This was the Canadian battle to take Ortona on the Adriatic coast of Italy (20/28 December 1943).
A small but very bitter undertaking, the Battle of Ortona pitted a Canadian assault force comprising elements of two infantry brigades of Major General C. Vokes’s Canadian 1st Division, and also of one armoured brigade, against a German defence centred on the reinforced 3/3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment of Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision.
The offensive of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army of General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s 15th Army Group against the German defences of the ‘Winter-Linie’ east of the Apennine mountains had started on 23 November with the crossing of the Sangro river, and by the end of the month the Alied forces had penetrated the main ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences and were fighting their way forward to the next water barrier, the Moro river. About 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north of this river’s mouth lies Ortona.
For the Moro river crossing early in December Major General V. Evelegh’s exhausted British 78th Infantry Division on the Allied right flank along the Adriatic coast had been relieved by the Canadian 1st Division, and by the middle of the month, following heavy fighting in conditions of cold and rain, Brigadier D. C. Spry’s Canadian 1st Brigade of this division had fought its way to within 2 miles (3.2 km) of Ortona before being relieved by Brigadier B. M. Hoffmeister’s Canadian 2nd Brigade of the same division for the advance on the town.
Ortona was of considerable operational significance as it was one of the few usable deep-water ports on the east coast of Italy, and the seizure of the town and its port was therefore seen as a primary means of shortening the 8th Army’s lines of communication, along which supplies had currently to be delivered from Bari and Taranto in the extreme south of Italy. The Allied forces were ordered to maintain the offensive, and the only option available to the Canadians was a direct assault on built-up areas in and around Ortona.
The town was part of the eastern end of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences, and here the Germans had built a complex of interlocking defensive positions within the built-up area. Together with the fact that the Germans had been ordered to hold to the bitter end, this rendered the town a formidable obstacle to any attacker.
The first assault was delivered on 20 December by the Canadian 2nd Brigade’s Loyal Edmonton Regiment with elements of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada under command. Meanwhile units of the division’s Canadian 3rd Brigade, commanded by Brigadier T. G. Gibson, launched an attack to the north, inland of the town, in an effort to outflank the German defences and cut off the town’s rear communications, but made only slow as a result of the terrain’s difficulty nature and the skill and determination with which the Germans defended.
In the town itself, the Germans had erected barricades and left rubble strewn throughout the narrow side streets surrounding the Piazza Municipale. The only available route for the Canadian tanks was through the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which was heavily mined and liberally festooned with traps of several types. The Germans had also concealed machine gun nests and anti-tank positions throughout the town, making movement by armour and infantry both difficult and very costly.
The combat was characterised by house-to-house fighting in which the Canadians made use of the new tactic of ‘mouse holing’. This involved the use of weapons such as PIAT anti-tank projectors and, on occasion, more cumbrous anti-tank guns to breach the partitions of buildings with a common wall, creating the ‘mouse holes’ through which infantry hurled grenades and then launched their assaults, first clearing the upper floors and then fighting their way down. Mouse-holing was also used to open walls into adjoining rooms, sometimes catching the Germans by surprise.
On one occasion the Germans brought down an entire house packed with Canadian soldiers, of whom only one survived, and the Canadians demolished another building on top of two German squads, all of whose men died.
After six days of intense combat, the Canadian 2nd Brigade’s third battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, joined the battle together with tanks of the Régiment de Trois Rivières from Brigadier R. A. Wyman’s Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade. After eight days of very arduous fighting, on 28 December the depleted German troops, who lacked reinforcements, finally withdrew from the town.
The Canadians suffered 1,375 dead during the crossing of the Moro and the fighting in and around Ortona. In the fighting within Ortona the Loyal Edmonton Regiment had 172 casualties including 63 killed, and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada suffered 103 losses including 41 killed. The Canadian 1st Division’s casualties in December (including 1st Brigade’s crossing of the Moro, the 2nd Brigade’s fighting in the town and the 3rd Brigade’s attempted outflanking attack) were 4,206 including 695 killed. The figure of 1,375 dead represented just over 25% of all the Canadians killed in the Italian campaign, in which the Canadian losses were 5,399 killed, 19,486 wounded and 1,004 taken prisoner.
The German losses are not known, and there were also 1,300 Italian civilian dead.