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Canadian Armour Passing Through Ortona, by Dr. Charles Comfort. On Display at The Canadian War Museum
By winter, the Canadians have driven the Germans north, winning victory after victory. It no longer seems that the Canadians in Italy, who seemed to be left on the sidelines throughout the beginning of the war, would be the forgotten army.
In 1943 the Allied victories in Italy began turning the tide against the axis powers. And in turn, captured the worlds headlines. With the next target for the Allies being to liberate Rome, the Canadian Army now stands at the gates of the city of Ortona. Poised to take the city. After the Canadians had captured the approach to Ortona, it was thought that the Germans would retreat out of the city. Not long after that idea came to fruition the sound of gunfire could be heard within the walls of Ortona. The battle for Ortona was on.
With the city of Ortona making headlines worldwide, the germans decide to stay and fight for the city. Sending in their force of elite paratroopers to defend the city, to fight to the death. The city of Ortona was isolated on a rocky plateau with thick stoned walls, it is a natural fortress.
December 20th 1943, 5 days before Christmas the Canadians are ordered to attack. The beginning of the attack there was a large barrage sent onto the walls of the city. The soldiers followed the barrage as closely as they could through the walls of the city. The Canadians have now entered Ortona, but only the edge of the city. The Germans would do anything in their power to keep the Canadians from taking Ortona. They began to blow up houses causing heaps of rubble clogging up main streets, and using anti tank guns and grenades to take out any armoured Canadian vehicles who advanced through the clogged streets. This just added to the congestion in the streets of the city. With limited roadways and ability to navigate the small alleys the city of Ortona was turned into a deathtrap.
Canadian Troops advancing through the congested streets of Ortona
Cat and Mouse-holing
In a bold gamble the Canadians have the idea to drive their tanks straight down the main street of Ortona. Major Jim Stone of the Edmonton Regiment was alongside the tanks heading down the main street. He recalled afterwards, “We got 100 yards with not one shot fired” “If the first tank didn’t stop, we would have made it through the first day”. When the first tank in the line stopped the Germans started shooting at them, eventually knocking tanks out of commission and causing a road block unable to be guided by any more tanks. The Germans had successfully stopped the Canadian advance in its tracks.
The armoured tanks helped provide cover for the infantry on the main streets of Ortona. The Germans were knocking down houses to create a funnel effect of all Allied soldiers to have to navigate down certain roads, which of course, were fortified heavily by German defenders. Any and every Canadian movement was fired at by the Germans. This would drive the soldiers down the small side streets where no tanks could go down. It was on these side streets where the Canadians were driven inside the buildings for relief from German snipers. The soldiers would throw a grenade through the window, rush inside clear the ground floor, then clear the upstairs from any Germans. Once inside a building the Canadians then had to move on to the next house. They would blow a charge and create a large hole into the neighbouring house, again clearing the house of Germans both downstairs and on the top floor. This technique is what we now know as “mouse-holing”, and this is how Canadians cleared Ortona, house by house.
The 48th Highlanders of Canada infantrymen awaiting the order to attack
Holidays in War
As Christmas eve approaches the fighting becomes more aggressive. Both sides are becoming exhausted of the constant battle, now ongoing for days, always standing guard. With only the largest buildings withstanding shell fire, soldiers who are lucky enough to be inside one would take advantage and have a much needed sleep.
Christmas day was now upon the soldiers in 1943. Although friends and family back home were celebrating the holiday, for most in Ortona the holiday changed nothing. The killing and fighting was still on in full force. There were a lucky few, only a few metres from the front lines, who take advantage in the ruins of the Church of Santa Maria. They celebrate Christmas amongst each other.
Canadian Troops enjoying beverages on Christmas Day, Ortona
Victory with Loss
Two days after Christmas, and just under 7 days after entering Ortona, the Canadians reach the ruins of the basilica of San Tommaso in the centre of Ortona. Once the Canadians reached this centre square, the Germans have been nearly cut off, and they decide to evacuate the town. On December 28th, 1943 Ortona was in Canadian hands.
Although it was an amazing victory for the Canadians, the constant shelling and fighting left the city and its inhabitants in ruins. More than 1,000 Italian civilians are dead from the fighting. The stiff fighting faced in Ortona in late 1943 has also taken the steam out of the Allied plan to capture Rome by years end.
It was never determined how many Canadian soldiers were killed inside the walls of the city of Ortona, and the same goes for the German soldiers. The fighting was tough, close combat fighting that was relentless through day and night. In the month of December the Canadian casualties are a staggering 2,339 men injured wounded or missing, with 502 of which having lost their lives in the fight.
In the New Year the Allies will revise a new plan to Capture the Italian capital of Rome, and the Canadians will continue in their fight. Their next battle against the Germans will take place in the Liri Valley, inching closer to Rome.
First-aid personnel placing Sergeant Johnny Marchand on a stretcher, Ortona
Commemorate With Us
With the 75th Anniversary of Canada’s Invasion into Italy, let us join together, in celebration and thanks for the Canadians who sacrificed so much for us. In their honour, we travel to Sicily for the 75th Commemorative events. Join us to remember the bravery and vigour of our boys on the battlefields of Sunny Italy. Embrace the Italy that we know and love today, and help us honour the sacrifice endured by keeping our Canadian story alive.
If you would like to join us on the upcoming program commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Canadians in Italy , or if you would like more information in regards to the events taking place in Italy for the anniversary Click Here