'Torso' was the New Zealand first attack toward Orsogna and the upper reaches of the Moro river in Italy within the context of the Moro river campaign of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army to break though the German defences at the eastern end of the 'Bernhardt-Linie' in Italy, and as such the precursor to 'Florence' (7/8 December 1943).
While the Canadians crossed the Moro river farther downstream and headed toward Ortona, which was taken in 'Morning Glory', Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division, of Lieutenant General M. C. Dempsey’s British XIII Corps, launched a 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 complete tactical surprise as General Traugott Herr, commander of the LXXVI Panzerkorps within Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army, had been persuaded that the New Zealanders would not be in a position to launch a major attack until 8 December.
The decision during the morning of 5 December to launch an attack in divisional strength demanded a regrouping of the units of the New Zealand 2nd Division. The right flank was strengthened with additional machine guns, which were posited to the right of the 25th Battalion to harass the Germans across the Moro river on Sfasciata ridge. The Maoris of 28th Battalion moved forward to a waiting area behind the battalions of the 6th Brigade on the San Felice and Carpaccio ridges, grouped their support weapons and undertook reconnaissance to establish routes forward for vehicles, only to find that neither the Sfasciata ridge not the Pascuccio ridge was negotiable by either tracked vehicles or wheeled machines. This discovery was of tactical significance, for it dictated the decision to move all the vehicles of both brigades along the 6th Brigade’s road over Brecciarola and through Orsogna, which was the only passable route on the New Zealand 2nd Division’s front. On the left flank, the 22nd Battalion, which had observed continued German activity about the Melone road fork, was relieved by the British 6/Parachute. The arrival of fresh British field and medium pieces strengthened the artillery. In the drizzling rain of 6 December, the preparations continued. By night the four 17-pdr guns of Q Anti-Tank Troop were, albeit with some difficulty, hauled up the San Felice ridge and dug in to command the Ortona road. The 40-mm Bofors guns of the 42nd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery crossed the Sangro river, leaving anti-aircraft defence south of the river to the British 8th Army. Two bulldozers joined the 24th Battalion across the Moro river ready to fill craters on the road to Orsogna. In the three or four days before the attack was committed, the ammunition point issued 50,000 rounds of 25-pdr ammunition to the field gun regiments.
The New Zealand 2nd Division’s attack plan was developed steadily. The conference during the morning of 5 December was followed by another in the evening, during which the details of the required artillery support were debated. The plan was reviewed during the morning of the following day, and after a reconnaissance with his brigadiers Freyberg decided on a daylight attack to be launched during the afternoon of 7 December in order to give the infantry units time to occupy their objectives before the fall of darkness while denying the Germans time to counterattack. After discussing the outline plan with his staff officers, Freyberg visited Montgomery and, over the same period, outlined the air support his division needed for the attack. Back at his own headquarters in the late afternoon, Freyberg had to settle a difference of opinion between the two infantry brigade commanders about the infantry brigades' intended rate of advance before conducting another conference. That night the divisional operation order was issued. Even so, Freyberg was still considering a preliminary attack on the following morning, and telephoned his brigadiers to discuss the possibility. At 09.00 in 7 December, a final conference was undertaken at the 6th Brigade’s headquarters, and here Freyberg decided not to change the operation order issued in the course of the previous night, subject to modifications in the artillery and air programmes.
Freyberg had no illusions about the toughness of the task he was setting his men. When he first decided on a two-brigade attack, he warned Montgomery that, because of the poverty of communications, he expected his division to be engaged in fighting heavier than it had experienced up to this time. Characteristically, Montgomery extracted the most cheerful ingredient from the situation, namely the lack of depth in the German position, a fact of which Herr was uneasily aware. The hard going forced Freyberg to the reluctant choice of a frontal attack, but Montgomery found comfort in the 'tremendous concentration' that would accompany it.
In essence, the final plan for 'Torso' was for a direct infantry assault on Orsogna and a 2,000-yard (1830-m) stretch of the ridge extending to the north-east from Orsogna, with the weighty support of guns and aircraft, and armour waiting to exploit success. The objectives were to be approached from the east along two parallel spurs, with the 5th Brigade on the right advancing along the Pascuccio feature as far as the Ortona road and the 6th Brigade on the left directed along the Brecciarola ridge to Orsogna and the high ground behind it. The vital thrust was that to be aimed by the 6th Brigade at Orsogna: this could succeed independently, but if it failed all was lost. The 5th Brigade could not be expected to hold its objective against armour unless the 6th Brigade cleared a way through Orsogna for its supporting weapons. This weakness in the plan, providing only one rather than two chance, was perhaps unavoidable until the Sfasciata spur was in New Zealand hands.
The start line ran roughly parallel to the Ortona road, rather less than 1 mile (1.6 km) from the objectives on both flanks. The assault on the 5th Brigade’s front was to be made by the 28th Battalion, and the 23rd Battalion, under artillery concentrations and smoke, was to occupy part of the Sfasciata ridge as right-flank guard. The 6th Brigade gave the task of assaulting Orsogna itself to the 24th Battalion. Of its other two battalions, the 25th Battalion in its existing position would provide the firm base for the 5th Brigade and the 26th Battalion would do the same for the 6th Brigade by moving into the positions vacated by 24th Battalion after the start of the attack.
The assault battalions' forming was to be curtained by a standing barrage from the New Zealand 4th and 5th Field Regiments and the British 111th Field Regiment, 300 yards (275 m) ahead of the start line from 13.00 to 14.30. The barrage would then move forward ahead of the infantry, lifting 100 yards (90 m) in six minutes and finishing on the road 500 yards (455 m) to the west of Orsogna. For a 3.5-hour period from 13.00. three troops of medium guns were to shell the town and the road to the west of it and one troop was to concentrate its fire on Sfasciata, which was also the target for the New Zealand 6th Field Regiment, firing smoke for 20 minutes and then concentrations until 16.10. To impede the movement of German reinforcements, the main road on each side of Orsogna was to be shelled by the 1st Air-Landing Light Regiment, and a 98-minute counter-battery programme was ordered. In total, therefore, the planned support was on the scale of 300 rounds for each field gun and 100 for each medium gun. Air support was to be continuous from 13.30 to 16.00: first, for 30 minutes, 13 squadrons of fighter-bombers were to attack Orsogna, and second, for two hours, they were to harass roads in the areas of Arielli and Filetto as well as the German artillery.
The state of communications limited the use of tanks, but the 18th Armoured Regiment (less B Squadron) was to enter Orsogna along the road from Lanciano, and from here one squadron would pass through the town to link with the 5th Brigade on its objective on the right. Two bulldozers were provided to fill demolitions on the road linking Lanciano and Orsogna. Each infantry brigade was assisted by the fire of the 27th Machine Gun Battalion as well as by its 4.2-in (107-mm) mortars. The security of the right flank was the responsibility of the 5th Brigade, which, as noted above, was to occupy part of the Sfasciata ridge, and the left flank was protected by the British 2nd Parachute Brigade, which would stay where it was.
Not for the first time, the German opposition was surprised during a complicated reshuffling of its scanty resources. Herr’s first thought, as soon as his LXXVI Panzerkorps had fallen back behind the Moro river, was to reorganise his formation, rest his hardest-hit formations and order the urgent creation of defensive works. Strongpoints, well dug in, wired and shielded by minefields, were to be organised in depth in a chessboard pattern, and drivers and supply troops were called to man the defence zone’s rear portions. While this was being done, Herr could regroup. Ranging from the sea in a south-westerly direction to the mountains, the LXXVI Panzerkorps had under command Generalleutnant Carl Hans Lungershausen’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, Generalleutnant Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division, Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 26 Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision. The sorely-tried 65th Division was the first to be extracted from the German line: on 3 December its headquarters left the line as its sector and troops were divided between the 26th Panzerdivision and the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, which extended their boundaries to the east and west respectively to meet on the line between Arielli and Lanciano.
No sooner had this change been made, however, than a new tactical appreciation forced another revision. Reports that the New Zealanders were thinning their positions in the Melone area and that their tanks facing Orsogna had gone coincided with evidence of the reinforcement of Lieutenant-General C. W. Allfrey’s British V Corps near the coast to convince the Germans that the British 8th Army was shifting its weight to the east, where the country was more suitable for tanks. The Germans felt that they had to conform, especially in view of the indifferent showing of the comparatively inexperienced and undertrained 90th Panzergrenadierdivision in the coastal sector. Herr therefore ordered the 26th Panzerdivision still farther to the east and recalled the 65th Division to the line in the sector between the 26th Panzerdivision and the Majella rover, where it seemed less likely to be overstrained. The new boundary ran through Orsogna, as from 16.00 on 7 December. At this time, too, consequential reliefs were taking place, for the Germans had calculated that no significant attack could be expected before 8 December.
When the New Zealand attack was committed, the 5th Brigade’s front was held by the right-hand companies of the 9th Panzergrenadierregiment, which during a short period in reserve had been reinforced to a fighting strength of 930 men, and by the 2/146th Panzergrenadierregiment, extending to the outskirts of Orsogna. Orsogna itself was held primarily by three companies of the 26th Panzeraufklärungsabteilung, which were about to be relieved by the 3/4th Fallschirmjägerregiment. These companies were supported by one platoon of engineers and another of infantry from the 146th Panzergrenadierregiment, 28 machine guns, four anti-tank guns, four mortars and 10 tanks of which two were fitted with flamethrowers. Farther to the west, in the direction of Melone, on the 65th Division's new front, the line was held by paratroopers, who had gradually been brought over from the untroubled mountain sector.
The Germans were thus deceived, or had deceived themselves, into expecting an attack later and elsewhere. The weather on the day deepened the deception. On 7 December the weather was showery and characterised by poor visibility, which was ideal for the laying of smoke screens but unsuitable for air support, without which the Germans did not think an attack to be likely. What the New Zealand 2nd Division gained in surprise it lost in weight of metal. Precisely at 13.30, when the first wave of aircraft dropped their bombs in the area to the west of Orsogna, the weather thickened, targets were obscured by cloud, and the laying of smoke and accurate bombing became impossible. Supermarine Spitfire fighter-bombers patrolled continuously over the German positions during the afternoon, but it was too late for the bombers to operate with much success when the weather eventually cleared at 16.00.
On the ground, however, all went well for a while. Though harassed by the German defensive fire on San Felice, the 23rd and 28th Battalions suffered few casualties in forming up and moving through the 25th Battalion to their start lines. Both battalions had a hard time reaching the start line: the Maoris had to breast the San Felice ridge, plunge down a steep gully, cross a stream and climb the slippery and in places precipitous slopes of the Pascuccio spur, some of the men carrying PIAT anti-tank projectors and anti-tank grenades. At 14.30, though, when the barrage began to move forward, the two battalions were ready to follow it into the smoke. The 23rd Battalion had a comparatively easy advance. There was a stiff climb but the objective was not distant, the only resistance was shell and mortar fire, and the battalion was protected by the fire of the 2nd Machine Gun Company and of the 25th Battalion from San Felice. By 15.30 the battalion was firmly established along the crest of Sfasciata. The Maoris now had less cause to look with apprehension over their right shoulder.
It route took the 28th Battalion along the razorback of the Pascuccio spur to an escarpment rising almost sheer in places to the Ortona road, whence the Germans would have commanded the whole feature had there been no smoke. On the right, C Company was harried by machine gun fire across the valley from Sfasciata and slowed by minefields, but brushed aside lightly held German positions, mainly in buildings, and by 17.00 had reached the road, where it dug in. Farther to the left, D Company found itself outrun by the barrage through having to scramble over muddy, broken ground. Then came a hand-over-hand climb up the escarpment under fire from German machine guns on the brow. The fight that followed threatened deadlock until A Company, following up the two forward companies, worked its way between them and swung round to attack the German posts from the rear. In the gathering darkness D Company resumed the advance, the leading platoon pressing forward across the road to the railway line 200 yards (185 m) beyond. With some hundreds of yards of the main road in its hands, the battalion had penetrated between 400 and 500 yards (365 and 450 m) into the German defences and won a lodgement on its objective.
The opening barrage had wrecked the 26th Panzerdivision's communications, leaving headquarters without news for the 150 minutes after the start of the New Zealand attack. Moreover, the Maoris' attack overlapped a formation boundary. On their right the Maoris met the stubborn infantry of the 9th Panzergrenadierregiment, but the right-hand Panzergrenadier company gave ground. Appearing suddenly out of the smoke and immediately behind the barrage, the Maoris overran the German outposts, which had been either destroyed or dazed by the artillery fire. The gap in the defence was widened, and the partial outflanking of the Panzer grenadier unit was made possible, by the poor effort of the 146th Panzergrenadierregiment's left-hand company, which scattered in such disarray that by evening only 10 of its men had been rallied.
The Maoris now had to face counterattacks on both of its flanks: on the right by a Panzergrenadier reserve company and on the left by a reserve company of the 2/146th Panzergrenadierregiment. The former was the more dangerous as it was delivered more quickly, by better troops and, above all, with armoured support. It was C Company, on the right, which bore the initial brunt of the German reaction. Aware of its vulnerability to tanks, the company had laid Hawkins mines on the road to the north, but soon after 18.00 eight PzKpfw IV battle tanks of Oberstleutnant Kümmel’s 26th Panzerregiment, with the Panzergrenadier reserve company in support, opened fire on C Company’s position. The company was forced back to the escarpment and then downhill on to Pascuccio ridge, where it was reorganised and put in reserve. In its retirement it damaged two of the tanks with PIAT projectiles. The company was replaced by B Company, which only with difficulty and after some time established itself at the top of the cliff.
Meanwhile the German tanks, without their supporting infantry, had moved down the road toward the Orsogna cemetery. There D Company came under close-range attack and withdrew its foremost platoon across the road to the cliff top. A Company, however, scaled the cliffs and, moving behind D Company, took up position to the north of the road near the cemetery, where it disposed of some German positions. Finally, the German tanks returned to their starting point.
It was now time for the 28th Battalion to face left. The reserve company of the 146th Panzergrenadierregiment had failed in its first counterattack by getting lost and when, toward 11.00, it came at A Company’s left flank, near the cemetery, it was driven back by small arms and artillery fire. The Maoris counted five distinct thrusts, but each was thrown back in close fighting. By midnight the Maoris had survived a succession of counterattacks and had yielded some of their initial gains only on their right. But all was not well. The ground the Maoris occupied was a saucer-shaped depression, and even after the counterattacks died down fire descended on them from both flanks. Their ammunition was running short. Direct help from the 23rd Battalion was impracticable: earlier in the evening a patrol of this battalion had attempted but failed to make contact with the Maoris' right flank. Most ominously of all, hopes of the early arrival of tanks and supporting arms were dying. The way through Orsogna was not, after all, to be cleared.
As soon as this became obvious, the 28th Battalion mobilised every available man to drag two 6-pdr anti-tank guns along the route the infantry had followed. The guns were manhandled over San Felice, but efforts to pull them up the slope of Pascuccio were fruitless. These hard facts drove the Lieutenant Colonel Fairbrother, the Maoris' commanding officer, to the conclusion that when day broke his men’s position would be untenable. Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger, commander of the 5th Brigade, agreed and, after satisfying himself that the order would not prejudice the operations of the 6th Brigade, at 00.20 on 8 December he ordered the 28th Battalion to pull back.
Disengagement was not easy. Despite covering fire by heavy artillery concentrations and by B Company as rearguard, A and D Companies were pursued by German artillery, mortar and small arms fire as they struggled back with their wounded and their remaining ammunition. A Company succeeded in breaking off only after repeated calls for fire from the New Zealand guns. The Maoris' withdrawal appears to have coincided with a renewed counterattack from the north. The six remaining tanks of the Panzer company which had attacked earlier returned to the charge with the support of the last infantry which the Panzergrenadier company could offer, in the form of the remnants of the reserve company and some engineers. Two further tanks were damaged. Meanwhile the Maoris retired, and by 06.00 most of the battalion was reunited near its forming up point/
The attack on the left by the 24th Battalion, which was certain to be decisive for the whole operation, lost momentum at an early stage as a result of the German defensive fire, minefields and rough ground. It was 05.00 before C Company, approaching along the northern slope of the Brecciarola ridge, broke into the eastern outskirts of the town, and 05.15 before B Company on the left, having lost its commander to artillery fire, penetrated the streets. The advance of the two leading companies through the town was fiercely opposed, and the slow rate of advance reported at one time (100 yards in 15 minutes) was in all probability exaggerated. The Germans were firing automatic weapons from houses to which entry was barred by mines at the doors and windows. Fighting was wholly at close quarters and characterised by exchanges of grenades. A flamethrowing tank of the 6th Kompanie of the 26th Panzerregiment was detailed to clear the New Zealand infantry from houses to the south of the main street. Heavy fire from the Ortona road north of the town halted C Company, which was still partly deployed on the hillside below the town. Nevertheless, by 09.00 the New Zealand attackers had reached the square in the centre of the town, but here the presence of German tanks forced them to take cover and it became clear that further progress was impossible without armoured support.
By this time the New Zealand tanks were fully engaged. Working with the infantry of A Company, the leading tanks of A Squadron 18th Armoured Regiment were checked by a mined crater at the entrance to the town. A platoon cleared a pocket of Germans covering the demolition, but the bulldozer that began filling the crater was put out of action by shellfire. The New Zealand tanks were delayed by a further demolition, to the east of the first, which was blown just as a second troop of tanks moved up. A detour was found, however, and by dusk seven tanks had banked behind the first gap in the road. After dark this second crater was repaired by the second bulldozer and the tanks drove into the town.
Further trouble faced the tanks in the town. Concealed from the New Zealand tanks but commanding their route was a German tank, which it proved impossible to shift. When they tried to destroy it with Molotov cocktails and sticky bombs, the New Zealand infantrymen were driven back by machine gun fire from surrounding houses. Minefields on the right and heavy fire on the left prevented the tanks from making any outflanking movement, and through all of this time the forward companies, trying to clear an exit to the north-east to bring help to the Maoris, were fighting an unequal battle with the German armour.
In a final attempt to punch a passage for the New Zealand tanks, B and C Companies withdrew onto A Company just outside the town for a concerted attack under cover of tank fire. The two forward companies were now so disorganised that they could collect no more than four officers and 39 men, who, together with A Company, renewed the assault. Though the New Zealand fire drove the Germans to take refuge in cellars as they continued to tackle the closely following New Zealand infantry as they managed to effect a penetration, the German defenders had now been reinforced by paratroopers, counterattacked with determination and claimed shortly after midnight to have restored the position. Thus repulsed, the New Zealand tanks and infantry retired to make a defensive laager for the night near the demolitions outside the town.
At a conference at 02.30 with Freyberg and Brigadier G. B. Parkinson, commander of the 6th Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Conolly, the 24th Battalion’s commanding officer, urged a withdrawal: his companies were faced with stalemate in Orsogna; the ground they precariously held was likely to be of no use for future operations; and they could only remain where they were only a very high cost in casualties. By now the 28th Battalion had withdrawn. These considerations persuaded Freyberg to authorise the withdrawal of the 24th Battalion. But Freyberg still wished to bomb Orsogna again by daylight and believed that the 6th Brigade would be able to reoccupy the town without trouble in the course of the following night. Behind a screen provided by D Company, still in reserve, the tanks and the rest of the battalion withdrew without incident.
For the second time the New Zealand 2nd Division had failed to capture Orsogna by direct assault. Despite the fact that once again they been hard pressed, the German defenders appeared to have overcome confusion only through improvisation. Soon after the attack had began, the LXXVI Panzerkorps had agreed to a postponement of the relief of the 26th Panzeraufklärungsabteilung in Orsogna by the 3/4th Fallschirmjägerregiment but did not agree to put the paratroopers under command of the 26th Panzerdivision until 20.00, when the last infantry reserves in the town had been committed. The parachute battalion was then ordered to send its strongest company (about 80 men) to Orsogna, which it reached in time to help repel the New Zealanders' last attack. The LXXVI Panzerkorps also embarrassed the defence of the town by refusing and then agreeing to postpone the transfer of responsibility for it from the Panzer division to the 65th Division, and it had been unhelpful towards requests for the return of tank companies from the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision on the left.
With charge and counter-charge, the battle in Orsogna swayed first one way and then the other, but the deciding factor in the New Zealand 2nd Division’s defeat seems to have been the local tank superiority of the Germans. While the New Zealand armour was stalled by demolitions at the entrance to the town, the German tanks took up a commanding position on the high ground, from which they could outgun the attackers and in which they could not be outflanked. Against this handicap the fervour of the New Zealand infantry could not prevail, even though, as on the 5th Brigade’s front, they moved so closely behind the artillery barrage and concentrations that word went round among the Germans that the New Zealanders were firing shells which exploded with a loud noise but without lethal effect.
'Torso' cost the New Zealand 2nd Division about 30 men killed or died of wounds, about 90 men wounded, and between 30 and 40 men missing. Two tanks had to be abandoned with broken tracks near Orsogna. Losses inflicted on the Germans included 14 men killed, 40 men wounded and over 50 men taken prisoner, and damage was done to several tanks.
The operation taught important tactical lessons, both general and specific. Among the general lessons, it encouraged a distaste for daylight attacks on prepared defences; it showed the unwise nature of attempting simultaneously to bomb a target from the air and smoke it from the ground; and it emphasised the necessity of bringing up tank and anti-tank support without delay to infantry on their objectives. Both New Zealand assault battalions had been at the mercy of German armour. The route along the Brecciarola ridge was securely stopped by the clustered buildings of Orsogna, the route along Pascuccio by the escarpment. In any case, both spurs were so narrow and bottle-necked near the road that they gave no room at all for tanks to deploy and were wholly incapable of sustaining the communications behind a large-scale attack. But to the north of them lay the broader, comparatively flat-topped spur of Sfasciata, offering easy access to a long reach of the Ortona road. And it so happened that the sole territorial gain of the operation was the 23rd Battalion’s footing on this spur. Thus tactical interest shifted to the possibility of exploiting Sfasciata as a springboard for a movement to envelop Orsogna from the north.
This was the main element of the discussion at Freyberg’s conference on the morning of 8 December. The 23rd Battalion was thus instructed to stand firm in its salient. Though exposed, it was in the meantime safe from German attack as a result of the soft nature of the ground. Energies were now turned towards finding a route forward for supporting weapons.
Two possible crossings of the Moro were reconnoitred and the selection fell upon the more southerly of these. From the village of Spaccarelli on the road between Lanciano and Orsogna a cart track ran to the north, dropped down into the Moro river valley near the north-eastern tip of the San Felice ridge, wound up the slope of Sfasciata, and ran along the top to join the Ortona road a few hundred yards north of the cemetery. For all but the last 1,000 yards (915 m), this track lay within the New Zealand lines. Given a spell of dry weather (8 December was the first of three fine days), this promised access for tanks to the Ortona road without the necessity of blasting a passage through Orsogna. With machine gun and artillery fire drowning their noise, bulldozers began work on the ford on the night of 8/9 December, improving the approaches for tanks and hauling across the stream and up Sfasciata six 6-pdr anti-tank guns. Four of the guns were sited to protect the 23rd Battalion, which was additionally protected by the laying of mines delivered by mules.
Freyberg’s inclination towards a thrust on the right by way of Sfasciata, which Kippenberger thought the most promising approach, must have been confirmed by events on the centre and left of the divisional front. Orsogna was bombed or strafed 23 times during 8 December, and two patrols of the 26th Battalion inspected the demolition at the entrance to the town that night and reported it untouched, and at the same time found no sign of German movement. A patrol of the 28th Battalion to Pascuccio found nine wounded Germans had been left in a house there and brought them back. But evidence such as this, suggesting that the Germans were withdrawing from Orsogna, was easily outweighed by other factors. German fire greeted a raid by B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry toward the Melone road fork on the left. Even less ambiguous was the reaction to a provocative gesture by eight tanks of A Squadron of the 18th Armoured Regiment, which on the morning of 9 December stood off at 500 yards (455 m) to shell Orsogna. The Germans revealed their continued determination to hold the town by surrounding it with a smoke screen, moving tanks forward to its eastern edge for the engagement of the New Zealand tanks, and bringing down heavy defensive fire. Interpreting this as a reconnaissance thrust, the Germans believed that a renewed attack was imminent in the sector between Orsogna and Melone. Meanwhile, farther to the north, where they expected no attack, the New Zealand 2nd Division was preparing one and building its strength in the Sfasciata salient.
The attack was to be launched by the 5th Brigade on the night of 10/11 December, to give time for the ground to dry and for the armour to be moved into position on Sfasciata. With the support of the 18th Armoured Regiment’s armour, the 23rd Battalion was to advance from Sfasciata under a barrage and cut the Ortona road in the area to the north of the cemetery. At dawn the 20th Armoured Regiment, reinforced with two companies of the 21st Battalion and one of the 22nd Battalion, was to pass through and exploit to the south-west along the road to the high ground lying immediately to the north of Orsogna. The 6th Brigade was to occupy Pascuccio on the left of the 5th Brigade. As part of the regrouping of the armoured regiments, the 18th Armoured Regiment vindicated the engineers' work on the Moro river ford by getting all of its 28 to Sfasciata by 23.00 on 9 December despite the pitch darkness and the roughness of the track.
10 December was characterised by oscillating intentions. It began with a decision, announced by Freyberg at the morning conference, to cancel the attack. While the New Zealand 2nd Division was preoccupied with the problem of Orsogna, the British V Corps on its right had embarked on a full-scale offensive of its own. On the night of 8/9 December Major General C. Vokes’s Canadian 1st Division established a bridgehead across the Moro river near the coast, but there developed a fluctuation of the fortunes of the Canadians and Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division, the New Zealanders' right-hand neighbours, and the New Zealand 2nd Division became involved as this V Corps' setback led to the cancellation of the New Zealand 2nd Division’s attack as it had been intended to keep step with the advance on the right. Freyberg now ordered active patrolling to prevent a diversion of German forces toward the coastal sector.
Reports of improved Canadian progress, however, then prompted second thoughts, and soon after 12.00 Freyberg was considering a 'silent' attack by the 5th Brigade, with the armoured follow-through as planned. Accordingly, at dusk the 23rd Battalion despatched a pair of patrols, one to the Moro river to the east of Poggiofiorito in order to establish if the ground was clear between the division and the Indian 8th Division, and the other to the Ortona road to discover whether or not this was being defended. If the road was not being held, it would be seized during that same night so that the armour of the 20th Armoured Regiment might pass through during the morning of the following day, mop up Orsogna, and exploit in the direction of Filetto and Guardiagrele. The patrol to the Poggiofiorito area found it empty, but the other patrol heard movement suggesting that the road was being held in force.
It was finally decided that the more ambitious plan be abandoned, but the 23rd Battalion’s left flank on Sfasciata was reinforced with infantry and anti-tank guns and extended to within 500 yards (455 m) of the road. The New Zealand dispositions were essentially defensive and, at the same time, far enough forward to allow tanks to deploy and to emerge on to the road if daylight brought suitable opportunities. Overnight rain made the going sloppy and while the 5th Brigade could attempt nothing in the way of aggression, its tanks were well concealed in a position to strike from Sfasciata.
Meanwhile, the poor weather and a regrouping of the 8th Army confined the New Zealand 2nd Division’s active operations for a few days to the routine menaces implied by Montgomery’s instruction to demonstrate against sensitive places. In the mountain sector on the left, the presence of snow, rain and crumbling roads made offensive operations impossible, and Montgomery now decided to transfer something of the army’s strength from this sector toward the coast, where he thought that a concentrated blow might yet achieve a breakthrough. Major General G. C. Bucknall’s British 5th Division, relieved in the mountains by Major General V. Evelegh’s (from 13 December Major General C. F. Keightley’s) weaker British 78th Division, was to come into the line between the New Zealand 2nd Division and the V Corps. The New Zealanders would then join the British 5th Division under command of Dempsey’s XIII Corps, giving Montgomery four divisions to mount an attack between Orsogna and the Adriatic Sea. It would take some days to complete the movements thus entailed, and in the meantime Brigadier A. D. Ward’s British 17th Brigade of the British 5th Division was ordered into the line under New Zealand command to fill the gap between the New Zealanders and the Indians. On the night 12/13 December it occupied the sector between Frisa and Lanciano, the New Zealand 2nd Division’s right-hand boundary having been temporarily extended to the north-east.
As the New Zealand 5th Brigade’s attack by way of Sfasciata had been postponed rather than cancelled, C Company continued to deepen the 23rd Battalion’s salient by edging forward at night, house by house, in the direction of the Ortona road. The phrase used to describe this policy was 'peaceful penetration', and for a few days and nights patrols from each side played a cat-and-mouse game among the fields and scattered houses between the battalion’s left wing and the road. The Germans laid mines and reconnoitred, and the New Zealanders men lifted mines and reconnoitred, reporting traffic on the road so loud that it could be heard from C Company’s advanced posts; and the area attracted intermittent attention by each side’s artillery. All this time bulldozers and shovel-wielding men improved the track across the Moro ford, across which the 23rd Battalion had to be supported and supplied.
During this quiet period between 11 and 14 December, when even in the skies there was little activity, the New Zealand 6th Brigade and Pritchard’s British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade undertook vigorous night patrols. Orsogna was approached by patrols from all directions open to the New Zealand infantry. Their reports left no doubt that the town was still held as a fortress and that it was daily becoming more nearly impregnable to frontal assault.