This Week in History


Christmas at the Front

For the week of Monday December 22, 2003

On December 25, 1943, companies of Canadian soldiers left the battlefield in relays for the church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli where they were served Christmas dinner.  One of them played carols on an organ. For some, this dinner would be their last.  Dinner was served during a fierce battle to gain control of the town of Ortona, Italy, during the Second World War.

Christmas Day at the front

Christmas Day at the front
© LAC / Frederick Whitcombe / PA-163936

The Canadians were part of an Allied force (mainly British and American) that invaded southern Italy in September 1943, and pushed German forces northward up the peninsula. Italy dissolved its alliance with Germany on September 3.  The Germans, now an occupying army, were strongly extended along a defensive line, which ran east-west across the "boot" of Italy, barricading the Allies' route to Rome.

The Canadians drove toward Pescara on the Adriatic Sea to free the eastern approach to Rome while Americans and other Allied forces approached the city further west. The battle for Ortona, a port and rail terminus near Pescara, was expected to be quick, but German resistance stiffened.

Map of Southern Italy and Sicily featuring Ortona

Map of Southern Italy and Sicily
featuring Ortona

© Parks Canada / Maryann D'Abramo

Instead of an early December day’s march through the German line, the Canadians fought stubbornly and suffered heavy losses to cross the Moro River and a heavily defended gully before reaching Ortona.

On December 21, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, supported by the Sherman tanks of the 12th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Three Rivers Tanks), moved into the western outskirts of Ortona. There began a week long, house-to-house battle with tough, battle-hardened German paratroopers of the 1st Parachute Division. The streets, blocked by rubble and laced with booby-traps, were also swept by German machine guns, mortars and deadly accurate snipers’ bullets. The Canadians resorted to "mouseholing," whereby soldiers would enter a home and clear the enemy from each room of each floor, then blast through the walls to the adjoining home and repeat the process, minimizing exposure to German observation from the streets outside. The Canadians slowly and meticulously drove the Germans from Ortona, securing the town on December 28.

'B' Company of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment advances into Ortona

'B' Company of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment
advances into Ortona

© LAC / T. Rowe / PA-116852

The Battle of Ortona, Italy, an event of national historic significance, was fought during one of Christianity’s holiest periods. The gravesites of hundreds of Canadians stand as a tribute to those who fought and gave their lives during this battle. Those who survived commemorate the battle's 60th anniversary in 2003, and remind us of Canada's role in the Second World War.

For more information on Canadians in Italy during the Second World War, please visit Canada-Italy 1943-1945 on the Veterans Affairs Canada Web site.

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