Battle of the Moro River, 4 December 1943-4 January 1944

The battle of the Moro River (4-26 December 1943) was part of the Eighth Army attack on the Gustav Line, the main German defensive position south of Rome, and came after the British had broken through the main Gustav line position in the east of Italy, behind the Sangro River.

In the aftermath of the battle of Salerno the Eighth Army had been sent to the Adriatic coast, where it faced the eastern end of a series of German defensive lines. They forced their way across the Biferno (1-7 October) and the Trigno (27 October-4 November 1943), and then advanced to the Sangro. The Germans had very few troops to defend the Sangro - only the 65th Infantry Division on the lower Sangro and the 1st Parachute Division further inland. The 16th Panzer Division, which had been involved in the earlier battles against the Eighth Army, had to be withdrawn to recover from its losses. The Eighth Army attack on the Sangro was delayed by bad weather which caused the river to rise, but the main assault began on the night of 27-28 November, and by 4 December the Germans had been forced back to their next position, on the Sangro.

By the time he had been pushed back to the Moro, General Herr’s 76th Corps had been reinforced. The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division (Baade) had been pulled off Corsica and now replaced the badly damaged 65th Division. The 334th Infantry Division had been moved to the Adriatic from Genoa, and the 15th Panzer Grenadier and 26th Panzer Divisions had been moved across Italy. The 29th Panzer Division was also moved east during the Sangro battles, launching a counterattack on the leading troops of the 8th Indian Division, on the left of the British advance across the Sangro. The 1st Parachute Division, which had been facing the far left of Montgomery’s army in the mountains, was moved to the coast and replaced by two mountain battalions.

Although the Moro is a much smaller river than the Sangro, the Germans had a strong defensive position along ridges on the far side of the river. The first was very close to the river, and topped by a series of villages, from San Donato near the coast, through Villa San Leonardo and Villa Rogatti and on to Poggiofiorito. Behind this first ridge a road ran from the coastal town of Ortona to the hilltop town of Orsogna. The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division held the first ridgeline with the 1 Parachute Division behind them. The 26th Panzer Division (von Luttwitz) was on the German right around Orsogna. This was a particularly strong position. The Moro ran from west to east to the south of Orsogna, on the high Brecciarola ridge, which ran east from the village. The lower Pascuccio ridge ran north-east from the village, carrying the first part of the road to Ortona. A little further north was the Sfasciata Ridge, just to the south of Poggiofiorito. Just to the north of that village the Ortona road left the main ridge and crossed lower ground to reach the port.

Montgomery attacked at both ends of the Moro line. On the left, facing Orsogna, the task was given to the 2nd New Zealand Division. On the right the attack was led by the 1st Canadian Division, which had been moved out of the central mountains. The 8th Indian Division was in the centre of the line.

The fighting began Orsogna, where the 2nd New Zealand Division attacked the 26th Panzer Division on the night of 2 December, taking advantage of a temporary gap in the German lines to the south of the village. The 6th New Zealand Brigade managed to get into the eastern outskirts, but was forced out by a counterattack on the following morning. On 4 December the New Zealanders attacked with two brigades. Once again they were repulsed at Orsogna, although the 6th Brigade did manage to briefly get into the town. The 5th Brigade made progress on the two ridges further to the north, and were able to hold onto ground on Sfasciata near Poggiofiorito, but had to pull back from Pascuccio, as their positions there were too vulnerable to German attack from higher ground.  

The third attack on Orsogna involved the New Zealanders and the 17th Brigade, British 5th Division, with the 78th Division in reserve. The attack went in on 15 December, and was directed at Melone, on the ridge to the south-west of Orsogna. The hope was to isolate the village, but this attack also failed. Some progress was made around Melone, and two armoured units were able to attack towards Orsogna, but had to retreat after twenty five tanks were lost. A German counterattack on the night of 15-16 September failed, as did an attack by 20th Armoured and the Maoris on 16 September.

The fourth and final attack on Orsogna in this battle began on 23 December. It was supported by the entire artillery of 13 Corps and five artillery regiments from 5 Corps. This time the New Zealanders were able get past the German positions to the north-east of the town, while the British 5th Division captured Arielli, three miles to the north/ north-east. However Orsogna remained in German hands.

On the right the Canadian’s first task was to get across the Moro and reach the crossroads between the coastal Highway 16 and the Ortona to Orsogna road, just to the south of the town.

The first Canadian attack was only a limited success. On the night of 5/6 December they waded the Moro and captured Villa Rogatti on the left and a bridgehead near the coast without much trouble, but needed five hours to capture San Leonardo. The Germans then counterattacked and forced back the troops at Villa Rogatti and San Leonardo.

The Canadians attacked again on 8 December, this time aiming to pass through San Leonardo to reach the crossroads. The attack began at 4.30pm, and the Canadians were half way to San Leonardo when they were hit by a German counterattack. This was fought off with the help of a heavy artillery bombardment. San Leonardo was finally taken for a second time late on 9 December and the Germans were forced to retreat. On 10 December the advancing Canadians found the next German defensive position, along yet another valley and ridge line, which became known to the Canadians as ‘The Gully’. The Canadians launched a series of frontal assaults on the new German position, without any success. However on 13 December two Canadian patrols found a track that ran west from San Leonardo to the Ortona-Orsogna road, outflanking the gully on the German right. On 14 December a small force captured Casa Berardi, a cluster of farm buildings two and a half miles to the south/ south-west of Ortona. Captain Paul Triquet was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading the successful defence of this outpost against a determined German counterattack. Another attack on the main Gully position failed on 15 December, and General Vokes, commander of the 1st Canadian Division, then paused until 18 December, when he launched a successful three phased attack from the west of Casa Berardi, which finally forced the Germans to retreat. However they only pulled back into the town, forcing the Canadians to fight a costly urban battle, which lasted until 28 December. The Germans were slowly forced back through the town, and had to retreat after the Allies began to push north along the next ridge to the west of the town, threatening to isolate the garrison.

In the centre of the line the 8th Indian Division attacked the right flank of the paratroops at Villa Grande, just under three miles to the south-west of Orsogna. After heavy fighting the Indians got around the village, and forced the Germans to retreat on 28 December. The Indians were then able to take Tollo, another hilltop village two and a half miles to the north-west.

The battle continued for a few days after the fall of Ortona. The Canadians advanced north from Casa Berardi along a ridge that ran alongside the Riccio River, and reached the coast at Torra Mucchia, to the east of the river mouth, on 4 January. Further inland Orsogna remained in German hands.

After the fall of Ortona and the failure to take Orsogna, Montgomery halted the Eighth Army offensive. On 31 December 1943 he turned over command of the Eighth Army to General Sir Olivier Leese, and prepared to return to Britain to take command of the 21st Army Group and the land forces for Operation Overlord. His last offensive in Italy had made limited progress in difficult circumstances, but his plans for an advance to Pescara had failed. The Eighth Army’s next major contribution to the war in Italy would be on the west coast, where it would take part in the fourth and final battle of Cassino.

The Allies didn’t start to advance on the Adriatic until the summer of 1944. The German retreat began on 7 June, with the 1st Canadian and 8th Indian Divisions in pursuit. These troops were replaced by the 2nd Polish Corps, which took part in the advance through the eastern ends of the German Trasimene and Arezzo Lines, fighting an independent battle at Ancona (17-81 July 1944).

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 (14 August 2018), Battle of the Moro River, 4 December 1943-4 January 1944 ,

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