December 1943. While the Allied offensive in Italy stagnated on the Western Front outside Cassino, the British Eighth Army, which included the 1st Canadian Division, was advancing on the Eastern Front. The Canadians received orders to push forward and liberate the port town of Ortona.
From December 6 to December 8, Canadian regiments crossed the Moro River. Only three kilometres from the road to Ortona, they encountered a huge obstacle: a gully running parallel to the road. Canadian units would suffer extensive casualties in repeated attempts to cross the gully. On December 13, “C” Company of the Royal 22e Régiment, supported by the Ontario Regiment’s Sherman tanks, made it across the gully and advanced toward the road between Rome and Ortona. Under German fire, the survivors withdrew to Casa Berardi and fiercely defended their position. Captain Paul Triquet, commander of “C” Company, would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his courageous and determined leadership throughout this engagement.
Despite the breach, Canadian forces met strong German resistance from the many entrenched positions along the length of the gully. However, the capture of a strategic crossroads by the Royal Canadian Regiment on December 19 paved the way for the final push to Ortona.
On December 21, troops from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, supported by tanks from the Régiment de Trois-Rivières, launched an assault on the town of Ortona. Canadian Command had expected the German paratroopers to retreat as soon as the Allies struck; instead, they put up a stubborn defence of the town.
The Canadians finally took Ortona on December 27. The ruined town was dubbed “Little Stalingrad.” With the Italian winter setting in, it was here their advance was halted. Canadian troops left the Adriatic front at the end of April and moved south of Cassino in preparation for the Liri Valley offensive.
Library and Archives Canada’s collection contains numerous textual, photographic, audiovisual and published materials relating to the Battle of Ortona. You can also consult Mark Zuehlke’s book, Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle, to learn more about the topic.
Be sure to view our Battle of Ortona photo set on Flickr, and read our previous post, “Understanding the Italian Campaign,” if you haven’t already!