By late October 1943, information from Ultra provided evidence of the enemy’s determination to defend the Winter Line south of Rome and to continue to build up forces in Italy and the Balkans. While the Allies deployed 11 divisions, General Albert Kesselring’s 10th German Army included 10 divisions with a further six allocated to Northern Italy to pacify the army’s territory, crush the insurgents in Istria and Slovenia to protect the coastal flanks in depth and organize the defences of northern Italy.

Top: a bulldozer pulls an anti-tank gun across a swollen river near Colle d’Anchise, Italy, in October 1943. Bottom: Canadian soldiers cover their ears while firing a mortar. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Sixteen divisions in Italy, plus 13 more in the Balkans–where Hitler feared a second Allied invasion–amounted to a major diversion of German resources away from the Eastern Front where the Soviet armies were continuing the offensive that had begun with their overwhelming victory at Kursk.

Generals Harold Alexander and Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized that the unfavourable balance of forces presented a very real threat to their armies in Italy and so they informed the Combined Chiefs of Staff of their intention “to retain the initiative” by mounting a co-ordinated offensive with Rome as the objective. This would–at a minimum–prevent the enemy from attacking and forcing the Allies to the defensive “prematurely.” Eisenhower noted that “If we can keep him (the enemy) on his heels until early spring, then the more divisions he uses in counter-offensives against us, the better it will be for (Operation) Overlord (the planned invasion of Normandy) and it then makes little difference what happens to us if Overlord succeeds.”

This well-reasoned analysis of strategic imperatives was not communicated to the troops who would have to “retain the initiative” in the cold, rainy conditions of an Italian winter. Their corps and divisional commanders were also in the dark. Originally, Alexander proposed strengthening Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army with divisions from 8th Army, allowing for an all-out offensive on Rome to be coupled with an amphibious landing at Anzio, southwest of Rome. This would have left Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s diminished forces with a minor holding role. However, Monty, who had previously argued that he lacked the logistical support and the necessary infantry replacements to mount a major offensive, insisted on retaining all his divisions so his army could “capture the high ground north of Pescara” and outflank the defenders of Rome before 5th Army launched its main attack.

Monty’s chief of staff protested that the “poor road network and easily defensible river lines” meant “there was no future in an Adriatic drive.” However, Montgomery, who was well aware of the strength of the enemy and the strategic purpose of the Italian Campaign, convinced himself that with “good weather” his army could reach Pescara and the east-west road to Rome in one great push. And so with three infantry divisions–the 78th British, 8th Indian and 2nd New Zealand–supported by 400 tanks and all available air power, Montgomery promised a surprise attack with “a crack that will be heard all over Italy.”

Unfortunately, surprise was lost and heavy rain, typical weather for that time of year, raised the level of seemingly minor rivers and turned the soil into deep, clinging mud. During a three-day period of waiting for better weather, Montgomery ordered light forces to seize the high ground on the north side of the Sangro River, the first obstacle on the road to Pescara. Today’s visitor to the Adriatic front is well advised to begin a visit to the area at the commonwealth war cemetery, located high above the south bank of the river. The graves of the British, New Zealand and Indian soldiers who fell in the battles are laid out in a crescent shaped pattern, on ground surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. From the ridge overlooking the Sangro, you can see the wide valley and the 10-metre-wide river.

On our recent visit it was pouring rain and an attempt to follow paths to the river was hampered by the same kind of mud that foot soldiers endured in 1943. It was easy to see why tanks bogged down but some imagination was required to picture the Sangro in full flood, swollen to a 100-metre-wide torrent, filled with icy-cold melt water from the snow covered mountains inland.

It soon became apparent that the best the two lead divisions could do was secure a shallow bridgehead. The 2nd New Zealand Division, with its integral tank brigade, had to be used to secure the high ground beyond the Sangro, instead of crashing through to Pescara. By Dec. 1, Montgomery had committed all of his divisions except 1st Canadian which was attempting to divert German attention to the Upper Sangro through a series of battalion level attacks. This task, carried out by 3rd Canadian Brigade, gained some ground, but failed to confuse the enemy.

Montgomery was forced to reconsider his plans. He knew the Germans had committed reserves from both the 26th Panzer Div. and 90th Panzer Grenadier Div. to the Sangro battle, but he was determined to press on. The 1st Canadian Armoured Bde. was sent in to support the Indian Div. and Major-General Chris Vokes, now confirmed as commander of 1st Canadian Div., was told to take over the coastal flank from an exhausted 78th Div. Montgomery hoped to see the Canadians and “the New Zealanders competing as to which division can first get to the Pescara River….”

Pescara and the Via Valeria lateral road from Rome are less than 30 kilometres north of the Sangro. On a large scale map the distance looks insignificant and the coastal plain seems like a much more inviting route than the mountainous interior. On the ground it is all very different. Neither the A-14 Autostrada nor the modern version of the coastal highway existed in 1944. The old SS16 wound its way up and down a series of hills and valleys, ridges and gullies with narrow bridges built to cross rivers and creeks all of which “lost their banks” when a few days of warm temperatures sent melt waters racing to the sea.

The winding road from San Apollinare to San Leonardo was selected as the main axis of the Canadian advance with the Lanciano-Frisa road, four kilometres to the west, reserved for infantry of the 8th Indian Div. which was advancing with the tanks of the Calgary Regiment. Before Canadian operations could begin the rising waters of the Sangro washed away the Bailey bridges. This limited the amount of support to both divisions but on the night of Dec. 5-6, Brigadier Bert Hoffmeister’s 2nd Canadian Infantry Bde. began to cross the Moro River with orders to capture San Leonardo and Villa Rogatti.

Hoffmeister, who commanded the Seaforths in Sicily and beyond, was developing the reputation that would lead his biographer, Royal Military College historian Doug Delaney, to title his book The Soldier’s General. During the rest period at Campobasso, brigade officers down to company commanders had been exposed to intensive training courses “designed to forge a common understanding of doctrine and procedure–the axle on which operations turned.” Hoffmeister gave the lectures himself making sure the lessons of the long pursuit were examined. He then turned everyone’s attention to the methods of a set-piece attack, 8th Army style. The ideal sequence, he noted, was “air bombardment, followed by air-strafing, followed by an artillery barrage, followed by machine-gun, mortar and anti-tank fire from Brigade Support Group, followed closely by infantry assault.”

This well-tried doctrine depended upon a high volume of fire designed to neutralize the enemy while the infantry and tanks closed with the enemy. Problems began when the enemy had sufficient time to develop an elaborate defensive position on favourable terrain, such as the heights above the Moro River. The men of 90th Panzer Grenadier Div., who had arrived in the area just before the Canadian relief of 78th Div., had been told that the “watchword for one and all is into the ground.” The Germans placed the majority of their automatic weapons on the forward slope, carefully camouflaged with alternate positions. Riflemen were posted nearby to provide flank protection. The main force was held well back in deep dugouts available to serve as counter-attack forces or reinforcements for the most threatened sectors. Light machine-guns–MG-42s–were set up to cover every approach route with interlocking bands of fire and direct fire down tracks or trails.

Operational Research teams who studied such defences noted that enemy positions could only be located by the closest observation as the “camouflage discipline and lack of daylight movement by the German troops in forward areas was excellent.” When the weather permitted photo reconnaissance, the natural appearance of the positions made them impossible to detect. The artillery and tactical air force could target strongpoints, such as San Leonardo and Villa Rogatti, but a very large and exceptionally accurate bombardment was needed to do any real damage and cause casualties. Little could be expected of the preliminary bombardment, given the shortage of munitions and the limited impact of 25-pounder shells in the wet, soft ground on the Moro.

The Mediterranean tactical air force tried to offer increased support whenever weather allowed, but with battles raging across the width of the Italian peninsula only a limited number of Kittyhawk fighter bombers and medium bombers were available. During the Sangro battle several incidents of short bombing had disrupted the advance of the 8th Indian Div. and new restrictions were introduced before the Canadians crossed the Moro. Pilots were told that “no bombing attacks were to be made without identification by smoke and artificial landmark.” Medium bombers were to be routed “over a permanent landmark which had smoke indicators to draw the pilot’s attention to it.”

Experiments with “cab ranks” of fighter bombers were also undertaken. A cab rank is a queue made up of aircraft that can be called upon for support. During the experiments, pilots of “Kitty bombers” reported to a forward rover tentacle by VHF radio. An RAF air controller with an army liaison officer could direct up to six Kittyhawks circling overhead, each plane ready to take on an impromptu target. No single attack was to be made unless the pilot and air controller were satisfied the target had been positively identified. This attempt to provide close support to the ground troops was good for morale because the ground troops could see the aircraft waiting to join in the attack. In reality, most cab ranks attacked pre-arranged targets behind enemy lines due to the limited time available for target identification.

The strength of the German defences, the limitations of the fire support available to Allied troops and the determined courage of the Canadian soldiers were all evident when the Seaforths and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry crossed the Moro. Hoffmeister gave his former battalion the task of capturing San Leonardo while the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry tried to seize Villa Rogatti, a small cluster of houses a kilometre to the west. Major-General Chris Vokes believed the main attack should go through San Leonardo with diversions at Villa Rogatti and across the mouth of the Moro. The attacks were to be made without the benefit of a preliminary barrage, an approach to battle suggested by the success of 8th Indian Div.’s silent night attacks that were said to have led to panic among German soldiers.

The Princess Pats made good use of the darkness to reach their objective just above the river, but the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada found their axis–the San Leonardo road–well defended. Lieutenant-Colonel Doug Forin committed two companies to secure a bridgehead where the road crossed the river, hoping for the rapid construction of a Bailey bridge to carry the armour forward. A third company was to secure high ground to the south of the village, a move that would provide protection for the main advance. This flank attack, which did not challenge the main German defences, went according to plan, but nothing else did. The enemy was well prepared to defend the road and bridging site with “intense MMG (medium machine-gun) fire from high ground to the west firing along fixed lines.” Both main force companies suffered casualties and were forced to the ground a few hundred metres beyond the river.

The Patricia’s advanced to Villa Rogatti via an unguarded ford in the river. As the lead company approached the fortified hamlet, German machine-guns began firing on fixed lines. The machine-gun fire proved to be “high and ineffective” and Villa Rogatti fell to a two company attack. By first light all four Patricia companies were dug in, facing mortar and artillery fire. Two troops of tanks from the 44th Royal Tank Regt. reached the Patricias in time to help repel a series of counter-attacks. Hoffmeister requested permission to abandon the Seaforth bridgehead and reinforce success at Villa Rogatti. Problems with the construction of a Bailey bridge, which were later solved by Indian Div. engineers, led to sharp criticism of the Canadian sappers, but the decision to turn Villa Rogatti over to the Indians and concentrate the Canadians close to the coast was made by the corps commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Alfrey in the context of the brilliant success of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. which had secured a bridgehead near the mouth of the Moro.

The story of the Hasting and Prince Edward Regt.’s attack and the subsequent battle for the “gully” will be the subject of the next article in this series.