PHOTO: FREDERICK G. WHITCOMBE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA107933
Historians have tended to treat the battle for the Moro River–fought in Italy between Dec. 6 and 10, 1943–as a prelude to the better known struggle in the streets of Ortona. However, at the time, the battle for the Moro was seen as an important victory opening the way to 8th Army’s real objective: Pescara.
When the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division reported it could no longer contain the Canadians in the bridgehead, the German commanders ordered a rigorous defence of the approaches to Tollo, a village west of Ortona. If the Canadians reached Tollo they would bypass Ortona and continue north to Pescara without becoming involved in a house-to-house battle.
The Germans had suffered heavy losses in a series of counter-attacks against the Canadian bridgehead, including a last desperate attempt on the evening of Dec. 9. Allied artillery had frequently failed to provide accurate fire support during offensive operations due to inaccurate maps and dubious meteorological reports on wind speed and direction. But when the Germans attacked, Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) corrected the fire, thus bringing the guns of 1st Canadian, 8th Indian and a medium artillery regiment to bear on the exposed attackers.
December 9 had been a historic day. The diarist at the Canadian Division’s headquarters wrote that it “…will be remembered by the 1st Canadians for a long, long time. We had our first real battle on a divisional level with the Germans–the battle of the Moro River. The Germans counter-attacked very heavily and were thrown back.” Montgomery sent his “hearty congratulations” but renewed his orders, Lieutenant-General Charles Allfrey’s 5th Corps was to press the advance to Tollo with 1st Canadian and 8th Indian divisions maintaining pressure until 8th Army was reorganized and ready to carry out Operation Semblance, a four-division advance designed to reach the Pescara-Rome highway which was further north.
Thus began the struggle for what Canadian soldiers called The Gully, a feature formed by the Fosso Saraceni, a small creek that had worn a U-shaped valley into the landscape. The Gully was barely noticeable on the scale maps of the area and had failed to draw the attention of intelligence officers or air photo interpreters, but the 200-metre-deep ravine provided the enemy with ample opportunity to fight effectively from terrain that gave the defender every advantage.
The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, with a squadron of Calgary Tanks and a platoon of medium machine-guns from the Saskatoon Light Infantry, began the push north on the morning of Dec. 10. The battle group included two FOOs from 3rd Field Regt. and one from the corps medium regiment. Their goal was Cider Crossroads, the point where the San Leonardo-Tollo road met the Ortona-Orsogna highway. If all went well the 2nd Brigade would turn east towards Ortona to outflank the defenders south of the city while 3rd Canadian Infantry Bde. would join an Indian brigade in the advance north to Tollo. The occupation of the village, with its network of minor roads to the north and east, would force the enemy to abandon Ortona, leaving it intact for the Allies to utilize as a base.
The road the Loyal Eddies followed skirts a creek defile before turning east. Today the A13 Autostrada, elevated above The Gully, dominates the battlefield, but in 1943 the narrow road ran through an apparently empty countryside. Accounts of the day’s events vary widely, but everyone agrees that all attempts to advance to The Gully–never mind the crossroads–were met with concentrated machine-gun and mortar fire which neither the artillery nor the mortars could suppress. A vague message sent to brigade at 1:30 p.m. reported “3 coys (companies) on objective are consolidating.” This signal must have been intended to refer to the first-stage objective, not Cider Crossroads. But Brigadier Bert Hoffmeister misunderstood and ordered the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry to join the advance, securing the high ground the Patricias would call Vino Ridge. They came under heavy, observed fire and were forced to stop and dig in just east of San Leonardo.
The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada had kept pace with the Loyal Eddies, protecting their left flank. But they, too, suffered from accurate enemy fire. Lieutenant-Colonel J.D. Forin was among the wounded and he provided this graphic description of his evacuation to the regimental aid post (RAP). “The Advance RAP is in a house 50 yards behind the gully. It is full of wounded and shocked men…. An RAP Jeep arrives…King (Forin’s runner who was also wounded) and I are loaded on it. King is unconscious, but breathing. The Jeep creeps cautiously down the shell-pocked road to San Leonardo. I think that if I were driving I would go all out. Shells blossom on the road on both sides but the driver has critically wounded aboard and to hit a shell hole at high speed might kill them…. The RAP is a dark room in a battered house. Lights from car batteries hung over blood-stained stretchers… fresh casualties keep arriving. The MO (medical officer) is desperately tired, but he never stops working or loses patience with the shock cases.”
Fortunately, the enemy was not content with stopping the Canadians. The 90th Div. was told to regain the ground above the Moro. The first wave of German attacks began on the afternoon of Dec. 10. The next day three separate attempts to overwhelm the Canadians produced heavy casualties on both sides. General Traugott Herr, the German corps commander, complained that these attacks “had been committed too late in the day and had been half-hearted.” He removed the divisional and regimental commanders, placing the division under the command of Col. Ernst-Günther Baade of 3rd Para Regt. Baade was an experienced commander who was prepared to do whatever it took to slow the Canadian advance at least until the balance of 1st Para Div. arrived.
The 8th Indian Div. had enjoyed slightly greater success on its axis, reaching Villa Caldari just south of the Ortona-Orsogna road. The Gully did not extend this far inland and there were good prospects for a further advance, but the Indian battalions were understrength and near exhaustion so they were allowed to pause and regroup. When the advance was renewed, the enemy was well dug in and able to hold positions in front of the lateral road for more than three days.
Montgomery proposed to begin Operation Semblance on Dec. 15, but Allfrey and Major-General Chris Vokes–the Canadian divisional commander–wanted the Canadians to secure Cider Crossroads and the highway before joining in the promised corps advance. Vokes decided to commit his reserve, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Bde., to accomplish this. The West Nova Scotia Regt. made the first attempt at dusk on Dec. 11, but could make no progress. The next morning, the West Nova Scotia Regt. was ordered to try again, despite a driving rain. When this attack failed, Vokes employed all available three-inch and 4.2-inch mortars with their high-trajectory fire on the reverse slope, while the artillery suppressed other enemy positions. The Carleton and York Regt. led the new advance supported by flank attacks. After some early success, “murderous machine-gun and mortar fire” from within and beyond The Gully overwhelmed the battalion, which suffered 52 casualties as well as the loss of 28 men who were taken prisoner when a platoon was cut off.
As another frontal attack collapsed under the German fire, a battle group formed by a company of the West Nova Scotia Regt., a tank squadron from the Ontario Regt., combat engineers and a troop of self-propelled guns, found and destroyed a German battle group deployed to defend the shallow western end of The Gully.
A platoon of West Novas, with a troop of tanks from the Ontario Regt., charged the enemy position, destroying two German tanks and capturing the others. A second troop of four Ontario Regt. tanks, working closely with a Seaforth Highlander company, swung further to the left, circling around the enemy defences before probing east towards Casa Berardi. This brilliant stroke, which might have ended German resistance at The Gully, could not be supported as Vokes had no reserves immediately available. With the tanks low on fuel and ammunition, the best the battle group could do was to defend their position near the Ortona-Orsogna road.
These probing attacks on the left flank of the Canadian sector were assisted by a renewed effort from 8th Indian Div., which committed an armoured-infantry battle group to a night attack towards Villa Grande. The Germans were forced to send local reserves to seal off this penetration, helping the Canadians to exploit a temporary seam in the enemy defences.
The decision by Vokes to commit 3rd Bde. to a frontal attack on The Gully had left the division with just one uncommitted infantry battalion, the Royal 22nd Regt. The Van Doos, as their comrades called them, were told to assemble with a squadron of Ontario Regt. tanks during the night of Dec. 13-14 and to use a divisional artillery program to advance northeast towards Cider Crossroads. The attack, which was to begin at first light on Dec. 14, would have to overcome a powerful enemy. While no great “fighting value” could any longer be ascribed to 90th Div., two battalions of 1st Para Div., whose strength “had been increased by the arrival of young reinforcements,” were now in position to block the Canadian advance.
Brigadier Bruce Matthews–the divisional artillery commander–was determined to improve the effectiveness of his guns. The base maps used to plan the unobserved or predicted fire in previous attacks had proven to be quite inaccurate so the artillery FOOs had worked hard to register the guns on a series of target areas that were given code names. And so rather than relying on a moving barrage, the hope was that FOOs with the forward troops could call for concentrations of fire on specific positions.
On the morning of Dec. 14, the Van Doos discovered just how valuable this flexibility was. Their first task was to recover control of the lateral road, not advance along it, so the 60-minute-long opening barrage was of little help. The infantry stalked a German tank hidden in a house before destroying it with a PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) gun. Soon afterwards two companies, each supported by a troop of tanks, began an advance across “a wasteland of trees with split limbs, burnt-out vehicles, dead animals and cracked shells of houses.” The parachute battalions, assisted by tanks or self-propelled guns, were dug in among the ruins and craters ready to call upon artillery and mortars as well as their own fire to wreak havoc among the Canadians.
The right flank Van Doo company, turning to avoid such fire, ended up lost in The Gully before withdrawing to the start line. Major Paul Triquet’s “C” Company worked its way forward with the help of the Ontario Regt. Shermans. Matthews’s registered artillery concentrations and tank fire deserved much of the credit for the advance, but the raw courage of Triquet’s men was quite extraordinary.
With less than 20 men and five tanks left in his battle group, Triquet and Major H.A. Smith of the Ontario Regt. decided to seize and then defend the villa and farm buildings of Casa Berardi. Their determination to hold the Casa, expressed in Triquet’s phrase “mot d’ordre, ils ne passeront pas”, has become famous in the annals of Canadian history. The VC Triquet earned was well deserved, but the role of the Ontario Regt. tanks and the night march of D Co. of the Van Doos, which reached the Casa shortly before midnight, should also be remembered.
The successful defence of Casa Berardi did not mean the end of the battle for The Gully. The enemy continued to use this natural obstacle to block the advance of 1st and 2nd brigades. Unfortunately, Vokes was an exceptionally stubborn man and he ordered the Carleton and York Regt. to make yet another frontal assault on Cider Crossroads. According to his own account–written well after the battle–“the attack was not pressed home and again failed in the face of determined opposition.”
Allfrey was later to claim that “he had a long talk with Vokes… and told him he was tiring out his division and producing nothing because of the lack of co-ordination.” Since Allfrey’s “diary” was written after the event, it is difficult to rely upon but if the “long talk” occurred on Dec. 14 it did not persuade Vokes to cancel the Carleton and York attack.
Finally, on the afternoon of Dec.15, Vokes decided on a 48-hour pause to organize a proper set-piece attack from the Casa Berardi position. The 48th Highlanders of Canada and the Royal Canadian Regt. were to move in behind the Van Doos and prepare to follow an extensive artillery program designed to shoot them onto objectives around Cider Crossroads.
The guns of nine field and three medium regiments would fire two artillery programs, Morning Glory–in support of the 48th Highlanders–and Orange Blossom for the Royal Canadian Regt. The 48th Highlanders were able to follow the “terrifying and effective” artillery fire in a deliberate advance carried out “at a rate of only 100 yards every five minutes.” They reached their objective north of Cider Crossroads just as the RCRs began their advance. Orange Blossom turned out as disastrous as Morning Glory was successful. For reasons that have not been explained, a large number of short rounds fell among Canadian troops, and Matthews cancelled or changed much of the fire plan. The RCRs ran into a number of untouched enemy positions and suffered heavy losses in what they described as a “death trap.”
Despite these losses the battalion was ready to resume the battle the next day. This time the artillery fire was both accurate and effective. The crossroads was secured and the battle for The Gully finally over.