The Battle of Ortona was a small but brutal battle fought between Canadian forces and German troops in December 1943. It has become a legendary battle in Canadian military history.


The Allied campaign to capture mainland Italy had pushed the Germans back to the picturesque Italian seaside town of Ortona. Artillery from both sides rained down on the town, quickly reducing it to rubble. As the Canadians advanced through the narrow streets, they were met by German snipers, firing from nearby hills.


But the brave Canadians would not retreat.


Finally, after eight days of fighting, the Canadian attack had depleted the German troops. Small groups of Canadian soldiers cleared Ortona one street at a time until the Germans, who lacked reinforcements, withdrew from the town.


The Canadians had emerged victorious, but this was clouded by a heavy cost to the Canadian forces: almost one quarter of the 5,900 Canadians killed during the Italian Campaign died in the fighting in and around Ortona, making it bloodiest battle of the Italian Campaign.

The Italian Campaign

A full year before the D-Day landings in Normandy, there were the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy. Canada played a major role in the Allies' first breach of Hitler's "Fortress Europe" in 1943 and 1944. Canadian soldiers defeated entrenched German forces but paid a terrible price. Seaside towns and mountain passes became places of horror: Ortona, Cassino, Rimini. But with the events of D-Day and the Allied push across Europe, the Italian Campaign became a forgotten front, a deadly sideshow that cost nearly 6,000 Canadian lives. Sixty years later, their bravery is remembered.

Attacking Ortona

Broadcast Date: Dec. 24, 1943

It is the bloodiest battle of the Italian campaign. Ortona, once a picturesque ancient village on the Adriatic Sea, is being reduced to rubble. Canadian soldiers clash daily with desperate German troops in bitter, house-to-house fighting. Snipers, land mines and booby traps exact a terrible price for every building gained. As we hear in this Christmas Eve report from Matthew Halton, Ortona has become "the courtyard of hell."


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.[4] 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".[5][6] made the town a formidable obstacle to any attacking force.


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.[7] 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.[8]


The Germans also concealed various machine guns and anti-tank emplacements throughout the town, making movement by armour and infantry increasingly difficult.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]platoons, wiping them out. The Canadians retaliated by demolishing another building on top of two German


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[2] in the fighting in and around Ortona, almost a quarter of all Canadians killed during the Italian Campaign.