The 8th Army’s assault on the German Winter Line started on the evening of 27th November 1943 but the initial advance by units of 8 Indian Division was rebuffed at Mozzagrogna by German counter attacks, which included the use of flame throwers, the first time they had been used in Italy.
Mozzagrogna town centre.
View southwards from Fossacesia ridge.
On 29th November, with the support of 4 Armoured Brigade, 6 Innisks (Skins) were able to secure a strong position on the Li Colli ridge at Santa Maria close to Mozzagrogna and on the following day, 2 LIR (Irish Rifles), with further tank support, were able to move along the ridge and break through into Fossasecia, and then advance further northwards towards Rocca San Giovanni.
Fossacesia old town.
The Faughs, with 44 Royal Tank Regiment (44 RTR) support, continued with the advance along the ridge top towards the coast and quickly rolled up all German positions in the area, before joining the brigade’s move northwards towards the River Moro.
CQMS O’Sullivan recalls entering the town of Fossacesia with the Irish Rifles:
“I was not sorry when the company advanced away from our vulnerable position on the Sangro. We advanced and linked up with our tanks. Closely following E Company, I traveled along the road from Mozzagrogna soon after the attack had been completed. I saw the preparation of funeral ghats for the many Indian dead, casualties in the attack. I continued into Fossacesia and arrived just as the company moved a piano into the street. One of the lads was playing it.
Surprise had been complete. The battalion had completed its task with few casualties. We advanced to Rocca. Major Lofting’s luck deserted him and he was wounded. Lieutenant Gentle, who himself was later wounded by shrapnel, nominally took over E Company but Lofting effectively handed command directly to CSM Charnick. The company would be run by Charnick and sergeants Mayo and McNally until we came out of the line. It was about 3 December when the Canadians of The Three Rivers Regiment caught up with us. We had a celebration and one of them played a guitar.”
2 LIR’s war diaries fully describe the assault on Fossacesia:
“At 1830hrs on 27 November, the Bttn left Cassalbordino carried in motor transport and after debussing east of the River Sangro moved across the river to a lying up area under the escarpment. This was reached by 0230hrs on 28 November. Here the Bttn married up with S Coy and 44 RTR, who had already moved across two days previously.
8 Indian Division had attacked Mozzagrogna and Santa Maria during the night 27/28 of November. Had this attack gone according to plan, the 6 Innisks were to have captured the R Li Colli feature early on 28th November and been followed by 2 LIR in support of 44 RTR, who were to form up astride the road from Santa Maria to Fossacesia. From this position, the defences on the Fossacesia Ridge were to be rolled up.
The attack by 8 Indian Division was unsuccessful and the situation in the Mozzagrogna to Santa Maria area was very confused all day on 28 November. It was, therefore, decided that the Irish Brigade and 4 Armoured Brigade (less one Bttn) would capture Santa Maria and R Li Colli on the morning of 29 November and then roll up the enemy defences from Santa Maria to the sea.
The outline plan was as follows:
Phase I –
At dawn on 29th November, 6 Innisks, supported by 3 County of London Yeomanry (3 CLY) were to capture R Li Colli and Santa Maria. 8 Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders were to take over the defence of Santa Maria after its capture. While this was in progress, 44 RTR and 2 LIR were to move up ready to carry out the second phase of the plan.
Phase II –
As soon as Phase I was completed, 44 RTR, supported by 2 LIR, were to move through 6 Innisks and form up astride the road from Santa Maria to Fossacesia. They were to roll up enemy defences up to and including Fossacesia.
Phase III –
After a short pause, 44 RTR, supported by 1 RIrF, were to roll up the enemy defences from excluding Fossacesia to the sea.
All these phases were to have full artillery support.
The first phase of the attack went in at dawn on 29 November – the opposition was strong and the ground difficult for tanks. This made the going slow and it was nearly dark before this phase was finally completed. Early in the morning, the Bttn and 44 RTR had moved forward to the area as planned.
At 1630hrs, the Brigade Commander ordered the second phase to be put into operation next morning. Zero hour being provisionally fixed for 0830hrs on 30 November.
As the going across country to the start line was difficult for tanks, it was decided that 44 RTR should go round via the road through Mozzagrogna, which 8 Indian Division had now secured, and Santa Maria to the start line.
The plan for the attack was as follows:
The lines of enemy defences were divided into seven blocks each 800 yards deep by 400 yards long. All available artillery, having dwelt on the opening line for 30 minutes, was to be concentrated for 10 minutes on each block in turn. At the end of 10 minutes, the artillery lifted from block 1 to block 2. At the end of 20 minutes from block 2 to block 3 and so on.
As soon as the artillery lifted from one block, a squadron and one company of infantry entered it and dealt with the opposition.
E Coy were not working with any particular squadron but was kept in reserve during the first stages and available to clear the northern part of Fossacesia, if required.
The decision to send 44 RTR round by road to the start line necessitated some slight alteration in the preliminary moves. G Coy, being the first coy to go into action with C Squadron, was sent with the tanks and travelled on them to the start line. They left with 44 RTR at 1800hrs on 29 November. The remainder of the Bttn, less S Coy, moved forward at 0330hrs on 30 November, here to await the arrival of 44 RTR and to marry up with them.
Except for the fact that 44 RTR were delayed on route by an enemy counter attack on 8 Indian Division, thus necessitating zero hour being put back an hour to 0930hrs, the preliminary moves were completed without difficulty.
The attack was completely successful and by 1300hrs, the ridge and Fossacesia village had been cleared. The artillery concentrations had demoralised the enemy and this, coupled with the appearance of tanks and infantry from a completely unexpected direction, finished them off. Much material and many prisoners were captured at a cost of only two killed and eight wounded.
During the afternoon, E Coy sent out a patrol, which found the bridges on the road between Fossacesia and Rocca intact. As a result, G Coy was ordered to move forward at 1700hrs to seize and protect the bridges against demolition. In addition, he reported that the enemy was still in the village of Rocca.
During the night, patrols reported the village still held but by 0730hrs 1 December, it was apparent that the enemy were leaving. The artillery bombardment was therefore called off and, by 0800hrs, G Coy were established in the village.”