Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 12245).

Canadian Armour Passing Through Ortona, by Dr. Charles Fraser Comfort.

Although the Canadian advance through Sicily and southern Italy was relatively straightforward, the battle for Ortona proved to be lengthy, arduous, and costly in terms of casualties.

The relative ease with which the Allies advanced through southern Italy was reminiscent of the Sicilian campaign. The next stage of the campaign would be much more difficult. The Allies' next objective was Rome. The great city was pivotally important to the Allies, not only for its symbolic value but also because its air fields could provide a base for bombarding Germany. German resistance would be formidable. The Wehrmacht had established an extensive network of defences that stretched from Monte Cassino in the west along the Moro River towards the Adriatic. While the Americans and British prepared to attack the Gustav Line in the west, the 1st Canadian Division, now under the command of General Christopher Vokes, was to seize the Adriatic seaport of Ortona in the east.

City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A96-72, Box 1).

"Secret War Diary of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment," vol. 50 (1-31 December 1943).

This diary details the movements and engagements of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment during the Battle of Ortona.
City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A96-72, Box 1).

"Secret War Diary of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment," vol. 50 (1-31 January 1944).

This diary details the movements and engagements of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment during the Battle of Ortona.
Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 12262).

"Gas Coming."

Church of San Leonardo, Italy, by Dr. Charles Fraser Comfort.

The Canadian advance began near midnight of 5-6 December 1943 with the crossing of the Moro River. The initial assault went well. The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) crossed the Moro under cover of darkness and took the village of Villa Rogatti. The Seaforth Highlanders encountered more determined resistance but nevertheless secured a bridgehead across the Moro near the town of San Leonardo. On 8 December, the Canadians continued their assault. The objective was San Leonardo. After savage fighting through 9 December, the Wehrmacht conceded the town. The struggle had been so intense that the ultimate goal, Ortona, seemed a long way off, even though the seaport lay only a few kilometres to the north.

City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A96-72, Box 1).

"The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Song."

National Archives of Canada (PA-144979, photo by Alexander Mackenzie Stirton).

Medical Personnel at Work, Ortona, Italy, 15 January 1944.

Major P.K. Tisdale, 4th Field Ambulance, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, checks the condition of a wounded man. Standing beside him are Sergeant W.H. Brigham and Private L.P. Lemieux. These two men donated blood to the casualty.
National Archives of Canada (PA-114030, photo by Terry F. Rowe).

Clearing the Enemy, Ortona, Italy, 23 December 1943.

Infantrymen from the Edmonton Regiment, supported by "Sherman" tanks from the Three Rivers Regiment, engage in house-to-house combat in an effort to dislodge German defenders.

Along "the Gully," a long ravine that lay to the south of Ortona, the Canadians encountered seasoned German veterans who were entrenched along the depression. Several days of ferocious fighting ensued before the Germans finally withdrew. On 13 December, the Canadians, led by the Seaforth Highlanders and the West Nova Scotia Regiment, eventually breached the German lines. In another battle, on 14 December, the farm village of Casa Berardi fell, but only after a fierce struggle. The attacking Van Doos (the Royal 22e Régiment) and the Royal Canadian Regiment suffered heavy casualties in the desperate fighting.

Ortona now seemed attainable, but the town would not fall easily. After the Allied press referred to Ortona as a "second Stalingrad," Hitler decreed that his forces should hold the seaport at any cost. The struggle for Ortona would be the bloodiest battle in the Italian campaign to that point. On 21 December, house-to-house fighting began. The Germans had deployed troops in the buildings that lined the narrow streets, transforming them into lethal killing grounds. They had also set mines in some of the houses, one of which destroyed an entire platoon of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment (save for one soldier, who was still alive after being buried for 80 hours). The Canadians responded by wiring a German-occupied building. The subsequent explosion killed two German platoons. Rewriting the manual on fighting in built up areas and developing new "mouseholing" techniques as they advanced through the town, the Canadians blasted their way from one house through the walls and into the next in a painstakingly slow operation. By 28 December, they had taken Ortona. In nineteen days of fighting, the battle had registered 2,339 Canadian casualties. Although the 1st Canadian Division had achieved its ultimate objective, it was, at least temporarily, a spent force.

City of Edmonton Archives (Loyal Edmonton Regiment Collection, A98-96, Box 4).

Letter from H/Major Edgar J. Bailey to Mrs. Vass, 31 January 1944.

Bailey writes to inform Mrs. Vass of the death of Sergeant D.P. Vass.
National Archives of Canada (PA-152748, photo by T. F. Rowe).

Amazing Rescue, Ortona, Italy, 30 December 1943.

Soldiers of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment rescue Lance Corporal Roy Boyd. The rubble created from a bomb blast pinned Boyd for three and a half days. Remarkably, he survived his ordeal, but others were not so lucky. In fact, the explosion that buried Boyd killed the rest of the platoon.

Canadian soldiers have always been noted for their individualism and willingness to improvise. In Ortona they literally rewrote the book on fighting in built-up areas. In the long years of arduous preparation in England they had mastered the British army textbook method: enter on the ground floor, clear every room to the top, and then move into the next building and repeat the process. The deadly reality of Ortona was that the German defenders had the advantage as they could shower grenades on the Canadians from the floors above. Following the British method meant returning to the street to gain access to the next building. Ortona was a typical European town with each building attached to the next. The Canadians quickly modified this method. They entered the first building at street level if necessary. Once they secured that building, they used a Beehive shaped charge to punch a hole in the wall from an upper story, ideally the top one, creating access to the adjacent building. This became known as "mouse-holing". The Canadian soldiers could then enter the next building and lob grenades at the Germans below them as they fought their way down to street level. They attempted to take both sides of the street simultaneously until the entire block would be in Canadian hands, all without exposure to the enemy fire raking the streets.


Copyright © 2018 The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum
Prince of Wales Armouries Heritage Centre
10440 - 108 Ave, Edmonton