The Battle for Ortona (1943)

A member of the Calgary Regiment climbs out of his camouflaged Sherman tank in a town outside Ortona on December 10, 1943. © Lieut. Frederick G. Whitcombe / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-167659
Canadian soldiers walk across the ruins of buildings in Ortona on December 30, 1943. © Library and Archives Canada
For the week of December 9, 2019.

On December 10, 1943, Canadian soldiers began attacking German defensive strongholds one kilometre outside the town of Ortona on Italy’s Adriatic coast. The ensuing battle for control of the town was one of the hardest fought by Canadian troops in the Italian Campaign of the Second World War, during which more than 93,000 Canadians fought the combined forces of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Allied forces, including Canadian, British, and American troops, landed in Sicily in July 1943. By this time, the Soviet Red Army was already fighting Germany and its allies (known collectively as the Axis powers) in Eastern Europe. The landing in Italy opened a “second front” in Western Europe, which the Allies hoped would strain enemy resources and prevent a concentration of German forces along the Eastern Front. Following the successful Sicilian Campaign, the Allies continued their offensive north through the Italian mainland.

The Canadian Army reached the outskirts of Ortona in December. Canadians launched several assaults, but failed to take an enemy stronghold known as “The Gully,” where a natural trench protected German forces against artillery fire. After the Canadians captured nearby positions, the Germans abandoned the gully and regrouped in Ortona, where they prepared to mount a defence. Two days later, the Canadians arrived.

The battle within the town limits involved ferocious urban fighting, which could be seen and heard some three kilometres away, where official war artist Captain Charles was situated. He remarked: “Downwind from the action the frightful intimate sounds of battle were all too clear, bursts of automatic fire, the Bren and the Schmeisser answering one another, each with its own distinctive accent.”

German engineers demolished several buildings, blocking off side streets and forcing Canadian armour to enter the town along the main street, where they were easy targets. To avoid sniper and machine gun fire, the Canadians fought house-to-house, staying indoors as much as possible. Their “mouse-holing” tactics involved using explosives to breach the walls that connected adjoining houses. They could then pass through the walls and secure the next house without having to go into the street and through the ground-level doors of buildings, which were booby-trapped or covered by small-arms fire. The fighting in Ortona allowed the Canadians to gain experience and practice techniques that were later studied by other Allied armies.

Despite facing heavy resistance and booby traps left by the defenders, the Canadians secured the town, and the last Germans left on December 28. However, victory came at a heavy cost: more than 500 Canadians died during the fighting that took place in and around Ortona in December 1943.

The Battle of Ortona is a designated national historic event.

2019 marks 100 years since the founding of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). Find out more on the HSMBC website.