Most Canadians know very little about the role their country men played in the liberation of Italy, but mention Ortona and many can recall something about the World War II battle for this small Adriatic port. The most powerful visual image is the photograph of the Christmas dinner served to the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in the Church of Santa Maria di Costantinopoli.
The Seaforth’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Syd Thomson, was able to rotate his companies back to the church, where hot food was served and where Christmas carols were sung with the help of an organ. The Seaforth padre, Roy Durnford, recalled the scene: “The men looked tired and drawn, as well they might, and most of those who came directly from the town were dirty and unshaven. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘at last I’ve got you all in church.’ For the dinner there was soup to start then roast pork…. Christmas pudding and minced pies for dessert…the tables filled and emptied and were filled again all day, and I saw tense forces relax in the friendly warmth that grew up within the wall of the battle-scarred church…. Above the din one could hear sometimes the distant chatter of machine-gun fire and the whistle and cramp of shells landing not far from the church.”
Back at divisional headquarters, Charles Comfort, the Canadian war artist, and several friends walked over to the tent used by an Advanced Air Support Tentacle. Frustrated by the dismal weather that kept their aircraft grounded, the Royal Air Force officers “had tuned into the King’s Christmas message, delivered in his slow dignified style.” King George VI expressed the hope that his message spoken to those at home as well as those serving overseas “may be the bond that joins us all for a few moments on Christmas Day.” Afterwards, they listened to reports of continued fighting and the problems of mired tanks and limited supplies. There was a mess dinner that evening, enlivened by news of the Seaforth’s Ortona dinner, “an inspiring Christmas story…that filled us with abounding hope and encouragement.”
The Seaforths needed a bit of encouragement after their close-quarter battle on Dec. 24. German paratroopers had marked Christmas Eve with their first major counter-attack inside the city. On a front of less than 800 yards the Germans could bring enormous pressure to bear and much depended on the skill and determination of the Seaforth section leaders and their men, isolated in houses or behind rubble piles. Thomson did his best to visit every position, “directing and co-ordinating the defence.”
Historian Reg Roy described Thomson’s role as an inspirational leader: “To see the commanding officer of a battalion at such a time somehow gave confidence to the private soldier, and Thomson’s unruffled calm and big smile acted like a tonic. His tactical skill, gained under fire as a platoon and company commander, was evident as he went from post to post to make sure his men, more accustomed to the attack than defence, had their weapons and fields of fire placed to the best advantage. The counter-attack was beaten back….”
While the Loyal Edmonton Regiment was spared the Christmas Eve counter-attack, there was no respite for the regiment’s rifle companies on Christmas Day. They were locked in combat at the Piazza della Repubblica and could not be withdrawn. Major J.R. Stone recalled that his Christmas dinner was “a cold pork chop brought forward on a Bren gun carrier.” His company had just fought an intense battle for a school that controlled the approaches to the square, known to the men as the Piazza Municipale. On Christmas Eve, a platoon from the Loyal Edmonton Regt.–working with a troop of Three Rivers Regt. tanks–had found a route into the square that bypassed the rubble heaps that blocked most of the streets. In a superb example of infantry and tank co-operation, one side of the school was blasted down by a Sherman tank’s 75-mm gun while the other tanks provided suppressing fire. Sections of infantry entered the school, then cleared it using grenades and Tommy guns.
There were other examples of tactical victories in Ortona. Row houses were cleared from the top down using a technique the troops called “mouse-holing.” This involved breaching the walls of contiguous houses, and lobbing grenades through the hole before entering. Six-pounder anti-tank guns firing high explosives through windows or through blast holes also became a standard method, but there were no magic formulas.
Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. Jefferson described the situation confronting his men as a “vicious circle.” Once the infantry had seized a group of houses, sappers (engineers) moved up to clear mines and booby traps. Both infantry and tanks were needed to cover the sappers while they performed this dangerous work. Attempts to hurry things up by outflanking the enemy were especially difficult in the dense narrow streets, and the fighting resumed its old pattern–for one house at a time.
The attack on the Seaforth’s and on Jefferson’s “vicious circle” was the result of the enemy’s decision to send additional troops into Ortona, a decision German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring blamed on British General Bernard Montgomery and the Allied press. “The English,” he complained, “have made Ortona as important as Rome.” The town, he told his generals, was “not worth so much blood.” But, he added, it could not be given up. German General Richard Heidrich, who commanded 1st Para Division, had few such doubts. He believed the reinforcements and replacements would prevent any further advance and so he left Italy to go on leave to Germany.
The enemy’s plan to stabilize the situation in Ortona was part of an overall attempt to check the advance of 5th Corps’ British and Commonwealth divisions. The battle for Villa Grande and the road to Tollo continued to bleed the Germans as well as the Indian Div. while a fresh paratroop battalion prepared to attack the 48th Highlanders of Canada, who were dug in on Cemetery Ridge. The ring of steel around the 48th Highlanders tightened throughout Christmas Day, and the regimental history describes the efforts of Private John Crockford, the commanding officer’s batman, to celebrate Christmas with a cake made from cornmeal, powdered milk and chocolate. He used his finger to trace the words Merry Christmas in the icing. Much later, when some of the wives of the 48th Highlanders asked what made the cake rise, the reply was that it didn’t.
The cake was the only cheerful note in a day of rain and shelling. Fortunately, the radio link with the artillery held and the Allied gunners were told to think of the position as an “island” and to just keep shooting at targets around the full 360 degrees. Brigadier Dan Spry wanted the Royal Canadian Regt. to advance through the 48th Highlanders’ position and cut the main road north of Ortona, but the reinforced enemy was too strong and instead the Canadians had to deal with the aggressive actions of the paratroopers, who substituted infiltration tactics and daring night patrols for conventional counter-attacks.
Spry next decided to try and establish a corridor to resupply what was dubbed the “lost battalion” using a company of the Saskatoon Light Infantry. Some 60 men, carrying food, water and ammunition, set off at dusk on Christmas Day. When they reached Cemetery Ridge, it was with “rations, wireless batteries, ammunition, a few extra Brens, two or three light mortars–and rum!”
Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Johnston sent a message with the Saskatoon Light Infantry carrying party, which headed back with prisoners and seven wounded stretcher cases. The message read: “Ask Spry to send us just one tank and we’ll massacre them.”
Unfortunately, tanks could not get through the mud or the enemy so the 48th Highlanders faced Boxing Day alone.
The long-delayed German onslaught began at 10 a.m. sharp. Shelling and machine-gun fire, which was designed to keep Canadians in their slit trenches, was followed by an attempt to rush the defences with “two strong groups linked by skirmishers.” After three days in place, the 48th Highlanders knew every inch of ground and had sited their Bren guns to cover all approaches. Though the enemy suffered heavily, it kept coming, infiltrating between the positions and forcing hand-to-hand clashes. Company Sergeant Major Gordon Keeler saved his company headquarters from being overrun by hurling grenades from an upper window before rushing into the action below. The artillery forward observation officer used a single gun to ensure accuracy and brought its fire down within yards of the Canadian position. The enemy withdrew, regrouped and tried again, but the 48th Highlanders held.
A gradual drop in temperature throughout the day began to solve the mud problem and the battalion intelligence officer, Lieut. John Clarkson, was sent back to the RCR position to lead a troop of Ontario Regt. tanks forward. Three of the four tanks made it through just in time to help overwhelm a company of enemy paratroopers forming up for yet another attack. The tanks turned a defensive victory into a rout as the enemy withdrew in some disorder, setting the stage for an advance to the coast.
Boxing Day in Ortona was equally dramatic. The best news was the arrival of reinforcements for both the Loyal Edmonton Regt. and the Seaforths. The draft sent to the Edmonton Regt. had been drawn from the Cape Breton Highlanders, one of the infantry battalions in the newly arrived 5th Canadian Armoured Div. Jefferson is said to have greeted them with the words: “You are now A Company.”
The day was also marked by tragedy. An Edmonton platoon seized a building the Germans had wired with heavy explosive charges. The explosion buried the men and the sole survivor was entombed for three days until he was rescued after the battle. Retribution was swift. A building that the enemy was tricked into occupying was blown up, accounting for some 20 paratroopers.
The ferocious struggle in the streets of Ortona came to an end on the night of Dec. 27 with the sudden disappearance of the enemy. A battle that the Germans thought they could win was transformed by the determination of the Canadians in Ortona and the threat posed by 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade, which was now operating with full squadrons of the Ontario Regt. General Traugott Herr, the German corps commander, decided enough was enough. His units were “wasting away” with little purpose, and he authorized a limited withdrawal to a line hinged on the Torre Mucchia, Point 59, north of Ortona. These were positions that would still allow him to deny the Allies use of the town.
Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Allfrey, who commanded 5th British Corps in which the Canadians served, had little choice; he ordered the Canadians and 8th Indian Div. to force a further German retirement. Major-General Chris Vokes brought 3rd Canadian Infantry Bde. forward with orders to capture Point 59 and clear the ground to the Arielli River. The attack began on Dec. 29 and immediately ran into difficulty. Today’s visitor to the area knows the Torre Mucchia as the hill rising above the beachfront hotels of the Lido Riccio. In 1943, there was little there except a few farmhouses surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. The Riccio River, which is considered a small creek by Canadian standards, parallels the coast before turning to the sea at the Torre Mucchia.
Third Bde. had received more than 400 reinforcements and had been in reserve since the Casa Berardi battle (Clearing The Gully, January/February). However, those relatively fresh troops found the task of clearing the gullies along the Riccio to be a costly and exhausting enterprise. The Carleton and York Regt.’s attempt to storm Point 59 broke down when the two forward companies were struck by accurate artillery and mortar fire. The paratroopers held Point 59 in strength, forcing the regiment to dig in. The Royal 22nd Regt. was more successful reaching a spur on the far bank of the Riccio, but it too was forced to go to ground establishing defensive positions in another exposed area.
Further attempts to force an enemy withdrawal were interrupted by a ferocious storm that was to stand as a metaphor for the end of one year of bloodshed and the beginning of a new year of savagery. The enemy, offering a forecast of what was to come, spent the last hours of 1943 in making a savage counter-attack that burst through the two forward companies of the Carleton and York Regt.
The situation was restored, but in the water-filled slit trenches exhausted men could do little more than hold on. Point 59 finally fell on Jan. 4 after one of the most extensive artillery programs of the campaign. Both medium and heavy guns joined the Canadian field regiments in a barrage that continued from early morning to late afternoon. When the Carleton and York Regt. attacked, both Point 59 and the beaches behind it were quickly cleared. The capture of the Torre Mucchia marked the end of the offensive operations that had begun at the Sangro River. All across the front the divisions of 5th British Corps reorganized to hold ground rather than attempt a further advance. The 8th Army’s Adriatic offensive was finally over.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on May 1, 2007.