By mid-November, the 15th Army Group (U.S. 5th Army and British 8th Army) had drawn up to the Bernhard Line, and while the Americans had halted their offensive operations due to a number of factors, the 8th Army was determined to strike forward through the Line and towards Avezzano. To do this, a major operation was planned along the Adriatic coast using Highway No. 16 as the axis of advance. With a D-Day of 20 November, the attack would involve the 78th Infantry and 8th Indian Divisions, supported by 4th Armoured Brigade and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade. As well, the 2nd New Zealand Division, new to 8th Army in Italy, would relieve the 5th Infantry Division on the Corps' left flank and threaten the inland road toward Guardiagrele.
In order to ensure the success of these operations, an elaborate deception plan was created to fool the Germans into believing an operation by 13th Corps was in the offing, well inland, rather than by 5th Corps on the coast. The concentration on the right of the Allied line had to be concealed, and a strong threat from the 13th Corps in the centre of the line presented, in particular against Castel di Sangro and Alfedena. These towns were located on the upper reaches of the Sangro River, commanding roads leading north-west to Avezzano. False materiel dumps were built in the maintenance area of the 13th Corps and reinforcement troops were moved towards the mountains during daylight hours, and to the coast at night. The arrival of the New Zealanders was masked by active patrolling by the Indian Division, and wireless messages sent in Urdu were intended to convey an impression that the Indian Division was to be a component of 13th Corps. To give the false impression that another landing such as happened at Termoli, the Royal Navy and 1st Airborne Division faked preparations for another landing on the coast, hoping to persuade the Germans to spread their forces to cover such a move and needlessly defend the Pescara region.
3rd Brigade on the Upper Sangro
Two battalions of the 3rd Brigade had not seen action since 13 October, and while the 1st Brigade and 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards ran patrols, with the help of mules, between the upper Biferno and Trigno Rivers, the 3rd Brigade was given two days' notice to move, their destination Carovilli.
Reconnaissance conducted on 5 November had shown that only two routes from Campobasso were possible. Both were poorly surfaced roads. The first was the main Corps axis, known as Highway No. 17, running 10 miles west of Boiano, then north past Carpinone and Sessano. The other route was the extension of a minor road that the 1st Brigade had used to cross the Biferno in late October; it zig-zagged wildly from Torella generally west, climbing to Duronia and Civitanova and joined Highway 17 three miles north of Sessano.
German engineers had attacked the routes with relish, blowing an overhanging cliff north of Carpinone to create a landslide, then blowing 150 feet of road at a sharp U-turn just past the landslide into a ravine. A hundred feet past that, a demolished bridge between steep river banks required a 60-foot Bailey bridge. From that point to Sessano, just a mile and a half, three large craters had been blown, and there were two more spots where the road had simply been blown away. Engineers of the 4th Field Company reconnoitring as far as Carovilli had to dismount 14 times on the eight-mile stretch between Sessano and Carovilli to manhandle their motorcycles over German demolitions.
The second route via Civitanova was also arduous, with heavy rainfall having threatened a 250-foot pontoon bridge below Castropignano. No less than five bridges and three culverts had been blown by the enemy between Duronia and Civitanova, and two bridges and one culvert on the other side of Civitanova. The decision was made to move the Brigade on this route on 8 November, and small detachments were sent to hold the towns and villages on the way while the engineers prepared the way. The Germans were confident in the work of their engineers to block a major advance.
The PLDG found themselves covering the whole front between the British 5th Infantry Division and the 8th Indian Division. They established a standing patrol in Carovilli on 8 November, and a week later "C" Company of The West Nova Scotia Regiment, already tasked to occupy Sessano to protect the road repair crews of 4th Field Company, joined the PLDG.
On 14 November, 13th Corps Headquarters defined the role the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade would play in the impending deception plan. The 5th Division was to simulate an attempt to link up with the U.S. 5th Army to the south-west, and attack to cut the lateral road between Castel di Sangro and Alfedena. Their attack on Alfedena was scheduled for 18 November. The Canadian brigade group was to gain control of the upper Sangro between Castel di Sangro and Ateleta twelve miles downstream, then be prepared to assault over the river on 21 November to advance a brigade group up the highway to Sulmona.
Other special preparations included requests for maximum air support, a special artillery group to support 5th Division to 20 November and 3rd Brigade thereafter, and the opening of a divisional headquarters near Carovilli to fool the Germans into thinking the entire Canadian division was moving up from Campobasso.
The Germans had found time to leave signs by their demolitions, taunting the Canadians to "Come and spend Christmas with us" and "Build your Bailey bridge so we can come back and blow it up." The move of the brigade was nonetheless considered "an engineering triumph".2
The terrain around Carovilli was a high "bleak" valley laced with small streams, with "stunted oak forests" and rocky peaks. The vine country had ended at Isernia and only poor crops could be wrought from the rocky soil by the peasants up in the higher, wind-swept elevations. There was only a single good rood, the Isernia-Vasto lateral (Highway No. 86).
The 1st Parachute Division had been selected in early October to hold the 76th Panzer Corps' right flank in the Bernhard Line, one of just three divisions remaining for this task. The 16th Panzer Division, scheduled for transfer to the Eastern Front (and would not be able to disengage until 28 November due to Allied activity), was stationed to the left of the paratroops, and the 65th Infantry Division in the coastal sector. The corps boundary with the neighbouring 14th Panzer Corps ran from Carovilli north-west to the main line of resistance three miles south-west of Castel di Sangro.
The first task of the 3rd Canadian Brigade was to clear enemy outposts from the area south of the Sangro. The West Nova Scotia Regiment sent patrols into the villages and hamlets past Carovilli, first making contact on 17 November. A party of Germans entering Vastogirardi was ambushed by a Canadian standing patrol and forced to retreat, leaving four men killed. The dead were identified as soldiers of the 1st Parachute Division. On 18 November the Royal 22e Régiment established its headquarters in Vastogirardi while "B" Company moved on San Pietro to establish a strong patrol base in accordance with the brigade commander's plan. The company encountered a platoon of West Novas in a firefight with a German patrol at the foot of Mount Miglio; the Germans were put to flight with the help of friendly artillery fire.
On reaching San Pietro that evening, the Royal 22e found that what had been home to 2,000 civilians had been razed. The Germans were instituting a deliberate scorched earth policy in the upper Sangro valley in a zone ten miles long and five miles wide. The zone encompassed an area along the river including Castel di Sangro up to Sant' Angelo, and was the region the enemy expected to hold the Allies during the winter. All food stocks and cattle were confiscated, in the words of the Canadian official historian, "(w)ith typical German thoroughness", and the inhabitants were evicted and their homes burned. The cruelty of the situation is magnified when one realizes both the thoroughness of the German demolitions (10 villages "deliberately and systematically destroyed, with no house left standing) and the fact that in southern Italy, as in Sicily, there were few places to live outside of the villages - there were very few other dwellings in the countryside as almost the entire population resided in the villages. The peasantry of the region was thus left homeless, and left to wander, block the roads with carts and mules, and bring the problem of caring and transporting them away directly into the 3rd Brigade's forward area.4
The battalions of the 3rd Brigade engaged in patrol activities through the woods and gullies over the next few days, sometimes engaging the enemy in sudden firefights with small parties of Germans who had remained in isolation on the near side of the Sangro, or even re-crossed on patrol missions of their own.
On 20 November, the West Novas established its Battalion Headquarters in a tunnel beneath a demolished tile factory in San Pietro, and a patrol from "D" Company went out that night to scale the high ridge to the west. They made their way down to Castel di Sangro, stayed for several hours, and only encountered the enemy on the return trip when they came under fire from the heights of Point 1009. Members of the patrol remaining in the town for another day learned that Germans in platoon strength were occupying a monastery at the summit of the heights. On 21 November, Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Bogert, commanding the West Novas, established an observation post at a feature known as Nido Del Corvo ("the Raven's Nest"), rocky heights overlooking Castel di Sangro, located about three miles distant on a long ridge beyond San Pietro.
"A" Company of The Carleton and York Regiment, located in Capracotta since the 20th, was patrolling the line of the Sangro on the Brigade's right, and was surprised to find two intact bridges, one a pontoon half a mile below Ateleta and a concrete bridge two miles downstream at Sant' Angelo. German troops were discovered in Pescopennataro two miles east, protecting a small bridgehead in Canadian territory, apparently covering German engineers still completing demolition preparations. An intercepted radio message betrayed German nervousness at their situation, likening themselves to "a housewife who has scrubbed herself into the corner", not only backed against the river by the presence of Canadian troops, but there was an understanding that their own minefields made a withdrawal hazardous. The enemy party was reinforced on the afternoon of the 21st, with machine guns added to their defences, and an attempt by the patrol of the Carleton and Yorks to seize the bridge failed. The Germans lost three or four men, but managed to blow the bridge just before midnight, and before dawn had also removed the pontoon bridge at Ateleta, and with it the last crossing of the Sangro on the Canadian front.
"C" Company of the Carleton and York Regiment, with the support of a battery of 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, arrived to reinforce the patrol on the morning of the 22nd, but unfortunately too late. The road leading to Capracotta had not been able to be repaired before that. With the road repaired, the jeeps towing the battery's guns were able to get through, and the Airborne gunners were soon shelling German outposts dug-in across the Sangro River. "C" Company lost three dead and eleven wounded as they moved to join the "A" Company platoon at Sant' Angelo, as fire from German heavy mortars and machine guns continued to come from the far bank of the river. They were not able to link up with the "A" Company platoon until after darkness. The German paratroopers at Pescopennataro risked a withdrawal through their own minefield, in a wide detour taking them north and away from the Canadians. The village, like so many others, was found to be completely destroyed when the Carleton and York patrol that had been observing them entered it after their departure.
Castel di Sangro
See also main article on Castel di Sangro
With the withdrawal of the Germans from Pescopennataro, the 3rd Brigade controlled the whole east bank of the Sangro with the exception of the pinnacle at Castel di Sangro. The Royal 22e Régiment, joining the West Novas in San Pietro, continued patrolling to the river to observe for possible German crossings, but the swift current and rising winter water (five feet deep in most areas) left them unsuccessful in these endeavours. Their observation posts on the bank let them direct the guns of the 3rd Field Regiment, newly arrived from Campobasso, adding verisimilitude to the deception plan of a simulated divisional assault. Refugees continued to arrive in Canadian lines from villages across the Sangro, with stories of German devastation of their homes and hostage-taking of women because of refusal by men to work as labour on German defensive positions. Canadian patrols across the river met German machine gun positions that were both well-entrenched and skillfully concealed.
It was important to clear the entire near bank before launching the Brigade's main attack, now postponed due to the heavy rains falling along the entire front of 8th Army. On 22 November, Brigadier Gibson, commanding the 3rd Canadian Brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel Bogert of the West Novas observed Point 1009 from the Raven's Nest and elected to mount a one-company assault by "B" Company of the West Novas. Captain F.H. Burns was ordered to make his attack at 0100 on 23 November. Radio communication was lost with the company almost immediately and it was seven hours, after they returned, before Battalion Headquarters was able to learn what happened during their attempt to reach their objective.
The 5th Division had their own attack delayed for three days by the foul weather, but now began their part in the deception plan. Aerial bombardment and heavy artillery prefaced a feint attack, and early on 23 November, Alfedena, a town on the very outskirts of the Bernhard defences, was cleared of the enemy. There, the division was halted by heavy resistance. On the right of the 8th Army, the 78th Division prepared for the main assault on the lower Sangro by enlarging territory gained in preliminary operations.
The preparations for the 8th Army's main drive along the Adriatic coast were complete by 27 November, and the diversionary operations in the mountains ceased. The 5th Corps had secured a six-mile long bridgehead over the Sangro up to 2,000 yards deep in "disgusting conditions" (in the words of the Army commander) and held it against numerous German counter-attacks. The readiness of the New Zealanders to begin their own assault negated the need for further deception on the left flank of the 8th Army.
On 25 November, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division received notice to move to the coast to relieve the 78th Division in its bridgehead there. All ranks were told in a personal message from General Montgomery that they were assisting the U.S. 5th Army in efforts to secure Rome, and told that "We will now hit the Germans a colossal crack." The tactical headquarters of the division returned to Campobasso, the 3rd Brigade went under direct command of 13th Corps, and the 5th Division began to relieve it in place.
The Raven's Nest observation post received two VIPs before it was handed over to the British; Colonel J.L. Ralston, Minister of National Defence, on a tour of Canadian forces in Italy, and General Crerar, having just brought I Canadian Corps Headquarters, Corps Troops and 5th Canadian (Armoured) Division to Italy.
As the infantry completed their reliefs and continued patrol activity on the Sangro, the three divisional companies of Royal Canadian Engineers belonging to the 1st Canadian Division remained hard at work six miles to the rear, trying to open the Isernia-Vasto lateral. Ten Baileys were thrown up, and one 180-foot span went up in less than 18 hours. The corps commander, General Dempsey, personally gathered the Canadian engineers around him following an inspection on 30 November to thank them personally for what he called "splendid work."
Other arms and services contributed materially to the efforts of the 3rd Brigade on the Sangro despite being 60 miles from the base at Campobasso. The 3rd Infantry Brigade Company, RCASC ceased its main role of transporting rations to become a composite company and delivered rations, petrol and ammunition (including 12,000 rounds of 25-pouner shells a day during heavy bombardments). Men of No. 4 Field Ambulance, RCAMC, had to make harrowing stretcher carries over mountain trails to evacuate the wounded out of the hills onto established tracks and roads so the jeeps could carry them away. No. 2 Canadian Field Surgical Unit had to relocate forward on 24 November to join the Advanced Dressing Station at Civitanova to provide advanced front line medical care. The constant rain and snow also demanded that the RCOC supply winter clothing to the brigade, particularly acute in the face of the German "scorched earth" policy.
The administrative problem of the large number of homeless refugees created by the German scorched earth policy required firm measures. Corps Headquarters saw to it that all carts were evicted from the narrow roads, livestock put into the fields to graze, and refugees collected at San Pietro and Carovilli, then loaded on empty RCASC transports returning to the base at Campobasso where they were screened for enemy agents and carried further back to Lucera and eventually shipped by rail to Bari. Those too sick or injured to travel were sent to an emergency civilian hospital established at Carpinone. While the Germans had efficiently used the civilian population as a weapon in France and the Low Countries in May 1940, flooding the roads with refugees to hamper the movement of Allied troops, similar effects on the Sangro were minimized by prompt and efficient Allied response.
Through the Bernhard Line
The attack on the coast went forward on 28 November, and was successful; the "colossal crack" that Montgomery promised managed to gain the entire ridge overlooking the Sangro flats by darkness on 30 November. The back of the Winter Line was broken, counter-attacks were repulsed, and the 2nd New Zealand Division muscled their own bridgehead to the left of the 5th Corps and linked it the main penetration to the east. Canadian fighter planes were among those in the air denying the Luftwaffe the ability to blow the new bridges over the Sangro. The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade was brought up out of reserve to support 8th Indian Division in its task of establishing a firm base on the ridge, and the 14th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Calgary Regiment) and 11th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Ontario Regiment) moved up on 1 and 2 December, respectively.
The Army Commander then decided to push one division up to Ortona, thence to Pescara, another division (in the event, the 2nd New Zealand) inland to Orsogna, Guardiagrele and Chieti.
The fighting promised to be difficult, and the Moro River offered excellent defensive terrain for a stand before the Pescara. The weather continued to be terrible, ensuring difficult conditions for fighting and denying air support. It was in those conditions that the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade returned to the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, called forward to relieve the weary 78th Infantry Division. The latter had suffered 10,000 battle casualties in six months of combat and had been in the lead of the 5th Corps' advance.
The 3rd Brigade was still handing over its positions on the Upper Sangro by the time the rest of the 1st Division had moved to the Adriatic coast, the 2nd Brigade leaving Campobasso on 30 November to stage north-west of Termoli and the 1st Brigade crossing the Sangro on 1 December to relieve the 11th Brigade at Fossacesia. The fighting on the Moro, consuming the month of December both at Ortona and by the New Zealanders at Orsogna, was in the event every bit as difficult as it promised to be.
The following Canadian units were awarded the Battle Honour "The Sangro" for participation in these actions:
Photo of Castel di Sangro taken 10 November 2005 by Carmine Riccio, uploaded to Wikipedia under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.