The Battle of Ortona
The "Italian Stalingrad" - December 20-28, 1943
For the Canadians, Ortona was the bloodiest battle of the Italian Campaign to date. The once picturesque ancient village on the Adriatic coast has been reduce to rubble. Canadian and German troops clash daily, in bitter, house-to-house fighting. Snipers, booby traps and land mines were a constant threat as every building gained brought about a terrible cost in blood. Matthew Halton of the CBC refers to Ortona as the "The courtyard of hell". The capture of Ortona, known to those who fought it as the "Italian Stalingrad", is considered among Canada's greatest victories during the war. While both sides agreed the town was of little strategic value, the world press transformed the battle into a matter prestige between the Allies and the Germans. "For some unknown reason, the Germans are waging a miniature Stalingrad in hapless Ortona" wrote one war correspondant.
The battles for Orsogna were among the most difficult of the Italian campaign. The New Zealand Div., made up of two infantry and one armoured 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.
"Soaking wet, in a morass of mud, against an enemy fighting harder than he has fought before, the Canadians attack, attack and attack ... the hillsides and farmlands and orchards are a ghastly brew of fire ...listen to the echo of those shells!" - Matthew Halton.
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.
"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." - Matthew Halton.
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.
"With the fall of Ortona, the battle of the Moro river is over, and there is a new name to add to the list of great deeds of the war...neither in this war nor in any other has there been anything more bitter and intense. The Canadians beat two of the finest German divisions that ever marched in a long fury of fire and death ending in the appalling week of Ortona." - Matthew Halton.
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."
The Loyal Edmonton Regiment War Diary
December 20, 1943
The regiment, supported by 'C' Squadron, The Three Rivers Tank Regt, advanced under a barrage on a two Coy, two Troop front at 1200 hrs today. The start line was astride the Ortona road 100 yards forward of the crossroads at MR 322142. After very heavy fighting the regiment reorganized as follows: 'B' Coy the general area MR 333164, where liaison was established with 'C' Coy of the Seaforth H of C who had fought their way up the coast road; 'D' Coy to the northwest of 'B' Coy astride the main road; 'C' Coy at MR 328158; 'A' Coy and Bn Hq at MR 332160. Seventeen prisoners, identified as II Bn 4 Regt 1 Para Div, have been taken during this advance. Very active patrolling continues while the regiment consolidates its gains for the night. 'C' Coy is particularly active on the open left flank. Enemy arty continually harass us and our own arty and MMGs reply. Under cover of darkness the Sask L.I. MMG Pl, under command, move up and dig in in the 'C' Coy area. The 6 Pdrs of one troop of the 90th A/Tk Battery also move into position.
December 21, 1943
The unit renewed its attack on Ortona at 0700 hrs. Street fighting continued throughout the day. The enemy is well supplied with MMGs in dug in positions behind stone barricades. Hand grenades are being used to a great extent by both sides. Tanks are hampered by demolitions and mines but they are providing covering fire. Two enemy A/Tk guns and one 81 mm Mortar have been captured. Three POW have been taken. At nightfall, consolidation of the first city square at MR 331165 is organized and very active patrolling continues.
December 22, 1943
Street and house to house fighting continues. The enemy is showing a desperate resistance. Our 6 Pdr guns are engaging barricades and strong points to clear a passage for tanks. Since the Hun has blown down buildings to block off all the streets, it has been decided to concentrate on the clearing of the main axis through the city to enable our tanks to advance. 'D' Coy, flanked by 'B' Coy on the right the city to enable our tanks to advance. 'D' Coy, flanked by 'B' Coy on the right and 'A' Coy on the left, clear the main street to the second city square where concentrated MMG fire and strong opposition is encountered. Clearing of the large buildings adjacent to this street, particularly towards the Esplanade, necessitates continuous fighting by these three Coys. Meanwhile to harass the enemy on the left and to minimize the effectiveness of his fire, 'C' Coy raid a Hun locality on a slope to the NW of the city. They then take up a position in the Sports ground to protect the left and rear of the regiment.
December 23, 1943
Due to the severity of the battle and the fact that 1 Para Div is reinforcing Ortona with fresh troops, the Seaforth H of C have moved up on our left. for operational purposes the city is to divided, the Seaforth H of C will attack at 1200 hrs having the task of clearing the left sector, that is left of the second street NW of the main road through the city. The Loyal Edmn R will clear from that street on including all the NE. Having blasted away two obstacles with 6 Pdrs and having driven the enemy out of several more buildings, the regiment consolidated the general area of the second city square at about MR 333169 by nightfall. One troop of tanks engaged the upper floors of all buildings, forward of our own troops, during the mopping up. Severe enemy sniping was prevalent throughout the day. The tank guns do excellent work neutralizing enemy fire. Eight POW including two CSMs and two Sgts are taken and another enemy A/Tk gun is knocked out. Due to evacuations and casualties the regiment is now operating on a three rifle coy basis consisting of 60 men in each company.
December 24, 1943
The enemy resistance stiffens, fresh troops reinforce the garrison, a flame thrower is used against us. Two 17 Pdr guns take up a position on the coast road and shell the area in which the flame thrower is operating and also the fort. Our medium Arty also shell the fort. House to house fighting continues in the very narrow lanes and streets while our arty shell the coast road, the cemetery and also targets on our left flank. Our 3" Mortars do very excellent work in close support of the riflemen. Seventy five reinforcements arrive, these augment the depleted strength of the three rifle Coys. Ten wounded POW of the 1 Para Div receive treatment at the RAP.
December 25, 1943
The Seaforth H of C have now cleared a sufficient distance on our left to close the open flank. Shortly afterward they were counter attacked but the Hun was driven back. Our rifle Coys are attacking towards the third city square and the fort. The enemy is strong both in men and MMGs. Our progress is slow since we are continually harassed by Paratroop Snipers and grenade throwers. Tanks and 17 Pdr guns shell the esplanade and the built up area towards the fort. Our 6 Pdrs also engage the top floors of the buildings. Two of our tanks are knocked out by AP shot. Two POW are taken. The Regiment consolidates its gains forward of the second city square astride the main road and esplanade. Under cover of darkness our Pioneers blow the entrance to a tunnel in 'B' Coy area as the Hun may use this to reinforce his garrison.
Today is our fifth Christmas on Active Service and the fiercest fighting so far encountered continued throughout the day. In spite of the heavy fighting the day was not without its lighter moments. In the evening a very good Christmas dinner consisting of roast pork and trimmings and Christmas pudding was enjoyed. Chocolate bars, cigarettes and bottled beer was also distributed to the troops. All ranks greatly appreciate the work of the 'Q' Staff, Capt J.McBride, all the CQM Sgts and the cooks who worked under great difficulties to prepare, transport and distribute the dinner which was served to a few men at a time, as they were relieved from the line of battle.
December 26, 1943
House to house fighting continues throughout the day. Tunnels, which the enemy were using to change positions quickly, were discovered by our forward platoons. These tunnels were quickly put out of use the exits being blown up by our Pioneers. The enemy in his determination to stop our advance used a flame thrower again today but failed to accomplish his purpose. Several more city blocks of flats were cleared and occupied by out troops. The 12 CTR lost two tanks int their support of us, one by a beehive and one knocked out by a 50 mm gun which was later destroyed. A/Tk guns, 6 and 17 Pdrs firing over open sights, were of great assistance in knocking down buildings occupied by the enemy. The Regiment now controls the entrances to "Cathedral" square, the third and last major city square.
December 27, 1943
One hundred reinforcements arrived during the night and the majority have been posted to re-form 'C' Coy in order that the regiment can operate on a four rifle Coy basis. Capt. P.G. Wright, who joined the battalion on 25 Dec 43, took over command of 'C' Coy. A large percentage of these new men have come from the Cape Breton Highlanders, the regiment which the Minister of National Defence, Colonel R.L. Ralston, commanded in the last war. 'C' Coy may now be called the "Bluenose Coy". The enemy being unable to stop our daily advance attempted a new act of terror to discourage us from occupying buildings. Early this morning the Huns sent a small patrol out to determine our occupation of a building. This being established, the enemy returned to their own lines and in the matter of a very few minutes blew the building up. One Pl consisting of one officer, Lieut E.B. Allen, and twenty three men were trapped and buried in the rubble before they had a chance to make an escape. Not being satisfied the Hun continued to harass the area with grenades but this did not stop our Pioneers from continuing their efforts in an attempt to rescue the buried men. By nightfall four men were rescued and evacuated and the body of one man was removed. In retaliation 'A' coy blew up two buildings in which Germans were heard talking, in one of the buildings a Basche Officer was issuing orders. The CO, Lt Col J.C.Jefferson DSO Ed, laid on an area shoot for our 3" Mortars which proved to a field day 1100 HE bombs being expended. Since we now control by fire the third city square, opposite the doomed cathedral, the end of the battle is now in sight. The Hun has not many remaining buildings from which to manoeuvre or make a major stand.
December 28, 1943
At 0945 hrs this morning our patrols reported that the area of Ortona FORT had been cleared of the enemy. Shortly after, our 8 day battle for the city came to an end when it was declared clear of the Hun. The Pioneer and Carrier Pls have redoubled their efforts digging in hope that some of the remaining 19 buried men may still be alive. Three enemy Folke Wolfes followed up the German defeat in Ortona sweeping in from the sea in an attempt to machine gun and bomb the streets. Our A.A. gave them a very hot reception and they were forced to unload their bombs beyond the city. as a rule the foe either removes his dead or buries them on the spot. Ortona has been the exception , approximately one hundred dead have been left lying due to his hasty withdrawal. The P.P.C.L.I. keep up the pressure by advancing two Coys through us. They consolidate astride the coast road 2 km north of the wrecked and battered city. Our position has been consolidated in Ortona as follows: 'A' Coy at MR 329167, 'B' Coy at MR 333174, 'C' Coy at Mr 332168 and 'D' Coy at MR 332171.
Did you know?
Fighting was so savage and prolonged that some troops called Ortona "Little Stalingrad" after the Soviet city that battled German troops for 200 days, at a cost of over a million lives.
The "houseclearing" tactics developed by troops in Ortona became a manual for urban warfare. "Mouseholes" were blown through walls to travel from room to room and building to building.
Fighting continued over Christmas, but the Germans withdrew three days later.
The people of Ortona also suffered terribly. Many stayed in homes and public buildings, hiding in cellars until the battle died down.
After a successful breakthrough at the Moro, the 1st Canadian Division prepares for an assault on the port town of Ortona on Italy’s East coast. Ortona is a key command centre for the German Army and is very heavily defended.
20 Dec: 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade forces through German defences to take up positions on the outskirts of Ortona. The advance is made possible with the support of 1 Canadian Armour Brigade and a heavy artillery barrage covering the advancing Canadians’ flanks with smoke screen.
21 Dec: The Loyal Edmonton Regiment (the “Loyal Eddies”), along with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, supported by armour begin the bloody advance into the town of Ortona to dislodge the occupying German defenders.
22 Dec: Canadian commanders divide Ortona into sectors and assign each fighting battalion a sector to clear of enemies. In a move to reduce pressure on the Canadians in Ortona, 1 Canadian Infantry Brigade moves into position northwest of Ortona to cut of key German supply routes.
23/24 Dec: Canadian reinforcements begin to arrive at Ortona to relieve exhausted troops and shore up units still embroiled in the bitterly slow and brutal advance into the town.
24 Dec: Two days into the advance on Ortona, Canadian soldiers are fighting a yard-by-yard battle to take the town. The Loyal Eddies and the Seaforths fight vicious house-to-house battles, and even room-to-room battles against the occupying German garrison forces.
25 Dec: Christmas Day brings no relief for Canadian soldiers in their efforts to take Ortona. Soldiers are rotated back to a Church to enjoy a hot Christmas meal where possible, though many are shot down by German forces in the attempt. Some commanders order their men to hold their positions rather than risk getting killed over trying to make it to Christmas Dinner.
26 Dec: The slow and perilous advance by Canadian forces begins to pay off as Canadian commanders in the field begin to report to their superiors that two-thirds of the battered town are now under Canadian control. However the battle continues to wage with the German forces making the Canadians fight for every yard gained in Ortona.
27 Dec: With the Canadian advance seemingly unstoppable, the German forces begin their withdrawal from Ortona.
28 Dec: Canadian forces take full control of Ortona. Canadian casualties for the month of December 1943 near 2400 men, effectively taking the 1st Canadian Division out of the war for a short period in order to rest its wounds. The Battle for Ortona has been won by the Canadians.