Battle of the Sangro, 20 November- 4 December 1943

The battle of the Sangro was the first part of the Eighth Army contribution to the attack on the Gustav Line, the main German defensive position south of Rome. The attack was part of a three pronged offensive planned by General Alexander. Montgomery would attack first, and press on towards Pescara, from where he could threaten Rome from the north-east. The Fifth Army would then attack at Cassino, before carrying out the amphibious assault at Anzio.

The Germans had two defensive positions near the Sangro. The first, close to the river, is sometimes seen as part of the Bernhardt Line and sometimes as the Advanced Sangro Line. The second, which followed a series of ridges a few miles further to the north, was the eastern end of the main Gustav Line, although some sources refer to it as part of the Bernhardt Line. This section of the line was built around the fortified villages of Mozzogrogna and Fossacesia, on the ridge.

The Germans had a strong defensive position, but were now very short of units. In the west General Clark’s Fifth Army was attacking the western end of the Bernhardt Line, and threatening the Mignano Gap. Kesselring was forced to move two divisions, 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier, from the 76th Panzer Corps on the Adriatic to the main front. This left General Herr with two divisions - the 65th Infantry Division on the lower Sangro and the 1st Parachute Division further inland. The 16th Panzer Division had been withdrawn to the rear to recover from losses earlier in the fighting.

Montgomery’s Eighth Army forced their way across the previous German line, on the Trigno, between 27 October and 4 November. As usual Montgomery then paused to wait for his supplies to catch up, and to prepare to attack across the flooded Sangro. Although the Germans were outnumbered, they did have some advantages. The winter weather was making any offensive increasingly difficult. Heavy cloud made any air operations in the mountains difficult, effectively limiting the Allies to the lower coastal strip. The Germans had a good defensive position - the Allies would have to cross the flooded Sangro, then fight there way across the low lying plain north of the river, past minefields and German strong points, before reaching the heavily defended ridge. The Eighth Army also hadn’t yet entirely cleared the area between the Trigno and the Sangro.

By 9 November the Eighth Army had reached the lower Sangro. The 78th Division faced the river from Paglieta to Mont Calvo. On their left the 8th Indian Division was still in the mountains between the Trigno and the Sangro, with brigades to the south-wets of Atessa, at Gissi and between Castiglione and Torrebruna.

Montgomery’s overall aim was to break through the German lines and reach Pescara, but his short term aim was to get to the port of Ortona, ten miles further up the coast from the Sangro. The offensive was to start on 20 November, but more bad weather delayed it, and reduced Montgomery’s initial aims to the capture of the ridge west of the Sangro. In the meantime the 13th Corps (British 5th Division and Canadian 1st Division) were to press the Germans around Alfedena, on the far right of the Eighth Army’s position close to the junction with the Fifth Division.

The main attack would be carried out by the 5th Corps, which now contained the 8th Indian Division, the newly arrived 2nd New Zealand Division, the British 78th Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade. The attack would be supported by 690 guns (including 528 25-pounders) and 186 Sherman tanks. 13th Corps was given the task of carrying out a series of diversionary attacks in the mountains, in an attempt to convince the Germans that Montgomery was going to attack straight towards Avezzano, on the road from Pescara to Rome.

The 8th Indian Division was given the task of clearing the area between the rivers. On 10 November the 17th Indian Brigade took Castiglione and on 11 November Casalanguida. The 19th Indian Brigade took Perano and forced the Germans back to Archi and Tornareccio, in mountains where the Sangra ran north before curving around to the north-east to flow down to the coast. The division then moved to the right, taking up a new position around Paglieta, facing the lower Sangro, between 14-18 November. The New Zealanders replaced then on the left flank of 5th Corps.

The New Zealanders entered combat on 17 November, as part of an operation to capture the ground between the middle Sangro and the Aventino, one of its tributories that flowed into the river form the west just where the Sangra turned north-east to flow towards the sea. The New Zealanders and Indians captured Perano, on the British side of the Sangro on 17 November. On the night of 22-23 November the 3/8th Punjabis and 1/5th Essex waded across the Sangra above the junction with the Aventino and attacked San Angelo and Altino, two hilltop villages on a ridge overlooking the river junction

Nearer the coast the 78th Division put several patrols across the Sangro between 9-15 November, searching for suitable crossing points. However heavy rain began on 15 November, and the Sangro rose and fell repeatedly, making patrolling across the river much more difficult.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
Bailey Bridge over the Sangro, 1944

The original plan had been to make the main assault on 20 November, but the heavy rain meant that this had to be postponed. The original plan had been to ford the river, but the rising water levels meant that four bridges had to be built, including one tank bridge. On 20 November the 36th Brigade, 78th Division, crossed the lower Sangro to win a bridgehead that would allow the bridges to be built. The Germans counterattacked and forced the Argylls back across to the south bank, but the Royal West Kents and the Buffs held on to their positions. By 22 November five battalions were across the river. The main attack was postponed to 24 November, and the objective was changed to the capture of Lanciano, in the hills between the Sangro and the next river barrier, the Moro. There would then be a pause to allow proper crossing points to be built across the Sangro valley. Heavy rain in the mountains intervened yet again, and by daylight on 23 November the bridges were isolated in the middle of a 1,000 yard wide flood!

On 24 November General Allfrey, commander of 5th Corps, issued the final instructions for the battle. The main focus of the attack would be the Li Colli ridge, which ran parallel to the river from the coast to Fossacesia, then Santa Maria Imbaro and Mozzagrogna. The same ridge then curved around to the west, running to the south of Lanciano, and ending up overlooking the Moro valley north-west of Castel Frentano (yet another hilltop village). The 36th Brigade bridgehead was at the foot of the ridge facing Fossacesia. The new plan was for the Indian Division to capture Santa Maria and Mozzagrogna. The 78th Division with 4th Armoured Brigade tanks would then turn right and advance down the Li Colli ridge to the coast. They would then turn left and advance up the coast towards the Moro.

The main attack began on the evening of 27 November with a heavy artillery bombardment and a fighter-bomber attack. The 17th Indian Brigade attacked towards Mozzogrogna, on the left of the main attack, but although the Gurkhas were able to take the village that evening, their supporting tanks were delayed. They were then hit by a counterattack on the morning of 28 November by the German 65th Division, and were forced to retreat. The village was retaken by the 1/12th Frontier Force.

The next attack was launched by the Irish Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade. They attacked north-east along the ridge on 29 November. At first the tanks were held up by mines, but the Inniskillings managed to push along the ridge and clear the way, and with armoured support it was secured by 3pm. Santa Maria fell two hours later. On the same day the New Zealanders attacked north towards Castel Frentano.

On the night of 29-30 November the 17th Indian Brigade advanced north-west from Mozzagrogna to take part of the ridge and open up the roads to the north-east.

On 30 November the County of London Yeomanry, 44th Royal Tank Regiment and 2nd London Irish took Fossacesia, breaking the German defensive line near the coast. At the same time two companies from the Royal Irish Fusiliers made a night march to San Vito, and on 1 December they and the Inniskillings captured the town, a long thin settlement than ran along a ridge than ran for almost two miles inland from the sea. The 36th Brigade was then able to get across the Feltrino, a small river just to the west of San Vito, and by the evening of 4 December had reached the next river barrier, the Moro. General Herr had already realised that his position behind the Sangro was lost, and had ordered a holding action along the line from San Vito to Lanciano, but the Allies advanced too quickly, and he was forced back to the Moro.

The focus of the fighting now shifted to the crossing of the Moro, and the seizure of the port of Ortona a short distance to the north of the river mouth.

Eighth Army in Italy 1943-45: The Long Hard Slog, Richard Doherty. A good account of the twenty month long campaign on the Italian mainland, looking at the performance of the multi-national 8th Army and its three commanding officers, as they fought to overcome a series of strong German defensive positions. Shows why the campaign took a year and a half, and how the 8th Army finally achieved victory. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 August 2018), Battle of the Sangro, 20 November- 4 December 1943 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_sangro.html

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