Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

The Battle of the Winter Line

 


“The non stop advance of the Infantry and Armoured Brigades from the Trigno left us in possession of the town of Torino and Paglieto, on their high ridge, overlooking the valley of the Sangro.


The Ground.

The Sangro valley ran rather to the usual form, but the new battlefield may merit description.

On the south side of the river and a mile distant were the villages of Torino and Paglieto, one and five miles respectively from the sea. They are situated on a high, rather wooded ridge, which commands the valley and river.

The river, itself, has a wide bed and more water than other rivers we had encountered, about 40 to 50 yards wide and about 4 feet deep in dry weather. We also discovered that it rose 6 to 8 feet very rapidly with melting snow or rain.

The banks were not very high, but their 10 or 12 foot sides were very sheer; and they were wooded in places. On the far (or northern) bank, the ground was perfectly flat and cultivated for about three quarters of a mile, when one reached an escarpment running parallel to the river. This was 50 to 60 foot, high, wooded in spots and cut in several places by wadis, running south towards the river.

From the escarpment, the ground rose steadily and gradually for a couple of miles to a main ridge, dotted with farm, mostly cultivated land except for numerous olive groves. On the right hand side of the ridge and about a mile from the coast was the village of Fossacesia and on the left hand side of the ridge were the villages of San Maria and Mozzagrognia about four miles from the coast.

Two routes led across the river – the Torino to Fossacesia road and the Paglieto to San Maria road, There were also lateral roads on the south bank of the river, on the north bank below the escarpment and on top of the ridge between Fossacesia and San Maria.


Tactics.

The Bosche had decided quite early in the autumn to hold us for the winter on the general line of the Sangro and the River Garigliano, a distance of 80 miles as the crow flies.

We began to first hear of this Winter Line in September and prisoners all spoke of this legendary spot, where tired Germans would rest in comfort and mow down the British, should they be foolish enough to attack it. It was referred to in captured documents, the most common name being the “Helene Line”.

It certainly did appear that the Bosche had something up his sleeve in the vicinity of the Sangro and many thousands of Italians worked on these defences day and night, as we forced our way northwards throughout September and October. Air photos disclosed extensive digging and minefield and, we disclosed, when we captured it, a very strongly fortified area laid out with Bosche thoroughness. It consisted of defensive localities linked up by communication trenches, fortified farms and pillboxes; the place bristled with well concealed and well dug in MGs; and it had been well wired and mined. Houses and trees had been flattened when necessary to give good fields of fire.

I will only deal with the area between San Maria and the sea as it was on the eastern five mile stretch that “Monty” had decided to break this Winter Line.

The Bosche plan for defence ran to form, ie:

–  Light forces preventing us crossing the river.

–   Light forces preventing us reaching the escarpment.

–   Every obstacle placed in our way to prevent us improving routes across the river.

–   The escarpment area made it unhealthy for the assemblage of an attacking force.

–    A good straight fight for the main defences, which he thought we could not take.

How the Winter Line was broken is described in successive stages below.


Stage One – Crossing the River.

The Brigade, based in the vicinity of Torino, crossed the river without difficulty.

Patrols first cleaned up the southern bank, recced for crossing places and, having found them, forced their way over and established small and very local bridgeheads. These were sufficient for the Sappers to recce proposed routes across for wheels and tracks.

The river had considerable nuisance value. Its minimum depth was 4 feet but it frequently rose higher. The nights were extremely cold and many of the days as well. The chaps got wet through, reaching the northern bank and then had to sit tight in slit trenches, extremely cold and wet. It was uncomfortable.


Stage Two – Seizing the Escarpment.

The Brigades advanced from the bridgehead across to the escarpment without a great deal of trouble.  There were sharp clashes in several places, including a couple of local counterattacks but a night’s advance really put both Brigades on their objectives. We now had an enlarged bridgehead between the sea and the Paglieto to San Maria road – 5 miles long and about three quarters of a mile deep; and serious work by the Sappers on the crossings could commence.

During Stages one and two, there was a terrific build up going on behind the Torino ridge. When the Eighth Army stages a major attack, it attacks in style and the whole area was thick with guns of every description, huge ammunition dumps and tanks lurking in large numbers amongst the olive groves.


The Planning.

The large plan had been made.

Rough figures: a new division was to take Mozzagrogna, San Maria and a defended feature to its east known as R Li Colle (this latter is a damn fool name, caused much annoyance and mis-pronounciation and I will in future refer to it as the “Colle”).

The Irish Brigade – kept carefully on ice for this attack – and the Armoured Brigade – were to form up near the Colle and, advancing due east along the defences, blot them out between there and the sea.

As I say, the Big Plan had been made but the minor plans on a Divisional, Brigade and Battalion level went on and on, day in, day out for many days. It was most wearing. It also could not be helped.

Each day saw some new situation at the river. The Sappers were having great difficulty with their job. Not only did the Bosche interfere with their work, but the level of the river kept changing, temporary crossings being washed away; the overworked approaches became quagmire in the heavy rain and we had a lot of rain during this period.

And every defunct crossing caused readjustments in the forming up areas, the assembly areas, the tanks and vehicle routes, the traffic control for the crossings. It was all very complicated.

I felt during this period that if we ever got started, we ought to win the battle. But I had grave doubts whether we could ever start. My favourite nightmare was a Heath Robinson affair, consisting of dawn breaking on hundreds of vehicles, tanks and soldiers inextricably mixed and jammed at the crossings and just over the river. And the Bosche, safe from interference, offering advice on traffic control.

All this time, my three Battalions had been living with their opposite numbers in the Armoured Brigade. Models had been made of the defences and every phase of the attack carefully rehearsed. Each Company practised with the Squadron it would be alongside in battle and not only did every Officer of both Brigades know each other but most of the NCOs and many of the men were well acquainted.

I consider this of first importance.

I got to know their Commander extremely well. He is a first class chap. Holds the same view on conferences as myself and just my cup of tea. I knew in my bones it was going to be a good party. Moreover, he lent me a tank, about which more anon.

For some reasons the “powers that be” christened us “Mutt and Jeff”.


Assembling for Battle.

Quoting from memory and from the classics – this one by Anita Loos, the heroine says, “After all, there is a limit to almost everything.” The limit was reached for the jawing and conferences, and we were at last going to fight.

On 27th November, the party commenced to assemble. All afternoon, the tanks dragged their great hulks over the temporary crossings, which became more and more temporary as each one struggled across. At dark, the Irish Brigade crept across the footbridges and by daylight the assembled force – the Armoured Brigade and the Irish Brigade – was snuggling under the lee side of the escarpment, ready to get on the with the job as soon as the Division on our left reported Mozzagrogna, San Maria and the Colle in our hands.

This Division had commenced their attack at 0300 hrs. At first, it seemed to be going well. Then, not so well, and finally, very badly. By 0800 hrs (two hours after our attack was due to go in), it became clear that not only were they unlikely to take the Colle and San Maria, but they were now in the process of losing Mozzagrogna.

It was evident that our attack could not start that day.

While this unsatisfactory battle was going on, the CO of the Armoured Brigade, John Currie, and myself were able to have a good look at the ground to our immediate front and on a direct line from our part of the escarpment to the Colle. And we made the bones of an alternative plan.

Thus late in the afternoon, we put forward the suggestion that we ourselves, the Armoured Brigade and the Irish Brigade would capture the Colle and San Maria and make our own base for our own start, and that the new Division would confine its efforts to taking the first of its three objectives.

This plan had several points in its favour – the chief being that when we took a place we knew we had it.

This may perhaps give the impression that we lacked confidence in the Division on our left. This is not so. This Division was new to war. They hadn’t yet learned their trade, but we were not particularly interested in reasons for bad results, we were only interested in results.

At any rate, our alternative plan was agreed upon.”



 

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