The Italian Campaign

Page 2 – Into action at the Sangro River

The 2nd New Zealand Division saw its first action of the Italian Campaign at the end of November 1943 when they joined the Allied effort to breach the Germans’ Gustav Line. The Gustav Line was a series of fortifications that stretched from coast to coast across Italy, strategically using the peninsula’s many rivers and mountainous terrain. The Div was tasked with attacking the Line’s eastern margins in the hills above the Sangro River with the hope of commencing an advance towards Italy’s capital city, Rome.

Before dawn on 28 November two of the Div’s brigades crossed the icy-cold Sangro River and made good initial progress against the Germans. While they advanced, the New Zealand engineers opened access for the rest of the Division by skilfully using pre-fabricated Bailey bridges to ford the Sangro – one of a seemingly endless succession of rivers to be traversed in the long advance up the Italian peninsula. On 2 December, the Div secured the tactically important village of Castelfrentano, and were poised to capture the nearby stronghold of Orsogna.

Setback at Orsogna

Although New Zealand infantry entered Orsogna on 3 December, and critically threatened the Gustav Line, the Germans managed to deploy armoured reinforcements to repulse the attackers. Despite repeated attacks on and around the town in the succeeding weeks, the Germans proved immovable. With winter deepening, the whole Allied offensive ground to a halt and spirits were low amongst the New Zealanders when they were finally withdrawn from the stalled front line in January 1944.

The 2nd New Zealand Division’s first two months of combat in Italy had left some 1600 men dead or wounded. The morale of the surviving troops was significantly lowered by these loses, as well as the intense cold, the prevailing sense of failure and the recognition that progress over the rugged terrain was going to be slow.

How to cite this page

'Into action at the Sangro River', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 21-May-2019