Into Ortona: Army, Part 69

March 1, 2007 by Terry Copp

PHOTOS: LT. TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA116852; TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA114030

PHOTOS: LT. TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA116852; TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA114030

Clockwise from top: Canadian infantry advance into Ortona, Italy, in December 1943; Canadian soldiers in Ortona; jeeps destroyed by enemy fire.

When Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar–a veteran of World War I–arrived in Italy to take command of 1st Canadian Corps, he was introduced to the battlefields of the Moro River and The Gully (Clearing The Gully, January/February).

Strome Galloway, who was in temporary command of the Royal Canadian Regiment, recalled the visit in his memoirs: “Crerar stood in the frozen mud. Behind him was the shattered farmhouse which served me as my battalion headquarters and leaning on his walking stick he shifted his gaze from left to right and back again. ‘Why it is just like Passchendaele,’ he murmured. Since none of us had been at Passchendaele, and some of us were not even born then we could not challenge his assessment. So we nodded in agreement and heard even more about the mud of Flanders, the rainfall in the Ypres Salient, the misery of trench warfare as the general’s mind went back more than 25 years….”

Crerar’s attempt to compare World War II in Italy to the battles of 1917 made him seem old-fashioned and out of touch to the young veterans who believed their war was unique, but Crerar was surely right. After two weeks of intense combat–with very heavy casualties–the Canadians had advanced some 2,500 yards, captured acres of muddy ground and a stretch of road that was still visible to enemy positions. Their comrades in the 8th Indian, 2nd New Zealand and 5th British divisions had similar experiences while grinding out small advances of little operational significance. Orsogna–like Ortona–was still in enemy hands and there was no realistic prospect of reaching Pescara, further to the north, and the lateral road to Rome.

Despite the failure of Operation Semblance–Montgomery’s last effort to reach the Pescara-Rome highway–two factors fuelled the requirement to continue the offensive. General Harold Alexander, the Army Group Commander, was preparing to launch what would become known as the first battle for Rome, including an attempt to secure Monte Cassino. Eighth Army was therefore ordered to “maintain pressure” in an effort to tie down German forces in the Adriatic sector. The second factor, which was specific to the Canadians, was the need to secure Ortona as a port and rest area before the Italian winter arrived in earnest.

And so on Dec. 19, 1943, orders were issued to resume the offensive, and this time Ortona itself was the objective. The divisional and corps intelligence reports tried to offer encouragement, suggesting that “having lost control of the (Cider) Crossroads, the enemy is likely to fall back…abandoning Ortona.” However, no combat soldier believed such forecasts. Front-line German commanders were advising a withdrawal to the north before more battalions were destroyed, but General Joachim Lemelsen, the German 10th Army’s commander, disagreed. He believed the time had come “for the thorough annihilation of the British 8th Army.” No ground was to be given up until arrangements for a full-scale attack had been completed. Hitler, who was now micro-managing his forces in Italy, was far more concerned about the Allied threat to Rome and decided against a buildup on the Adriatic. He did, however, reject any suggestion of a withdrawal from the strong defensive positions on the Orsogna-Ortona front.

Canadian historians have usually focused their account of the battles of late December on the street fighting within Ortona. Descriptions of the tactics used by 2nd Brigade in clearing the town are frequently coupled with complaints that Ortona should have been bypassed–something critics maintain would have forced the enemy to withdraw from town. Since bypassing the town was precisely the task assigned to 1st and 3rd Canadian infantry brigades as well as a brigade of the 8th Indian Div., such comments help to confuse rather than clarify the Ortona story. The enemy certainly knew the Allies were attacking on a broad front and initially just one battalion was committed to defending Ortona, while four battalions were resisting the Canadian and Indian advance west of the town.

Major-General Chris Vokes regrouped his forces before launching the new attack. The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada took over the coastal road from the Hastings and Prince Edward Regt. with orders to advance on Ortona in support of the main thrust to be made by the Loyal Edmonton Regt. The Hasty Ps rejoined 1st Bde. to begin the advance to Point 59, a prominent hill overlooking the coast north of Ortona.

The Loyal Eddies, with a squadron of tanks from the Three Rivers Regt., began the advance at noon on Dec. 20. Fighter-bombers were available to hit known gun positions on what proved to be the last opportunity to use air support before the weather curtailed operations. The artillery fired enough smoke shells to screen the advance from observed enemy fire, but enemy engineers had laid enough mines and explosive charges to slow down any advance. The lead tank on the left side of the road was “destroyed by a demolition charge of some 200 tons of TNT. The tank was lifted 20 feet in the air and landed on the other side of the road. All crew members were instantly killed.”

The other three tanks in the troop struck the minefield and lost their tracks without suffering casualties. Fortunately, the right flank troop was able to support the infantry and the Loyal Eddies were able to establish themselves at the south end of Ortona. They made contact with a company from the Seaforths that had fought its way along the coast road before strengthening its position by deploying a Saskatoon Light Infantry medium machine-gun platoon as well as a troop of six-pounder anti-tank guns. Surprisingly, the enemy decided not to counter-attack. The Eddies had taken 17 prisoners from the 4th Para Regt. and inflicted other losses on the enemy’s forward troops, but this time the German commander was determined to avoid the patterned response that had weakened the German battalions at the Moro River and in The Gully.

Historian Eric McGeer, the author of a battlefield guide to be published this year, suggests visitors should follow the Contrada Santa Lucia, a road along the top of Vino Ridge, which was captured by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in the battle for The Gully. The road dips down into The Gully before joining the Orsogna-Ortona lateral road and it offers an exceptional view of the approaches to Ortona. During our visit to the area, a steady rain limited visibility. However, the problem presented by the natural defences of the town was readily apparent. Ortona sits on a promontory that is protected by deep ravines.

The Loyal Eddies and Three Rivers battle group began advancing at 7 a.m. on Dec. 21. The diary of the Loyal Eddies records the start of street fighting, noting that “the enemy is well supplied with machine-guns in dug-in positions behind stone barricades. Hand grenades are being used by both sides. Tanks are hampered by demolitions and mines, but they are providing covering fire….”

Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Jefferson, the commanding officer of the Loyal Eddies, divided the town into four sectors, numbered clockwise from the south. He hoped to seize control of both southern sectors, but resistance on the left was too strong so he reinforced success with tanks and infantry that managed to press forward to the first city square, the Piazza Porta Caldari, by nightfall. “Owing to casualties, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment reorganized on a three-company basis.”

Today, the wide street leading north from the square, the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II, is a pedestrian avenue lined with fashionable shops. In December 1943, the enemy had turned it into a killing zone. The narrow side streets were blocked by rubble from demolished buildings. Snipers and machine-gun posts covered every approach, and anti-tank guns were positioned to fire down the side streets if tanks tried to advance with the infantry.

As the operational report noted, “no two houses were defended alike.” However, there were plenty of automatic weapons and grenades available to each section of enemy paratroopers. “Houses, which were not occupied, were booby-trapped or had delayed charges placed in them with time fuses.”

House-to-house fighting began in earnest on Dec. 21 and lasted until the town was clear a week later. On the morning of the 22nd, the Seaforths provided a company to support the advance by the Loyal Eddies. By afternoon, after the strength of enemy resistance became clear, Brigadier Bert Hoffmeister sent the balance of the Seaforths into Ortona to take over the western part of the city. The next day–as the battle for Ortona intensified–the Hasty Ps attempted to “burst out” to the north along a “thumb-like feature that ran northeast towards the coast road north of Ortona.”

Brig. Dan Spry reported that the attack by the Hasty Ps struck “a whole German paratroop battalion, hitting the middle company and destroying it. They also took prisoners from other companies,” setting the stage for what the regimental history of the 48th Highlanders of Canada correctly describes as “one of the most daringly conceived and executed one-battalion enterprises of the Canadian campaign–in either Italy or Normandy.”

The ground over which the 48th Highlanders advanced forms a narrow ridge between the valley cut by the Ricco River and the ravine forming the western rampart of Ortona. Their objective was the high ground opposite the village of San Tomasso, a feature that dominated the area to the north and west of Ortona. The padre of the 48th described the position as “cemetery ridge” because of all the casualties–German and Canadian–but on the afternoon of Dec. 23 it looked as if the 48th Highlanders had broken through the enemy defences without suffering a single casualty.

The day began with a “man-sized issue of rum with tea which tasted like Moro River mud as a chaser.” Delays in clearing the start line postponed the H-Hour until late in the afternoon when the last light was fading from the December sky. Lt.-Col. Ian Johnston preferred to postpone the advance until first light, but Spry insisted “the attack had to be made at once–even in darkness.” The regimental history describes the scene: “The Highlanders were risking their survival as an effective fighting force on the factor of surprise. Everything was sacrificed to surprise–all their supporting arms and even their own anti-tank guns and mortars. They would take only Bren guns and grenades, their Tommy guns and rifles…. It just might succeed, if it did it would win Ortona.”

The battalion began to follow a footpath, picked out from an air photo. They moved silently–in single file–through a “vineyard tangle which was cut and criss-crossed by small ravines and gullies.” A steady rain and a loud firefight back at the start line helped the advance until everything came to a halt. The lead company had reached a house occupied by German paratroopers. “With the quick silent reactions of raiding Mohawks, Major John Clarke and his picked men soundlessly killed one man outside the house, covered all exits and then leaped into the midst of a Nazi Christmas party.” Thirteen paratroopers were taken prisoner before the advance resumed. A second house yielded six more paratroopers and then, despite fears that the vanguard was well and truly lost, the objective was reached without a shot having been fired!

The battalion dug in after sending a large fighting patrol back towards the start line on a track that Johnston hoped might be used to bring tanks and support weapons forward. The patrol ran into a German battle group that was blocking the track, and was forced to return to Cemetery Ridge. The 48th Highlanders were isolated and on their own. An all-around defensive position was created and the vital link between a British field regiment and its borrowed Forward Observation Officer was tested.

On the morning of Dec. 24, the German commanders faced a difficult choice. The position on Cemetery Ridge gave the Canadians the opportunity to direct observed fire over a wide area. Within Ortona, the Loyal Eddies and the Seaforths, supported with great determination and skill by the Three Rivers tank squadrons, had seized two thirds of the town, and were preparing to clear the rest. It was surely time for the Germans to withdraw to a new defensive line a few kilometres to the north, a move that would have forced the Canadians to mount a new set-piece attack.

Such rational decision-making was apparently impossible in the German army and instead two additional battalions were committed to battle, one in Ortona and a second directed at the Indian brigade fighting its way forward on the Canadian flank. The defenders of Cemetery Ridge would have to wait their turn. The Edmonton war diary noted the changed situation in the entry for Dec. 24. “The enemy resistance stiffens, fresh troops reinforce the garrison, a flame-thrower is used against us…. House-to-house fighting continues in the very narrow lanes and streets while our artillery shells the coast road, the cemetery and targets on our left flank. Our three-inch mortars do very excellent work in close support of the riflemen. Seventy-five reinforcements arrive….”

The Seaforths also received a “large number of reinforcements” which were badly needed as “there had been no sign of the enemy weakening.” The Canadians were to spend Christmas Day locked in a grim struggle that seemed to have no end. A new and determined effort was required to liberate Ortona and seize ground that would shield the town from observed enemy fire.

The story of how Ortona was liberated will continue in the next issue.

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