Battle of Ortona

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Ortona
partof=Italian Campaign (World War II)

caption=Canadian Armour Passing Through Ortona, by Dr. Charles Fraser Comfort. Canadian War Museum (CN 12245).
date=December 20, 1943 to December 28, 1943 [ Canada at War website: Battle of Ortona] ]
place=Ortona, Italy
result=Canadian victory
strength2=1 Battalion
casualties1=Canadian 1375 dead
964 woundedZuehlke, Mark, "Ortona Canada's Epic WWII Battle". These Canadian casualty figures cover the whole of the period of "Bloody December" when the Canadians came into the front line for the crossing of the Moro river, not just those sustained in the fighting for the town itself. The numbers are not entirely consistent with other sources: Allied casualties (mainly Canadian) during the eight days fighting for the town (including support units etc.) were 650 killed, wounded and missing (including losses to the Loyal Edmonton Regiment of 172 casualties, including 63 killed; the Seaforth Highlanders 103, including 41 killed) according to: cite web|author= Landry, Pierre| editor=Beauregard, Marc| url=| title=Juno Beach Center: The Capture of Ortona| year=2003| accessdate=2007-09-27. According to cite web| url=| Ortona| accessdate=2007-09-27 casualties for Canadian 1st Infantry Division in December (including 1st Brigade's crossing of the Moro, 2nd Brigade's fighting in the town and 3rd Brigade's attempted outflanking attack) totalled 4,206 including 695 killed.]
casualties2=German? 1300 civilian deaths [Zuehlke, Mark, "Ortona Canada's Epic WWII Battle"]

The Battle of Ortona (December 20, 1943 to December 28, 1943) was a small, yet extremely fierce, battle fought between German Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) of the German 1st Parachute Division under Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich, and assaulting Canadian forces from the 1st Canadian Infantry Division under Major General Chris Vokes. It was the culmination of the fighting on the Adriatic front in Italy during "Bloody December" and was considered among Canada's greatest achievements during the war.

The battle, dubbed "Little Stalingrad" for the deadliness of its close-quarters combat, took place in the small Adriatic Sea town of Ortona, with its peacetime population of 10,000.


The Eighth Army's offensive on the Winter Line defences east of the Apennine mountains had commenced on November 23 with the crossing of the river Sangro. By the end of the month the main Gustav Line defences had been penetrated and the Allied troops were fighting their way forward to the next river, the Moro, four miles north of the mouth of which lay Ortona. For the Moro crossing in early December the exhausted British 78th Infantry Division on the Allied right flank on the Adriatic coast had been relieved by Canadian 1st Infantry Division. [Zuehlke (1999), p. 14] By mid December, after fierce fighting in the cold, wet and mud the Division's 1st Infantry Brigade had fought its way to within two miles of Ortona and was relieved by 2nd Infantry Brigade for the advance on the town.

Ortona was of high strategic importance, as it was one of Italy's few usable deep water ports on the east coast, and was needed for docking allied ships and so shorten Eighth Army's lines of supply which at the time stretched back to Bari and Taranto. In Farley Mowat's book "And No Birds Sang" it can be seen, however, that because of Autumn and Winter rains, the land away from the built up areas was nearly impassable, even by foot. Allied forces were ordered to maintain the offensive, and going through the built up areas in and around Ortona was the only feasible option. Ortona was part of the Winter Line defence system and the Germans had constructed a series of skilfully designed interlocking defensive positions in the town. This, together with the fact that the Germans had been ordered to "fight for every last house and tree". [Farley Mowat, "And No Birds Sang".] [Zuehlke (2001), p. 160] made the town a formidable obstacle to any attacking force.

The battle

The Canadians faced elements of the renowned German 1st Parachute Division. These soldiers were battle-hardened after many years of war, and were ordered by Hitler to defend Ortona at any cost.

The initial Canadian attack on the town was made on 20 December by Canadian 2nd Brigade's Loyal Edmonton Regiment with elements of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada under command. [Zuehlke (2001), p. 160] Meanwhile elements of the division's 3rd Infantry Brigade launched a northerly attack to the west of the town in attempt to outflank and cut off the town's rear communications but made slow progress because of the difficult terrain and the skilful and determined German defence.

In the town itself, the Germans had placed various barricades and left rubble strewn throughout the narrow side streets surrounding the Piazza Municipale. The only available route for the Canadian tanks was through the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which was heavily mined and trapped; traps would serve the Germans with deadly efficiency during the eight days of fighting. [Bercuson, p. 175]

The Germans also concealed various machine guns and anti-tank emplacements throughout the town, making movement by armour and infantry increasingly difficult. [Bercuson, p. 175] The house to house fighting was vicious and the Canadians made use of a new tactic: "mouse-holing".

This tactic involved using weapons such as the PIAT (or even cumbersome anti-tank guns) to breach the walls of a building, as houses within Ortona shared adjoining walls. [Bercuson, p. 175] The soldiers would then throw in grenades and assault through the mouse holes, clearing the top floors and making their way down, where both adversaries struggled in repeated close-quarters combat. [Zuehlke (2001), p. 160] Mouse-holing was also used to pierce through walls into adjoining rooms, sometimes catching enemy troops by surprise. The tactic would be used repeatedly as assaulting through the streets inflicted heavy casualties on Canadian troops. Later, in a particularly deadly incident, a German demolished an entire house packed with Canadian soldiers; only one soldier survived. [Zuehlke (1999), p. 343] The Canadians retaliated by demolishing another building on top of two German platoons, wiping them out.

After six days of intense combat, 2nd Brigade's third battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, joined the battle together with tanks from 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade's Three Rivers Regiment ("Régiment de Trois-Rivières").

On December 28th, after eight days of fighting, the depleted German troops, who lacked reinforcements, finally withdrew from the town. The Canadians suffered 1,375 dead in the fighting in and around Ortona, almost a quarter of all Canadians killed during the Italian Campaign.


See also

*Italian Campaign (World War II)
*Battle of Groningen


*cite book|first=Farley| last=Mowat| authorlink=Farley Mowat|title=And No Birds Sang|publisher=McClelland & Stewart|year=1979|isbn= 978-0771066184|pages=219 pages
*cite book|last=Zuehlke| first=Mark |year=1999|title=Ortona Canada's Epic WWII Battle|location=Vancouver| publisher=Douglas & McIntyre| isbn=1-55054-557-4


External links

* [ Remembering Ortona - 65th Anniversary]
* [ Ortona and the Italian Campaign - 65th Anniversary]
* [ The Battle of Ortona - Complete overview, video / audio and a large picture gallery.]
* [ Battle of Ortona website for Veterans Week 2004]
* [ CBC history on the Battle of Ortona]
* [ Canadian Encyclopedia Entry]
* [ How the Enemy Defended the Town of Ortona (U.S. intelligence report)]
* [ Juno Beach center: Ortona]
* [ article on Ortona]

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