Turning Point – 1943

The Army Sicily and Italy

The Battle of Ortona

Ortona is a story of seven painful days of close combat conducted with uncommon courage and heroism in cold, wet, snowy conditions. The town sits on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic. The Germans decided to fall back on it. The harbour was blocked by wrecks, many buildings had been razed and the narrow streets of the medieval town were full of debris. The enemy were well aware that artillery and armour would not be very effective against them and that this was going to be an infantry battle fought with rifles, mortars, machine guns, grenades and mines; they also had some of their best troops in the men of the 1st German Parachute Division. Facing them was the 1st Canadian Infantry Division made up of three infantry regiments of the Permanent Force as well as militia regiments from across the country.

On 20 December the Canadian infantrymen left the Berardi junction to advance slowly towards the outskirts of Ortona, where the next day they began the fight to capture the town. The Germans took advantage of their position and attempted to draw the Canadians towards the central Piazza Municipale, where they hoped to slaughter them. Cutting a path through the rubble-filled streets would simply mean fighting as the enemy wanted. Instead the Canadians used their guns to shoot "mouse holes" through walls and buildings. For days and nights, field guns and tanks played an essential role in the infantry advance, when possible bombarding the upper storeys of buildings occupied by enemy parachutists. However, the battle ended as it had begun, in a fight between infantrymen. Strategically the town was unimportant, but the two camps would fight for it with dogged determination.

The experts debate it to this day: Should the town have been attacked head-on, as it was, or passed by and forced to give up? At any rate, on 22 December, the third day of fighting, the Canadian commander decided to take the key to the German position, a coastal road going northwest used by the enemy to relieve and reinforce the defenders of the town itself. An auxiliary attack was launched in the west towards the village of San Tommaso. The Germans seemed surprised, and the men of the 48th Highlanders succeeded in occupying and holding this position northwest of the town against violent German counterattacks. Unable to infiltrate the position, the Germans realized that their men were in danger in Ortona, the centre of which was already in Canadian hands. During the night of 27/28 December the enemy parachutists withdrew. In the morning a Canadian reconnaissance patrol advanced cautiously into Ortona and found only the enemy dead.

The 1st Division had just won one of the most glorious battles in its history, but at great cost. The Germans also suffered heavy casualties: The battalions of the 1st Parachute Division now had just enough men each to form a company.

December had been painful in more than one respect. General McNaughton, having lost the confidence of his British superiors and having been undermined by ambitious subordinates and abandoned by his minister, was persuaded to resign for health reasons. The prime minister was reserving a political future for him - though one that would never materialize. General Crerar replaced McNaughton at the head of the Canadian army.