The Battle of Ortona

Bloody December – this is the description given to the fighting on the Adriatic front during the closing weeks of 1943. Indeed, during that month, the Canadian forces in Italy suffered 1,375 dead. Of these, 213 were killed in a particularly brutal urban battle fought over a seven-day period, including Christmas Day, for a small and picturesque town of Ortona of 10,000 inhabitants. This old town was settled during the Bronze Age and in 1943, its main feature, a deep water port, lent the town great strategic importance.

Events leading to the Battle of Ortona began on 23 November with a British Eights Army offensive on the Winter Line, a specific fortification the German military had built. The Winter Line was, in fact, not one but a series of seven lines of fortification that ran from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Gustav Line, constructed along the Rapido and Garigliano rivers, was considered the main line. It featured barbed wire, minefields, machine-gun nests and concrete bunkers.

The British Army managed to overcome many of these obstacles and the allied forces advanced towards the Moro River.

The 1st Canadian Infantry Division took over the right flank, close to the Adriatic Sea.

The town of Ortona was held, in the main, by the German 1st Parachute Division, a fanatical elite formation with a well-earned reputation as one of the most formidable forces. They had prepared for the Canadian assault: they destroyed the port and erected barricades in the side streets leading to the central Piazza Municipale. Many of the buildings had been collapsed so as to create rubble which would prevent tanks from advancing through Ortona’s maze of streets. Booby traps, time bombs, machine-gun nests, anti-tank emplacements were installed throughout the town. Other thoroughfares were blocked off for the purposes of channelling the advancing enemy into kill zones. Adding to the labyrinth was the presence of countless underground passages connected to the cellars of homes and other buildings.

The Canadian assault began on 20 December with a heavy artillery barrage which served to cover the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and elements of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada as they moved into the town. But the Canadians came under fire from the snipers whom they could not see. Making use of their 6-pounder guns, the Canadians fired on walls and rooftops – wherever they thought the enemy might be concealed. Taking refuge in buildings, the soldiers developed a new tactic they called “mouse-holing”. The tactic involved creating passages within buildings, most often with the aid of a pickaxe or explosive device. But despite their efforts, the Canadians made slow progress, as each edifice entered held the risk of trip wires and charges. Twenty-three members of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment were killed in an explosion that occurred just moments after they had entered a new building.
In the midst of the carnage, the Seaforth Highlanders and Loyal Edmontons celebrated Christmas with a banquet laid out in the Church of Santa Maria di Constandinopoli.

Then the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry and the Régiment de Trois-Rivières joined in the battle.

With their supply line cut and no hope of reinforcements, the Germans were a depleted force. On 27 December, after a week of fighting, they withdrew under the cover of night, leaving their dead behind.

Canadian losses in this urban engagement amounted to more than 100 dead. Roughly one quarter of all Canadian casualties in the Italian Campaign occurred in the town of Ortona. It is estimated that between 100 and 200 Germans died in the battle. At least 48 of these death occurred on 26 December when a structure housing the paratroopers was brought down by Canadian engineers.

Due to the great loss of life and the use of mouse-holing, the clash is sometimes referred to as Little Stalingrad, a name coined by journalist Matthew Halton.

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