Canadian Soldiers and the Battle of Ortona

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.
The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

Wherever the Canadian infantry tried to advance through the rubble and narrow streets of Ortona they were exposed to murderous crossfire from the well-hidden defenders. Captain Bill Longhurst of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment had an inspiration. Instead of moving through the killing ground, he would go through the houses. He got two pioneers to make a demolition charge with plastic explosives and tie them together in a "beehive."

With the men huddled safely on the first floor, Longhurst sent the pioneer up to the top floor to place the explosive against the wall. After the explosion the men tore up the stairs and scurried through the "mouse hole," wildly firing their guns and tossing grenades. Word of Longhurst's ingenious "mouse-holing" spread and the Canadians used the tactic to bludgeon their way through the streets of Ortona.

Every battle is an affront to humanity and a horror to those caught in its grip, but the battle of Ortona in December 1943 was particularly savage. The face to face, house to house fighting reminded British journalist Christopher Buckley of "the fury of Stalingrad."

The Italian campaign began when the Allies invaded Sicily in September 1943 and then crossed the Strait of Messina and established a toehold on the boot of Italy. The Germans were determined to put up fierce resistance and they were aided by the mountainous terrain and fast-flowing rivers. Scarcely a bridge or road-cutting escaped the attention of the German demolition engineers as they carefully withdrew to more defensible positions.

The plan of the Allied commander General Bernard Montgomery was to divert German forces from the main Allied thrust against Rome by sending the Canadians across the Moro River and towards the port of Ortona.

On December 6th, in cover of darkness, three Canadian regiments crossed the Moro. As the Princess Patricia's scaled the opposite bank and seized the hamlet of Villa Rogatti, the Germans counterattacked with mounting violence. It was an early test of the Canadians' resolve and the Patricia's and the 44th Royal Tank Regiment proved equal to the task.

No sooner did the Germans retire from the Moro River than they fortified a gully some 2 km further on. It was a prickly objective virtually impossible to take head on. Finally a small group of Seaforth Highlanders managed to slip through, finding a vulnerable spot at Casa Berardi. On December 14th the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Van Doos) advanced at great cost and tried to hold on against great odds. Captain Paul Triquet, a 33-year-old native of Cabano, Quebec, organized a brilliant defence with only 15 men and four tanks. His heroism and leadership earned him the Victoria Cross.

One of the narrow streets of Ortona, filled with rubble (courtesy NAC/PA-153938).

With the success in the gully and at the Berardi Crossroads, the Loyal Edmontons and Seaforth Highlanders were now free to swing northwards to the main objective, Ortona, supported by the tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment.

Ortona is an ancient seaport on the Adriatic, which dates back some 3000 years, some say to the time of the Trojans. The old town was a jumble of narrow buildings crowded together on a steep promontory thrusting out into the sea. The Germans blew up many of the old stone buildings and reduced areas of the town into rubble fortresses. By the end of the day of December 20th the forward platoons were fighting in the outskirts.

For the next six days the battle progressed with agonizing caution. Every stone house and every pile of rubble was a viper's nest. Every captured building was a potential death trap as the Germans left charges that could be set off by invisible trip wires. In one instance twenty Edmontons were crushed in an explosion in a building that they had just occupied. (One man was miraculously found alive three days later.)

With the tactics of "mouse-holing" and street fighting the men advanced house by house, tossing grenades through windows, kicking in doors, bursting into rooms with a rampage of fire. Gradually the Eddies moved down the main street towards a huge mound of rubble blocking the Corso Emanuele. A small group clambered over the roofs and came out behind the enemy and captured the Town Hall.

By December 24th the Canadian attack had depleted the elite German paratrooper ranks. On Christmas Day the Seaforths had a table set for dinner at the cathedral, while the Edmontons, still in the city, had their Christmas dinner delivered. The Germans put up a small Christmas tree and some of their comrades braved great danger to bring them some sausage and cake. Their leader Carl Beyerlin noted: "there is no place of Christmas sentiments here. We do not know how long we can hold on to Ortona." It was not long. By nightfall of the 27th, the defenders realized that they were beaten and they slipped away like ghosts.

"Everything before Ortona" said the Canadian Divisional commander "was a nursery tale." The battle was the first protracted campaign of the war for the Canadians and the cost had been heavy. Casualties in December reached 2265, including 484 dead. Those among the Germans and among the innocent populace were certainly greater still.