully in the wake of the barrage, clearing German infantry posts en route to its objective, Point 331, on the first ridge, which it reached in little more than an hour. A Company, committed on the left to share the first objective, was thrown into disorder on the start line by rounds in the barrage which fell short, and was more than an hour late in going forward. When it did so, it lost direction in crossing the gully, veering to the right; and when it had gained the ridge beside D Company, it had to work its way back to the south-west against frontal fire from German posts in houses as well as fire from the north across the Arielli stream. However, it made its ground on the first ridge and there dug in.

The capture of the second ridge had been the assignment of B and C Companies, but B Company was held back temporarily to cover the soft right flank. C Company, instead of plunging straight across the troublesome gully in front of it, was sent round the gully’s head through the 26th Battalion on the left. Hence it crossed the Arielli stream and secured a lodgement on a spur beyond. Attempts to clear the spur failed, for the crest was swept by machine gun fire, and the company had to dig in on the reverse slope. The first objective, slightly to the rear, was not very securely held, but B Company sent up two platoons which, after straying somewhat, eventually came in to bolster the line between D and A Companies. The battalion now had three companies side-by-side on the first objective, and the fourth with a foothold on the final objective but without much prospect of further advance.

The 26th Battalion’s plan also provided for a two-company attack on the first objective, with the other two companies to pass through to the second. In the lead, D and C Companies became separated in the dark, but both reached the track which was their destination and there managed to assemble most of their men. B and A Companies set off behind the leading companies but were soon ‘out of the picture’ because of faulty wireless communication. A Company appears to have swung to the left of the route followed by C Company. When it was finally halted by machine gun and artillery fire and consolidated, it found itself on the same ridge and to the left. How B Company found its way forward remains, like much else in this action, obscure. For 150 minutes it was out of touch with the rest of the battalion, and when it regained touch with battalion headquarters it had lost its commander, was digging in on the reverse slope of the same spur as that occupied by C Company of the 21st Battalion, and was uncertain where it was.

The one certainty was the steady fire of the German machine gunners. Before 08.00 the two companies of New Zealanders were in contact on this fire-swept slope. A slogging effort by the Maoris of the 28th Battalion on the left won a considerable success in the task of seizing the tableland, to the north of Orsogna and to the south-west of the cemetery, formed by the junction of the gullies. At least partial command of this plateau was tactically indispensable because it gave access to the tracks leading to the north along the Fontegrande spurs, where the infantry waited in hope for the sounds of approaching Sherman tanks. D Company, with the dual roles of right-flank guard and mopping-up company, had to fight its way forward, clearing German infantry posts from its path. Before it could cross the head of the Arielli stream to reach its objective, it was checked and dug in along the line of the stream beside the 26th Battalion’s left-hand company.

Meanwhile, in the centre of the 28th Battalion, the progress of B Company was being hotly disputed among the olive groves a few hundred yards to the west of the cemetery. This company, too, found itself checked as it reached the edge of the stream. On the left A Company had to battle its way slowly down the main road and the railway line. It succeeded in capturing the junction of the road with the track leading along the first Fontegrande ridge, but just failed to reach a second turn-off leading to Arielli by way of the second ridge and the feature known as Magliano. Indeed, the later stages of the company’s advance were made possible only by the fire of all available support weapons (artillery, mortars and Vickers machine guns) onto the German resistance to the north-west of Orsogna, and smoke had to be fired to screen the company while it dug in.

The Maoris had thus worked their two right-hand companies, firmly linked, to within 300 yards (275 m) of their objectives, and A Company, though still disorganised, was only 150 yards (140 m) short of its goal on the left. At all points the battalion was hard up against the German defences. For the infantry entrenched along the first ridge, even more for the 80 or so men thrust forward beyond the Arielli stream in the lee of the second, armoured help could not come too soon. The tanks of A Squadron, 20th Armoured Regiment, lost no time in following the 28th Battalion into the area west of the cemetery, and though gunfire, mines and mud disabled four of them, the squadron manned all its tanks (disabled or not) in helping the Maoris to consolidate. The half of B Squadron ordered to assist the 21st and 26th Battalions made a successful foray along the ridge, and by noon seven of its tanks were deployed in support of the two battalions.

The hopes of an exploitation by the 4th Brigade gradually ebbed away. About daylight it was decided that bad weather and the insecurity of the infantry made an immediate armoured advance impossible, but in the meantime the 19th Armoured Regiment had been ordered forward to a laager in a handy position on Sfasciata, and the 24th Battalion to be ready at 30 minutes’ notice for its part in the exploitation. Freyberg pondered alternative uses for the 19th Armoured Regiment: it might, under smoke and harassing fire, complete the occupation of the final objective on the right, or, leaving the first phase of the commander’s plan unfinished, be switched to the second and sent in a bold sweep to the north of Orsogna to Filetto to shatter the German defences. But neither course would be followed unless the Germans revealed some evidence of crumbling. Freyberg was not prepared to risk his armoured reserve in a tight battle by committing it against undefeated artillery.

By a time early in the afternoon, it was clear that the battle remained tight and the Germans resolute, and Freyberg decided that the situation demanded holding rather than offensive action. He had already issued instructions for the relief of the battered 21st Battalion by the 25th Battalion during the coming night, and for the headquarters of the 6th Brigade to take over operational command from that of the 5th Brigade, with the New Zealand 28th Battalion under command. The two battalions on the first Fontegrande ridge were at close grips with the Germans, a training battalion of the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, throughout the day, and though they had managed to make a solid line they were thankful for the help of the 20th Armoured Regiment’s tanks and for all the supporting fire possible. The troops across the Arielli stream were precariously placed. The bridgehead was held by 27 men of the 21st Battalion’s C Company and 58 men of the 26th Battalion’s B Company, and their attempts to expand it were speedily suppressed. During the morning the men of the 26th Battalion joined those of the 21st Battalion in a cleft near the north-eastern end of the spur to form a composite company under command of the 26th Battalion. Only 200 yards (185 m) from the German positions, they were at the mercy of German mortar fire.

As casualties increased, Kippenberger and both battalion commanders became convinced that the cost of holding the position outweighed any advantage it was likely to yield and orders were given to withdraw across the stream; but Freyberg, having listened to these opinions, reversed the orders and instructed the troops to hold firm until night, when the 25th Battalion would relieve them. After a long approach march over muddy tracks, this battalion carried out the relief as planned, posting its D Company in the salient with orders to retire if attacked. For the Maoris on the left flank, 24 December was a day of danger and discomfort. Since the stream only took its rise on their right front, they were for the most part deprived of the natural protection it afforded the other two battalions; immediately before them, swarming with Germans, was a fairly level stretch of country which gave little cover from observation and exposed the battalion to counterattack. Several times during the day threatening motions, which might have been the prelude to counterattacks, were checked by urgent fire. From the steady German fire B Company suffered most heavily. By dark the company had been reduced to 38 men, and had to be relieved by C Company as part of a general consolidation of the line. Christmas Day came in quietly along the whole front, and saw the replacement of the 5th Brigade by the 6th Brigade in operational command.

Stalemate now descended on the battlefield as the winter weather worsened.