Operation Battle of Ortona

The 'Battle of Ortona' was fought between Canadian and German forces for the town of Ortona on the eastern coast of Italy (20/28 December 1943).

The battle involved two battalions of elite German paratroopers of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision under the command of Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich and men of the Canadian 1st Division under the command of Major General C. Vokes. As such, the battle was the culmination of the fighting on the Adriatic front in Italy during the so-called 'Bloody December' of 1943. The battle was known to those who fought it as the 'Italian Stalingrad' for the brutality of its close-quarter combat, which was only worsened by the chaotic rubble of the town and the many booby traps used by both sides. The battle took place in the small Adriatic Sea town of Ortona, which had a population of 10,000 persons and was of strategic importance as one of the few deep-water ports on the Italian east coast.

By a time late in 1943, the Italian campaign was not intended as a war-winner, but rather as the means of pinning the German forces in Italy, of diverting German forces from France and of reducing the strength of the German army. The 'Overlord' invasion of north-western France by Allied forces was already in the planning stages for the following spring or summer and, as one source suggests, 'y dividing Nazi forces between several separate fronts, the Allies would prevent Hitler from striking a deadly blow at the USSR or from concentrating an invincible army along the coast of Normandy.'

The offensive of Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army on the 'Winter Line' defences to the east of the Apennine mountains had begun on 23 November with the crossing of the Sangro river. By the end of the month, the main 'Gustav-Linie' defences, which was the major part of the three-line 'Winter Line', had been penetrated and Allied troops were fighting their way forward to the next water line, the Moro river 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north of whose mouth lies Ortona. For the Moro river crossing early in December Major General C. F. Keightley’s exhausted British 78th Division on the Allied right flank along the Adriatic coast had been relieved by the Canadian 1st Division. By the middle of December, after fierce fighting in the cold and mud, the Canadian 1st Division’s 1st Brigade, under the command of Brigadier H. D. Graham, had fought its way to within 2 miles (3.2 km) of Ortona and was then relieved by Brigadier B. M. Hoffmeister’s 2nd Brigade for the advance on the town.

Some historians suggest that Ortona was of considerable strategic significance as it was one of only a few usable deep-water ports on the Italy’s eastern coast, and was needed for the docking and unloading of Allied ships and thus the shortening of the 8th Army’s lines of supply, which at the time stretched back to Bari on the 'heel' and Taranto in the 'arch' of the Italian 'foot'. Allied forces were ordered to maintain the offensive, and forcing a way through the built-up areas in and around Ortona was the only feasible option. Ortona was part of the 'Winter Line' defence system, however, and the Germans had constructed a series of interlocking defensive positions in the town. Together with the fact that the Germans had been ordered to 'fight for every last house and tree'. this rendered the town a formidable obstacle to any attacking force.

Other historians have assigned a lesser importance to Ortona. Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the German commander-in-chief in Italy, said 'We do not want to defend Ortona decisively…but the English have made it appear as important as Rome.' General Joachim Lemelsen, the temporary commander of the 10th Army, replied that 'It costs so much in blood, it cannot be justified.' Nonetheless, the Allies believed it would be merely a minor battle and proceeded with the plan; the Germans then rose to the occasion, holding the town with great determination. The Canadians faced elements of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, whose men were battle-hardened after many years of war, and defended doggedly.

The initial Canadian attack on Ortona 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, elements of the same division’s 3rd Brigade, commanded by Brigadier T. G. Gibson, launched a northerly attack to the west of the town in attempt to outflank and cut off the Germans' rear communications, but made onlt slow progress because of the difficulties of the terrain and the skillful and determined German defence. On 21 December 1943, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders entered Ortona, assisted by the tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment, part of the Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade under the command of Brigadier R. A. Wyman.

The Germans had concealed various machine guns and anti-tank emplacements throughout the town, making movement by armour and infantry increasingly difficult. The house-to-house fighting was vicious and the Canadians made use of a tactic that had previously been used only infrequently: this 'mouse-holing' tactic involved the the use of weapons such as the PIAT anti-tank projector or cumbersome Teller anti-tank mine to blow a large hole in the wall of a building, and this worked well in Ortona, where the houses shared adjoining walls. The Canadians would then throw in grenades and make their assault through the mouse holes, clearing the stairs to the top or bottom floor with grenades and/or machine guns. They would then pursue to locate and destroy any Germans in what was a repeated struggle of close-quarter combat. Mouse-holing was also used to pierce walls into adjoining rooms, sometimes catching German troops by surprise. The tactic was employed repeatedly as the alternative of assaulting through the streets caused heavy casualties for the Canadian as well as the German troops.

The use of the mouse-holing tactic thus made it possible for the Canadian infantry to progress through the town, building by building, without entering the streets where they would face German fire. While some sources attribute the strategy to the Canadian forces, a British training film of 1941 had already illustrated the concept. The Canadians were certainly early, effective and courageous users of the technique, however. Throughout the 'Battle of Ortona', engineers on each side also employed the brutal but effective tactic of using demolition charges to collapse entire buildings on top of their opponents.

On 28 December, after eight days of fighting, the depleted German troops finally withdrew from the town. The Canadians had suffered the loss of 1,375 men killed during the Moro river battles, of which the 'Battle of Ortona' was one part. This represented almost a quarter of all Canadians killed during the whole Italian campaign. Other sources have placed Canadian casualties as high as 2,300 (including 500 dead) before the town was won for the Allies.

The Canadians destroyed the dome on the cathedral of Santo Tommaso in the town centre using tank fire, in order to prevent its use use for spotting. On 25 December the Allies, who had by then occupied a smaller church, were ordered to destroy both the cathedral and the civilian hospital, but this was largely avoided.