When General Bernard Montgomery began planning 8th Army’s advance to the Valerian Way–the lateral road from Pescara to Rome–he considered the option of attacking directly north from the village of Isernia. But such an operation, begun in late November 1943, would have run the risk of snow blocking the passes through the Apennine Mountains. So, a route along the Adriatic coast seemed more promising.
When meteorologists attached to Montgomery’s headquarters reported that the average rainfall on the coastal plain in November and December was seven inches, the planners could do little but pray for dry weather. Unfortunately, the last days of November were typical. Overcast skies limited air support, and heavy showers and long stretches of continuous rain threatened the security of supply routes across the Sangro River.
Montgomery ordered 8th Army to pause, allowing time for two brigades of 1st Canadian Division to replace the exhausted and under-strength battalions of 78th Div. He then proposed to launch a new attack with 1st Canadian, 8th Indian and 2nd New Zealand divisions. The aim was to seize the Ortona-Orsogna lateral road before launching a co-ordinated advance to the Valerian Way.
As preparations for this operation began, intelligence from Ultra provided details of the heavy losses suffered by the German 65th Div. and the exact location of the boundary between the 65th and 26th Panzer Div.
This information proved too tempting and Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, the well-regarded New Zealand commander, was ordered to exploit the “soft spot” in the German defences. The Kiwis were told to capture Orsogna and continue north to Chieti, the provincial capital, without waiting for the Canadians to cross the Moro River.
Orsogna, a typical stone-built mountain town, is perched on the edge of a long ridge, one of a series of natural fortress walls extending east towards the sea. If Freyberg’s men could take Orsogna and continue north towards Chieti they would force a German withdrawal from the Moro and Ortona.
The New Zealand division was an unusual formation made up of just six infantry battalions and three armoured regiments.
Freyberg committed three of his infantry battalions and two armoured regiments to the attack. In a superb feat of arms the lead battalion captured the town but lacked the strength to hold it. The Germans had formed a battlegroup sending a battalion from 1st Para Div. and a panzer battalion to reinforce the defenders. As a result, Freyberg’s men were pushed off the ridge.
When the battlefield is viewed from the German perspective it is hard to imagine how the New Zealanders could have accomplished what they did. Their withdrawal was inevitable when we consider the limited number of men they had, the low cloud that cancelled air support and limited rounds for the artillery. The New Zealand official war historian’s comment that “the Germans were willing to sell ground, but only at a price the New Zealanders were not willing to pay,” is quotable, but inaccurate.
When the German high command learned of the New Zealand attack, Field Marshal Kesselring ordered his corps commander “to hold at all costs” so that the troops east of Orsogna would not be enveloped. He insisted that “the ground there is so favourable that it can be held by relatively small forces.” Kesselring was right; the natural defences were too strong to be overcome by any division unless a means of outflanking the ridge could be found. It was up to the Canadians and the 8th Indian Div. to accomplish this.
The subsequent battle for Orsogna was essentially over when Brigadier Bert Hoffmeister’s 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade crossed the Moro on Dec. 5. As noted in a previous article in this series, 2nd Bde. was contained within a small bridgehead on the north bank by elements of a fresh German unit, the 90th Panzer Grenadier Div. Attention then shifted to another bridgehead created as a diversion by the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. of 1st Bde.
The Hasty Ps arrived at the Moro on the night of 2nd Bde.’s attack, taking over from the Royal Irish Fusiliers of 78th Div. Apart from some hurried conversations with the Irish there was no time for a briefing or to carry out reconnaissance. Patrols quickly established that a suitable crossing point existed just 200 yards from the mouth of the river and Major A.A. Kennedy, the acting commanding officer, decided to send a company across the river, one platoon at a time. If a firm bridgehead could be obtained the entire battalion would cross and gain control of the reverse slope on the north side of the valley. The Germans were well positioned to counter such an unsupported attack and Kennedy ordered his men to withdraw.
Brig. Howard Graham and Kennedy met to consider their options. Kennedy reported that the Moro was no obstacle to infantry but “it is soft bottomed and in conjunction with the muddy condition of the whole valley it is a complete tank obstacle.” He was confident that a well organized battalion attack with observed artillery and mortar fire could win a bridgehead.
The divisional commander, Major-General Chris Vokes, was still focused on the 2nd Bde. crossing, but he told Graham to go ahead.
The Hasty Ps relied on the 4.2-inch mortars of the Saskatoon Light Infantry and the Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) of 2nd Field Regt. to suppress enemy posts. However, not all of the camouflaged machine-gun positions had been identified. The lead company came under heavy fire and went to ground. Smoke helped to obscure the battlefield allowing Dog Company–in a follow-up role–to swing left and penetrate the enemy position.
Farley Mowat’s outstanding history of the Hasty Ps, The Regiment, provides the best account of the events that followed. Kennedy, “watching from a high knoll on the south bank glimpsed victory ahead.” He was told that the supporting tanks had bogged down and his “naked infantry…was in danger of being overwhelmed.” Kennedy ordered a withdrawal, but was forced to reconsider when it became apparent that Dog Co. “with its radio out of order and all three platoons running hog-wild in the centre of a disorganized enemy position neither heard nor could obey…. The battle that had been declared over began anew.”
The new Hasty P assault was initially intended to rescue Dog Co. and complete the withdrawal, but the enemy panicked and fled allowing the battalion to establish a large bridgehead with advantageous reverse slope positions. When the battalion anti-tank platoon carried two six-pounder guns over to thicken the defences and the mortar platoon dug in with their tubes below the ridgeline, the Hasty Ps were ready for the inevitable counter-attacks. Mowat records Kennedy’s decision “not to wait for the counter-attack.” Instead, he sent two platoons forward onto the plateau, which had a commanding view not only of the highway to the north “but the vital lateral road to San Leonardo as well.”
When the German attack began, one of the advanced platoons withdrew, leading the enemy “into a deep salient” that became a killing ground. The Hasty Ps followed the German retreat and seized a house at the road junction. They also took prisoners from 1st Parachute Div., the first but not the last sign of the arrival of this elite German division in the Canadian sector.
During a recent visit to the battlefields it was possible to follow the battalion’s movements on the ground. A steady rain produced the mud that soldiers remember but the temperature was much warmer than in December 1943 and the vineyards and olive trees were in full leaf. The Moro was running strong and it was not hard to see why it was a serious tank obstacle. It was difficult to believe that the anti-tank platoon had carried two six-pounder guns to the crest of the ridge, but then again these men often achieved the impossible.
The Hasty Ps’ success led Vokes to shift his main attack to their bridgehead. The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) was ordered to attack laterally towards San Leonardo, a distance of some 2,500 yards on a front less than 600 yards wide. An elaborate artillery program was to lead the RCR through six tactical bounds ending at “Nova Scotia,” the north end of the village and “Ontario,” the village’s south end.
It was still impossible to bring tanks forward so Lieutenant-Colonel Dan Spry was told to follow the Hasty Ps’ example of “man-handling six-pounders” across to deal with enemy armour.
Attacking laterally through the front of a panzer grenadier regiment was a new twist on tactical doctrine because it forced the artillery to fire accurate concentrations rather than a barrage. The gunners also had to support the 48th Highlanders of Canada, who were to cross the Moro in an attack designed to secure a firm foothold. The engineers would then rebuild the approaches and bridge the river at the main road to San Leonardo.
Both battalions began their attacks in the late afternoon while there was still enough light for accurate artillery observation. This cut both ways and the RCR advance across the flat table land above the Moro valley was savaged by German artillery and mortar fire. The road from the coastal highway to San Leonardo is signed today as Royal Canadian Avenue. In amongst a group of houses barely 500 metres from the battalion start line, there remains a building known to RCR veterans as Sterlin Castle. It was here that Lieutenant Mitchell Sterlin and 11 men of 16 Platoon, A Co., RCR, held off repeated attacks and then withdrew in good order when the enemy was spent.
While the Germans focused their considerable resources on the RCR thrust, the 48th Highlanders established a secure bridgehead in front of San Leonardo.
The 48th Highlanders arrived on the Moro during the night of Dec. 6-7 as the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry staged the first unsuccessful attempt to cross the river. Dug-in on the crest overlooking the valley, the 48th suffered a steady drain of casualties from what the regimental history describes as the new “harsher, heavier type of warfare…a battle of shells.” When their turn came on Dec. 8, “the river valley vanished in the fire, shot puffs and plumes of thousands of shell explosions.” Both assault companies got across the river and the lack of light in the late afternoon is credited with saving highlander lives. They were soon able to establish a bridgehead large enough to permit the engineers to begin work.
San Leonardo was still in enemy hands and despite the best efforts of the air force, which tried to limit the steady stream of enemy traffic on the roads to the battle area, the Germans were steadily reinforcing their positions. Vokes ordered 2nd Bde. to capture San Leonardo with the Seaforths and Calgary Tanks leading the way. This advance could only take place if 3rd Field Co., Royal Canadian Engineers, could bridge the Moro and repair the road. The RCE Report on the Moro River Diversion notes that a new bridge site was constructed with “corduroy roads” on both sides of the river.
No. 1 Field Co., RCE, had cut and delivered 14 truckloads of timber to build 1943 versions of the pioneer roads of 19th century Canada. Through the determined efforts of both field companies the crossing was open to traffic on the morning of Dec. 9. Tragically, 22 men of 3rd Field Co. were wounded when the enemy artillery caught the sappers as they withdrew.
Hoffmeister’s orders called for 2nd Bde. to move through the bridgehead, clear San Leonardo, advance to the Orsogna-Ortona road and then “exploit forward.” The Seaforth/Calgary battlegroup was to carry out the first two phases with the Loyal Edmonton Regt. and a squadron of Calgary Tanks by-passing Ortona to reach Tollo, a village to the west of the port city.
This plan could only be implemented if the enemy fell back to a new line beyond Ortona, but there was little chance of this happening.
Kesselring had authorized the commitment of most of 1st Parachute Div. to the Ortona sector so that the Canadians “will be prevented from getting there at all costs.” German determination was also evident in their defence of San Leonardo and their renewed attempt to recapture the eastern bridgehead. The Hasty Ps, astride the coastal road, appeared to be the most dangerous threat and the 90th Div. committed elements of two battalions to a series of counter-attacks. One such action began in the early hours of the morning and seemed to the Canadians to be “partially suicidal…without control or ascertainable objective.” A total of 30 more prisoners of war were taken and at least 60 killed.
The fourth and final counter-attack with infantry–supported by self-propelled guns–was equally unsuccessful and the prisoner of war total rose to more than 100. After this attack the Hasty Ps “exploited to a depth of 1,000 yards” beyond the Moro.
The enemy was also forced to concede control of San Leonardo when a squadron of Calgary Tanks commanded by Major E.A.C. Amy and a company of Seaforth Highlanders commanded by Captain A.W. Mercer “fought a fierce and bitter engagement where both infantry and tankmen fought like lions.” Lieutenant J.F. Maclean and his platoon “battled their way up the hill, silencing an anti-tank gun, 10 enemy machine-gun posts, killing at least eight of the enemy and capturing 18.”
The Calgaries established a foothold in the village and placed their tanks to protect against counter-attacks. Co-operation between the tanks and infantry had been outstanding throughout the day and after one Calgary Sherman had knocked out a German tank at a range of 40 yards, a Seaforth soldier ran up to the Sherman to pat it on the side and say “You big cast-iron son-of-a-bitch I could kiss you!”
By nightfall the battlegroup reported that San Leonardo “was more or less firmly in our hand but no further progress could be made.” The battle for the Moro River was finally over.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on November 1, 2006.