The 'Campaign for the Moro River' was a significant battle of the Italian campaign and was fought between elements of the British 8th Army and the LXXVI Panzerkorps of the German 10th Army (4 December 1943/4 January 1944).
The campaign occurred primarily in the vicinity of the Moro river in eastern Italy, and was designed as part of an offensive launched by General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s Allied 15th Army Group with the intention of breaching the German 'Winter Line' defensive system and advancing to Pescara and to eventually Rome.
Beginning on 4 December, four infantry divisions (one British, one Canadian, one Indian and one New Zealand including an armoured brigade) and two armoured brigades (one British and one Canadian) of Lieutenant C. W. Alfrey’s V Corps and Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s XIII Corps attacked heavily defended German positions along the Moro river, achieving several exploitable bridgeheads by 8 December. Throughout the next week, nearly continuous combat operations by both sides, and designed to keep one another pinned down, resulted in an operational stagnation near Orsogna and a narrow pit known as 'The Gully'. After being held at 'The Gully' for 10 days, the Canadians succeeded in outflanking the German defences, and forcing a German withdrawal to the line between Ortona and Orsogna. On 20 December, the line was attacked by both corps. By 26 December, however, the strength of the German defences had stalled the Canadian forces during the 'Battle of Ortona', and the British and New Zealand forces in Orsogna. Although both Ortona and Villa Grande had been taken by the end of December, general exhaustion among the Allied forces prevented the capture of Orsogna and an advance to Pescara. When harsh winter weather set in, it became clear to the Allied commanders that no further progress would be made and Alexander called off the offensive.
Late in 1943, Alexander’s 15th Army Group was fighting its way to the north in Italy against determined German opposition, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, whose forces had prepared a succession of defensive lines. To the east of the Apennine mountain spine was the British 8th Army, under the command of General Sir Bernard Montgomery. In October, the 8th Army had crossed the Biferno river and pushed the German defenders from the 'Volturno-Viktor-Linie' defences. Delayed by logistical problems, the 8th Army was unable to attack the next line of defences, the 'Barbara-Linie', behind the Trigno river until 2 November. However, by 9 November the leading elements of the 8th Army were in contact with the forward defences of the 'Winter Line', which had been set on the high ground to the north of the Sangro river.
The main attack across the Sangro river by the V Corps, comprising Major General V. Evelegh’s British 78th Division and Major General D. Russell’s Indian 8th Division, with supporting and diversionary attacks further inland by Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division and the XIII Corps was delayed by bad weather until a time late in November. After several days of hard fighting, the Germans withdrew to the defences they had prepared on the high ground to the north of the Moro river.
The Moro river runs from Italy’s central mountain spine to the coast of the Adriatic Sea in the area to the south of Ortona. The German defences on the Moro river were some of the strongest of the 'Winter Line', which guarded the eastern side of the Apennine mountains along Highway 5. Montgomery now hoped to drive through the 'Winter Line', capture Ortona and Pescara, and advance to Rome. The British 78th Division, which had been the V Corps' spearhead since the 'Volturno-Linie' operations and sustained more than 7,000 casualties in less than six months, was relieved by Major General C. Vokes’s fresh Canadian 1st Division in preparation for the resumption of the offensive on 5 December. The 78th Division was despatched into the mountains on the 8th Army’s relatively quiet left wing, and here joined Major General G. C. Bucknall’s British 5th Division under command of the XIII Corps.
Montgomery’s plan was for the Canadian 1st Division to attack across the Moro river in the coastal lowlands to take Ortona and then Pescara. Farther inland, in the jagged hills above the headwaters of the Moro river, the relatively fresh New Zealand 2nd Division was to attack toward Orsogna, while between these two formations the Indian 8th Division was to hold the front’s centre in a relatively static role.
Facing the V Corps was Generalmajor Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision on the coast, with Generalleutnant Carl-Hans Lungerhausen’s (from 20 December Oberst Ernst-Günther Baade’s) 90th Panzergrenadierdivision to its right, and still farther inland Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision with its right flank on Orsogna. Further inland, facing the XIII Corps, was Generalmajor Helmuth Pfeifer’s 65th Division supported by elements of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision and Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision. Together, these units constituted General Traugott Herr′s LXXVI Panzerkorps, which was that part of General Joachim Lemelsen’s 10th Army responsible to Kesselring’s Heeresgruppe 'C' for the front line to the east of the Apennine mountains.
On 6 December, Canadian units began a series of large-scale assaults on major crossing points along the Moro river with the object of securing a large bridgehead. Three primary points of attack were chosen: Villa Rogatti along the western edge of the Canadian sector, San Leonardo 3.1 miles (5 km) to the south of Ortona, and San Donato, a small town near the coast. Five infantry battalions were selected to assault these positions on the morning of 6 December.
The task of taking Villa Rogatti, the westernmost crossing point, was given to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry of Brigadier B. M. Hoffmeister’s Canadian 2nd Brigade. Having organised reconnaissance of his objective during the night of 5 December, the battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel C. M. Ware, devised an attack plan detailing the objectives of all four of the battalion’s companies. Once the objectives had been secured by the early morning of 6 December, Anglo-Canadian reinforcements were to be moved into Villa Rogatti, with the intention of repulsing the expected, and very likely strong, German counterattacks. Elements of three German units (200th Panzergrenadierregiment, 361st Panzergrenadierregiment and 26th Panzerregiment) maintained strong defences within the town.
At 00.00 on 5 December, two companies of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry crossed the Moro river and moved toward Villa Rogatti. Within an hour, serious fighting had erupted throughout the town as the two companies of Canadian infantry struggled to break the German defensive lines. As B Company penetrated the German defences, A Company attacked to the north-east, continuing to engage 200th Panzergrenadierregiment near Villa Rogatti. Although two Canadian infantry companies now occupied Villa Rogatti, Panzergrenadier forces still maintained substantial defences on the outskirts of the town. However, C Company continued to advance steadily along the eastern side of the town, encountering significant resistance from the 361st Panzergrenadierregiment. After about one hour of fighting by C and D Companies, Villa Rogatti had been occupied by Canadian forces shortly before dawn.
By the middle of the morning, German counterattacks on the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry’s positions in the town had begun, involving tanks from the 7th Kompanie of the 26th Panzerregiment, field guns and substantial infantry forces. Throughout the afternoon two infantry companies of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry fought off several attacks by German forces, eventually managing to push them back to the vineyards on the northern edge of the town. While the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry had taken 68 casualties, German casualties were estimated at 120. However, three strong German formations surrounded the Canadian positions at Villa Rogatti, rendering unlikely any further exploitation of the bridgehead. Ware was advised to be ready to withdraw across the Moro river should German forces counterattack. In order to provide the Canadian division with a greater concentration of force, on the night of 7/8 December Brigadier B. S. Mould’s Indian 21st Brigade of the Indian 8th Division amalgamated the western flank of the Canadian 1st Division into its own position. As a result of the withdrawal, Canadian efforts would now be focused on the creation of a bridgehead at San Leonardo.
The attack on San Leonardo by the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada began late on 5 December with A Company establishing a bridgehead across the Moro river but in the process taking heavy casualties. In the early morning of 6 December, A Company was withdrawn and two additional Seaforth companies resumed the offensive. As the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry secured and held its bridgehead over the Moro river, the Seaforth Highlanders were struggling to enter San Leonardo. By 07.15, only a single objective had been taken, with Canadian units pinned down by well co-ordinated defensive fire from several companies of the 361st Panzergrenadierregiment. Simultaneously, small arms fire prevented C Company from moving up the road from the Moro river to San Leonardo, while D Company remained on the southern banks of the Moro river throughout the early morning.
During the afternoon, having failed to capture San Leonardo, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment sent two companies to the aid of the Seaforth Highlanders, as the latter’s B Company attacked positions to the west of San Leonardo, inflicting 129 casualties on the German forces. However, the attack on San Leonardo by three Seaforth companies stalled rapidly when the 26th Panzerregiment's armoured companies reinforced the sector. As a result, Lieutenant Colonel Forin was ordered to prepare for a withdrawal from the San Leonardo bridgehead.
While attempts were made to cross the Moro at San Leonardo and Villa Rogatti, The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment launched an attack on the Moro river defences at the small coastal hamlet of San Donato at 13.40 on 6 December. However, the single company making the attack achieved little territorial gain and Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy, the battalion’s commander, ordered a withdrawal at 15.40. Throughout 6 December, strong German coastal defences prevented any farther advances despite the incorporation of tanks and artillery into the assault. By the fall of night, the German defenders still possessed control of San Donato, with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment withdrawing to the southern bank of the Moro river.
On 8 December, Vokes devised a new plan for taking the Moro River. While the 48th Highlanders of Canada and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry resumed the assault on San Leonardo from the south-western side of the town, the Royal Canadian Regiment was to break out of the bridgehead created by the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, then move to the south-west in the direction of San Leonardo to link with the 48th Highlanders and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The operation was scheduled to start on the afternoon of the same day.
The attack began with a heavy artillery barrage which pounded German positions continuously for two hours. At 16.00, the Saskatoon Light Infantry (Machine Gun) support battalion joined in, hitting German positions with bursts of machine gun fire. The moment the heavy bombardment lifted, the 48th Highlanders and the Royal Canadian Regiment both initiated their attacks. D Company of the 48th Highlanders was able quickly to cross the Moro river, taking minimal casualties. However, B Company was subjected to heavy fire from German mortars and 88-mm (3.465-in) artillery positions. Eventually, however, both companies managed to establish strong positions on the western ridge overlooking San Leonardo. During the night of 8/9 December, units of the Royal Canadian Engineers constructed a bridge over the Moro river, allowing armour and equipment to move into San Leonardo the course of the following day.
As the 48th Highlanders secured their positions to the west of San Leonardo, the Royal Canadian Regiment was involved in intense fighting to the south-west of San Donato. Two companies had advanced against the strong and well prepared German defences of the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment. A Company was quickly pinned by German mortar fire, while B Company flanked German positions to the north of San Donato. By the fall of night, all four companies held tenuous positions in the thick of the German defences. On the night of 8/9 December, the Royal Canadian Regiment was subjected to counterattacks by the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment, but these were driven back with the support of continuous Canadian artillery fire.
By the morning of 9 December, the Royal Canadian Engineers had completed the bridge across the Moro river, enabling the tanks of the 14th Armoured Regiment (Calgary Regiment) to transport two companies of the Seaforth Highlanders across the river into San Leonardo.By the middle of the morning, San Leonardo had been cleared of German defenders, although strong positions still existed outside of the town. Within an hour, the Calgary Regiment’s tanks had broken through German positions near Sterlen castle and two companies had linked with the 48th Highlanders and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry within San Leonardo, finally establishing firm Canadian positions across the Moro river. Near the end of 9 December, forces of the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision fell back to their second defensive line, which was the formidable obstacle known as 'The Gully'.
While the Canadians crossed the Moro river, the New Zealand 2nd Division launched the 'Torso' two-brigade attack against Orsogna at 14.30 on 7 December. The division had Brigadier C. Pritchard’s British 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade under command, anchoring its left flank, and was supported by heavy concentrations of artillery and air support. Surprise was achieved as Herr, commander of the LXXVI Panzerkorps, had been persuaded that the New Zealanders would not be in a position to launch a major attack until 8 December.
The New Zealand attack initially progressed well, but the Germans swiftly regained their composure and the attack lost momentum against heavily fortified defensive positions. By 21.00, the New Zealand 24th Battalion had fought its way in slow house-to-house fighting to the centre of the town, but the battalion was then pinned down with no prospect of further progress without significant armoured support. However, a combination of concealed minefields and well entrenched German armour made the task of the Allied tanks impossible. In the early hours of 8 December, Freyberg, the New Zealand commander, ordered a withdrawal from the town with a view to renewing the attack after further softening up from artillery and bombers.
With both the Canadian and New Zealand divisions finding progress difficult, it was decided to bring Mould’s Indian 21st Brigade into the attack with orders to seize Caldari. With no river crossing available, the Indian engineers rushed to build a bridge across the Moro river, and this was completed on 9 December allowing infantry and supporting armour to cross and expand the bridgehead on the far bank. The bridge was named the 'Impossible Bridge' as the local geography required that it be built backward from the German-held bank of the river.
Following its loss of San Leonardo and the Moro river, the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision withdrew to a primary defensive line 3.1 miles (5 km) to the north of San Leonardo. This line was centred around a natural ravine known as 'The Gully', which has an average depth of 200 ft (61 m). Vokes’s initial plan to take the position, and to achieve a foothold on the roads toward Ortona, comprised a frontal assault by Hoffmeister’s Canadian 2nd Brigade, which would seize Vino ridge, capture 'The Gully' and gain positions on the road linking Ortona and Orsogna. The German defences were adequately prepared, however, and included gun pits, bunkers and shelters. On 10 December, three Canadian battalions made their first attempt to cross 'The Gully'. Although they succeeded in capturing Vino ridge, directly to the south of 'The Gully', attempts to neutralise the German positions in the ravine were unsuccessful. On 11 December, the three battalions made another attempt, with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment suffering heavy casualties in its attempts to take German positions in the sector. Although a badly mauled A Company was able to gain a foothold on the reverse slope, newly arrived German units forced the remaining men to withdraw.
On 12 December, Vokes committed the three battalions of the Canadian 3rd Brigade against the German defences in 'The Gully'. The assault started poorly after the Canadian artillery plans had been captured by men of the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment. When The West Nova Scotia Regiment attacked 'The Gully', therefore, it was subjected to counterattacks by the 200th Panzergrenadierregiment at about 10.30, but by 14.00 the regiment had called off its attacks and had taken heavy casualties. To the west, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry fared little better, with C Company taking heavy casualties in its assault. Attempts were again made on 13 December, by two battalions of the Canadian 3rd Brigade, and the attacks were driven back by tenacious German resistance. On the evening of 13 December, the much-depleted 90th Panzergrenadierdivision[ was relieved from its positions in 'The Gully' by units of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision.
By 14 December, Vokes had devised yet another new assault plan for taking 'The Gully'. A small force from the Royal 22e Régiment would move to Casa Berardi, a small set of farmhouses to the west of 'The Gully', before outflanking German positions with infantry and armour, thereby forcing the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision to withdraw. The attack was to begin at dawn, with two companies of the Royal 22e Régiment attacking Casa Berardi with artillery support, and by 07.50, both companies had control of the lateral highway leading to Casa Berardi. C Company pushed on toward Casa Berardi with support from the 11th Armoured Regiment (The Ontario Regiment), while D Company found itself involved in firefights to the south-west of Casa Berardi. At 08.30, C Company began its assault toward the manor house in Casa Berardi, some 2,000 yards (1830 m) away. Strong German defences inflicted heavy casualties to the attackers, and only 21 men and five tanks made it to within 200 yards (185 m) of the objective. Despite the arrival of several PzKpfw IV battle tanks, what was left of C Company took the manor house at 14.30, but by this time only 14 of C Company’s men were fit fit to fight.
With the Indian 8th Division committed, Montgomery decided to raise the stakes still further by bringing Bucknall’s British 5th Division from the relatively tranquillity of the XIII Corps' front in the high mountains on the left wing of the 8th Army and insert it between the New Zealand 2nd and Indian 8th Divisions. This would allow the Indian division to narrow and thus concentrate its attack and give Montgomery four divisions to continue the attack between Orsogna and the sea. By 12 December, Brigadier A. D. Ward’s British 17th Brigade, the first of 5th Division’s units, had arrived and was placed under command of the the New Zealand 2nd Division. Once the 5th Division’s headquarters and other brigades had arrived, these two left-hand divisions were to be organised under the command of Dempsey’s XIII Corps.
To the left of the Canadian division, the Indian 21st Brigade had by 13 December established a solid bridgehead around the 'Impossible Bridge'. That night, a second of the Indian 8th Division’s units, Brigadier J. Scott-Elliot’s Indian 17th Brigade, passed through and attacked toward Caldari. The 1/The Royal Fusiliers stormed the village in a wild night’s fighting while the 1/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles seized the nearby Point 198, which it held against determined counterattacks, including that of tanks during the afternoon of 14 December. That evening, the 1/12th Frontier Force Regiment attacked on the left of the Gurkhas and established positions on the lateral road linking Ortona and Orsogna, and running parallel with the Moro river some 1,000 yards (915 m) to the north of the 'Impossible Bridge'. On the evening of 15 December, the 1/5th Essex Regiment of the Indian division’s Indian 19th Brigade, which had been held in reserve, was committed on the left flank of the Frontier Force Regiment to advance in the direction of Crecchio, and overran a number of German positions. By the end of 16 December, more attacks by the 3/15th Punjab Regiment had secured positions on the lateral road, ensuring that the Indian 8th Division was firmly embedded in the main German defences.
Meanwhile, at 01.00 on 15 December, the New Zealand 2nd Division, electing not to make a further frontal assault on Orsogna, launched Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger’s 5th Brigade in 'Florence', a new flanking attack to the right of the village. By that afternoon, the brigade was well established on the lateral road linking Orsogna and Ortona road and had driven a shallow salient into the German forward defensive line. Although the division had exhausted nearly all its reserves, its headquarters was optimistic for the prospects for the next day, given the heavy casualties the division had inflicted that day.
However, the Germans launched a counterattack at 03.15 on 16 December, committing men of the 6th Fallschirmjägerregiment, sent by Herr to the 26th Panzerdivision to relieve the exhausted 9th Panzergrenadierregiment. These troops had arrived late that evening after a long journey and now, supported by tanks, attacked the right-hand New Zealand positions held by the 21st Battalion. The assault was held off, and the Germans had retired by daylight. Meanwhile, even before the German counterattack had been repelled, the New Zealand 20th Armoured Regiment of the New Zealand 4th Armoured Brigade had attacked toward Orsogna with two squadrons of Sherman tanks. Under intense artillery and anti-tank fire, the tanks and infantry became separated and the tanks became a target rather than a threat.
'Florence' had come to an end. While the German line had been pushed back and the Germans had sustained casualties they could ill afford, they still firmly held Orsogna. Furthermore, the New Zealand 2nd Division was, for the time being, tactically exhausted and needed a period of consolidation and reorganisation.
By 16 December, the British 5th Division had completed its move into the line between the New Zealand 2nd and Indian 8th Divisions. There followed a period of hostile patrolling and skirmishing on the XIII Corps' front. The main burden of the fighting was therefore assumed by the V Corps as the Canadians pushed for Ortona with the Indian 8th Division on their left flank attacking toward Villa Grande and Tollo.
In preparation for what he hoped would be the final attack on 'The Gully', Vokes shifted the Canadian 2nd Brigade to positions formerly manned by the Canadian 1st Brigade. Vokes planned for an attack by The Carleton and York Regiment to be the last of the frontal assaults against 'The Gully'. Should this attack fail, the Canadian 1st Brigade’s Seaforth Highlanders and the Royal Canadian Regiment would move through Casa Berardi and outflank German defences, forcing a withdrawal from 'The Gully'.
At 07.30 on 15 December, two companies of The Carleton and York Regiment attacked. After little more than an hour of fighting, however, the Canadians were forced to call off the attack. In the afternoon, the two heavily depleted companies of the Royal 22e Régiment fought off a large German counterattack on Casa Berardi, with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery firing 5,398 rounds in support of Canadian forces.
On 18 December, Vokes planned what would be the campaign’s largest assault on 'The Gully'. Beginning at 08.00, Canadian artillery was to bombard a 1,000-yard (915-m) front, to a depth of 330 yards (300 m). Every five minutes, the barrage would move 110 yards (100 m) forward, continuing to pound all the German defences in the bombardment area. Less than 110 yards (100 m) behind this barrage, the 48th Highlanders were to advance across the lateral road linking Ortona and Orsogna. At the same time, the Indian 8th Division was to attack to the north in the direction of Crecchio in order to prevent German reinforcements from reaching 'The Gully'. When the 48th Highlanders reached the 'Cider Crossroads', the Royal Canadian Regiment would move to the north, overrunning 'Cider' itself, then advance up the road linking Ortona and Orsogna. Both battalions would be supported by tanks of Canadian 12th Armoured Regiment (The Three Rivers Regiment). At first, the attack went extremely well, but when the artillery shifted its barrage, the German defences quickly recovered and their machine gun fire devastated the advancing forces: C Company of The Royal Canadian Regiment lost every platoon commander killed or wounded. The attack was quickly abandoned.
On 20 December, Canadian forces tried again and The Royal Canadian Regiment attacked 'Cider Crossroads' at 12.00. On this occasion, Vokes was determined that the operation would be successful, with armoured forces of The Three Rivers Regiment moving to the start lines well before 07.00. As a result of fuel shortages and the poor weather, the start of the attack was postponed until 14.15, when a powerful creeping barrage supported two companies of The Royal Canadian Regiment to move to the east. By the evening, B Company controlled the 'Cider Crossroads', having met virtually no resistance in its advance. However, German forces had already evacuated 'The Gully', falling back to prepare for a strong defence of Ortona, where elements of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision were firmly entrenched.
On 23 December Montgomery was promoted to command the 21st Army Group in 'Overlord', the forthcoming Allied invasion of Normandy, and command of the 8th Army passed to Leese, who maintained the pressure along the whole front.
The Indian 19th Brigade was ordered to attack Villa Grande and exploit any gains as far as the Arielli river, which runs from the mountains through Tollo to the Adriatic Sea. The attack went in at 05.30 on 22 December, but failed in desperate fighting. The 1/5th The Essex Regiment renewed its attack during the following morning with more success. After a counterattack by German paratroops had been repulsed at 12.00, the Essex battalion advanced to mop up the remainder of the village. However, costly small-scale house-to-house combat continued throughout the rest of 23 December and for the next two days as the determined German airborne troops clung onto their positions. To the south of Villa Grande, the 3/15th Punjab Regiment had taken Vezzano on 23 December and a continuous brigade line had been established.
On 25 December, reinforcements in the form of 3/8th Punjab Regiment were brought forward, and after a softening-up barrage were launched at the east side of Villa Grande. With four battalions now involved (the 5/The Royal West Kent Regiment had by now been tasked on the south-eastern side of the village) supported by tanks, Villa Grande was finally cleared by the end of 26 December. Entering the village, the men of the Indian 8th Division found a shambles: one correspondent described the scene 'as though a giant had trodden on a child’s box of blocks'.
On 23 December, Dempsey’s XIII Corps launched a new attack to push back the German line from Orsogna. In the afternoon, the British 5th Division attacked on the corps' right wing toward the Arielli stream, its objective being to secure the flank of the New Zealand 2nd Division, which was in turn to attack to the north-west and west from the salient in order to roll up Orsogna’s defences on the Fontegrande plateau from the north.
After the British 5th Division had pushed from Poggiofiorito it took the town of Arielli and its objectives. The New Zealand 5th Brigade attacked at 04.00 on 24 December. Despite intense artillery support by 272 guns on a 3,500-yard (3200-m) front), the tired and understrength New Zealand battalions struggled to make progress. By the afternoon, it had become clear to Freyberg that the stubborn defences of the 26th Panzerdivision would not be breached, and he is reported to have remarked that 'It is not a question of further advance, it is a question of holding on to what we have got.' The XIII Corps' front was effectively deadlocked and settled into a posture of active defence and patrolling.
Throughout the week between 11 and 18 December, the 1st Fallschirmjägerregiment of the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision, together with supporting units, had prepared strong defences within the Italian coastal town of Ortona. Paratroop engineers and infantry had destroyed much of Ortona itself, turning the streets into a debris-filled maze. The major streets had been mined, with demolition charges throughout the main piazza, and booby traps littered the town. The Germans had also buried tanks in the rubble, leaving only the turrets exposed.
On 20 December, the under-strength Loyal Edmonton Regiment moved toward Ortona, with The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada covering its eastern flank. Throughout the day, the Canadians encountered heavy machine gun fire during their attempts to enter Ortona. By the fall of night, both battalions held a toehold on the western edge of Ortona, yet had encountered heavy resistance in their attempts to secure it. On the following day, D Company of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment launched attacks eastward toward the city centre, but German sniper fire rapidly stalled the advance. Throughout the remainder of the week, the 'Battle of Ortona' degenerated into what was in effect a scaled-down version of the 'Battle of Stalingrad', characterised by vicious house-to-house fighting through the narrow streets and debris of Ortona. Over the course of the battle, Canadian forces developed innovative 'mouse-holing' tactics, moving between houses to avoid German sniper fire in the open streets. German counterattacks on 24 and 26 December caused significant casualties to the Canadian forces in the town. In danger of being outflanked by Allied advances to the west of Ortona, however, the 1st Fallschirmjägerregiment abandoned the town during the following day, leaving Ortona to the Canadian forces, whose casualties in the fighting for the town approached 650 men killed or wounded.
The battle continued for a few days after the fall of Ortona. With that town and Villa Grande captured, it looked as if it would require the 8th Army only to regather itself and strike one more concentrated blow at Orsogna to complete the breaching of the main Adriatic strongpoints of the 'Gustav-Linie'. However, on 31 December, as the V Corps probed along the coastal plain toward Pescara, a blizzard enveloped the battlefield. Drifting snow, sleet and biting winds paralysed movement and communications on the ground while cloud ceiling and visibility fell to nil and grounded the air forces. The Canadians managed to advance northward from Casa Berardi along a ridge that ran alongside the Riccio river, and reached the coast at Torra Mucchia, to the east of the river’s mouth, on 4 January but inland Orsogna remained in German hands.
Realising that the 8th Army no longer had the strength or conditions to force its way to Pescara and the Via Valeria to Rome, Leese recommended to Alexander that the 8th Army’s offensive should be halted, and Alexander agreed.
The Allies had made gains and had broken into the 'Gustav-Linie' but the failure to capture Orsogna put an end to the Allied plans of a strong drive up the eastern coast. Rain, flooded rivers and high casualties, as well as the departure of Montgomery, all put a halt to Allied plans until the spring of 1944.
After the offensive had ended, Alexander ordered aggressive patrolling in order to pin the formations and units of the LXXVI Panzerkorps in the Adriatic sector and prevent Kesselring moving them to reinforce the XIV Panzerkorps' front opposite Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army on the western side of Italy, where the Allied offensive would continue.
Despite this, three attempts during the winter of 1943/44 by the US 5th Army to break through into the Liri river valley at Cassino failed. The offensive continued until 15 January, when slowly some ground was gained and a few hilltops were secured, but otherwise the weather and stiffening German resistance meant a breakthrough was unachievable.
As the spring of 1944 approached, Alexander concentrated his forces in great secrecy by thinning the Adriatic front and bringing the bulk of the 8th Army’s striking power to the Cassino front. The combined attack of his two armies during the fourth and final 'Battle of Monte Cassino' early in May took Kesselring by surprise and led to the Allied capture of the Italian capital of Rome early in June.