Remembering Canadian Soldiers at the Battle of Ortona: Toronto Connections: December 20: Snapshots in History
Some Canadians and Torontonians are familiar with the Battle of Ortona that took place in southern Italy in late 1943. Brendan Kennedy, writing in the Toronto Star on December 17, 2018, provided a crucial link between Toronto and that battle by interviewing three Canadian veterans (who had a connection to Ortona) on December 16, 2018 at Sunnybrook Hospital: Donald Stewart (94 years old); A.E. “Al” Stapleton (99 years old); and, Ed Stafford (97 years old). The three veterans had been stationed at the Canadian headquarters and were not directly involved in the heavy fighting that took place. Al Stapleton aptly made the comment: “Which is, of course, one of the reasons why I’m still here.”
In another connection to Toronto and as a thank you to Canadian soldiers, the Italian-Canadian community commissioned the creation of a three dimensional bronze monument by Canadian artist Ken Lum through the auspices of the Peace Through Valour committee. This monument depicts a 7-foot by 7-foot topographical map of Ortona showing the aftermath of the fierce fighting there with ruins and destruction everywhere. The monument is located at the northwest corner of Nathan Phillips Square’s Sculpture Court. At the June 2016 unveiling of the monument, retired Sergeant Herb Pike, who fought in Ortona with the 48th Highlanders of Canada, thanked the Italian people for welcoming Canadian troops at the time.
Source: Features of Nathan Phillips Square.
Infantry of the Edmonton Regiment supported by Sherman tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment, Ortona, Italy. December 23, 1943.
On December 20 and beyond, take a moment to remember the Battle of Ortona that occurred from December 20-28, 1943 on the Adriatic front in Italy between troops of the 1st Canadian Division under the command of Major-General Christopher Vokes and paratroops (Fallschirmjäger) of the German 1st Parachute Division under Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich. This battle, which resulted in a victory for Canadian troops, has been compared to the larger-scale Battle of Stalingrad by being referred to as “Little Stalingrad” or the “Italian Stalingrad” due to similar close combat fighting amidst destroyed buildings and rubble.
The initial Canadian attack on the occupied seaside town of Ortona began on December 20, 1943 with the Canadian 2nd Brigade’s Loyal Edmonton Regiment (4th Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry) and a portion of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. They faced German paratroops who had received orders to defend Ortona at any cost. The 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Canadian Division had engaged in a northerly thrust to the west of Ortona in an attempt to outflank the German troops and cut off communications but faced stiff resistance from the German defenders as well as challenges from the difficult topography in the area.
In Ortona, German forces concealed machine gun and anti-tank emplacements throughout the town to deter rapid movement by Canadian tanks and troops. For their part, Canadian troops employed a new technique called “mouseholing” that now has become a mainstay in urban warfare situations. Canadian troops would improvise with No. 75 Hawkins Grenades, an example of pressure detonated anti-tank mines, by attaching them to wooden sticks secured together with tape, and rigged with primacord and safety fuses. Often, four or five of these weapons could be detonated simultaneously, resulting in holes in building walls through which soldiers could easily pass. The Canadians fought house-by-house, often fighting for control from the top floor downwards.
Photo: Members of the Seaforth Highlanders sit down for their Christmas dinner.
Photo Credit: Terry F. Rowe / Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-152839
On December 25, 1943, Canadian troops “celebrated” Christmas in Ortona. Soldiers of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada went in shifts to the bombed-out church at Santa Maria di Constantinopoli (that was several blocks away from the fighting) for Christmas dinner. However, the fighting beckoned and many of these soldiers were killed. The following day, December 26, 1943, demonstrated a ferocious nature to the fighting: German paratroops destroyed a house containing a Canadian platoon, killing 23 soldiers and burying 1 soldier alive for three days; Canadian troops retaliated by destroying a house with up to 50 German soldiers inside. By December 27, 1943, German forces were trapped in between the destroyed San Tommaso cathedral and a castle. Heavy artillery fire and naval gunfire off the coast helped to diminish the German paratroops’ resistance. The German battalion commander was ordered to save his remaining troops. The Canadians had warned German troops and the civilian population that carpet bombing of Ortona was scheduled for the morning of December 28, 1943. German forces withdrew from Ortona on the evening of December 27, 1943 to the north and Canadian troops entered the town the following morning.
Toronto Public Library owns several books that discuss the Battle of Ortona.
View Canada’s World War Two battlefields in Italy through three-dimensional satellite maps that clearly delineated populated towns and the local topographic features.
Historian Mark Zuelhke filled a gap in Canada’s war history by producing a detailed, gripping account of the Battle of Ortona told from the soldier’s point of view and the important role that Canadian troops played in dislodging experienced German paratroopers from the town of Ortona, albeit at a high cost of 2,339 Canadian soldiers wounded or killed. Follow the efforts of infantry soldiers of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada with the support of tankers from the Three Rivers Regiment as they engaged in harsh house-to-house combat with German paratroops amongst heavy shelling.
Also available in eBook format.
Volume 2 of the Canada at War series produced by Donald Brittain, Peter Jones, and Stanley Clish included 4 episodes from the 13-part series, viz.: 5. Ebbtide -- 6. Turn of the tide -- 7. Road to Ortona -- 8. New directions.
Join (recently deceased) war veteran and War Amps spokesperson Cliff Chadderton as he discussed the challenges faced by the Canadian Army in Italy and Sicily during the Second World War and the clever techniques that Canadian troops developed to fight experienced troops on the opposing side within the context of harsh terrain.
Map: The Battle for Ortona (Small) and the Adriatic Sector. Nov. 28, 1943-Jan. 4, 1944. – Source: Map 11 – The Canadians in Italy 1943-1945 by Gerald W. L. Nicholson – Available as a PDF.
Credit: Department of National Defence