The Sangro and Moro
Historian Terry Copp offers the following analysis of this Allied assessment of the strategy in Italy at this time:
Considerations for further Allied amphibious operations, notably against the Balkans, were dropped in favour of continued offensive operations in Italy, on the Adriatic coast, with an aim of "containing and manhandling" German divisions that might otherwise be deployed to France and interfere with the upcoming invasion of North-west Europe, scheduled for the spring of 1944.
The capture of Rome was more than just symbolic for the Allies; all-weather airfields for use in the Combined Bomber Offensive could be found there, much closer to Germany than those in use at Foggia. There was an undeniable political appeal to the capital that both Germans and Allies recognized.
Priority of shipping was being given to Operation OVERLORD, the codename for the invasion of western Europe, and Alexander complained later that in practical terms it would mean 80% of the Landing Ships, Tank (LST) and Landing Ships, Infantry (LSI) and about two-thirds of all other landing craft leaving the Mediterranean by early November 1943. Not only would it prevent amphibious operations of the kind that had proved beneficial in the final stages of the Sicily campaign (or indeed at Termoli) but also coastal maintenance made necessary by the enemy's insistence on destroying roads, bridges, rail lines and other infrastructure as he withdrew. The bomber units at Foggia had logistics requirements equivalent to the entire 8th Army, and competed for shipping space.
While Allied ground forces were at a disadvantage numerically in Italy, with only 11 divisions in the line in the last week of October 1943 versus 21 divisions (with 5 more in transit), this worked to the Allies' overall strategic goal of drawing forces south away from France. The German 10th Army, opposite the 15th Army Group, employed only 9 divisions, but formations in the north of Italy had sufficient lines of communication that they could easily and quickly be reinforced well beyond that number.
After urging by General Eisenhower, commanding Allied Force Headquarters in the Mediterranian, the Combined Chiefs of Staff relented and permitted 68 LSTs to remain in the Mediterranean until mid-December to facilitate a divisional amphibious assault. Still short vehicles, Alexander asked to extend the hold into January. Eisenhower ordered the Allied armies in Italy to capture Rome as quickly as possible on 8 November, and priority in shipping was to be determined by the requirements of that objective, notwithstanding the needs of the strategic air forces. Following the capture of Rome, there would be a strategic pause in operations.
The German defences were known as the Gaeta-Ortona line, or more familiarly to the Germans as the Bernhard Line. This line crossed the narrowest part of Italy, allowing the Germans to concentrate their forces over a distance of only 85 miles. The terrain was easily defensible, including several natural barries such as the Sangro River on the eastern slope of the Appenines, the Garigliano River on the western slope, and the Abruzzi Mountains in the centre.7
Alexander, commanding 15th Army Group, ordered detailed instructions to 5th U.S. Army and British 8th Army the same day. They were to break through the Bernhard Line in three phases; 8th Army to begin the main thrust after 20 November, gain the Rome-Pescara highway between the east coast and Collarmele, and then threaten the enemy rear through Avezzano. The 5th Army in phase two would drive up the Liri and Sacco Valleys to Frosinone, 50 miles south-west of Rome. The third phase was indefinite, due to the shipping problems, and was to be an amphibious landing south of Rome in the Alban Hills. A decision was not reached until the end of November when the LSTs were secured. Originally to be a one-division landing with armour support, it eventually became the full-scale corps landing at Anzio in early February.
The Winter Line
By mid-November, the U.S. 5th Army and British 8th Army were both drawn up to the Bernhard Line, and the Americans had begun attacking defences overlooking Highway 8 through the Mignano gap. Rugged terrain, tough defenders, poor weather, and supply problems all forced Army Group headquarters to call a halt to offensive operations and the 5th Army spent the last half of November in a defensive role. The Germans took advantage of the lull by developing strong defensive positions at Cassino and the Liri Valley.
To the east the British 8th Army reached the Sangro River having fought through the "Barbara" Line defences on the Trigno River, after which the Germans retreated to fresh positions in the Bernhard Line. In the centre, the British 13th Corps took the road junction at Isernia without resistance. The 5th Corps, operating on the coast with the 78th Division and 8th Indian Division, had advanced from the Termoli-Campobasso-Vinchiaturo line and arrived at the Bernhard Line between 8 and 19 November.
While units patrolled and probed forward over the Trigno, the 8th Army's commander, General Montgomery, planned how best to capture Avezzano, which he surmised would be the key to getting through the Bernhard Line and onto the Rome-Pescara road (in ancient times the Via Valeria, later Highway No. 5). Avezzano was surrounded by 9,000 foot peaks in the heart of the Appenine mountains.
An elaborate deception scheme accompanied the offensive, to give the impression the attack would come through the mountains rather than from 5th Corps on the coast. The concentration on the right of the 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.
The 1st Canadian Division patrolled the 5th Division's flank while the 13th Corps brought its forces level with the Bernhard Line. German engineers had been especially active in the area the 5th Division was operating in, blowing up every bridge, cratering roads and smashing culverts. Heavy rainfall kept rivers high and made diversions on roadways treacherous and hard to maintain. It was a peek at what was to come in the Moro River campaign.
See also main articles on The Sangro and Castel di Sangro
November brought with it the winter rains, and the 1st Division moved to the coast, save the 3rd Brigade. The 3rd Brigade went into action on the Sangro River with the task of providing a deception that the Division was operating in the area. Diversionary actions were fought and in the course of their work, the West Nova Scotia Regiment fought against a well-entrenched platoon of German paratroopers at Castel di Sangro, ensconced behind four-foot thick stone walls. The last inland battles of the Division in 1943 ended at the close of November as the 3rd Brigade returned to the Division at the end of the month, and the division as a whole embarked on the Moro River campaign.
The Moro River
With German forces now entrenched in the Winterstellung, consisting of the Bernhard and Gustav Lines, offensives were aimed at piercing these positions. Both Allied armies in Italy, the U.S. 5th and British 8th, made the attempt with little success. While the 5th Army managed to get across the Volturno River on the western side of the peninsula, the poor weather closed down operations after a month. The 8th Army started its drive soon after, attacking at the Sangro on 20 November while the 5th Army resumed its offensive 10 days later, in addition to preparing for amphibious operations south of Rome that eventually became the landings at Anzio in February.
The British offensive was headed by a new corps, V Corps, and it took only two days for the 78th Division to be thrown back across the Sangro River by German counter-attacks. The heavy rains flooded the Sangro, and it took several days to get another bridgehead, then with heavy artillery support, the Bernhard Line was finally cracked by 1 December. For the Germans in Italy, however, there was always another river or line of mountains to pull back to and defend behind. This time it was the Moro. Despite two more weeks of heavy fighting, the New Zealanders under General Montgomery's command failed to take Orsogna. On the morning of 4 December, the V Corps commander signalled the 1st Canadian Infantry Division's commander to get over Moro as quickly as possible.9
The divisional commander chose to cross the Moro at three points: the coastal road (Highway 16), at San Leonardo, and at Villa Rogatti. The crossings were to be made on a four-mile wide front. The division was then to advance to the intermediate objective of the Orsogna-Ortona road junction, code named CIDER. Highway 16 was assigned to the 1st Brigade and the latter two crossings to the 2nd Brigade, the crossings to be made in silence without preparatory fire on the night of 5-6 December.
The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment managed a shaky bridgehead that was driven back, and The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada suffered the same fate at San Leonardo. Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry managed to get over an unguarded ford at Villa Rogatti, and with help from the 44th Royal Tank Regiment beat off enemy counter-attacks. A second attempt by the Hastings managed a tenuous bridgehead; unable to get tank support over the river, they man-handled two of their 6-pounder anti-tank guns across just in time to thwart an enemy tank attack, and held on through a nervous night of enemy fire.
Engineer reports indicated bridging would not be possible at either site, and he turned the Villa Rogatti bridgehead over to 8th Indian Division. The Canadian engineers had been wrong, a rare display of error, and 8th Division quickly had bridges over the Moro. It was too late for the Canadians to benefit, as the emphasis had shifted to the coast and a two-phase attack, and on the afternoon of 8 December, the RCR attacked out the Hastings' bridgehead towards San Leonardo. The 48th Highlanders attacked across the Moro and took La Torre, and the Seaforths got over the river with the help of Canadian engineers to attack San Leonardo.
The RCR's attack had been a difficult one, in the face of heavy mortar fire and into the teeth of a German battalion, two companies being met by a co-ordinated arms counter-attack. One company was left in a position known as "Slaughterhouse Hill" when the enemy attacked again. Lieutenant Mitch Sterlin's platoon held out against long odds, and the Hastings defended their bridgehead with equal vigour. The German 90th Panzergrenadier Division relinquished the line of the Moro and pulled back to new defensive positions.10
South of, and parallel to, the Ortona-Orsogna lateral road was a deep, narrow ravine that came to be called simply The Gully, supported on its south side by a vine-covered slope known as Vino Ridge. On the morning of 10 December The Loyal Edmonton Regiment launched an attack from San Leonardo as part of the 2nd Brigade's assault on the CEDAR crossroad on the other side of these features. By afternoon, the Eddies were reporting CIDER was in Canadian hands, but they had lost their way in the tangle of vines, and the Patricias were shot up after being ordered to pass through onto the heights of Vino Ridge. The brigade attacked again the next day, and despite assaults by all three battalions, the attack failed.
The 3rd Brigade, weary from its fight on the Sangro, were called in. The West Nova Scotia Regiment was sent at Casa Berardi, a simple 3-story farmhouse to the west of CIDER, but only got to the edge of The Gully before digging in for the night. They were counter-attacked and lost 60 men, including the Commanding Officer. CIDER was in German hands as 12 December drew to a close.
The Carleton and York Regiment attacked on 13 December with heavy artillery support, but were halted with a company on the wrong side of The Gully. They were shot up, and the remnants forced to surrender. A start line was cleared for the Royal 22e Régiment to attack Casa Berardi as the 90th Panzergrenadiers were relieved by the 1st German Parachute Division. The Van Doos went in at dawn on 14 December with tanks of the Ontario Regiment. Despite a lost company and severe losses, the Van Doos pressed the attack and took the objective. Company commander Captain Paul Triquet was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in the battle.
Several attempts to link up the Canadian battalions and cross the Gully were defeated, and the divisional commander came under intense pressure from V Corps and 8th Army to move onto Ortona. Another plan was drawn up, in two phases, to be executed by the 1st Brigade. MORNING GLORY would see the 48th Highlanders cross The Gully and take Villa Grande, while in ORANGE BLOSSOM the RCR would pass through and finally seize CIDER crossroads. The first phase went ahead on the morning of 18 December, and the 48th Highlanders managed to follow a barrage, with tank support, into Villa Grande in less than 20 minutes at a cost of 25 men.
ORANGE BLOSSOM suffered from being done not with pre-registered artillery fire, as MORNING GLORY had been, but from predicted fire, shooting from maps with a 500-yard error in the grid. Canadian shells rained down on Canadian infantry just before noon and German machine guns added to the carnage in the lead companies, which lost every officer, including Mitch Sterlin. With no time for rest, the RCR went into the attack again the next morning, this time behind pre-registered fire, and on 19 December CIDER was taken by The Royal Canadian Regiment with tanks of The Three Rivers Regiment.11
See also main article on Ortona
Ortona in 1943 was a tiny port city dominated by an ancient cathedral and cliff-top castle. The Germans were well-prepared to defend the city, having carried out extensive demolitions. For their part, the Canadians had some practice in urban warfare, having trained with units of the British Home Guard during the long months of training in the United Kingdom. The result was two battalions of German paratroopers facing off against and The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, supported by tanks of The Three Rivers Regiment and reinforced by The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. The battle raged for over a week, often described - in contemporary reports, and in histories ever since - as a Stalingrad in miniature. The Germans pulled out on the night of 27-28 December leaving behind 100 dead in the rubble and the Seaforths and Edmontons thoroughly mauled.
While the fighting raged in Ortona, the 1st Brigade attempted to cut off the Germans in the city with a flanking move to the west. The Hastings and Prince Edward attempted to create a firm base for an attack on San Nicola and San Tommasso on 23 December, were stopped, but managed to surge ahead with tank support, though it took the cover of darkness that night to secure a firm footing for the 48th Highlanders. The RCR, still under-strength, tried to pass through after dawn, but couldn't pass through. Fighting raged over Christmas, and it took several days for the 48th Highlanders to get into San Nicola and San Tommasso. The 3rd Brigade fought through onto the high ground to the north, the Royal 22e Régiment taking three attempts to gain the heights and the Carleton and York engaging in desperate fighting at Point 59. The enemy's withdrawal from Ortona proper left Point 59 in Canadian hands as well.
In all, the division had suffered 2,400 battle casualties and 1,600 more losses to illness. General Montgomery had promised a "Colossal Crack" in November, however, as on historian noted:
The following Battle Honours were granted to Canadian units for this phase of the Italian Campaign: