Canadian Vets Return to Ortona
To mark the 65th anniversary of the Italian campaign Canadian veterans recently returned to Ortona. In December of 1943 the ancient Adriatic port city was the scene of some of the most bitter fighting of World War II.
Of little strategic value, General Bernard Montgomery believed the Germans would abandon the city in favour of more defensible positions to the north. Instead, units of the elite 1st German Parachute Division were installed in Ortona. The paratroopers spent the week of December 11th to 18th preparing defenses, mining roads, and destroying buildings to topple rubble into the streets that would direct any attacking force into killing zones.
2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade's Loyal Edmonton Regiment and Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were tasked with capturing Ortona, and on December 21st the Loyal Eddies and the Seaforths began their bloody advance into to the city. The action quickly degenerated into vicious street fighting, often house to house, and even room to room.
Christmas Day brought little respite from the brutal combat, though the spirit of the day would not be forgotten. Christmas Dinner was served in the ruins of the Church of Santa Maria di Constandinopoli to exhausted soldiers. The December 25 entry in the Seaforth's War Diary describes the scene, “ the setting for the dinner was complete, long rows of tables with white tablecloths, and a bottle of beer per man, candies, cigarettes, nuts, oranges and apples and chocolate bars providing the extras. The C.O., Lt.-Col. S. W. Thomson, laid on that the Companies would eat in relays... as each company finished their dinner, they would go forward and relieve the next company... The menu... soup, pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, Christmas pudding and mince pie... From 1100 hours to 1900 hours, when the last man of the battalion reluctantly left the table to return to the grim realities of the day, there was an atmosphere of cheer and good fellowship in the church. A true Christmas spirit. The impossible had happened. No one had looked for a celebration this day. December 25th was to be another day of hardship, discomfort, fear and danger, another day of war. The expression on the faces of the dirty bearded men as they entered the building was a reward that those responsible are never likely to forget… During the dinner the Signal Officer... played the church organ and with the aid of the improvised choir, organized by the padre, carols rang out throughout the church."
By December 27th the Canadians controlled two thirds of Ortona, and only then did the remaining German paratroopers begin to withdraw up the coast road to the north. The next day
Canadian patrols reached the centre of the city. The battle for Ortona was over.
Current Ortona Mayor Nicola Fratino told the Toronto Sun, "We have an eternal debt of gratitude to the veterans of the Italian campaign and that is why, over the years, we have made every effort to embrace their visits and show them our affection." He said, “the sight of the Maple Leaf of the Canadian military during the Second World War made locals realize 'salvation was at hand.' "