The Battle for Ortona
In December of 1943, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was ordered to capture the port city of Ortona on the Adriatic coast of Italy.
It took the Canadians seven days to take possession of this picturesque town in what became known as the bloodiest battle of the Italian Campaign.
For the Canadians it was a bitter struggle, the town was heavily defended and soldiers moved from house-to-house by blowing holes in adjoining walls; an innovative technique that was dubbed "mouse-holing".
Today, the town has been completely rebuilt but the evidence of war remains visible on many of the buildings. Shell holes and artillery damage can be found on old stone walls and foundations that were not cleared away yet used as a foundation for the new town.
In the main square a faded stencil reads "Allied Troops Curfew 1100 Hours". Canadian Veterans returning to Ortona are greeted with tears of gratitude by those who remember the liberation, in spite of the devastation and loss.
"It wasn't hell. It was the courtyard of hell. It was a maelstrom of noise and hot, splitting steel... the rattling of machine guns never stops... wounded men refuse to leave, and the men don't want to be relieved after seven days and seven nights... the battlefield is still an appalling thing to see, in its mud, ruin, dead, and its blight and desolation."
These were the words of CBC news reporter Matthew Halton during the battle of Ortona in December 1943. Dubbed the Italian Stalingrad, the battle of Ortona pitted the 1st Canadian Division against Germans of the elite 1st Parachute Division in what was to be one of the Second World War's most brutal examples of urban combat.
Prelude to Battle
In December 1943 the British 8th Army, which included the 1st Canadian Corps, was fighting its way up the Italian peninsula towards Rome. By the 4th of December the Canadians stood on the south side of the Moro River at the eastern end of the vaunted Gustav Line, a series of strongly held German positions stretching across the Italian Peninsula.
Major General Chris Volkes, the division’s new commander, was tasked with crossing the Moro and capturing the small port of Ortona two miles behind it. Facing the Canadians were Field Marshal Albert Kesselring's crack 90th Panzer Grenadier Division and 1st Parachute Division, positioned along a strong line based on the Ortona-Orsogna road and with orders to hold to the bitter end.
With the bridges destroyed by the Germans, General Volkes ordered two brigades across the Moro on the evening of 5th. The attacks proceeded without any artillery support in order to achieve maximum surprise. The attacking 1st and 2nd Brigades met with stiff German resistance and fierce counterattacks, and by nightfall of the 6th only one battalion from the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment held a bridgehead on the north bank.
Three days of heavy fighting followed as Canadian troops moved across the river towards the town of San Leonardo, always in the face of fierce German counterattacks and by the 9th the bridgeheads across the river were secure and the 1st Division continued its move north.
The next obstacle to be overcome was a gully running just south of the Ortona – Orsogna road. This tiny geographic feature was fortified by the retreating Germans and turned into a formidable obstacle. The landscape was by this point a muddy quagmire, saturated by rain and thick with mines.
After frontal assaults proved useless, the Royal 22e Regiment and a squadron of Ontario Regiment tanks managed to flank the German line and capture Casa Berardi. It was during this action that Captain Paul Triquet of 'C' Company won Canada's first Victoria Cross in the Mediterranean.
Remembered by his battle cry: "Ils ne passeront pas" (they shall not pass), Triquet and his small group spent the night defending their position from continuous German counter attacks.
Yet, even outflanked, the Germans refused to budge from the Gully. To finally dig them from their positions the fire of 13 artillery regiments was unleashed in a massive barrage dubbed "Morning Glory."
This deluge of shellfire hit the German line on the morning of the 18th and in two days of heavy fighting they were forced to withdraw, the Royal Canadian Regiment finally reached the crossroads and the road to Ortona was open.
The Canadian division wasted no time moving on the city. On December 20th the Loyal Edmonton Regiment moved up from the crossroads towards the town. Waiting in Ortona were German Paratroopers, a fiercely loyal group of soldiers ready to fight for every house and street.
The town of Ortona, like many old European cities, consisted of tall buildings and narrow lanes, often with connected cellars. The Germans improved this ready-made defensive position further by blocking and mining the streets. In Ortona every house could be a pillbox and every pile of rubble a strongpoint.
For the next week the Canadians engaged in a fearsome struggle to wrest control of the city from its German defenders. The Allied superiority in airpower and artillery was nullified as the Germans took shelter in any number of basements or hastily dug out fortifications. The two forces were often locked so closely together that it would have been difficult to know where to bomb or shell in any case.
To avoid German ambushes and killing zones, the Canadians started "mouse-holing" through buildings – blasting their way through walls rather than using the streets. This innovative technique along with the 75mm guns of the Three Rivers Tank Regiment allowed the Seaforths and the Edmonton Regiment to claw their through to the centre of the city and capture the Piazza Municipale, where the Germans had originally hoped to funnel Canadian infantry into propositioned machine guns.
Ortona was primarily a battle of infantry, where the rifle and high explosive became more valuable than the dive-bomber or artillery piece. The Canadian infantry took Ortona, quite literally, house-by-house and street-by-street.
Often fighting from the top floor down, they would secure a room and then move down the stairs tossing grenades to clear the way. When the Germans turned houses into strong points that proved too costly to take, they were simply blown up with TNT or anti-tank guns.
It was in Ortona that the Canadians wrote the book on urban combat. The only break in the fighting came on December 25, 1943 when both Canadian Regiments treated their men to Christmas dinner in the Church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli. Each rifle company was pulled from the lines for two hours in succession to enjoy a bit of good food, music and celebration in the mist of battle.
Soon after Christmas the Germans recognized how untenable their position had become; their lines of communication and supply were threatened by the advancing Canadians and their losses had become horrendous. On the evening of the 27-28th the paratroopers surrendered what ground they had left and withdrew to the north.
The cost of taking Ortona was high. The Canadian Army had taken nearly 2,400 casualties in the month of December and for a while the 1st division was effectively taken out of the war to reorganize and bind its wounds. The German Army took equally heavy losses and for days Ortona remained littered with German dead.
Ortona was won not through airpower or material superiority; it was the victory of the average Canadian. Here the Canadian soldier had pitted his skill and courage against some of the best soldiers in the Wehrmacht and won. Two of Hitler's finest divisions were broken and forced to retreat while the Allied advance up the Italian Peninsula continued.