Into Ortona Then And Now

March 2, 2009 by Dan Black
More than 1,200 students march from the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery to Ortona with their Hands Across The Generations Flag. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

More than 1,200 students march from the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery to Ortona with their Hands Across The Generations Flag.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

Early morning, Nov. 25, 2008:

One by one the large tour buses stop in the tight laneway running parallel to the Adriatic’s western shore. It is cold and windy with the threat of rain hanging in the air above the stone archway linking the church of San Donato to the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery.

For a few precious seconds between arrivals there is nothing but silence, just the wind rustling southward through the olive trees and vine-covered pergolas. Five kilometres to the north—on a plateau overlooking the sea and a quiet river valley—is the ancient but rebuilt town of Ortona with its congregation of two- and three-storey houses nestled under the omnipotent gaze of Cattedrale San Tommaso.

Unseen, roughly two miles to the southwest—on the edge of a long gully—is a place called Casa Berardi where on Dec. 14, 1943, a small, but determined group of Canadian soldiers held out against overwhelming odds in a vicious battle that resulted in the capture of a key position and the awarding of a Victoria Cross to a French-Canadian from Cabano, Que. Further to the south—on the north side of the Moro—are the farming villages of Villa Rogatti, La Torre, and San Leonardo.

Stepping out onto the wet pavement from the front and rear doors of the first bus—and every subsequent bus—are dozens of Canadian teenagers in scarlet jackets, black slacks and khaki-coloured shirts. Those on the first bus had just watched a short video showing what it was like here 65 years ago.

A company of Seaforth Highlanders moves towards Ortona in 1943. [PHOTO: FREDERICK G. WHITCOMBE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA152749]

A company of Seaforth Highlanders moves towards Ortona in 1943.
PHOTO: FREDERICK G. WHITCOMBE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA152749

During the next hour more than 1,200 students will pass beneath the arch and fan out across the spongy but immaculate cemetery lawn. Most, if not all, are carrying notebooks, pencils and digital cameras. And each of them is also carrying something else: a promise to fulfil a personal quest—a private little pilgrimage that has not only covered thousands of kilometres from Canada to Italy, but has caused them to examine Canadian military history in a way they have never looked at it before. It will involve a search inside themselves as well as an examination of the history of a battle that became known in its day as Little Stalingrad.

It is hoped—certainly by their teachers—that this trip to Italy will give them a better understanding of what it could have meant to the thousands of young men who left loved ones behind, and ended up serving in Italy during the Allied campaign that lasted from 1943 to 1945. They had read, for example, that of the 92,757 Canadians of all ranks who served in the campaign, more than a quarter became casualties. The killed numbered more than 400 officers and nearly 5,000 men. Nearly 19,500 others were wounded, and 365 died from causes other than enemy action.

For many of the students, parents, teachers and chaperones, it is a journey that meshes the forces of curiosity, sadness and anger into an overall framework of remembrance for those lying still beneath their feet. Here, at Moro River, there are 1,615 graves, of which 1,375 are Canadian.

Students attend the remembrance ceremony at the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Students attend the remembrance ceremony at the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

But while looking back through 65 years, it is a journey that also casts a view at the world today, in particular the war in Afghanistan. For in addition to paying respect to a Canadian killed in Italy, each student has gotten to know a soldier from Canada’s current mission, and they have demonstrated this by adding squares of fabric—each one identified with their name and the names of their “two soldiers”—to a huge banner called the Hands Across The Generations Flag.

But the sheer impact of being among the soft white headstones at Moro River, of seeing the cost of war less in terms of statistics and more in terms of individual lives lost, is immeasurable. Educators, including Rosie Kruhlak of Morinville, Alta., Gene Michaud of Ottawa and David Chisholm of Summerside, P.E.I., see these as “teachable” moments, when the eyes go wide and the jaw drops to form a quick expression of reward: ‘Wow! I get it! I really get it!’

Heading up the Remembering Ortona 65th anniversary tour is David Robinson, the same Ontario teacher who led more than 1,700 students to France in April 2007 for the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. As he steps off the bus into what will be the culmination of months of work, which included countless e-mails and meetings with Canadian, Italian and Vatican officials, his skyward glance reveals a final plea to the gods: “Please, don’t let it rain.”

Dec. 4, 1943:

The 1st Canadian Division is overlooking the Moro River. They are joined two days later by 1st Cdn. Armoured Brigade. In very broad terms, their mission is to cross approximately six kilometres of river valley, break the German lines and then capture Ortona. The valley contains farms, fields strewn with landmines and enemy machine-gun positions. There are also olive groves, vineyards, knocked out bridges and deep ravines.

The view across the Moro River Valley, Dec. 8, 1943. [PHOTO: TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA166307]

The view across the Moro River Valley, Dec. 8, 1943.
PHOTO: TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA166307

Under cover of darkness, Dec. 5-6, 1943:

The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry start to cross the Moro. The Hasty Ps’ attack near the mouth of the river is meant to divert the enemy’s attention away from the Seaforths and PPCLI whose objectives are San Leonardo and Villa Rogatti, respectively. During the night the PPCLI take and then defend their objective. The Hasty Ps also establish a small bridgehead.

Dec. 8-9, 1943:

The 48th Highlanders of Canada attack just west of San Leonardo while the Royal Canadian Regt. attacks from a different direction in hopes of outflanking the village. It is cloudy and raining to beat the band, but Allied air strikes have softened enemy positions. Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Engineers work under heavy fire to make it possible for the armour to cross the river. Tanks from the Calgary Regt. advance into the town accompanied by Seaforth Highlanders. The Germans don’t give up easily, but San Leonardo is in Canadian hands.

Nov. 25, 2008:

At Moro River Canadian War cemetery, student Heather Shearer of Port Perry, Ont., is alone in front of Plot 9, Row F11. She has found the grave of a soldier who only lasted about five months after landing in Sicily on July 10, 1943. Shearer has included the particulars on Private Steve Andronick in a little notebook. “He was from Vancouver and served with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada,” she says. “On Dec. 8, 1943, he helped capture machine-gunners at San Leonardo. He died Dec. 17. The enemy was on a hill shooting down on them…. A lot didn’t make it.”

Shearer’s notebook also contains information on a Canadian who served in Afghanistan. Sergeant Darcy Scott Tedford was one of two soldiers killed Oct. 14, 2006, in an ambush near Pashmul, Afghanistan. Two other soldiers were wounded. Militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at Tedford’s unit which was providing security for road construction. Born in Calgary, Tedford grew up in Earltown, N.S., and served with 1st Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regt. based at Petawawa, Ont. “He had a wife and two young girls….” explains Shearer.

Dec. 10-11, 1943:

Less than a mile south of Ortona—running parallel to the Moro—is a long ravine they call The Gully. Even though it is hit by heavy air strikes, it is a formidable defensive position for the Germans. With tanks in support, the Loyal Edmonton Regt. attacks towards a crossroads on the north side of The Gully, but is eventually driven back, although reinforcements make it possible to hold some of the ground. The PPCLI, supported by tanks, seize Vino Ridge on the south side. Another attack to cross the ravine and capture a place known as Cider Crossroads southeast of Ortona fails. Also repelled is an attack by the West Nova Scotia Regt. on the west end of The Gully.

Dec. 13, 1943:

Mortars and machine-gun fire rains down on the Carleton and York Regt. However, a small group of Seaforths breaks through the German line and captures nearly 80 prisoners. Without reinforcements, the Highlanders are withdrawn, but a weak point in the enemy defences is discovered near Casa Berardi.

A Canadian soldier searches a young German soldier captured Dec. 9, 1943. [PHOTO: TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA114485]

A Canadian soldier searches a young German soldier captured Dec. 9, 1943.
PHOTO: TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA114485

Nov. 25, 2008:

The cold damp air sliding down from the north has given Franca Fiset a cough. The teacher from Notre Dame Catholic High School in Ottawa decides to back away from the hundreds of students lining up for the remembrance ceremony at the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery. She soon finds herself well behind the crowd, not far from an elderly Italian woman. “Her name is Adaluisa Budano. She had just placed a collection of soldier biographies in the cemetery’s registry. Budano was 17 during the battles of December 1943. Her house was taken over by the Canadians, and it became an army headquarters. She and her mom cooked and did laundry, and she tells Fiset that the Canadians were very kind and provided two things that were in very short supply: food and relative safety. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to meet her,” says the teacher.

Student Heather Shearer keeps details of two soldiers in a little notebook. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Student Heather Shearer keeps details of two soldiers in a little notebook.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

Dec. 14, 1943:

Accompanied by seven tanks of the Ontario Regt., the Royal 22nd Regt. attacks what is no longer a weak area. A concealed German tank holds up the Canadians until it and its crew are blown to bits by Sergeant J.P. Rousseau, armed with a PIAT anti-tank gun. As the infantry works under vicious fire to eliminate enemy soldiers, Sherman tanks take out three Panzer Mark IVs. With artillery and mortar fire hitting their open position, the Canadians find cover in the Casa Berardi. With about 15 men remaining, a few tanks and small amounts of guns and ammunition, Captain Paul Triquet organizes his forces and holds on to the position until reinforcements arrive. His actions will earn him the VC while Rousseau will receive the Military Medal. Major H.A. Smith, who commanded a number of tanks, will earn the Military Cross.

Nov. 25, 2008:

Student Victoria Lisi and her father Nick, a staff sergeant with the Durham Regional Police Service in Ontario, arrive in front of the grave of Private Emile Comeau. Victoria says he died Dec. 15, 1943, at age 22 of wounds suffered during the fighting in The Gully. “He wasn’t somebody’s father, but he was very close to his family in Nova Scotia. I’m sure the people who knew him would appreciate the fact we are here to say a few words. His parents wrote many letters about him after he was gone. There are more than 68 pages in his file at the archives in Ottawa…. I just hope he is looking down right now and is happy we are here to thank him for making such a huge sacrifice.”

Dec. 18, 1943:

The 48th Highlanders help establish a fragile salient in German defences near Casa Berardi. The position enables the Canadians to cut an important road between the Cider Crossroads and Villa Grande, situated over a mile as the crow flies—to the northwest.

Nov. 25, 2008:

Fifteen-year-old Amie Nault of Port Perry High School in Ontario arrives in front of the grave of Private Albert Barber who served with the Carleton & York Regt. “Here he is,” she says before kneeling to place a small wooden cross affixed with a poppy in front of his headstone. “His mother’s name was Alice and his father went by William. He lived in Fredericton, and was a bit of a health nut—enjoyed exercise and eating healthy. He loved being in the army.”

It didn’t take long for the Grade 10 student to locate the grave. Prior to leaving Canada, she visited the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and plotted the locations of 43 graves belonging to soldiers assigned to students at her school. “A lot of people say we remember…we remember. It is kind of weird coming here, but when you are actually here—standing in front of the grave of someone you have researched—it personalizes it and makes it very real. People died by the hundreds near here. We can’t forget that.”

Amie Nault places a cross in front of the grave of Pte. Albert Barber. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Amie Nault places a cross in front of the grave of Pte. Albert Barber.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

Dec. 19, 1943:

Following a massive artillery bombardment on the 18th, the attack on Cider Crossroads continues. However, by evening the ground is in Canadian hands. Ortona is less than two miles away.

Nov. 25, 2008:

Kelly Charko, a Grade 12 student from  Winnipeg, is thinking about Private Dean Lewis, killed Dec. 13, 1943. “He made it through Sicily—served with the PPCLI,” she says. “It is very surreal to be standing here in this cemetery. I haven’t been as proud to be a Canadian as I am right now. To actually be here and to honour those soldiers who fell during that time. The amount of pride I feel for those men—and for those veterans who are still alive—is just immense….”

Dec. 20, 1943:

Hugging the stone walls of houses along Ortona’s Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Major Jim Stone of the Loyal Edmonton Regt., along with an officer with the Royal Canadian Engineers look for, but can’t detect the enemy.

Nov. 25, 2008:

For the first time, young Chelsy Vachon’s eyes fall across the engraved name of her great-grandfather Ralph Joseph Collins who served and died as a sapper with the 10th Field Squadron of the Royal Canadian Engineers. Collins—a father of two—was 28, the son of Simon and Emma Collins, and the husband of Helen Collins of Peace River, Alta. He died two days before Christmas 1943.

Chelsy, who attends Morinville, Alta., Community High School, is the first of her family to ever see his grave. News that he is buried here was passed on to her by her great-grandmother, now in her 90s. “His death was very hard on the family,” explains Chelsy’s social studies teacher Rosie Kruhlak. “Her great-grandmother steeled her heart and never mentioned his name for years.”

Chelsy is one of several people to place a wreath on behalf of Legion branches back home. “Seeing my great-grandfather’s grave was the most powerful moment for me,” she says. “It made me feel so sad, but so proud. From what I can tell, he was checking to see where the mines were when he stepped on one. I just hope that remembering the wars and the people who served will make it a better world….”

Dec. 21, 1943:

The Loyal Edmonton Regt. begins an attack on Ortona. There are two companies of men and the one on the right makes good progress. The one on the left is hit by sniper and machine-gun fire. The buildings and dust make it very difficult to tell where the enemy is. Blood is spilled often. A smokescreen is used and men advance in single-file along a narrow ditch that gives them access to a house.

Nov. 25, 2008:

Eighty-five-year-old Tommaso Caraceni is glad to see the young Canadians in Ortona. He is thinking back to when he was 20. “We were evacuated by the Germans in early September 1943. We got back into town in early December, but couldn’t get to our homes. We took refuge in the railway tunnel and then moved further down into the warehouses at the port. There was no food, or very little. There was food in the storerooms, but we couldn’t get to it because German snipers were on top of the buildings.”

Tommaso Caraceni thanks students for coming to Ortona. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Tommaso Caraceni thanks students for coming to Ortona.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

Nightfall, Dec. 21-22, 1943:

Narrow streets are blocked with rubble. There are mines, including Teller mines, hidden beneath the debris. Houses, including hallways, doorways and even toilets are rigged to explode. Tanks of the Three Rivers Regt. fire into abandoned buildings as they go.

Nov. 25, 2008:

Each student is standing behind the grave of a Canadian soldier. The fact there are nearly enough students for every grave is not lost. “It makes you proud to be Canadian, and so proud of our youth,” says Robinson, moments before the ceremony begins. “It is absolutely remarkable to know that in the middle of the school year their families would send them here to pay homage to these men. The amazing thing is that these students will share these moments with their own kids someday.”

Dec. 23, 1943:

It is bloody slow going as the Seaforths advance. The Edmontons, meanwhile, move slowly toward one of the town’s cobblestone piazzas. Men fall victim to snipers and bombs—others are buried alive. Errors in judgment are a death sentence. The streets are killing zones and so a new approach is needed, and one is found when a demolition charge is moulded out of plastic explosive. The charge, which resembles a beehive, is placed against the interior wall of a house and then exploded. It is called ‘mouse-holing’ and the Canadians use it to attack house to house, clearing the enemy within.

Members of the Loyal Edmonton Regt., supported by Three Rivers Regt. tanks, move into the town in 1943. [PHOTO: TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA114030]

Members of the Loyal Edmonton Regt., supported by Three Rivers Regt. tanks, move into the town in 1943.
PHOTO: TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA114030

Nov. 25, 2008:

A procession led by Canadian Forces Padre Gabriel Legault moves through the cemetery toward the Cross of Sacrifice. Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt’s haunting Dante’s Prayer is carried on the wind from two large speakers.

When the dark wood fell before me

And all the paths were overgrown

When the priests of pride say there is no other way

I tilled the sorrows of stone….

…Cast your eyes on the ocean

Cast your soul to the sea

When the dark night seems endless

Please remember me….

Teacher Stephen Hills of the Thames Valley District School Board in Ontario helps frame the historic moment. “Once again we have a generation of Canadian youth standing on the ground near the Moro River, facing the hill of Ortona. Once again Canada is represented by its youth from across the country…. They have travelled here to show that Canada’s youth do remember the sacrifices of the men buried here. They do remember the soldiers who gave their lives….”

Dec. 25, 1943:

By 9 a.m., the long rows of tables in Santa Maria di Costantinopoli are ready for the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada’s special dinner. Members of the rifle companies are treated to soup, pork, mashed potatoes, pudding and pie. There is also wine and a bottle of beer for every man. Behind the carols and music is the sound of gunfire and explosions. Merry Christmas.

Members of the Seaforth Highlanders sit down for their Christmas dinner. [PHOTO: TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA152839]

Members of the Seaforth Highlanders sit down for their Christmas dinner.
PHOTO: TERRY ROWE, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA152839

Nov. 25, 2008:

Padre Gabriel Legault tells the students they are, in his view, pilgrims on a journey that is both external and internal—with the external part being the trip itself and the internal part being how the commemorations impact the mind and enter the heart. “All of the kilometres you’ve travelled are worthless if you don’t achieve the shortest and most critical part of your pilgrimage. I am talking about the 18 inches that separates your head from your heart.”

A number of students offer impressions of their journey, including Grade 11 student Sarah Campbell of John McCrae Secondary School in Nepean, Ont. She knows how war affects the home front because her brother Danny recently completed a tour in Afghanistan. “Shortly before I heard about the opportunity to go to Italy I found out that my brother was getting ready to leave for Afghanistan…. I couldn’t go on a day without worrying about Danny and wondering how he was doing. I felt so powerless not being able to talk to him….I worried about losing him and not being able to talk to him ever again. This war in Afghanistan differs in many ways from the Second World War, but the similarities of not knowing what might happen to somebody you love—being terrified of a knock on the door….brings forth a feeling of connection to both wars….”

In pairs, students placed nearly 70 wreaths around the Cross of Sacrifice, and then—as the ceremony came to a close—each student bent down and in unison placed a wooden cross or poppy in front of a headstone.

Fourteen-year-old Taylor Wilson of Notre Dame High School in Ottawa remembers a soldier killed in the weeks after Ortona fell. Lieutenant Laurent Rochon died in mid-January when he and some other men came over a hill and entered a valley. “They were hit by an MG-42 (heavy machine-gun),” explains Wilson. “He was 22.”

Wilson also speaks of Corporal Eric Labbé who died in Afghanistan on Jan. 6, 2008. Born in Rimouski, Que., he was a member of 2nd. Bn. of the Royal 22nd Regt. He was 31. “It really hits you when you see the number of graves here, and you realize that 65 years later Canadians are still serving their country, and dying for their country.”

The ceremony included Dunrobin, Ont., singer James Blondeau whose song Ortona, written about 10 years ago for a group of veterans planning a Christmas dinner in Ortona, helped deliver a message of remembrance. “It’s emotional,” said the singer afterwards. “We were capturing the past for the sake of the future.”

Dec. 27, 1943:

The ferocity of the fighting continues, leaving more and more dead and wounded. There are also untold civilian casualties, many of them people who refused to leave and were caught in the crossfire. But suddenly the Germans begin to leave, heading north up the coastal road. The battle is over, but Ortona is in ruins. Slowly, from dark cellars and cold tunnels, hungry, weary residents return to the streets.

Evening, Nov. 25, 2008:

The polished pews in Cattedrale San Tommaso are filled and so are the narrow spaces flanking them. Students, teachers, chaperones and residents are sitting or standing shoulder to shoulder remembering the battle’s 1,314 civilian casualties. It is a figure that is hard to trust completely because many died much later as a result of the hardships visited upon them, or from stepping on hidden mines. But the town, including its survivors, is eternally grateful to Canada and to the youth who are here now.

In her 90s, Francesca LaSorda remembers a boy named Robert. “He was one of the boys who came back to visit me in 1944,” she says. “He came to me in tears because his brother had just been killed, and he didn’t know how he was going to tell his mother. He wept on my shoulder. I comforted him and told him to let his commanding officer do that. And then when his mother had been informed, he could comfort her.”

Police Staff Sergeant Nick Lisi and daughter Victoria say a few words at the grave of Pte. Emile Comeau. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Police Staff Sergeant Nick Lisi and daughter Victoria say a few words at the grave of Pte. Emile Comeau.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

Nov. 27, 2008:

The 1,200 students don’t take up much space in St. Peter’s Basilica. They are at the Vatican to celebrate mass for those killed in Ortona and throughout the Italian Campaign. They had been to Monte Cassino and visited graves in the Commonwealth war cemetery. Some had also been to the Polish military cemetery on the mountain. Sitting near the front among the students is an elderly couple—Barry and Betty Bland of Wellington, Ont. Next to Betty is her adult granddaughter Melissa. Betty’s brother, Tom Pemberton, served with the Hasty Ps and was killed at Ortona. “I was only six when he left for the war, so I really didn’t get to know him. He was 22 when he died. I had never visited his grave before and so it has been very emotional coming here…. We are so fortunate not to have had something like that happen on our soil. It is marvellous seeing the kids here. They have learned something because I can see it in their eyes.”

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

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