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Historical Recount of the Battle of Ortona

 

The Italian Campaign of World War Two began with the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and ended, for Canada, in February 1945 when the 1st Canadian Division was redeployed from Italy to the Western Front to assist with the advance across Western Europe to Germany. The Italian Campaign was Canada’s first major ground participation in the Second World War in Europe and would cost 25,264 casualties, 5,900 of them fatal, over its course which, at its highest peak, saw over 76,000 Canadians serving in Italy.

 

The port town of Ortona was considered to be a modern port and a communications center for the German army and therefore was to be taken by the Allied Forces in Italy, with minimal harm to the port facilities. This duty fell upon the 1st Canadian Division. While of little strategic importance in the grand scheme of things, at the time the push towards Ortona was given high importance due to media and political motivations. As well-noted Canadian Historian J.L. Granatstein said of the battle in his book Canada’s Army, “Ortona has turned into a battle of wills, a terrible struggle for prestige”. Regardless of the status of Ortona’s overall strategic importance at the time, the battle was Canada’s most striking battle of the Second World War with the Canadian public being regularly informed of the terrible battle and the heroics of its soldiers via the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s war correspondent, Matthew Halton. The intense house-to-house, room-to-room battles at Ortona by far dominated the Canadian Army’s World War Two engagements and has been given the name of “little Stalingrad” or “Canada’s Stalingrad” in the years since that fateful battle in December 1943.

 

The road to Ortona was a difficult one for the Canadians, having claimed 2,339 officers and men, killed, wounded, and missing. The advance towards Ortona began at the Moro, a deep-cut valley with gullies and ridges and no way to cross it due to German demolitions having destroyed bridge crossing prior to the Canadian advance. On 8 Dec, Canadian soldiers, cold from the inclement weather of winter, and carrying heavy amounts of equipment began a major offensive against the German defences at the Moro. A typical Canadian soldier involved in the offensive was equipped with several clips of ammunition, an uncomfortable tin helmet, a shovel, grenades, and for those unfortunate enough to be given the duty, carrying extra ammunition for the three Bren guns that each platoon of infantry possessed. Running was not an option for the Canadian soldier advancing on the difficult defences of the German 90th Light Panzer Grenadier Division – most soldiers were reduced to a slow waddle.

 

Matthew Halton reported from the Moro:

 

“We get one or two enemy shells every minute on this position, the Germans get hundreds every minute on theirs. The valley of the Moro…is one of dense pall of smoke, and we can hardly see the town of Ortona, just a few miles away.”

 

The final key barrier to entering Ortona was the key German defence known as “The Gully,” a long ravine that extended some three miles in length and two hundred yards in width. The Gully was lined with German mines and armour and German guns were registered on key forming-up positions where the Canadian attackers might try to prepare an assault. The Germans were not the only enemy at this point – the mud impeded movement and engulfed the tanks and trucks of the Canadian army, making it just as much of an enemy. Major-General Christopher Vokes, the commanding officer of the 1st Canadian Division, following his traditional strategy of assaulting German defences head-on and using just one regiment at a time, ultimately, and without much surprise, failed with the advance stalling on 10 and 11 Dec. Despite being badly reduced by enemy gunfire, one company of the Seaforth Highlanders, with four tanks from the Ontario Regiment in support, launched a successful raid on the rear of one German position, taking prisoners, destroying a battalion headquarters, and putting two German tanks effectively out of commission. Though forced to withdraw, the raid was indicative of the bravery of Canadian soldiers during World War Two and our nation’s history.

 

After heavy fighting at the Moro, the Canadian Division slowly continued to advance towards their main objective – Ortona. On 18 Dec, Operation Morning Glory was launched. This operation’s main objective was to drive a wedge into the enemy defences to the south and west of Ortona so that these positions could be occupied by the Division and used as a base from which to launch their thrust into the town. At one point during the advance, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment was in a bitter fire-fight in a vineyard outside of Ortona. The regiment’s Padre described the scene as a “continuous party (with no cheese) interrupted by much fierce fighting against the enemy, they being only a short distance away.” The operation was successful as the Canadians quickly obtained their objectives – next was Ortona, which would not fall as easily.

 

Ortona would become an intense door-to-door battle, especially on Christmas Eve 1943 when Hitler ordered the 1st Parachute Division, the German Army’s famous unit from the Desert War in Africa, to hold Ortona at all costs. They intended to do just that and soon enough the Canadians understood that the battle for Ortona would not be easy. The Canadian advance entered into the town on 20 Dec with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders being given the treacherous duty of clearing the town of enemy forces. The Canadians had never been in such a battle before prior to Ortona nor had they trained for one prior to it. The Germans capitalized on the narrow streets and layout of the city which saw the traditional square in the center of the town. The Germans used barricades and demolitions to force the Canadian attackers to use paths that led to the town square, in which the German defenders had set up a “kill-zone” surrounded by machine guns and mortars. The Germans also tried to trap the Canadians in houses which were wired with explosives. Once a group of Canadians were in the house, the Germans would blow the explosives, bringing down the structure on the Canadians – one instance saw 19 of 24 Loyal Eddies killed in the explosion, one survivor was pulled out over three days later. This tactic was used against the Germans as well, with the Canadians mining under several buildings, which when brought down, took out two German platoons.

 

The most famous part of the battle of Ortona was the harsh house-to-house advance which the Canadians endured. Using a method known as “mouse-holing” the Canadians advanced through adjoined row houses through the town. The art of mouse-holing was described by one Seaforths’ officer as:

 

“Streets of houses were to be taken, both sides….A section would perhaps storm its way into a house at the head of the block, clear it to the top, then blow a way throughout at roof-level into the adjoining house, where it would clear to the bottom. Then it would go back up to the top…”

 

While the manoeuvre largely worked for the Canadians, in many cases the German snipers would reoccupy those houses cleared during the night and reset booby-traps for the Canadians to run into. The intensive fighting would continue along these lines even through Christmas Day. However, Christmas Day did bring some relief to the battered Seaforths. At the ruins of the Church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli, the Seaforths were treated to two hours away from the battle (one company rotating in at a time of course) to enjoy a Christmas dinner consisting of soup, pork with applesauce, cauliflower, vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, Christmas pudding, and minced pies – a feast for soldiers who had been worn down by days of intense fighting. However not everyone in the field took the opportunity to attend the feast. As Private “Smoky” Smith put it to his six-man section “…people are going to get killed going to that dinner and others are going to die coming back from it. So you’re all staying right here.”

 

During the night of 27 Dec, the Germans, under intense pressure from the Canadians who now controlled more than two-thirds of Ortona, staged a highly skilled withdrawal from the town. The next day Ortona was under the control of the 1st Canadian Division. The Division, however, would not see action again for some time in order to recoup its losses and retrain its reinforcements, many of which had no combat experience or basic military skills at all. Two thousand, three hundred, thirty nine brave Canadian soldiers lay dead, wounded, and missing following the events of December 1943. The Canadian Medical Corps would face its first cases of battle exhaustion during the Battle of Ortona, having to evacuate some sixteen-hundred men from the field.


The Battle showed the courage and bravery that has defined Canadian soldiers for hundreds of years, facing a hardened enemy, near-impregnable defences, and the odds against them, and coming out victorious. The Battle of Ortona was not as important or as large as the Battle of Stalingrad, but to Canada and Canadians, the hard fought battle in the town was its own little Stalingrad – one that defined Canada in World War Two and earned it the confidence of its peers, and the respect of its enemies.

 

 

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