The Capture of Ortona
General Montgomery believed that the Germans would retreat north of Ortona, in an area where the terrain provided good natural defence positions; and that the coastal city would therefore be an easy prey. Things did not turn out that way… On December 20th, the 2nd Brigade arrived near Ortona; the following day the Loyal Edmonton Regiment got as far as Piazza Vittoria at the entrance of the town. In front of them, the corso Vittorio Emanuele leading to the Piazza Municipale, the heart of the city. Narrow side streets were blocked by barricades and rubble left by the Germans. The wide-open corso, the only street that tanks could use was booby-trapped. The Canadian infantry had to clear its way through houses on the side before moving forward, a dangerous and difficult task.
The Canadians were facing a unit from the 1st Parachute Division, well-rested, well-trained and well-equipped troops, and ideological fanatics. Fighting was fierce. The Germans had planted mines, time bombs, and other booby-traps throughout the abandoned houses and amid the rubble. Machine gun positions and antitank artillery were concealed behind walls and among the ruins. Canadian soldiers used their short-ranged 6-pounder guns to take down walls or roofs where paratroopers might be hiding. When shells could not pierce the thick stone walls, gunners aimed for the windows and the shells bouncing inside the houses caused terrible destruction.
Canadian infantrymen moved from house to house without ever showing up in the streets. Using pickaxes and explosives, they pierced the upstairs walls between buildings, dashing forward through smoke and dust, pouncing down on their opponents. Grenades thrown by the Germans would fall back on them before exploding. The tanks moved slowly along, providing ammunition and evacuating the wounded.
Why would the Germans defend with inordinate fierceness – matched only by the determination of the Canadians – a small coastal town of little strategic value? Throughout the world, the showdown made the headlines and Ortona became a household word: “This is Matthew Halton from the CBC, speaking from Italy… “. Canadian radio war correspondents made this bloody episode world-famous. Ortona became a symbol, as important as Rome. To capture the city or to keep it, it all became a matter of national prestige.
Fighting raged for days. The Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders Regiment were relentless and suffered heavy casualties. At Christmas, against all expectation, the Seaforth Highlanders fusiliers were treated to a real holiday dinner in the Church of Santa Maria di Constandinopoli.
The setting for the dinner was complete, long rows of tables with white tablecloths, and a bottle of beer per man, candies, cigarettes, nuts, oranges and apples and chocolate bars providing the extras. The C.O., Lt.-Col. S. W. Thomson, laid on that the Companies would eat in relays… as each company finished their dinner, they would go forward and relieve the next company… The menu… soup, pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, Christmas pudding and mince pie… From 1100 hours to 1900 hours, when the last man of the battalion reluctantly left the table to return to the grim realities of the day, there was an atmosphere of cheer and good fellowship in the church. A true Christmas spirit. The impossible had happened. No one had looked for a celebration this day. December 25th was to be another day of hardship, discomfort, fear and danger, another day of war. The expression on the faces of the dirty bearded men as they entered the building was a reward that those responsible are never likely to forget… During the dinner the Signal Officer… played the church organ and with the aid of the improvised choir, organized by the padre, carols rang out throughout the church.
– Seaforth Highlanders Regiment, War Diary, December 25th, 1943
Meanwhile, shells and machine gun fire could be heard not far from the church. Through dust and the acrid smell of cordite, the Loyal Edmonton soldiers were involved in one of the fiercest battle so far. They were relieved in small groups to go get some Christmas dinner. As to the Italians, for there were still civilians in town, mostly elderly people and children, the atmosphere was one of anxiety and fear.
What a strange clutter of humanity it was. There were some five or six Canadian soldiers, there were old women and there were children innumerable. A painter of genius-Goya, perhaps-might have done justice to the scene. I felt no verbal description could do so. In the half-darkened room the pasta for the midday meal was simmering over the fire in the corner. Haggard, prematurely aged women kept emerging shyly one after another from some inner chamber where an old man, the grandfather of the numerous children, was dying… Another old man was uttering maledictions against Mussolini. Then his wife surprisingly produced a jeroboam of Marsala and half a dozen glasses and moved around among the soldiers, filling and re-filling their glasses. The children clambered around the Canadian soldiers and clutched at them convulsively every time one of our anti-tank guns, located only half a dozen paces from the door of the house, fired down the street in the direction of one of the remaining German machine-gun posts. Soon each one of us had a squirming, terrified child in his arms. And the old lady went on distributing Marsala.
– Christopher Buckley, Road to Rome, 1945.
On December 27th, the Princess Patricias were ordered to join in, together with a support squadron from the Régiment de Trois-Rivières. The battle for Ortona was already drawing to an end. German paratroopers could not keep on fighting without relief and on December 28th, they abandoned the city to the Canadians. The victory was a costly one: the Loyal Edmonton Regiment had 172 casualties, including 63 killed; the Seaforth Highlanders 103, including 41 killed. Taking into account losses by support units, the total number of Allied casualties reached 650 officers and men of all ranks.
- Listen to reporting from Matthew Halton in “Return to Ortona, Battlefield Redemption”, on the CBC website, The National Features.
- N.M. Christie, Hard-Won Victory: The Canadians at Ortona, 1943, 2001.
- Mark Zuehlke, Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle, 1999.