The actual terrain over which a battle is fought may be the most important primary source of information available to the historian, but ground must be related to weather. Canadians who visit Italy’s Adriatic coast are unlikely to arrive in the grey of winter, when the rains turn rivers into racing torrents and the ground into thick, clinging mud. Yet this was the reality that confronted the men of the 1st Canadian, 8th Indian and New Zealand divisions in their struggle for Ortona, Villa Grande and Orsogna in December 1943.It all began with General Dwight Eisenhower’s telegram to Winston Churchill, Oct. 25, 1943: “My principal commanders and I are in complete agreement that it is essential for us to retain the initiative until the time approaches for mounting Overlord, otherwise the enemy will himself seize the initiative and may force us on the defensive prematurely, thus enabling him to withdraw divisions from our front in time to oppose Overlord. If we can keep him on his heels until early spring, then the more divisions he uses in a counter-offensive against us the better it will be for Overlord and it then makes little difference what happens to us if Overlord is a success.”

Next came Gen. Harold Alexander’s directive to Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army. Alexander realized that 5th Army, facing Monte Cassino and the Liri Valley, had little chance of moving on Rome unless the enemy was outflanked. Eventually this would lead to the landings at Anzio in January 1944, but initially Alexander wanted 8th Army to accomplish the task by seizing control of the main east-west highway (the Via Valeria) that ran from Pescara on the Adriatic to Rome. If Montgomery could gain control of the highway, the German army’s lines of communication would be threatened, Cassino quickly abandoned, and 5th Army’s advance resumed.

The Via Valeria was just 22 miles north of the Sangro River, where 8th Army was preparing for a new advance, so those who planned battles on large-scale maps had little doubt the Allies would be in Rome for Christmas. After all, 8th Army had advanced 400 miles to reach the Sangro. How difficult could it be to push on to Pescara?

Unfortunately, the Germans were constructing a series of defensive positions–collectively known as the Winter Line–and had been ordered to “fight for every house and tree.” The first position, the Bernhardt Line, was just three miles north of the Sangro, where the Li Colli ridge paralleled the river valley. Montgomery gave the task of breaching this position to 8th Indian and 78th British divisions, with the attack set for Nov. 20. On the 16th the rains began, and the river quickly lost its banks. A 150-foot-wide stream became a flood zone 1,000 yards across. The engineers worked miracles to bridge the river; the attack began just a week late.

The enemy was quickly overcome, though at a terrible cost: 2,500 men on each side. Realizing the 8th Army was mounting a major offensive, German commander Field Marshal Albert Kesselring ordered his reserves, 90th Panzer Grenadier Division and 1st Parachute Div., to defend the coastal sector. A new line based on the Ortona-Orsogna road was to be built and held, to the bitter end.

Kesselring’s subordinates employed their “unbreakable” Enigma code machines to organize these changes, unaware that British code-breakers at Bletchley Park were speedily decrypting their secrets. The result, known as Ultra intelligence, was made available to Montgomery in time to plan for the next stage. Clearly, both 78th and 8th Indian divisions needed rest and reinforcement, so the New Zealand and Canadian divisions took over the front. The New Zealanders, commanded by the feisty, self-confident Bernard Freyberg, a WW I Victoria Cross holder, were allotted Orsogna.

Ultra decrypts reported the exact location of the boundary between the two German divisions defending the forward line, but the enemy was getting suspicious. Kesselring reminded his commanders, “The enemy always comes on our boundaries…the Devil knows how he always finds out where they are,” so this time the meeting point at the village of Castelfretano would be reinforced.

The battles for Orsogna were among the most difficult of the Italian campaign. The New Zealand Div., made up of two infantry and one armored brigade, was too weak in riflemen to overcome the German defences. A stalemate developed. The New Zealand official historian suggested that “the Germans were willing to sell ground, but only at a price the New Zealanders were not willing to pay.” After losing 1,200 men, including more than one-third of the division’s infantry, there was little choice but to stop. It was now up to the Canadians.

The 1st Canadian Div. was well rested and up to strength. The new divisional commander–Chris Vokes, who had replaced Guy Simonds in November–was no stranger. Vokes was a loud, profane, energetic brigade commander who had received much credit for the outstanding performance of 2nd Cdn. Infantry Brigade in Sicily. Vokes critics, and there are many, point out that the brigade turned in a consistently superior performance no matter who was at headquarters. In 1942 Montgomery had singled out the brigade for praise, adding that the “Seaforths (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) have the best officers, PPCLI (Princess Patricia’s Cdn. Light Infantry) have the best non-commissioned officers, Edmontons (Loyal Edmonton Regiment) have the best men.” Could Vokes do as well with a division?

Vokes approached his first divisional battle with enthusiasm. The rain had let up and the Moro River, the first obstacle, could be forded at any point on the two-mile front. The junction of coastal highway 16 and the Ortona-Orsogna road was just seven miles away; he hoped to be there in 72 hours. Vokes ordered 2nd Bde., now commanded by Brigadier Bert Hoffmeister, to make the main effort against San Leonardo and Villa Rogatti. Meanwhile, 1st Bde. would try to draw the enemy to the coastal highway. Both attacks went in on the night of Dec. 5-6 without any artillery support, to achieve surprise. By nightfall the next day, the Seaforths and PPCLI had been forced back by a series of well organized counter-attacks. Only one battalion, from the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt., was still across the river. The diversion now became the key to unlocking the German defences.

Corps commander Lieutenant-General Charles Allfrey sent the 21st Indian Bde. to take over the Canadians’ left flank and secure Villa Rogatti, allowing Vokes to concentrate his forces. The Desert Air Force, including Royal Cdn. Air Force Squadron 417 commanded by Bert Houle, joined in the preparations. On the afternoon of Dec. 8, the Royal Canadian Regt. launched a wide right hook out of the Hastings bridgehead. The newly arrived German paratroopers had just started their own attack on the Hasty Ps, and the two forces clashed furiously. While this battle raged, the 48th Highlanders quickly moved to the edge of San Leonardo and established a firm base for a morning attack on the village.

The next day was one of the hardest of the campaign, as the enemy put in repeated counter-attacks all across the front. The Calgary Regt., supporting the Seaforths’ main thrust, lost 27 of its 51 tanks in providing the kind of close support that can mean life or death to the infantry. In the streets of San Leonardo, Major E.A.C. Amy’s squadron, reduced to just four tanks, knocked out the last German armor at ranges of less than 100 yards. Amy reported that one Seaforth soldier ran up to a tank, patted it on the side and said: “You big cast-iron son of a bitch, I could kiss you.”

The Indian troops, attacking 1,000 yards to the east, ran into the same kind of demonic fury. They carved out a small bridgehead and fended off counter-attacks as engineers from the 69 Field Company Bengal Sappers built the “impossible bridge.” When it proved impossible to assemble a Bailey bridge from the south side, the sappers “manhandled their equipment to the enemy bank and built their bridge backwards.” With San Leonardo lost, the enemy withdrew to the Ortona-Orsogna road where the defenders occupied a low ridge overlooking a ravine known to Canadians as The Gully. For the next eight days the Canadians beat their heads against this position in a series of single battalion attacks that resulted in close to 1,000 casualties. These attacks failed largely because the artillery was unable to meet the demands placed upon it.

Field artillery regiments, with their
25-pounder guns and medium regiments employing 4.5-inch guns, fired more than 3,000 tons of shells at the enemy–but much of it was in vain. Brig. Bruce Matthews, the division’s commander, Royal Artillery, had cautioned Vokes about the inaccuracy of the survey that was the basis of Italian topographical maps. If a feature was 500 metres distant from the position on the map, unobserved fire was of limited value. Even when fire could be corrected, winds from the Adriatic and drastic temperature changes played havoc with fire plans.

The stalemate was finally broken not by fire and movement but by manoeuvre. A track leading around the German right flank was used to send the Royal 22nd Regt. and a squadron of Ontario Regt. tanks to seize Casa Berardi. The achievement of the small band of Van Doos, under Captain Paul Triquet, and the four surviving tanks, commanded by Major H.A. Smith, is one of the most famous episodes in Canadian military history. Triquet’s leadership, epitomized by his battle-cry “Ils ne passeront pas”, earned him the Victoria Cross.

With Casa Berardi as a base the rest of the ridge could be attacked systematically. The corps commander met with Vokes and urged him to organize a major attack. The repulse of the New Zealanders and the 8th Indian Div.’s slow progress meant that all 8th Army hopes for a breakthrough to Pescara were invested in the Canadians. Gen. Allfrey had a heart-to-heart talk with Vokes and “warned him he was tiring out his division and producing nothing because of lack of co-ordination.” Allfrey insisted it was the Royal Artillery commander’s responsibility to develop and control the fire plan. Vokes accepted the advice and allowed Matthews to create fire plans for two large-scale attacks out of the Van Doo position. The 48th Highlanders, striking to the northeast, got accurate fire support and quickly reached their objective. The barrage leading the RCRs to the main German pivot position at Cider crossroads was wildly inaccurate, however, with shells falling short and wide. Matthews ordered the guns to fire 400 metres forward, leaving the RCRs to face what one officer called a “death trap.” By the next morning, the gunners had made the necessary changes and two RCR reserve companies took the crossroads in a quick, decisive thrust.

The German paratroopers had lost control of the Ortona road, but their orders “to fight for every house and tree” remained in force. Montgomery was now employing two corps with elements of four divisions on a 12-mile front. He hoped the 8th Indian Div. would make the main effort through Villa Grande, outflanking Ortona, but it took five December days of bitter fighting to claim the village on Dec. 27. By then, Hoffmeister’s 2nd Bde. was committed to a pitched battle in the streets of Ortona.

University of British Columbia historian Shaun Brown has provided a most valuable study of Ortona in a book he has written about the Loyal Edmonton Regt. at war. Brown’s father, the late Major-General George Brown, was a company commander at Ortona, and the author’s interviews with Brown, Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Stone and other veterans of the Loyal Eddies give special insight into what became one of the most famous battles of the Italian campaign.

At dawn on Dec. 21, two understrength companies and a half-squadron of Three Rivers Regt. tanks moved cautiously up the main street towards the first of three large public squares. By mid-afternoon the advance had slowed to a halt, and Hoffmeister sent a company of Seaforths to help. The next morning it was apparent the German resistance had stiffened and Hoffmeister committed the balance of the Seaforths, assigning each battalion to half the town.

The Canadians now fought for Ortona house by house, often fighting from the top floor down. They used a “mouse-holing” technique–blasting through walls, lobbing grenades through the gaps and then using more grenades to move down the stairs. Here the Canadians wrote the book on street-fighting. After the war, former Seaforths commander Colonel S.W. Thomson recalled that the standard training film for British and Commonwealth forces, Fighting In Built-up Areas, was based on interviews with Seaforth and Edmonton veterans.

War correspondents anxious to cover the last phase of a month-long campaign arrived in Ortona and quickly revised their initial optimistic reports. Ortona became “little Stalingrad” as radio journalist Matthew Halton and reporter Ralph Allen wrote feature stories on the battle. Christopher Buckley, a British correspondent whose beautifully written 1945 book The Road To Rome should be reprinted, insisted “a painter of genius, Goya perhaps” was needed to record the poignant images of Ortona. In one “half-darkened room,” he wrote, “there were five or six Canadian soldiers, there were old women and there were innumerable children. The children clambered over the Canadian soldiers and clutched them convulsively every time one of our anti- tank guns fired down the street…. Soon each of us had a squirming, terrified child in our arms.”

The rifle companies had begun the operation at little better than half-strength, so the arrival of reinforcements was particularly welcome. The Edmontons got a draft of 75 men from the Cape Breton Highlanders on Christmas Eve, “tremendously good soldiers” who fitted in right away. The end was now in sight; Kesselring insisted that “we do not want to defend Ortona decisively” and authorized a withdrawal. With 90 per cent of Ortona in Canadian hands and 1st Bde. threatening to cut off any retreat, there was little choice.

Ortona was a victory for all of the Canadian troops–and all Canadians. Ordinary men, leaving civilian life behind because they were needed, had forged regimental extended families and small cohesive sub-units that fought with skill and determination. Looking back, Maj.-Gen. Brown spoke of mutual confidence between officers and men “built on the rock of accomplishment.”

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on November 1st 1997.