This was a German series of defence lines in central Italy sometimes designated as the ‘Reinhard-Linie’ (October 1943/January 1944).
The ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ defences, which over much of their length comprised little more than light field works, extended from a western end on the Tyrrhenian Sea coast to the north-west of Naples near Minturno, along the northern bank of the Garigliano river, and through the mountains to Venafro and Castel di Sangro on the western slopes of thge Apennine mountain range. The line is sometimes taken to include a stretch extending farther to the east, but properly this eastern section, which continued across the Maiella range, north of the Sangro river, to an eastern end on the coast of the Adriatic Sea between Fossacesia and San Vito to the south-east of Ortona, was part of the ‘Gustav-Linie’.
The line was initially intended only as a lightly held position to delay the progress of the Allies but when, in October 1943, Adolf Hitler ordered Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, to fall back no farther to the north than the line between Gaeta and Ortona, the line was much improved and strengthened.
The ‘Bernhardt-Linie’, from which the Germans began to retreat in December 1943, later became the forward element of the ‘Gustav-Linie’, which was the designation at first allocated to the most important fall-back position of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ along the line of the Garigliano and Rapido rivers up to the crest of the Apennine mountains at Castel di Sangro and Roccaraso. The whole network of defences, including the ‘Barbara-Linie’ forward delaying line ahead of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ and the ‘Hitler-Riegel’ fall-back line to the rear of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ proper, was often called the ‘Winter Line’ by the Allies.
After reaching the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ early in December 1943, Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army managed to fight its way through to reach the ‘Gustav-Linie’ proper only in mid-January 1944. The ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ defences were held by General Hans-Valentin Hube’s XIV Panzerkorps of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army.
Unlike other German defence lines inasmuch as it did not extend right across Italy, the ‘Bernardt-Linie’ was in effect a salient, facing to the south-east, forward of the ‘Gustav-Linie’, running over the Monte Camino and enclosing, in the area between itself and the ‘Gustav-Linie’, the peaks of Monte Camino (Monastery Hill), Monte la Difensa, Monte la Remetanea and Monte Maggiore in the area of Rocca d’Evandro and Monte Sambúcaro. As noted above, the defences of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ on the Adriatic side of the Rocca Cinquemiglia highway, between Roccaraso and the Adriatic coast between Fossacesia and San Vito, are sometimes also known as part of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’.
The defences of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ were not as strong as those of the ‘Gustav-Linie’, and were intended only to delay the Allied arrival before the ‘Gustav-Linie’. Just days before the Allied invasion of Italy on 9 September 1943 in ‘Avalanche’, the Italian government had reached an armistice agreement with the Allies, but the Germans continued to fight. The Allied armies had then succeeded in taking the southern part of Italy in ‘Baytown’ and ‘Avalanche’, but by a time early in October had come up against the defences of the ‘Volturno-Viktor-Linie’ that provided an outer delating position in front of the ‘Barbara-Linie’ to delay the Allied advance and thereby secure the time needed to prepare the most formidable defensive positions which formed the eventual 'Winter Line'.
General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, commanding the Allied 15th Army Group, had three options for his forces' drive to the north -west with the object of taking Rome. Firstly, on the Adriatic front his forces could advance to Pescara and then use Highway 5 which crossed the country in a south-westerly direction to Rome on the other coast. Secondly, on the other side of the Apennine mountains his forces could move along Highway 7, which followed the line of the west coast but in the area immediately to the south of Rome ran into the Pontine Marshes, which the Germans had flooded. Thirdly, and geographically between the other two, the Allied armies could follow Highway 6, which extended basically parallel to Highway 7 but farther inland through the valley of the Liri river.
Under the overall command of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, whose staff provided the heart of the new Heeresgruppe ‘C’ that came into being on 26 November, the task of holding the Winter Line fell on the 10th Army under the temporary command of General Joachim Lemelsen in place of von Vietinghoff-Scheel, who was in Germany on sick leave. The 10th Army had General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps on the Adriatic sector of the front to the east of the Apennine mountains, and General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps on the Tyrrhenian sector of the front to the west of the Apennine mountains.
On the other side of the front line, the Allied Supreme Commander, Mediterranean Theatre was General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson in succession to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had left Italy to take command of the forces preparing for ‘Overlord’, the great Allied landing in Normandy scheduled for the middle of the following year. The 15th Army Group, which was redesignated as the Allied Forces in Italy on 11 January 1944, was headed by Alexander, under whose immediate command were two armies: on the western side of the Italian peninsula was Clark’s US 5th Army, and on the eastern side was the British 8th Army commanded by General Sir Bernard Montgomery until 29 December, when Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese succeeded Montgomery after the latter’s departure for a major ‘Overlord’ command. The 5th Army comprised US, French and British formations, and the 8th Army British, Indian, New Zealand, Canadian and Polish formations.
On 3 October, a brigade of Major General V. Evelegh’s British 78th Division of the 8th Army had crossed the Bifurno river, which reaches the Adriatic just south-east of Termoli, to confront the defences of the ‘Volturno-Viktor-Linie’. Another brigade, supported by two Commando battalions, landed from the sea north of the river at Termoli in ‘Devon’, and there developed a fiercely contested battle which had hung in the balance when temporary river crossings had been washed away after heavy rains and prevented Allied armour from moving forward. However, the isolated British infantry, reinforced by the amphibious landing of a third brigade, had held out long enough against the armour of Generalmajor Rudolf Sieckenius’s (from 1 November Oberst [soon Generalmajor] Hans-Ulrich Back’s) 16th Panzerdivision for a new bridge to be put across the river, and the crisis passed with the arrival of elements of Brigadier J. C. Currie’s British 4th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier R. A. Wyman’s Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade. By 6 October, the Germans were withdrawing to new defensive positions behind the Trigno river along the ‘Barbara-Linie’. On the Trigno, the 8th Army was obliged to pause because it had outrun its supply chain, which stretched back over poor roads to the main ports of Bari and Taranto, 120 and 170 miles (190 and 270 km) respectively to its rear. Port and transport capacity had also been affected by the logistic requirements of the Allied air forces, which were establishing strategic bomber bases around Foggia.
Lieutenant General C. W. Allfrey’s V Corps of the 8th Army attacked across the Trigno on 2 November using the 78th Division along the coast in the area of San Salvo and Vasto, and Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division farther inland between Montefalcone and Palmoli. By the next day, the positions of the 16th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision had been outflanked and the Germans started to fall back to the forward positions of the ‘Winter Line’ that they were developing on the ridge features north of the Sangro river. The 8th Army’s leading elements had closed up to the Sangro by 9 November. Alexander had planned for Montgomery to advance over the river on the coastal plain on 20 November using the V Corps (Indian 8th Division and 78th Division), and Montgomery secretly shifted the Indian division to the right to narrow and thereby concentrate the V Corps’ front, and brought up Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division on the corps’ left wing. The 8th Army also devised a deception scheme involving false troop movements and ammunition dumps to give the impression that the main attack would be made by Leese’s British XIII Corps farther inland on the eastern slopes of the Apennine mountains toward Castel di Sangro. The deception was to be maintained by an earlier diversionary attack some 40 miles (65 km) inland by XIII Corps and a secondary attack by the New Zealand division at the same time as the V Corps but some 15 miles (25 km) farther inland.
Kesselring quickly divined the Allies’ overall plan, however, and his belief was strengthened on 18 November when Lemelsen reported that the British concentration on the coast suggested that a major effort was about to fall on the LXXVI Panzerkorps’ left wing. Then heavy rain raised the level of the water in the Sangro, and the British offensive had to be postponed to the night of 27 November, which gave the Germans the opportunity to move two divisions across the Apennine mountains for the reinforcement of the LXXVI Panzerkorps. The corps thus deployed three divisions on the coastal plain to oppose the V Corps: Generalleutnant Gustav Heisterman von Ziehlberg’s 65th Division, Generalleutnant Carl-Hans Lungershausen’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalmajor Smilo Graf von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision. The 16th Panzerdivision faced the New Zealand division, and the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision the XIII Corps (Major General C. Vokes’s Canadian 1st Division and Major General C. G. Bucknall’s British 5th Division).
Early on 28 November, the 8th Army began its offensive with the aid of strong artillery support. The New Zealand 2nd Division advanced steadily, for though the German defences had been well prepared most of the New Zealanders’ objectives were held by the 65th Division, which was poorly equipped and untried in battle. The German formation was also hampered by the fact that its commander, von Ziehlberg, was severely wounded during the afternoon of 28 November and replaced only on 1 December by Generalleutnant Hellmuth Pfeiffer. Like the New Zealand 2nd Division facing its first major action since arriving in Italy, the Indian 8th Division experienced tougher opposition. Elements of the 65th Division, which were supported by an armoured Kampfgruppe, held Mozzagrogna with great determination, and the Indians took the town only on the following day after bitter close-quarter fighting. On the morning of 29 November, the 78th Division had gone over the the offensive on the right of the Indian 8th Division and pushed through to Santa Maria by the evening, so establishing the foothold for its main attack on the following day toward Fossacesia. By a time late on 30 November the 78th Division, supported by the 4th Armoured Brigade, had taken Fossacesia, and the whole ridge on the north bank of the Sangro, where the main defences of the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ in the east were sited, was in the hands of the 8th Army.
As the 8th Army pushed forward over the next few days, the 65th Division crumbled, but Herr was able to bring forward the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision from reserve, and transferred a major reinforcement from the quieter sector inland in the form of parts of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision. These movements caused considerable confusion in the German front-line deployments, but even so the LXXVI Panzerkorps was able to make a fighting retreat to the ridge on the north side of the Moro river. Unaware of the disorganisation in the German ranks, the New Zealanders failed on 2 December to exploit an opportunity to capture Orsogna, a key position near the headwaters of the Moro, which on that day was still only lightly held. It was only on the morning of 3 December that the New Zealand 2nd Division attacked Orsogna, but the 26th Panzerdivision had been afforded just enough time to organise and was able to drive back the New Zealand effort. The 26th Panzerdivision then created a formidable defensive complex around the town and along the ridge toward Ortona on the coast, and the Allies managed to occupy Orsogna, despite another two determined attempts during December, only after the Germans withdrew in the aftermath of the Allied breakthrough at Cassino in May 1944.
This paved the way for the Moro river campaign, which lasted from 4 to 26 December as a major component of Alexander’s plan to break through the ‘Winter Line’, advance to Pescara and then wheel left to cross the Apennine mountains and fall on Rome. From 4 December, single British, Canadian, Indian and New Zealand divisions (each supported by an armoured brigade) and single British and Canadian armoured brigades of the V and XIII Corps attacked the strongly held German positions along the Moro river, achieving several exploitable bridgeheads by 8 December.
Throughout the next week, nearly continuous pinning operations by each side caused a stagnation of operations near Orsogna and a narrow pit known as ‘The Gully’. After being held at the Gully for 10 days, the Canadian 1st Division succeeded in outflanking the German defences and forcing the Germans to pull back to a line between Ortona and Orsogna. On 20 December, the line was attacked by both corps. By 26 December, however, the German defences had checked the Canadians in Ortona and the British and New Zealanders in Orsogna. Although both Ortona and Villa Grande had been captured by the end of December, general exhaustion among the Allied forces prevented the capture of Orsogna and an advance to Pescara, and after the onset of harsh winter weather it was clear to the Allied commanders that no further progress would be made and Alexander called off the offensive.
The Moro river runs from foothills on the eastern side of the Apennine mountains to the Adriatic coast south of Ortona. The German defensive complex on the Moro was one of the cornerstones of the ‘Winter Line’, and guarded the eastern side of the Apennines along Highway 5. Montgomery hoped to punch through the ‘Winter Line’, capture Ortona and Pescara and advance to Rome.
The 78th Division, which had led the V Corps’ advance since the ‘Volturno-Viktor-Linie’ fighting and sustained more than 7,000 casualties in less than six months, was now replaced by the considerably fresher Canadian 1st Division from the quieter sector of the XIII Corps, and was moved laterally into the mountains on the 8th Army’s relatively quiet left wing, where is joined the 5th Division in the XIII Corps. Montgomery’s plan was for the Canadian 1st Division to attack across the Moro on the coastal plain to take Ortona and then Pescara. Inland, in the jagged hills above the headwaters of the Moro, the relatively fresh New Zealand 2nd Division was to attack toward Orsogna, while between these two the Indian 8th Division would hold the centre of the front in a relatively static role.
Facing the Allied formations of the V Corps was Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision on the coast, Lungershausen’s (from 20 December Oberst Ernst-Günther Baade’s) 90th Panzergrenadierdivision in the centre, and von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision farther inland with its right on Orsogna. Still farther inland, opposite the XIII Corps, was Pfeiffer’s 65th Division supported by elements of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision and Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision. These were all components of Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps within the 10th Army , led from 24 October by Lemelsen with the task of holding the front east of the Apennine mountains.
On 6 December the Canadians began a series of large-scale assaults on major crossing points along the Moro river in order to take and hold a major bridgehead along the Germans’ defensive line. The three primary assault points were Rogatti along the western edge of the Canadian sector, San Leonardo 3.1 miles (5 km) south of Ortona, and San Donato near the coast. Five infantry battalions were selected to assault these positions and cross the river. The seizure of Rogatti, the westernmost crossing point, was allocated to Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. After undertaking a reconnaissance of its objective during the night of 5 December, an attack plan was devised by Lieutenant Colonel C. B Ware, the battalion’s commander, detailing the objectives for all four of his infantry companies. Once these objectives had been taken, by the early morning of 6 December, Canadian and British reinforcements were to be moved into Rogatti to beat off the powerful German counterattack that had to be expected.
The defence of Rogatti was vested in the 26th Panzerregiment, the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment and the 361st Panzergrenadierregiment.
At 00.01 on 5 December, two companies of the PPCLI crossed the Moro river toward Rogatti and within an hour savage fighting had erupted throughout the town as the two Canadian companies attempted to break through the German defences. As B Company broke through the German defences, A Company attacked north-east, continuing to engage 200th Panzergrenadierregiment near Rogatti. Although two Canadian companies now occupied Rogatti, Panzergrenadier elements still held substantial defences on the outskirts of the town. However, C Company continued to advance steadily along the eastern side of the town, in the process encountering major resistance from the 361st Panzergrenadierregiment. After about an hour of fighting by C and D Companies, Rogatti had been occupied by the Canadian forces shortly before dawn. By mid-morning, German counterattacks on the PPCLI’s positions in the town had started, involving tanks of the 7th Kompanie of the 2/26th Panzerregiment, field guns and a large force of infantry.
Throughout the afternoon the PPCLI’s two companies beat off several German attacks, eventually managing to push them back to the vineyards on the northern edge of the town. While the PPCLI had taken 68 casualties, German casualties were estimated at 120. However, three strong German units surrounded the Canadians at Rogatti, rendering further exploitation of this bridgehead problematical. Ware was advised to be ready to withdraw his men back across the Moro river in the event of a large German counterattack, and to bolster the Canadians, on the night of 7/8 December Brigadier B. S. Mould’s Indian 21st Brigade of the Indian 8th Division amalgamated the western flank of the Canadian 1st Division into its own line. As a result of the withdrawal, the next Canadian effort was to be concentrated on achieving a bridgehead at San Leonardo.
The Canadian attack on San Leonardo by the Seaforth Highlanders began late on 5 December with the establishment of a bridgehead across the Moro by A Company, which lost heavily in the process. During the early morning of 6 December, A Company was withdrawn and two other companies resumed the offensive. As the PPCLI secured and held their bridgehead over the Moro, the Seaforths were struggling to enter San Leonardo. By 07.15, a single objective had been taken, but the Canadian units were pinned down by well co-ordinated defensive fire from several companies of the 361st Panzergrenadierregiment. Simultaneously, small arms fire prevented C Company from moving up the road from the Moro to San Leonardo, while D Company remained on the south bank of the Moro throughout the early morning. In the afternoon, with San Leonardo still in German hands, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment sent two companies to the aid of the Seaforths, even as the latter’s B Company attacked positions west of San Leonardo, inflicting 129 casualties on German forces in the area. However, the attack on San Leonardo by three Seaforth companies soon stalled as the 26th Panzerregiment’s armoured companies reinforced the sector. As a result, Lieutenant Colonel J. D. Forin, the battalion’s commander, was ordered to prepare for a withdrawal from the San Leonardo bridgehead.
While attempts were made to cross the Moro at Rogatti and San Leonardo, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment launched an attack on the Moro river defences at the small coastal hamlet of San Donato at 13.40 on 6 December, but the single company making the attack made only insignificant gains and Lieutenant Colonel A. A. Kennedy, the Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment’s battalion commander, ordered a withdrawal at 15.40. Throughout 6 December, strong German coastal defences prevented further progress despite the commitment of tanks and artillery into the assault, and at the fall of darkness the Germans still held San Donato, with the Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment withdrawing to the Moro’s southern bank.
On 8 December Vokes promulgated a new plan for taking the Moro river. While the 48th Highlanders of Canada and the PPCLI resumed the assault on San Leonardo from the south-western side of the town, the Royal Canadian Regiment was to break out of the bridgehead created by the HPER then move to the south-west in the direction of San Leonardo in order to link with the 48th Highlanders and PPCLI. The operation was scheduled for the afternoon of 8 December. The attack began with a two-hour artillery bombardment of the German positions, and at 16.00 the Saskatoon Light Infantry support battalion joined in, hitting German positions with bursts of machine gun fire. The moment the heavy bombardment lifted, the 48th Highlanders and the RCR both attacked. D Company of the 48th Highlanders quickly crossed the Moro with minimal casualties. However, B Company was taken under fire by German mortars and 88-mm (3.465-in) guns. Even so, the two companies managed to establish strong positions on the western ridge overlooking San Leonardo.
During the night of 8/9 December, units of the Royal Canadian Engineers constructed a bridge over the Moro, thus opening the way for armour and equipment to move into San Leonardo on the following day. As the 48th Highlanders secured their positions west of San Leonardo, the RCR was involved in intense fighting to the south-west of San Donato. Two companies had advanced against the strong and well prepared defences of the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment, and A Company was quickly tied down by mortar fire even as B Company flanked the German positions to the north of San Donato. By nightfall, all four companies held tenuous positions deep in the German defences. On the night of 8/9 December, the RCR was subjected to counterattacks by the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment, but these were driven back with the aid of artillery fire. By the morning of 9 December, the RCE had completed the bridge across the Moro, which allowed the tanks of the King’s Own Calgary Regiment to transport two companies of the Seaforth Highlanders across the river into San Leonardo. By mid-morning, San Leonardo had been cleared of the Germans, who nonetheless still held strong positions outside the town.
Within an hour, the RCT’s tanks had broken through the German positions near a farmhouse that became known as ‘Sterlin Castle’ and two companies had linked with the 48th Highlanders and PPCLI in San Leonardo, finally establishing firm Canadian positions across the Moro.
Late on 9 December, the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision fell back to its second defensive line, a formidable obstacle known as ‘The Gully’. As the Canadians fought to get themselves across the Moro, the New Zealand 2nd Division launched its ‘Torso’ two-brigade attack on Orsogna at 14.30 on 7 December. The division had Brigadier C. H. V. Pritchard’s British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade under command to anchor its left flank, and was supported by heavy concentrations of artillery and air support. The New Zealanders achieved total surprise as Herr had been persuaded that the New Zealanders would not be in a position to launch a major attack until the following day. The New Zealanders’ assault at first made good progress, therefore, but the Germans quickly regained their composure and the attack lost momentum in the face of strongly held defensive positions.
By 21.00 the New Zealand 24th Battalion had fought its way into the centre of the town in slow house-to-house fighting, but was then pinned down with no prospect of further progress without significant armoured support. However, a combination of concealed minefields and well dug-in German armour made the task of the Allied tanks impossible.
In the early hours of 8 December Freyberg, the New Zealand commander, ordered a withdrawal from the town with a view to renewing the attack after the defences had been softened further by artillery and bombers.
With the Canadian 1st Division and New Zealand 2nd Division finding it very difficult to make significant progress, it was decided to bring Mould’s Indian 21st Brigade into the attack with orders to seize Caldari. With no river crossing available, the Indian engineers rushed to cross the Moro with a bridge that was completed on 9 December and allowed infantry and supporting armour to cross and expand the bridgehead on the far bank. The bridge was named the ‘Impossible Bridge’ as the nature of the terrain required for it to be built backward from the German side of the river.
After its loss of San Leonardo and the Moro river, the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision pulled back to a defence line, some 3.1 miles (5 km) north of San Leonardo, centred on a ravine that became known as ‘The Gully’, with an average depth of 200 ft (60 m). Vokes’s plan to take the position and also to seize a foothold on the road toward Ortona, was based on a frontal assault by Brigadier B. M. Hoffmeister’s Canadian 2nd Brigade, which was to take Vino Ridge, capture ‘The Gully’ and gain positions on the road linking Ortona and Orsogna.
The German defences were more than adequately prepared, however, and included gun pits, bunkers and shelters. On 10 December, three Canadian battalions made their first attempt to cross ‘The Gully’. Although they managed to take Vino Ridge, directly south of ‘The Gully’, their efforts to neutralise the German positions in the ravine were unsuccessful. On 11 December the three battalions made another attempt, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment suffering heavy casualties in its attempts. Although a badly mauled A Company was able to gain a foothold on the reverse slope, newly arrived German units forced the remaining men to withdraw.
On 12 December Vokes sent the three battalions of Brigadier T. G. Gibson’s Canadian 3rd Brigade against the German defences in ‘The Gully’. The assault started poorly after the Canadian artillery plan was captured by men of the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment. As it attacked, the West Nova Scotia Regiment was counterattacked by the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment at about 10.30, and by 14.00 the Canadian battalion had called off its attacks after suffering heavy losses. To the west, the PPCLI did little better, with its C Company sustaining heavy casualties in the assault. Another attempt was made on 13 December by two battalions of the Canadian 3rd Brigade, but was driven back by tenacious resistance.
During the evening of 13 December, the heavily depleted 90th Panzergrenadierdivision was relieved by units of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision.
By 14 December Vokes had developed a new plan to capture ‘The Gully’. A small force from the Royal 22e Régiment was to move to Casa Berardi, a small set of farmhouses west of ‘The Gully’, before outflanking German positions with infantry and armour, thereby forcing the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision to pull back. The attack started at break of day with two companies of the Royal 22e Régiment attacking Casa Berardi with artillery support, and by 07.50 these had control of the lateral highway leading to Casa Berardi. C Company pushed forward toward Casa Berardi with support from the Ontario Regiment, while D Company found itself involved in firefights south-west of Casa Berardi. At 08.30 C Company began its attack toward the manor house in Casa Berardi, some 2,000 yards (1830 m) distant. Strong German resistance inflicted heavy losses on the attacking company, and just 21 men and five tanks reached a point 200 yards (180 m) from the objective. Despite the arrival of several PzKpfw IV tanks, the remaining Canadians captured the manor house at 14.30, though only 14 of C Company’s men were still combat capable.
With the Indian 8th Division committed, Montgomery decided to strengthen the attacking forces by bringing in the British 5th Division from the relatively tranquil front held by the XIII Corps in the high mountains on the 8th Army’s left wing and bring it into the line between the New Zealand 2nd Division and Indian 8th Division, making it possible for the latter to narrow and concentrate its attack and give Montgomery four divisions to continue the offensive between Orsogna and the sea.
By 12 December Brigadier A. D. Ward’s 17th Brigade, the first of the 5th Division’s units to arrive, was in place and under command of the New Zealand 2nd Division. Once the headquarters and the other two brigades of the 5th Division had arrived, the 5th Division and New Zealand 2nd Division became the core of the XIII Corps, commanded from 12 December by Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey in place of Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks.
To the left of the Canadian 1st Division, the Indian 21st Brigade had by 13 December established a solid bridgehead around the Impossible Bridge. That night, a second of the division’s units, Brigadier J. Scott-Elliott’s Indian 17th Brigade, passed through and attacked towards Caldari. The 1/Royal Fusiliers stormed the village in a night attack, and the 1/5th Gurkha Rifles seized the nearby Point 198, holding it against determined counterattacks including, in the afternoon of 14 December, tanks. During the evening of the same day, the 1/12th Frontier Force Regiment attacked on the left of the Gurkhas and established positions on the lateral road between Ortona and Orsogna running parallel with the Moro some 1,000 yards (915 m) north of the ‘Impossible Bridge’. On the evening of 15 December, the 1/5th Essex Regiment of Brigadier T. S. Dobree’s Indian 19th Brigade of the same division moved out of reserve and entered the line on the left flank of the 1/12th FFR to advance on Crecchio and in the process overrun several German positions.
By the end of 16 December, further attacks by the 3/15th Punjabi Regiment had secured positions on the lateral road, ensuring that the Indian 8th Division was lodged firmly in the main German defences.
At 01.00 on 15 December, meanwhile, the New Zealand 2nd Division had committed Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger’s 5th Brigade in ‘Florence’, a new flanking attack to the right of Orsogna. By the afternoon the 5th Brigade was well established on the lateral road between Orsogna and Ortona and had driven a shallow salient into the Germans’ forward defensive line. Although it had exhausted nearly all its reserves, the headquarters of the New Zealand 2nd Division had high hopes for success on the following as it had inflicted heavy losses on the Germans during the day.
The Germans launched a counterattack at 03.15 on 16 December, however, using men of the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, which had been detached by Herr to the 26th Panzerdivision to relieve the exhausted 9th Panzergrenadierregiment. The paratroopers had arrived only late in the evening of 15 December after a long journey but, with armoured support, fell on right-hand positions held by the New Zealand 21st Battalion. But the paratroopers were held and had retired by the break of day. Meanwhile, even before the German counterattack had been repelled, the New Zealand 20th Armoured Regiment had attacked toward Orsogna with two squadrons of Sherman tanks. Under intense artillery and anti-tank fire, the tanks and infantry became separated and the tanks became a target rather than a threat. Thus ‘Florence’ ended.
While their line had been pushed back and they had sustained many casualties, the Germans were still in possession of Orsogna. Furthermore, the New Zealand 2nd Division was exhausted and required consolidation and reorganisation before it was ready once more for combat.
By 16 December, the British 5th Division had completed its move into the line between the New Zealand 2nd Division and Indian 8th Division, and there followed a period of offensive patrolling and skirmishing on the XIII Corps’ front. The main burden of the fighting was therefore assumed by the V Corps as the Canadians pushed toward Ortona with the Indian 8th Division on their left flank attacking toward Villa Grande and Tollo. In preparation for what he hoped would be the final attack on ‘The Gully’, Vokes shifted the Canadian 2nd Brigade to positions formerly held by the Canadian 1st Brigade. Vokes now planned an attack by the Carleton and York Regiment as the last of the frontal assaults against ‘The Gully’. Should this attack fail, the Canadian 1st Brigade’s Seaforth Highlanders and the RCR would move through Casa Berardi and outflank the German defences and force a withdrawal from ‘The Gully’.
At 07.30 on 15 December, two companies of the Carleton and York Regiment attacked. After little more than an hour of fighting, however, the Canadians were forced to call the attack off. During the afternoon, the two heavily depleted companies of the Royal 22e Régiment fought off a large German counterattack on Casa Berardi, the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery firing 5,398 rounds in support of Canadian forces.
On 18 December, Vokes planned what would be the largest assault on ‘The Gully’ during the campaign. Beginning at 08.00, Canadian artillery was to deluge a 1,000-yards (915-m) front to a depth of 330 yards (300 m). At five-minute intervals the barrage was to move 110 yards (100 m) forward, continuing to pound German defences in the bombardment area. Less than 110 yards (100 m) behind this barrage, the 48th Highlanders would advance across the lateral road between Ortona and Orsogna. At the same time, the Indian 8th Division was to attack north toward Crecchio, preventing German reinforcements from reaching ‘The Gully’. When the 48th Highlanders reached the ‘Cider Crossroads’, the RCR was to move north, overrunning ‘Cider’ itself, then advance up the road linking Ortona and Orsogna. Both battalions would be supported by tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment.
At first the attack went extremely well. However, when the artillery shifted the barrage, the German defences quickly recovered and their machine gun fire devastated the advancing forces, and the attack was quickly called off.
On 20 December the Canadian forces made yet another attempt on ‘The Gully’, and the RCR attacked Cider Crossroads at 12.00. Vokes was determined that the operation would be successful, with the armour of the Three Rivers Regiment moving to its start line well before 07.00. As a result of poor weather and a shortage of fuel, the start time was pushed back to 14.15, when a creeping artillery barrage supported two companies of the RCR as it moved east. By evening, B Company controlled the ‘Cider Crossroads’, having met almost no resistance in its advance.
The Germans had already evacuated ‘The Gully’, falling back to prepare for a strong defence of Ortona, with elements of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision firmly entrenched in the town.
As part of Montgomery’s instructions to exert pressure on the Germans right along the front, Dobree’s Indian 19th Brigade was ordered to attack Villa Grande and exploit any gains as far as the Arielli river, which runs east from the mountains through Tollo to the Adriatic. The attack started at 05.30 on 22 December, but failed in desperate fighting. The 1/5th Essex renewed its attack on following morning with more success. After a counterattack by German paratroopers had been driven back at 12.00, the Essex advanced to mop up the remainder of the village. However, small-scale but costly house-to-house fighting continued throughout the rest of 23 December and for the next two days as the determined paratroopers clung their decreasing proportion of the village.
To the south of Villa Grande, the 3/15th Punjabis had taken Vezzano on 23 December and a continuous brigade line had been established. On 25 December reinforcements, in the form of the 3/8th Punjabis, were brought forward and after a an artillery barrage attacked at the east side of Villa Grande. With four armour-supported battalions now involved (the 5/Royal West Kent Regiment was by now operating on the south-eastern side of the village), Villa Grande was finally cleared by the end of 26 December, the men of the Indian 8th Division entering the village to find total destruction wherever they looked.
On 23 December the XIII Corps launched a new attack to push the Germans back from Orsogna. In the afternoon, the 5th Division attacked on the corps’ right wing toward the Arielli stream to secure the flank of the New Zealand 2nd Division, which was in turn to attack to the north-west and west from the salient to roll up the defences of Orsogna from the north. After the 5th Division had achieved its objectives, Kippenberger’s New Zealand 5th Brigade attacked at 04.00 on 24 December. Despite support by 272 pieces of artillery on a 3,500-yard (3200-m) front, the exhausted and understrength New Zealand battalions struggled to make progress. By the afternoon, it had become clear to Freyberg that the stubborn defences of the 26th Panzerdivision would not be broached.
The XIII Corps’ front was effectively deadlocked and settled into active defence and patrolling. Throughout the week 11/18 December, the men of the 3/3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision and supporting units had prepared strong defences within the coastal town of Ortona. Paratroop engineers and infantry had destroyed much of Ortona itself, turning the streets into a debris-filled maze. The main streets were mined, with demolition charges throughout the main piazza, and booby traps littered the town. German forces had also buried tanks in the rubble, leaving only their turrets exposed.
This paved the way for the Canadian ‘Morning Glory’ battle to take Ortona. On 20 December the hard-hit Loyal Edmonton Regiment moved toward Ortona with the Seaforth Highlanders on its eastern flank. Throughout the day the two battalions struggled against heavy machine gun fire while trying to enter Ortona. By the arrival of darkness both battalions held a toehold on the western edge of Ortona but had encountered heavy resistance in their attempts to secure it. On the following day D Company of the LER launched attacks to the east in the direction of the town centre, but was soon halted by sniper fire. Over the rest of the week that followed, the battle for Ortona became a scaled-down but equally bitterly fought version of the Battle of Stalingrad, with vicious house-to-house fighting through the town’s narrow streets and rubble.
During the battle the Canadians improvised innovative ‘mouse-holing’ tactics, moving between houses to avoid sniper fire in the open streets. German counterattacks on 24 and 26 December caused significant Canadian casualties, but in danger of being outflanked by Allied advances west of Ortona, the battalion of the 3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment abandoned the town the following day, leaving Ortona to Canadian forces.
The Canadian casualties were little short of 650 men killed or wounded, the German losses are unknown, and 1,300 Italian civilians were killed.
After the capture of Ortona and Villa Grande, it seemed that it would require the 8th Army only to attack once more at Orsogna to complete the breaching of the Winter Line’s main strongpoints on the eastern side of Italy. On 31 December, though, as the V Corps probed north-west across the coastal plain toward Pescara, the battlefield was blanketed by a blizzard, which paralysed movement and communications on the ground, and prevented all flying. Realising that his 8th Army no longer had the strength or conditions to force its way to Pescara and thence to Rome, Leese, who had succeeded Montgomery only two days earlier, recommended to Alexander that the 8th Army’s offensive should be halted. Alexander agreed but ordered Leese to maintain a pattern of aggressive patrolling to pin the formations and units of the LXXVI Panzerkorps in the Adriatic sector so that Kesselring could not seek to move them to the west as reinforcement for the XIV Panzerkorps facing the 5th Army on the western side of Italy, where the Allied offensive would be continued.
Thus the 8th Army spent the rest of the winter in bitterly uncomfortable conditions with the opposing sides often in close proximity and engaged in night-time patrolling and vicious skirmishing. It had taken the 5th Army, in deteriorating weather as exceptionally heavy autumn rains broke, the entire period between the middle of October and a time early in November to fight its way north across difficult terrain and through determined rearguard defences from the ‘Volturno-Viktor-Linie’ positions to the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’. In the centre of the 5th Army’s front was the so-called Mignano gap which was the only practical approach to the mouth of the Liri river valley as the coastal plain was marshy and therefore too soft for the large-scale movement of a mechanised and motorised army. Flanking and overlooking Highway 6 through the Mignano gap and its villages (San Pietro Infine, San Vittore del Lazio and Cervaro) are, successively, Monte Camino, Monte Lungo, Monte Porchia and Monte Trocchio on the left and Monte San Croce, Monte Corno, Monte Sambúcaro (often called Monte Sammucro at the time) and Monte Maio on the right.
On reaching the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ positions, on 6 November Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British X Corps launched an immediate attack on Monte Camino, but this was driven back by Baade’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision. By mid-November, it was clear that after sustaining some 10,000 combat casualties since its ‘Volturno-Viktor-Linie’ offensive, the 5th Army required a period to reorganise and recoup its strength. After this, on 1 December, the 5th Army went once more over to the offensive in ‘Raincoat’.
Following a major air and artillery bombardment, this was launched by the X Corps (comprising Hawkesworth’s 46th Division and Major General G. W. R. Templer’s 56th Division) on the left and elements of Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps, including Colonel Robert T. Frederick’s Canadian-US 1st Special Service Force, on the right against the formidable Monte Camino mass. The dominating peak on Monte Camino, Hill 963, is crowned by a monastery. Two slightly lower peaks, Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea (Hill 960 and Hill 907 respectively), are less than 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north of Monte Camino. At the upper end of the Monte Camino mass are the numerous peaks of the Monte Maggiore. The entire hill complex is about 6 miles (9.7 km) long and 4 miles (6.4 km) wide. On the east and north-east, its slopes rise steeply to the heights, then fall away gradually to the west and the left bank of the Garigliano river.
It took until 9 December before the Monte Camino mass had been cleared of the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision.
Meanwhile, on the 5th Army’s right flank, Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps (Major General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Division and Major General William W. Eagles’s 45th Division) had attacked into the mountains but made little progress until reinforced by the arrival of the first mountain troops of Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Juin’s Corps Expéditionaire Français (French Expeditionary Corps), only recently arrived in Italy. The US and French attack was then renewed on 15 December. On 8 December Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 3rd Division, the 36th Division and the 1st Special Service Force of the II Corps launched the attack on Monte Sambúcaro and into the Mignano gap. By the night of 10 December the Americans had taken the peaks and were thus a major threat to the German positions in the gap. However, the German positions at San Pietro in the valley held firm until 16 December, when an attack launched from the Monte Camino mass took Monte Lungo.
The Germans could no longer expect to hold San Pietro when the dominating ground on both flanks, the peaks of Monte Lungo and Monte Sambúcaro, were held by the II Corps. Under the cover of a counterattack, the German forces pulled back some 1 mile (1.6 km) to positions in front of San Vittore. The Allies made several attacks were made in the next days and seized Morello hill, which overlooked the San Vittore positions from the north, on 26 December.
On the VI Corps’ front, some advances were made in difficult mountain conditions exacerbated by the continually worsening winter weather. During December the 5th Army suffered 5,020 wounded but total admissions to hospital reached 22,816 with jaundice, sundry fevers and trench foot prevalent. At the end of December the 5th Army had to pause once again for reorganisation, replacement of losses and revitalisation for a final push to reach the Reach the ‘Gustav-Linie’. The VI Corps was taken out of the line to prepare for its commitment in ‘Shingle’ at Anzio, and the now complete French Expeditionary Corps replaced it on the front. The II Corps returned to the offensive on 4 January 1944 with attacks parallel with Highway 6. The northern attack took San Vittore, and by 7 January the dominating height of La Chiaia. On the southern side, the attack was made from Monte Lungo and captured Monte Porchia.
To the west of the II Corps, meanwhile, the X Corps had attacked from positions on the Monte Camino mass to take, on 8 January, the Cedro hill which with Monte Chiaia and Monte Porchia had formed a strong defensive line in front of Monte Trocchio.
The last Allied offensive to clear the Germans on the approaches to the ‘Gustav-Linie’ began on 10 January. Cervaro fell to the Allies on 12 January, and the overlooking hills to its north on 13 January. This opened the northern flank of Monte Trocchio, and a heavy assault was planned for 15 January. The XIV Panzerkorps now considered its position to be untenable, however, and therefore withdrew across the Rapido river. As it moved forward on 15 January, the II Corps met no resistance. It had taken the 5th Army six weeks of intense combat and 16,000 casualties to advance the 7 miles (11.25 km) through the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ defences to take Monte Trocchio and reach the positions facing the main ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences on 15 January. Now the Allied forces faced the still more difficult task of breaking through these potent defences, which were centred on the mountain complex round Monte Cassino.