Pushing To Campobasso: Army, Part 65

July 1, 2006 by Terry Copp

PHOTO: DWIGHT E. DOLAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA144106; ILLUSTRATION: PETER DE GANNES DESIGN

PHOTO: DWIGHT E. DOLAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA144106; ILLUSTRATION: PETER DE GANNES DESIGN

Soldiers rest on top of a tank at San Marco, Italy, in October 1943.

Throughout the Italian Campaign senior Allied commanders were able to obtain a running commentary on German intentions, courtesy of Ultra. By 1943, the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, the British government’s communications headquarters situated 80 kilometres northwest of London, were reading messages encrypted by the German forces on Enigma machines with minimum delays. At both 8th and 5th army headquarters, a small group of officers and non-commissioned officers–known as the Signals Liaison Unit–provided generals Mark Clark and Bernard Montgomery with detailed reports on enemy plans and their order of battle. The problem was that the Germans were undecided about what strategy to pursue in Italy.

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel argued it was essential to conserve manpower and withdraw to a line north of Rome. Hitler seemed to agree so Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and the commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in Italy, Sir Harold Alexander, ordered an immediate advance to secure Naples and the Foggia plain. After a brief pause, Rome was to be secured by converging attacks carried out by both Allied armies. Delaying actions were to be expected, but the real fighting would, they believed, begin next spring north of Rome.

On Oct. 1, Ultra reported the gist of an interview between Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and Hitler in which Hitler ordered an active defence on the whole front giving up as little ground as possible. By Oct. 8, Ultra was able to report details of German plans to hold a winter position on the Bernhardt Line north of the Sangro River. Hitler’s intelligence sources had reported the movement of Allied troops out of the Mediterranean and he concluded that the Allies were hoping to secure Rome as a political prize without a major commitment of troops. This offered Germany the opportunity to restore a freed Mussolini to power, and hold much of Italy with a small army that would rely on good interior lines of communication. The Italian theatre of war was allotted an inflow of 18 supply trains a day from Germany and France, providing substantial reserves of ammunition, fuel and food to supplement the large quantities of stores seized when the Italian army was disbanded.

The Allied armies faced a very different situation. Montgomery repeatedly complained that 8th Army lacked the supplies to wage an effective campaign. He warned the Chief of Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke, that both supplies and reinforcements would be needed to advance to Pescara as the “country in front of us is good defensive country and skilful demolitions would make the next advance slow.” He then asked the key questions about the Italian Campaign. “What do you want to do? I presume you want the Rome airfields, do you want Rome for political reasons, and to be able to put the King back on his throne? Do you want to establish airfields in the Po Valley? Do you want to drive the Germans from Italy? Are you prepared to have heavy losses to get any or all of the above?”

Montgomery offered his own view, suggesting it was “a mistake to drive the German forces from Italy.” The Allies required enough of Italy “to enable our air forces to be able to reach the southern German cities and the Romanian oilfields” and “keep the Germans guessing about our intentions” but he warned a great deal of fighting would be needed if the Allies were to reach northern Italy. Brooke could provide no answer because while he and Churchill favoured an aggressive campaign in Italy, the Americans took a very different view. They insisted that Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, had absolute priority.

While this debate played out, 8th Army began its attack on the Viktor Line with Britain’s 78th Division, made up of veterans of the Tunisian and Sicilian campaigns, advancing along the Adriatic coast. The 78th, known as the Battleaxe division, was to be assisted by an assault landing behind enemy lines at Termoli, a small port north of the Biferno River. No. 3 Commando and No. 40 Royal Marine Commando, with the support of the Special Raiding Squadron, captured the town in the early hours of Oct. 3. The commandos then handed the port over to 78th Div.’s 56th Brigade which arrived by sea.

This well-executed manoeuvre should have forced a German withdrawal to the Sangro River some miles to the north but instead the enemy decided to try to recover Termoli and ordered the 16th Panzer Div. to counter-attack. The 56th Bde. had embarked without artillery or armoured support which was supposed to arrive by land once the Biferno River was bridged. Unfortunately, heavy rains slowed this task and the lightly armed infantry found itself under attack from powerful panzer battlegroups. The commandos were recalled to help hold the perimeter but the town could not be held for long unless the river was bridged so that armour and anti-tank guns could cross. A British armoured regiment (County of London Yeomanry) was in action on Oct. 4.

More armour was needed immediately and the job was given to the Three Rivers Regt. which had landed at Manfredonia on Oct. 1. By the afternoon of Oct. 5, the Canadian tanks were crossing the Biferno and the next morning they joined in the battle. The Three Rivers Regt., commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel E.L. Booth, had distinguished itself in Sicily but this was to be its first tank-versus-tank engagement. The 16th Panzer Div. was equipped with MK IV Specials, tanks with additional armoured skirting and a better gun than the Shermans. Success, therefore, depended on the careful use of ground. The regiment claimed 10 enemy tanks destroyed in the two-day battle and won wide praise for its role in forcing an enemy withdrawal. Following the battle, the commander of the 38th (Irish) Bde. presented a shamrock pennant to Booth and told a British reporter that “it was the first time in the war that I have ever seen everything go exactly as it was supposed to…the tanks and infantry co-operated in complete textbook style–it was wonderful.”

The defeat of the German counterattack at Termoli forced the enemy to withdraw to the Sangro River. During their retreat, the Germans used delaying tactics designed to buy time for the construction of better defences. Enemy units received a directive outlining the use of “lines of resistance.” Such positions were to be arranged by setting up strongpoints manned by small groups who could withdraw at night if heavily engaged. No two lines were to be less than 10 to 12 kilometres apart so that Allied artillery could not fire at the second position without moving forward. These were the tactics encountered by the men of 1st Canadian Div. when their move from Foggia to Campobasso began. General Guy Simonds, who was evacuated to hospital with infectious hepatitis (jaundice), had outlined plans for the advance before handing over to Brig. Chris Vokes. A strong vanguard force organized around the divisional recce regiment, the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, with a squadron of Calgary tanks and a company of the Royal Canadian Regiment, led the way from the start line at Lucera. They ran into the first enemy “line of resistance” at the village of Motta Montecorvino which the official history describes as sitting “like a thimble on a pointed hill atop the first main ridge.”

Lt.-Col. F.D. Adams, who commanded the vanguard, decided to wait for the follow-up force led by the Calgary commanding officer Lt.-Col. C.H. Neroutsos. The rest of the Calgary tanks and RCR companies arrived but most of the guns of the artillery field regiments were stuck in traffic south of Lucera. Neroutsos decided to go ahead without proper fire support but the German paratroops were able to drench the approaches with machine-gun fire, separating the Canadian tanks and infantry.

Neroutsos and Lt.-Col. Dan Spry, the RCR commander, decided to withdraw the tanks and plan a staged night attack once enough artillery had arrived. A short intense barrage fired at the town was upstaged by a thunderstorm with sheets of lightning that outdid the gun flashes. The RCR companies discovered that apart from a few rearguards the enemy had melted away towards their next “line of resistance.”

While the battle for Motta raged, a squadron of Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, probing the hill tracks west of the main highway, encountered one of the most peculiar units in the Allied order of battle, Popski’s Private Army. Major Vladimir Peniakoff, a Belgian-born, British-educated son of Russian refugees, had been working in Cairo at the outbreak of war. After initial adventures behind enemy lines with the Long Range Desert Group, Popski–as he was universally known–commanded No. 1 Long Range Demolition Sqdn., attacking German supply dumps.

After El Alamein and Tunisia, the jeep-borne force, now with official PPA shoulder flashes, was sent to Italy where it landed at Taranto in September 1943. The PPA was on the road deep behind enemy lines within days, shooting up German convoys as they withdrew from Potenza and Bari. On Sept. 30, Popski and his men, working their way north on the corps’ boundary, were more than happy to join in an impromptu attack on a German platoon positioned to provide flank protection to the strongpoint at Motta. The combined force attacked the position from the rear and none of the enemy got away to fight another day.

The 1st Canadian Inf. Bde. continued north towards Campobasso with Highway 17 as their centreline. The 48th Highlanders were tasked with the next bound to Volturava. As the regiment’s historian notes, “the apparent tough-nut of Volturava was easily cracked” because the enemy had selected better defensive positions on the San Marco ridge north of the town. Fortunately, an independent battlegroup made up of the 48th’s Charlie Company, a troop of Calgary Shermans, anti-tank guns, armoured cars plus the invaluable heavy mortars and machine-guns from the Saskatoon Light Infantry, had worked their way along a parallel route to the east of Highway 17.

The battlegroup commander, Major Ian Wallace realized that the German paratroopers holding the high ground overlooking the main road had neglected to occupy the even higher ground behind their position. Wallace got his lead platoon onto this feature and ordered it to hold their fire until they could be reinforced. Several short, sharp artillery shoots forced the paratroopers back into their slit trenches until Brig. Howard Graham could arrange a co-ordinated attack with the RCR joining the 48th Highlanders. The preliminary barrage fell short and the RCR companies were late so the formidable San Marco feature was attacked by just two Highlander rifle companies.

The Wallace battlegroup staged a risky raid on the enemy employing a single platoon and the troop of tanks. When the lead tank was crippled by a mine, Lieutenant Blair Eby and his men “flung themselves among the scattered German slits…with Tommy guns and brens stuttering from every hip.” The paratroopers panicked and abandoned their forward slope positions. When the RCR attacked the village of San Marco that night, a well-directed artillery barrage ended further German resistance. By morning the paratroopers were gone.

It was now 3rd Bde.’s turn to take the lead against a new enemy formation, the 29th Panzer-Grenadier Div. A first attempt to cross the Fortore River failed. It took place near the broken spans of the Ponte dei 13 Archi. However, a cross-country advance by the West Nova Scotia Regt. and Carleton and York Regt. forced the enemy to abandon Gambatesa, a town four miles beyond the river. The Germans disengaged, surrendering a series of hills and villages in an attempt to conserve manpower and hold a new blocking position on Highway 17 at Jelsi. Both the Germans and Canadians were suffering a steady stream of casualties but the Canadians continued to press forward using hill tracks as well as the highway. The Royal 22nd Regt. and the West Novas overcame the Jelsi position at considerable cost which forced the enemy back towards Campobasso.

To the south, 2nd Bde. had advanced across the grain of the country in a series of moves that tried the patience and endurance of everyone. Still outfitted in their light Sicilian campaign clothing, the troops were soon frequently “dog tired and wet” and often without food. Nevertheless, “skill and persistence” paid off and the enemy, who had developed a high opinion of the Canadians and a justified fear of their artillery, decided to abandon Campobasso. Artillery also proved to be crucial in 2nd Bde.’s battle for Vinchiaturo. When Brig. Bert Hoffmeister’s battalions were in position the enemy decided to withdraw “to prevent heavy losses…from superior forces and artillery fire.”

Unfortunately, the next line of resistance south of the Biferno River proved unexpectedly difficult to break. Villages like Orantino, San Stefano and Mongagano and peaks such as Mount Vairiano had to be captured before Campobasso, slated to become an administrative and rest centre, could be safe from shelling. So, a series of sharp, exhausting attacks were necessary.

By Oct. 21, this task was complete but Montgomery’s decision to employ 5th British Div. in an advance to Isernia as a way of diverting attention from a major offensive along the Adriatic coast required the Canadians to seize and secure a start line beyond the Biferno. Simonds, who left hospital early to resume command of the division, told his weary men that they were to “hit a good hard blow” at the enemy before the British attack began. The first phase, capturing the village of Colle d’Anchise and the high ground known as Point 681, was assigned to the Loyal Edmonton Regt. with support from the troopers of the Ontario Regt. fighting their first battle on the Italian mainland.

The tanks had to wait for the engineers before crossing the river and the Edmonton Regt. was forced to give up part of the village when their PIAT (Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank) guns proved ineffective against German tanks. Once the Canadian armour arrived the panzer battlegroups withdrew. The actions planned by Simonds were completed Oct. 27 and the next day 5th British Div. launched its diversionary attack reaching Isernia on Nov. 7. By then the Canadians were enjoying a well-earned respite in Campobasso.

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