The Battle of Ortona

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!

Understanding the Italian Campaign (1943-1945)

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the battles fought by Canadian troops on Italian soil during the Second World War. Why Italy? In 1942, the Soviets were calling for the opening up of a second front in Western Europe to provide relief from German attacks on their territory. Convinced that there were insufficient resources to invade France, the Americans backed Britain’s proposal to organize a landing on the coast of French North Africa instead, which took place on November 8, 1942 (Operation Torch) The campaign to drive the Germans out of Africa was successfully concluded in Tunisia on May 13, 1943. The offensive continued in Italy, considered to be the weakest link in the German defences in Europe.

Under the command of the British Eighth Army, the 1st Canadian Division came ashore on the beaches of Sicily on July 10, 1943. With the capture of Messina by the Americans on August 18, the conquest of Sicily was complete. On September 3, Canadian troops landed in mainland Italy. Meeting no opposition, the brigades were able to deploy rapidly. Italy capitulated on September 8, and the next day, Anglo-American landings were launched in the Gulf of Salerno.

Three critical battles will forever stand out in Canadian military history: the battle of Ortona, the breach of the Hitler Line (Liri Valley), and the breach of the Gothic Line. The Italian Campaign continued until the spring of 1945, but the Canadians would not participate in the final victory; after having engaged in vicious fighting for 18 months, Canadian troops were withdrawn from the front at the end of January 1945 and redeployed to the Netherlands.

As a result of the attention focused on the Normandy landings and the North-West Europe Campaign, there is a tendency to overlook the importance of the Italian Front and the Allied soldiers who fought there. A total of 92,757 Canadians served in Italy. Of these, 5,764 were killed, 19,486 were wounded and 1,004 were captured. Library and Archives Canada’s collection contains numerous textual, photographic and audiovisual records and published materials relating to the Italian Campaign.

Learn more about this subject:

Did your ancestors come from Italy?

Do you wonder who your first Italian ancestor was and when he or she left Italy and arrived in Canada? Are you curious about your family’s Italian heritage?

If so, the LAC website is a great place to begin your research. For instance, you will find a page specific to genealogical research for the Italians. It provides you with historical background, LAC‘s archival collections and published material, as well as links to other websites and institutions.

If your ancestor came to Canada between 1865 and 1935, you might find his or her name on passenger lists.

Tip

Tracing your Italian ancestor in Canada is the first step. Joining a genealogical society is an ideal way to begin your genealogy research.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!