Ortona

From www.canadiansoldiers.com

The Sangro

Castel di SangroThe MoroSan LeonardoThe GullyCasa BerardiOrtonaSan Nicola-San TommasoPoint 59Torre Mucchia

Ortona was a Battle Honour granted to Canadian units participating in actions to liberate the city of Ortona in Dec 1943 as part of The Sangro Campaign during the Italian Campaign of the Second World War.

Contents

Background

The 1st Canadian Infantry Division relieved the British 78th Division on the Adriatic coast of Italy at the start of Dec 1943. The Canadians had landed on the Italian mainland in Sep to find the Germans had retreated well to the north. A change of government in Rome, and official Italian capitulation, did not result in peace. German forces quickly mobilized throughout Italy, and as the Canadians began their march north on the right flank of the Allied armies, resistance stiffened.

The US 5th Army was hung up south of Rome, and it was the intention of the British 8th Army, working up on their right along the east coast of Italy, to come in behind the German defences. Unfortunately, the Sangro River proved to be a serious obstacle. The German Tenth Army hoped to anchor their so-called Gustav Line here, and hold on throughout the winter until the spring brought campaigning weather. If the British 78th Division was worn out, so too were their opponents, the inexprienced Infanterie Division 65. They were replaced after their defensive battles on the Sangro by the Leichte Division 90, reconstituted after their destruction in North Africa.

By the beginning of Dec, Allied troops had broken the German lines. The 2nd New Zealand Division crossed the River Moro to the west of the Canadians and captured Orosgna. Charles Allfrey, commanding the V Corps of the British 8th Army, to whom the Canadian Division was assigned, signalled Major General Christopher Vokes, their commander. "You must get over the River Moro as soon as possible."

Bloody December was under way, and with it the Moro River Campaign. This would be the first real divisional level battle fought by Canadians in the Second World War. All of the division's infantry battalions fought desperate actions during the next two weeks and the Canadians fought their way through the Moro River Valley, taking villages, towns, crossroads and a feature known only as "The Gully." Losses were high, the weather and mud challenging, and pressure from higher headquarters, including General Montgomery, was intense.

The Decision to Attack Ortona

"B" Company of the Seaforth Highlanders look north towards Ortona from the coast road, 21 Dec 1943. PAC photo.
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"B" Company of the Seaforth Highlanders look north towards Ortona from the coast road, 21 Dec 1943. PAC photo.

When The Gully was finally taken, no one expected the Germans to remain in Ortona for several reasons.

  • Standard German practice was to withdraw to easily defensible terrain; the Arielli River was only three miles north of Ortona and would make a fine defensive obstacle.
  • The world had watched as the German Sixth Army - and their Soviet opponents - were destroyed piece by piece in Stalingrad less than a year previously, highlighting the dangers of committing to urban combat and reinforcing the prevailing doctrine - in both Allied and Axis armies - of bypassing cities where possible.
  • Allied forces advancing to the northwest, including Indian and New Zealand troops, might easily cut the main highway north of Ortona, trapping a large German force in the city itself. Ortona's location right on the coast naturally limited the ability of German defenders to extricate themselves when and if necessary. To the west was a deep ravine and the only route out of Ortona was Highway 16.

The City

The Allies expected Ortona to be taken peacefully, and as they wished to turn it into an administrative centre, complete with port facilities, the city proper was spared any serious bombardment. Most of the 10,000 inhabitants had gone; large numbers of the able-bodied males had been removed for slave labour duties in the Reich or fascist-controlled Italy, and the remaining civilians had largely fled to the surrounding mountains,or else nearby railway tunnels.

The city consisted of an older, densely built up area, and a more modern area to the south. The old section consisted of well built stone houses with very narrow streets. Most buildings had cellars leading to underground passages under the street, sometimes linking as many as half a dozen houses. The new section, of more modern houses, had wider streets and more paved squares.

At left, a prewar view of Ortona, looking north over the dock area. At right, two views of Ortona circa 2005 from wikipedia. The mountains to the west of Ortona are visible in both. The centre photo shows the size of the coastal cliffs, and the rebuilt San Tomasso Cathedral is plainly visible. At right the castle dominating the north end of Ortona.

The Enemy

They were spared the sight of the Germans demolishing the port and collapsing many of the houses in the city to clear fields of fire and prevent the movement of tanks in the streets. German paratroopers from the 1st Parachute Division had begun relieving exhausted units of the 90th Light Division, and elements of the 3rd Parachute Regiment prepared to defend Ortona. Kill zones were created and side streets were blocked off, channelling would-be attackers up the main street. The main defence was organized under the command of Gotthard Liebscher , who with his battalion had once held up an entire British brigade during the fighting in Sicily.

This main street - Corso Vittoria Emmanuelle - turned into Highway 16 and was also atypical of Ortona roadways, most of which were narrow and twisting. The old section of Ortona dated back to the 1400s, centred on a dilapidated castle overlooking the artificial harbor at the bottom of the cliffs bordering the city on the east. San Tomasso Cathedral dominated the skyline, while the narrow streets surrounding it were crowded by tall buildings, some up to 5 stories high. The newer suburbs of Ortona to the south were laid out in rectangular blocks, though again these streets too were quite narrow.

The better part of two battalions of the 1st Parachute Division were involved in the fighting inside Ortona proper, aided considerably by pioneers. Booby traps and demolitions were used to good advantage; on 26 Dec a Canadian platoon of 24 men would be wiped out (save for one man rescued from the rubble three days later) when German engineers demolished it. Canadian engineers got their revenge when a house was brought down on 48 or 50 paratroopers not long afterwards.

Limited use of flame weapons were used in Ortona; the bulk and weight of the equipment made flamethrower operators easy targets, and flame weapons were much feared by the Canadians who brought all firepower to bear whenever a flamethrower operator was spotted.

Little has been written in English about the German point of view of this battle; the fighting was chaotic and not well documented by either side. Perhaps the only real indication of the ferocity of the fighting would be the casualty list. German fatalities in the battle were in the neighbourhood of 100 - 200 men. This would have been a fraction of the number of men wounded or injured.

The commander of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Parachute Regiment - Hauptmann Gotthard Liebscher - was carried out on a camouflage net by press-ganged Italian civilians during the final withdrawal, having been ordered to abandon the town in order to fight another day. Liebscher was decorated (presumably with the German Cross in Gold, he does not appear on the roll of Knight's Cross holders) and promoted to Major for his service at Ortona.

The Battle

Like Stalingrad, the fighting in Ortona was very demanding and took place largely between small groups of men, often one house or one room at a time and booby traps, on-call demolitions and tunnels all played a role in the skillful German defence. In general, the battle developed slowly, with the Canadians having to devise ways of using firepower to kill Germans solidly ensconced in solid buildings and defensive positions.

5 December

With the Canadians still far to the south, shells began to fall in Ortona, mainly in the Costantinopoli neighbourhood. With winter cold having set in, many evacuees had returned home from the hills. The shelling convinces them to once again leave; some shelter in caves and others go to the crowded railway tunnels.

6 December

German tanks arrive in Ortona for the first time, taking positions in the southeastern sector of the city.

18 December

German forces have delayed the Canadians to the south of the city, buying time for extensive defensive preparations to be made. Civilians are flushed out of hiding in the city by German troops, to spare innocent lives but also out of fear of espionage and other benefits to Allied intelligence. Many refuse to go, however, and certain localities become crowded, such as the hospital at Piazza san Francesco. Demolitions in the town are completed as the main street is blocked, and the clock removed from city hall to be replaced with automatic weapons.

20 Dececember

Leading elements of the 2nd Canadian Brigade approached the outskirts of Ortona; The Loyal Edmonton Regiment advanced some 3000 yards that day behind a massive barrage, and all first day objectives were seized and held. Engineer and Artillery support moved up. Elements of the Seaforth Highlanders came under command of the Edmontons, and eventually the entire battalion was committed inside the city.

The Canadians advance as far as Piazza Vittoria, about 1/3 of the way into the city.

Evacuees to the south, recognizing the Canadian helmets, flocked to them only to come under shellfire themselves. Ten civilians were killed and twenty more wounded; civilian Rommaso Paolini bled to death while embracing his dead daughter, Rita; Canadian stretcher bearers broke down at the sight. Civilian casualties had been common in the fighting to the south and promised to be much worse in the city.

That night, the ancient Cathedrale San Tomasso was cleaved in half by German demolitions. This dominating terrain feature had made a useful reference point for Allied artillery observers. Other buildings on the west side of town that could conceivably help Canadian artillerymen were also brought down. Villa Primavera was demolished on top of 34 civilians; the last voice heard from among the rubble was nine-year old Armando Colucci, known as "Dodo." Members of five seperate families died under the rubble.

Sequence of photos showing a section of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment advancing, then returning with prisoners. PAC.

21 December

From the same location as the sequence above, Lance Corporal W. D. Smith carries a No. 18 wireless set while Private W. L. Waske uses the handset. PAC photo, taken 21 Dec 1943.
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From the same location as the sequence above, Lance Corporal W. D. Smith carries a No. 18 wireless set while Private W. L. Waske uses the handset. PAC photo, taken 21 Dec 1943.

The sun rose over a dramatically altered skyscape; German forces fought viciously in the outskirts of the town, and the Seaforths managed to capture the Santa Maria di Costantinopoli church. By sunset, the Germans had withdrawn to the narrow, twisted streets of the old city, leaving behind mines and a final barrage of Nebelwerfers. By this time artillery had fallen throughout the city, bringing more suffering to those civilians who refused to leave.

22 December

Canadian rifleman in Ortona. PAC Photo.
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Canadian rifleman in Ortona. PAC Photo.

The Canadians reached the Piazza Municipali (Town Square), roughly 2/3 of the way into the city. On this day, the Associated Press made reference to a "miniature Stalingrad in hapless Ortona." The result was unfortunate for the men who fought there; the German commander in chief in Italy, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, complained three days later that "we do not want to defend Ortona decisively, but the English have made it as important as Rome...you can do nothing when things develop in this manner; it is only too bad that...the world press makes so much of it." The New York Times was one of many papers to carry the story, and the Stalingrad reference.

The War Diary of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment recorded the following on this day:

Street and house to house fighting continues. The enemy is showing a desperate resistance. Our 6 Pdr guns are engaging barricades and strong points to clear a passage for tanks. Since the Hun has blown down buildings to block off all the streets, it has been decided to concentrate on the clearing of the main axis through the city to enable our tanks to advance. 'D' Coy, flanked by 'B' Coy on the right and 'A' Coy on the left, clear the main street to the second city square where concentrated MMG fire and strong opposition is encountered. Clearing of the large buildings adjacent to this street, particularly towards the Esplanade, necessitates continuous fighting by these three Coys.

23 December

Forces to the northwest of the city trying desperately to cut off the northern escape route from Ortona suffer heavy losses. The southeast quadrant of Ortona falls to the Canadians, but more buildings are demolished during the night, and routes for advancing out from the town square are blocked.

24 December

Fighting in the west of Ortona intensified in the area around the school; when the Canadians learned there were hundreds of civilians sheltering there the attack was suspended. The hospital would not be taken until much later, after a mass exodus of the civilians taking shelter there. Outside the city, the 48th Highlanders managed to break through German lines to the northwest, but instead of cutting the German escape route found themselves cut off and without supplies instead.

25 December

The Seaforth Highlanders host a Christmas dinner for their troops, in the recently captured Santa Maria di Costantinopoli church. Companies are relieved one at a time to withdraw and enjoy a holiday dinner before being returned to the fighting. Some men are killed during the trip to and from the church.

26 December

The savagery of the battle was evidenced on this day by the demolition of a house containing a Canadian platoon; 23 men were killed and 1 man buried alive for three days. German pioneers had booby trapped the house with a sizeable explosive charge. The Canadians retaliated later by similarly demolishing a house with up to 50 Germans in it.

27 December

German forces are now penned in between the demolished San Tommaso cathedral and the Castle; German positions in the Cemetery, previously resisting furiously, are finally reduced by the Seaforths with the help of heavy artillery fire. For the first time, naval gunfire is used in support of the troops in Ortona as Allied warships arrive off the coast.

After dark, a night time communication arrived at the last German command post, a warehouse in Terravecchia, one of the northern districts. Hauptmann Liebscher was ordered to save what was left of his battalion. Warnings from the Canadians - to Germans and civilians alike - had been given that carpet bombardment of the city would be carried out at 10:00 on the 28th.

28 December

Stunned Canadian patrols advanced on the castle to find that Ortona was apparently free of the enemy. In fact, they had slipped out of the city the previous night, withdrawing to the north. Efforts by allied troops to the northwest of the city had failed to cut Highway 16.

Casualties

Graves of Loyal Edmonton Regiment soldiers who fell at Ortona. PAC photo.
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Graves of Loyal Edmonton Regiment soldiers who fell at Ortona. PAC photo.

Casualties for the Loyal Edmonton Regiment had been 172 (over 60 of which were fatal). The Seaforths had lost 42 killed and 78 wounded. German losses remain unknown, though 100 bodies were recovered by the Canadians after the battle. One source states that 200 Germans were killed in total.

After the battle, Jim Stone, commanding "D" Company of the Loyal Edmontons, was asked "If you had to do this again, what would you like for troops?" His reply was "German paratroops."

Aftermath

After Ortona, the entire 1st Division went into winter positions on the south side of the Arielli River Valley, and a three month programme of patrolling began, as reinforcements were absorbed and the armies on both sides waited for spring, and campaigning weather. The Division had been badly hurt during the month of December; as a whole, the division lost 695 killed, and with wounded, sick and missing, casualties equalled 4,206.

Two German divisions were seriously mauled in the Moro campaign; 90th Light and 1st Paratroop. By the time the 90th Light Division was relieved, its insistence on mounting unnecessary counterattacks had depleted it badly. Months were needed to rebuild the division; one battalion of the 361st Panzergrenadier Regiment had only 12 men left. Some 400 Germans from this division were in Canadian PW cages in addition to hundreds more killed and wounded.

As Canadian reinforcements made their way north to join their new units (though even on the last day of December the Division remained 1,050 men below authorized strength), they passed a small sign left behind at the entrance of the city by proud Vancouverites and Edmontonians: THIS IS ORTONA. A WEST CANADIAN TOWN.

Canadian Tactics

Historically, the city was divided into two sectors, with the Loyal Edmontons taking the right half of the city and the Seaforths taking the left - crossing over from their original positions on the first day's approach.

The fighting in the city included the use of tunnels by the Germans, and "mouseholing" by the Canadians. This was the use of demolitions to move from one building to another, by blowing holes in rooftops or walls.

Indirect Fire

Artillery was generally used for harrassment and interdiction fire on targets outside the town, and the close in terrain really didn't allow for the 25-pounder Guns of the field regiments to contribute much to the fight inside the city proper.

The Saskatoon Light Infantry, however, used their 4.2 inch mortars to good effect; in one single day of the battle some 1100 rounds of 4.2 inch ammunition were fired by the SLI. Even the 2-inch Mortars of the infantry platoons were considered effective in the city - they were aimed out of windows and fired across streets.

Small Arms

Many were devised by the Canadians in Ortona to increase the effectiveness of their weapons in the unfamiliar context of urban warfare. Boys Anti-Tank Rifles were brought out of storage and used to blow locks off of doors; No. 36 Hand Grenades were reportedly bowled down hallways like cricket balls.

Anti-tank guns

Both the infantry's organic 6-pounders and the 17-pounders of the 90th Anti-Tank Battery, were used in the city to good effect, giving effective direct fire HE capability to the infantry in addition to the Shermans.

Tanks

The Three Rivers Regiment lost only three Sherman Tanks in the fighting; they were used not only as mobile pillboxes but also to transport ammunition and mortars forward, and to evacuate wounded down bulletswept streets. To step into the street in Ortona was generally regarded as suicide. Armour Piercing tank shells were used to knock holes in building walls, followed immediately with High Explosive so as to explode inside the building.

Demolitions

The Germans never counter-attacked the Canadians, instead defending from solid defensive positions in the multi-story buildings, and making liberal use of booby traps and demolitions (see below).

The most notorious example of German demolitions was when a house occupied by a Loyal Edmonton platoon commanded by Lieutenant E.D. Allen was blown up by German pioneers. Twenty-three men died and the lone survivor, Lance Corporal Roy Boyd, was trapped in the rubble for three days before being rescued.

Not long after, Canadian engineers killed some four dozen Germans when they similarly mined an enemy occupied house.

Combined Arms

A Loyal Edmonton Regiment platoon commander described the fighting at Piazza Municipale:

...We had worked forward until, at about 1000hrs, we held the houses marked A and B on the diagram. Here we could observe the piazza municipale and exchange fire with German paratroopers in the church and school and the blocks marked D and E. The end of the school facing us was solid. So was the corner of block C. They offered no easy entrance. Our objective was the school.
I had a plan that showed the only entrances to the school were the main door facing the church and a small door at the far end. We could not get through the main door without coming under murderous fire from the church and the school itself. The alley toward E was a deathtrap, its entire length being swept by fire from both D and E. Our anti-tank guns could have knocked a hole in the end wall of the school large enough for a man to squeeze through, but it was essential to obtain fire superiority, to win the fire fight, before any movement took place.
This was going to be tricky; the enemy knew all our likely positions and completely dominated the square.
We decided to make a direct assault on the school, supported by tanks, with smoke if necessary. A troop of three Three Rivers tanks was made available and between us we worked out a plan to cope with the enemy machine guns. One of our problems was the block of rubble obstructing the entrance to the square between A and B. This was overcome by the tanks discovering a satisfactory bypass. Zero Hour was set for noon.
The first tank came rumbling up the street to position 1. At a range of 30 yards, it blasted down the side of the school with its 75mm gun. This tank then moved to position 2, a second tank to position 3 and a third to position 1. The tanks at 2 and 3 covered the church with machine-gun and 75-mm fire, while the tank in position 1 covered the street leading to B. The fire fight was won and the stage set for my platoon. So much dust had been kicked up by the gunfire and falling masonry that smoke was unnecessary and, without further preliminaries, the first section dashed across the street, struggling over rubble, entered the school and started clearing the building. The tanks knocked down part of the front wall of the church and silenced the machine-gun post there.
After what seemed an interminable time, although it probably was no more than a half hour, the section leader signalled all was well. I ordered a second section to move to the house at C to control the back of the school and bring fire down the street toward G. I hoped, in this way, to maintain fire superiority once the tanks withdrew.
With the remaining sections, I dashed across to the school. Everything was under control. The section leader had his men at the windows, and though he had not s yet searched the cellars, the main floor was clear. There was no upper story. The section leader said he'd had little difficulty in clearing out the few Germans left in the school. We had caught them by surprise and the tank shells had driven them from the exposed end of the building. Once the section had gained a footing it moved rapidly forward, using grenades and tommy guns, clearing each room as it advanced. The enemy put up little opposition and succeeded in evacuating the building from the rear exit, taking most of their casualties. We searched the cellars rather gingerly and found no Germans. The sun was beginning to set by the time the building was cleared and I therefore ordered the tanks, which were running out of ammunition, to withdraw.
In this action my platoon sustained only one casualty. Success could not have been obtained without the invaluable assistance of the tanks...1

German Tactics

A Canadian officer's report was published in the Intelligence Bulletin in Jul 1944 and has been reprinted widely on the internet. The text of that article follows:

HOW THE ENEMY DEFENDED THE TOWN OF ORTONA

The German defense of Ortona was well planned. The defensive layout was based on an intimate knowledge of the town, the approaches, the streets, the alleyways, and the best routes from street to street, building to building, and even room to room. With this detailed knowledge, the enemy sited his weapons and carried out a determined defense, the outstanding feature of which was acknowledged by our [Canadian] troops to have been "sheer guts."

The enemy had chosen a "killing-ground," and all his weapons were sited to cover this area. Where the approaches to the "killing-ground" could not be covered by fire, the Germans had demolished buildings so as to create debris obstacles. The enemy could, and did, cover these debris obstacles by fire. Groups of machine guns were always sited so that the fire of one supported the fire of another.

Defence of an Intersection

The diagram at right shows a typical German defensive position at the intersection of a street and an alley.

In this instance, machine gun No. 1 was sited so as to cover the crest of the pile of debris which had been created in the main street on the other side of the alleyway. Machine gun No. 2 was sited high up in a building so as to fire over the top of the debris pile—that is, so as to cover our approaches to it. Machine guns No. 3 and No. 4 gave supporting fire and also had the mission of intercepting any of our troops who might contrive to get past the pile of debris and attack machine gun No 1. (In almost every case, the piles of debris had been booby-trapped and mined with S-mines and Tellermines.)

The enemy made use of flame throwers, although not extensively, employing them for missions similar to those of supporting machine guns. In the few instances in which flame throwers were used, they were sited at ground level behind piles of debris, so as to cover the approaches to the street crossings.

The enemy's antitank guns had been well sited so as to cover the approaches suitable for tanks. These guns were cleverly camouflaged, and each was provided with all-around defense by light machine guns, heavy machine guns, and snipers.

The Germans did not use mortar fire extensively. When it was employed, firing was not observed, but was placed on parts of the town behind those areas where our troops were committed. There were several instances in which the enemy placed mortar fire on his own areas.

The enemy used snipers to support machine-gun and antitank positions.

The corner buildings of major road intersections were invariably demolished so as to create debris obstacles, up to 12 feet high, which were to be impassable to tanks. These obstacles also provided the enemy with good ground cover.

As the enemy was driven back, he carried out a planned demolition of buildings. In certain instances, he had prepared buildings for demolition and blew them after they had been occupied by our troops.

At no time did the enemy make a determined counterattack to retake the buildings that we had occupied. However, he immediately reoccupied any building which had been captured by our troops and later evacuated to permit our tanks and antitank guns to place fire on adjoining buildings.

He surrendered none of his positions readily. They had to be knocked out one by one, and, if our troops did not get forward and occupy them promptly after disabling the German holding force, the enemy would reoccupy them almost at once.

It was a grim and bitter defense, and a very costly one for the Germans. The enemy frequently replaced personnel in positions as often as four times before our troops were able to occupy and consolidate the ground or the building.

Since the enemy was thoroughly familiar with the layout of the town, he was able to use this knowledge to advantage. As he was forced back, he chose his successive "killing-grounds" and sited his weapons accordingly. It was only by attacking with the greatest determination that we were able to win these areas from the enemy and, by so doing, eventually complete the occupation of Ortona.

Battle Honours

The following Canadian units were awarded the Battle Honour "Ortona" for participation in these actions:

Image:1tankbde.gif 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade

  • 11th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Ontario Regiment)
  • 12th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Three Rivers Regiment)

Image:1gif.gif 1st Canadian Division

  • The Saskatoon Light Infantry (MG)

Image:1gif1bde.gif 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade

  • The Royal Canadian Regiment
  • The 48th Highlanders of Canada
  • The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada

Image:1gif2bde.gif 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade

  • The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment
  • The Loyal Edmonton Regiment

Popular Culture

Little Stalingrad in Combat Mission.
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Little Stalingrad in Combat Mission.

Notes

  1. Quoted in Reader's Digest: The Canadians at War 1939-1945 2nd Edition (Reader's Digest Association (Canada) Ltd., Westmount, PQ) ISBN 0888501455

References

  • Dancocks, Daniel D-Day Dodgers: The Canadians in Italy 1943-45
  • di Tullio, Saverio 1943: The Road to Ortona (Translated from Italian by Angela Arnone and Alex MacQuarrie) (1998, Legas)
  • Roy, Reginald The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, 1919-1965
  • Zuehlke, Mark Ortona: Canada's Epic World War Two Battle
  • ALBERTA IN THE 20TH CENTURY Volume Eight: THE WAR THAT UNITED THE PROVINCE (Section Four: Pain, Death and Victory - Alberta's soldiers make military history at Italy's Ortona). (2000 United Western Communications Ltd.)
  • THE CANADIANS AT WAR: 1939/45 Volume Two (1969 The Reader's Digest Association)
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