Battle of the Sangro, 20 November- 4 December 1943

Battle of the Sangro, 20 November- 4 December 1943



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Battle of the Sangro, 20 November- 4 December 1943

The battle of the Sangro was the first part of the Eighth Army contribution to the attack on the Gustav Line, the main German defensive position south of Rome. The attack was part of a three pronged offensive planned by General Alexander. Montgomery would attack first, and press on towards Pescara, from where he could threaten Rome from the north-east. The Fifth Army would then attack at Cassino, before carrying out the amphibious assault at Anzio.

The Germans had two defensive positions near the Sangro. The first, close to the river, is sometimes seen as part of the Bernhardt Line and sometimes as the Advanced Sangro Line. The second, which followed a series of ridges a few miles further to the north, was the eastern end of the main Gustav Line, although some sources refer to it as part of the Bernhardt Line. This section of the line was built around the fortified villages of Mozzogrogna and Fossacesia, on the ridge.

The Germans had a strong defensive position, but were now very short of units. In the west General Clark’s Fifth Army was attacking the western end of the Bernhardt Line, and threatening the Mignano Gap. Kesselring was forced to move two divisions, 26th Panzer and 29th Panzer Grenadier, from the 76th Panzer Corps on the Adriatic to the main front. This left General Herr with two divisions - the 65th Infantry Division on the lower Sangro and the 1st Parachute Division further inland. The 16th Panzer Division had been withdrawn to the rear to recover from losses earlier in the fighting.

Montgomery’s Eighth Army forced their way across the previous German line, on the Trigno, between 27 October and 4 November. As usual Montgomery then paused to wait for his supplies to catch up, and to prepare to attack across the flooded Sangro. Although the Germans were outnumbered, they did have some advantages. The winter weather was making any offensive increasingly difficult. Heavy cloud made any air operations in the mountains difficult, effectively limiting the Allies to the lower coastal strip. The Germans had a good defensive position - the Allies would have to cross the flooded Sangro, then fight there way across the low lying plain north of the river, past minefields and German strong points, before reaching the heavily defended ridge. The Eighth Army also hadn’t yet entirely cleared the area between the Trigno and the Sangro.

By 9 November the Eighth Army had reached the lower Sangro. The 78th Division faced the river from Paglieta to Mont Calvo. On their left the 8th Indian Division was still in the mountains between the Trigno and the Sangro, with brigades to the south-wets of Atessa, at Gissi and between Castiglione and Torrebruna.

Montgomery’s overall aim was to break through the German lines and reach Pescara, but his short term aim was to get to the port of Ortona, ten miles further up the coast from the Sangro. The offensive was to start on 20 November, but more bad weather delayed it, and reduced Montgomery’s initial aims to the capture of the ridge west of the Sangro. In the meantime the 13th Corps (British 5th Division and Canadian 1st Division) were to press the Germans around Alfedena, on the far right of the Eighth Army’s position close to the junction with the Fifth Division.

The main attack would be carried out by the 5th Corps, which now contained the 8th Indian Division, the newly arrived 2nd New Zealand Division, the British 78th Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade. The attack would be supported by 690 guns (including 528 25-pounders) and 186 Sherman tanks. 13th Corps was given the task of carrying out a series of diversionary attacks in the mountains, in an attempt to convince the Germans that Montgomery was going to attack straight towards Avezzano, on the road from Pescara to Rome.

The 8th Indian Division was given the task of clearing the area between the rivers. On 10 November the 17th Indian Brigade took Castiglione and on 11 November Casalanguida. The 19th Indian Brigade took Perano and forced the Germans back to Archi and Tornareccio, in mountains where the Sangra ran north before curving around to the north-east to flow down to the coast. The division then moved to the right, taking up a new position around Paglieta, facing the lower Sangro, between 14-18 November. The New Zealanders replaced then on the left flank of 5th Corps.

The New Zealanders entered combat on 17 November, as part of an operation to capture the ground between the middle Sangro and the Aventino, one of its tributories that flowed into the river form the west just where the Sangra turned north-east to flow towards the sea. The New Zealanders and Indians captured Perano, on the British side of the Sangro on 17 November. On the night of 22-23 November the 3/8th Punjabis and 1/5th Essex waded across the Sangra above the junction with the Aventino and attacked San Angelo and Altino, two hilltop villages on a ridge overlooking the river junction

Nearer the coast the 78th Division put several patrols across the Sangro between 9-15 November, searching for suitable crossing points. However heavy rain began on 15 November, and the Sangro rose and fell repeatedly, making patrolling across the river much more difficult.

The original plan had been to make the main assault on 20 November, but the heavy rain meant that this had to be postponed. The original plan had been to ford the river, but the rising water levels meant that four bridges had to be built, including one tank bridge. On 20 November the 36th Brigade, 78th Division, crossed the lower Sangro to win a bridgehead that would allow the bridges to be built. The Germans counterattacked and forced the Argylls back across to the south bank, but the Royal West Kents and the Buffs held on to their positions. By 22 November five battalions were across the river. The main attack was postponed to 24 November, and the objective was changed to the capture of Lanciano, in the hills between the Sangro and the next river barrier, the Moro. There would then be a pause to allow proper crossing points to be built across the Sangro valley. Heavy rain in the mountains intervened yet again, and by daylight on 23 November the bridges were isolated in the middle of a 1,000 yard wide flood!

On 24 November General Allfrey, commander of 5th Corps, issued the final instructions for the battle. The main focus of the attack would be the Li Colli ridge, which ran parallel to the river from the coast to Fossacesia, then Santa Maria Imbaro and Mozzagrogna. The same ridge then curved around to the west, running to the south of Lanciano, and ending up overlooking the Moro valley north-west of Castel Frentano (yet another hilltop village). The 36th Brigade bridgehead was at the foot of the ridge facing Fossacesia. The new plan was for the Indian Division to capture Santa Maria and Mozzagrogna. The 78th Division with 4th Armoured Brigade tanks would then turn right and advance down the Li Colli ridge to the coast. They would then turn left and advance up the coast towards the Moro.

The main attack began on the evening of 27 November with a heavy artillery bombardment and a fighter-bomber attack. The 17th Indian Brigade attacked towards Mozzogrogna, on the left of the main attack, but although the Gurkhas were able to take the village that evening, their supporting tanks were delayed. They were then hit by a counterattack on the morning of 28 November by the German 65th Division, and were forced to retreat. The village was retaken by the 1/12th Frontier Force.

The next attack was launched by the Irish Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade. They attacked north-east along the ridge on 29 November. At first the tanks were held up by mines, but the Inniskillings managed to push along the ridge and clear the way, and with armoured support it was secured by 3pm. Santa Maria fell two hours later. On the same day the New Zealanders attacked north towards Castel Frentano.

On the night of 29-30 November the 17th Indian Brigade advanced north-west from Mozzagrogna to take part of the ridge and open up the roads to the north-east.

On 30 November the County of London Yeomanry, 44th Royal Tank Regiment and 2nd London Irish took Fossacesia, breaking the German defensive line near the coast. At the same time two companies from the Royal Irish Fusiliers made a night march to San Vito, and on 1 December they and the Inniskillings captured the town, a long thin settlement than ran along a ridge than ran for almost two miles inland from the sea. The 36th Brigade was then able to get across the Feltrino, a small river just to the west of San Vito, and by the evening of 4 December had reached the next river barrier, the Moro. General Herr had already realised that his position behind the Sangro was lost, and had ordered a holding action along the line from San Vito to Lanciano, but the Allies advanced too quickly, and he was forced back to the Moro.

The focus of the fighting now shifted to the crossing of the Moro, and the seizure of the port of Ortona a short distance to the north of the river mouth.


The Battle of Ortona – When 2,600 Canadian Men Were Sacrificed for a British General’s Pride

In December 1943, a group of largely untested Canadians went up against German forces in the Italian town of Ortona. The result was a bloodbath so intense that the media called it the “Italian Stalingrad.” Sadly, it could have been either avoided or mitigated had two Allied generals just cooperated with more good will.

On 10 July 1943, the Canadian 1 st Infantry Division (under Major General Chris Vokes) were headed for Sicily. A volunteer group, none had seen combat, yet they were about to land on Axis territory. They were there as part of Operation Husky – an attack on Italy which began on the evening of July 9.

Brigadier Robert Moncel (left) and Major General Christopher Vokes, 10 April 1945.

The Americans (under General George Smith Patton, Jr.) were to land on the west, the British (under Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery) to the east, and the Canadians (who were also under Montgomery) in the middle. It didn’t turn out well.

German U-boats sank three Canadian ships, killing 60 men. With those ships went 500 vehicles, including several ambulances and 40 cannons. As they attacked the island, however, their luck changed as the landing site was only lightly defended. The Italians troops position there had no stomach for the war, and allowed the Canadians to take over 500 of them as Prisoners of War.

Troops of the British 51st Highland Division on the shores of Sicily on 10 July 1943.

They were greeted as liberators in the nearest towns, lulling them into a false sense of security. It wouldn’t last. Hitler had ordered Italy to be held at all costs. Worse, the rivalry between the Americans and the British had begun.

Patton and Montgomery hated each other and were in a competition to reach Messina first. Located on the northern tip of Sicily, it was the gateway to the Italian mainland. Patton got there first, infuriating Montgomery, but it was the Canadians who would pay the price.

General George Smith Patton, Jr.

In Rome, the government was in a full-blown panic. The Allies had been bombing the Italian mainland, including Rome, causing shortages of food and material. Fed up, they ousted and imprisoned Mussolini on July 25. Then they began negotiating with the Allies as the latter took Messina in early September, crossed the Strait of Messina, and landed at Reggio on the mainland. On September 8, the government surrendered, then fled as Hitler ordered Rome taken.

The Germans held their line to the south of Rome, from Cassino to the southwest, to Ortona to the northeast. But instead of joining the American attack on Cassino (which was closer to Rome), Montgomery headed for Ortona. From there, he planned to head west to reach Rome before Patton.

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery.

What he failed to consider were the heavy rains. Tanks and heavy equipment were bogged down in the thick mud, delaying the British troops. This forced the Canadian regiment to lead the attack across the Moro River. They reached it at midnight on December 5, where they were picked off by elite German troops of the 1 st parachute division – men who had seen combat in Africa.

Ortona was just across the river, but the Canadians first had to cross vineyards strung with barbed wire. Dotted throughout were stone farm houses from which the Germans picked them off. It took the Canadians three days and heavy losses to cross the Moro, but worse was to come.

Area of the Sangro and Moro Campaigns, Italy November and December 1943. Photo Credit.

Between the river and Ortona was a ravine some 200 yards deep and 200 yards wide, which they called the “gully.” On the other side were more German troops. To cross would be suicide, but Montgomery didn’t care. After three days and even more losses, they made no headway.

On December 11, the Royal 22 nd Regiment and a battalion of the Armored Regiment targeted Casa Berardi – a large 3-story farmhouse near the gully’s end and close to the main road leading to Ortona.

A Canadian sniper takes aim in Ortona.

As they neared the house, however, they were met by a panzer division. Using smoke for cover, they managed to take the Germans out with anti-tank weapons. Captain Paul Triquet’s C Company took Berardi on the afternoon of December 14, but they were so decimated, they could go no further. Of the 35 to 40 who began the attack, only 17 were left.

Vokes wanted a new strategy, but Montgomery refused, since he considered the Canadians expendable. He ordered four rifle companies with 320 men to take the crossroads north of the gully. They secured it on December 18, but at a cost of 162 dead.

A Canadian rifleman taking aim in Ortona.

Montgomery believed that the Germans would finally retreat. What he didn’t know was that they were ordering all of the residents to leave. Then they began destroying buildings to block tanks and funnel the Canadians into streets they had secured.

Masters of mines, explosives, tripwires, and booby traps, they made the Canadians pay for every door they opened, every threshold they crossed, and even furniture and bricks they picked up. Since the buildings of Ortona shared walls, the Canadians developed a technique called “mouse-holing” to deal with fighting at such close quarters. They’d blast holes in walls, then fire at Germans on the other side.

On December 28, stunned Canadians walk through a silent Ortona.

By December 24, there was still no lull in the fighting, so the media called Ortona the “Little Stalingrad.” On Christmas day, both sides fought in shifts so that some could enjoy mass and a meal before diving back into battle. German media also focused on the event, so Ortona became a matter of prestige.

On December 27, 24 men of the Edmonton Regiment were lured into a building which was detonated. Only 4 survived. In retaliation, they shelled a building housing 40 or 50 Germans. Some suggested pulling out, but Vokes felt that far too many Canadians had died, so he ordered the fighting to continue.

Ortona Cemetery. Photo Credit.

Although Hitler gave the order to hold Ortona at all costs, the Germans had had enough. Late that night, they began retreating in small, orderly groups. The following morning, the Canadians were met with silence. It took them a while to realize that the Germans had left.

By then some 2,600 Canadians and over 800 Germans had lost their lives. While most of the residents had obeyed the evacuation order, about 1,300 chose to stay and paid with their lives.

On 25 December 1998, German and Canadian survivors of the battle reunited at Ortona to bury the past and forgive what could not be forgotten.


The Forgotten Army, Italy 1943-1945

I have used the above heading as something that was used to describe the fighting that was going on in Italy during WW2 after the launch of the D-Day Landing on the Normandy Coast in 1944. There were two armies fighting in Italy at that time, predominantly the United States (US) 5th and the British 8th. The only reporting has been about the US 5th Army on the Mediterranean side of Italy by the Snow family on BBC television. There seems to have been no mention of the fighting on at the Adriatic side. I am going to try to correct that situation by covering the landing into Taranto on the toe of Italy, through to Trieste at the northern end of the Adriatic coast.

The invasion of mainland Italy started with the British 8th Army landing at Taranto on 3 rd September 1943 and an operation named “Baytown”. As a matter of interest, the US 5th Army landed on the 9 th September 1943 against heavy German resistance at Salerno in operation “Avalanche”. The 8th Army were able to make relatively easy progress for a while up the eastern coast, capturing the Port of Brindisi, Bari, as well as airfields around Foggia, which provided a base from which US bombers were able to exploit the opportunity to bomb oil fields in Romania and various places in northern Germany. There was an interesting episode by the American Air Force who rescued 500 POW’s after landing in Yugoslavia with the assistance of the Italian Partisans.

What has never been reported is the raid by German bombers on the port of Bari on the evening of 2 nd December 1943. A small number of planes succeeded in destroying 17 Allied merchant ships and killing well over 1000 military personnel, merchant seamen and many local civilians. The Commonwealth Cemetery in Bari contains 2128 graves. It is reported that every available docking space was occupied, with ships anchored out beyond the jetties jutting out into the Adriatic. The dockyards had become such a beehive of activity that unloading was carried out during the night under the glare of lights. The German bombers had a perfect target – it was described as a “cake walk”. The ships already in the harbour contained a great store of ammunition, along with trucks, bales of clothing and hundreds of canvas mail bags for the troops. Alongside them was a US Navy tanker with half million gallons of high-octane gasoline on board. One ship, “John Harvey”, carried as part of its cargo, 100 tons of mustard gas bombs. It was thought that Germany were going to use mustard gas in attacks during the campaigns in Italy, they did not!

With successful Allied landings completed at Taranto units established themselves in various camps and carried out training in preparation for the fighting that lay ahead. As the Allies advanced northwards encountering increasingly difficult terrain, characterised by a succession of fast flowing rivers and intervening ridges running at right angles to the line of advance, this prevented fast movement and provided ideal defences for the Germans.

On 11 th November 1943, Pte Duncan of the Parachute Regiment was awarded the George Cross posthumously for bravery. On 12 th November 1943, Major W Hargreaves of the Parachute Regiment was awarded the Military Cross. The 2nd Parachute Brigade, together with other Commonwealth regiments made their way up the coast to the Sangro River, through icy winds and torrential rain, living in improvised shelters, and eating cold rations. During December 1943 the troops managed to establish a bridge across the Sangro River which had widened considerably due to heavy rains. The 2 nd Paras moved inland up the Sangro Valley to establish Battalion HQ in a school in Casoli from where they patrolled the local area including the villages of Fara, Lama and Torricella.

One of these patrols met with German soldiers at the Melone crossroads, an intense firefight ensued resulting in the death of Sergeant Alf Goldman and wounding Lt Stewart, who died at a later date. My cousin Trevor Warden, was shot in his back and was rescued by New Zealand medics and eventually to a UK hospital. During brigade stay in Casoli two English Ladies came into the HQ together with several POWs who had escaped from the prison camps. They were able to offer valuable information about the German positions.

The next obstacle was the German Gustav Line where a battle ensued to secure Ortona. Blizzards, drifting snow and zero visibility at the end of December 1943 caused the advance to grind to a halt. By the middle of December 1943, Canadian troops at the front of the 8 th Army had reached Ortona, a coastal city occupied by German troops. The armies clashed for nine days outside that city, with many casualties on both sides. Canadian troops finally won the terrain, but the Germans still held the city. The Canadians and German soldiers then battled within Ortona in fierce door-to-door fighting. After a week, the Germans retreated. These battles damaged or destroyed most of Ortona’s buildings and ravaged surrounding countryside. Ortona was secured on 28 th December 1943. River Moro War Cemetery is where 1615 service personnel are buried mostly Canadian, but it also contains other Allied service personnel as well. Sangro River War cemetery has 2617 burials, with a memorial commemorating more than 500 Indian service members who died fighting in the sector. In addition, the cemetery contains the graves of a number of escaped prisoners-of-war who died whilst trying to reach the Allied lines. Sangro cemetery is the second largest cemetery in Italy after Cassino. There are 2117 different regiments buried there, 279 from the Royal Artillery, 352 from New Zealand, 837 from the Combined Indian Regiments and 62 from the Parachute Regiment.

General Montgomery (Monty) halted the 8 th Army in order to conserve resources for the spring campaign. Monty then handed over command of the 8 th Army to General Oliver Leese in Vasto and flew to England to prepare for the invasion of France, scheduled for mid-1944.

In the meantime, the Canadians, New Zealand and Polish troops moved north along the coast towards Pescara. After reaching Pescara, the Indian, Canadian and Polish Regiments were moved across Italy to support the American 5 th Army who were in deep trouble attempting to take the Benedictine monastery on Mount Cassino. Eventually the Polish regiment took Mount Cassino, which to the Polish fighters was satisfying, in return for Germans invading Poland in 1938. Most of the Polish fighters came from units that had found themselves in the UK after escaping from Poland at the beginning of the war.

Editors note: Information received from Michal Smal and confirmed by Roy Quinten. “The Polish 2nd Corps (2 Korpus Poliski) 1943-1947 was a major unit o the Polish Armed Forces in the West, commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders. The training site for the 2nd Corps in the Middle East was Khanaqin-Quizil Ribar in Iraq (1943-1944) and was composed of the soldiers who had been released from exile in the USSR, the Carpathian Rifle Brigade, the 12th Podolski Lancers and 15th Poznan Lancers. Re-organised, the Polish 2nnd Corps comprised two infantry divisions each of which had 2 brigades and 2 light artillery regiments. General Anders also formed the Polish women’s Auxiliary Corps (Pomocznicznz Wojskowo Sluzba Kobiet) and they largely trained as heavy vehicle drivers. Approximately 80% of the Polish 2nd Corps came from Poland’s pre-war Kressy or Eastern Borderlands. In 1944 the Polish 2nd Corps were transferred to Italy where they were an independent unit of the British Eighth Army under General Oliver Leese. The Polish 2nd Corps took part in major Italian Campaigns- the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Battle of Ancona and the Battle of Bologna. Three previous Allied assaults on Monte Cassino had failed and Monte Cassino was a major victory fro the 2nd Polish Corps. With it, the road to Rome was at last open.”

The 8 th Army continued fighting along the Adriatic coast sadly this created the need for cemeteries at Ancona 1029 burials, Castiglione South African, 502 burials Montecchio 582 burials Gradara 1191 burials Coriano Ridge 939 burials Rimini Gurkha 618 burials Cesena 775 burials Medola 145 burials Forli 1234 burials plus a cremation memorial for nearly 800 Indian servicemen Ravenna 955 burials Villanova 955 burials Villanova Canadian cemetery 212 burials Faenza 1152 burials Santerno Valley 287 burials Bologna 184 burials Argente Gap 625 burials Padua 513 burials.

Fighting along the Adriatic section of Italy was quite intensive and continuous from Bari in the south to Milan in the north. The CWGC estimate that the Commonwealth lost nearly 50,000 dead in Italy during World War II most of whom lie buried in 37 war cemeteries, and over 4000 soldiers whose graves are not known but remembered by name on the Cassino memorials. Almost 1500 Indian servicemen, whose remains were cremated, are remembered on three memorials in various cemeteries. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the 8th Army had a difficult time fighting the Germans over very difficult terrain along the Eastern Adriatic coast of Italy. It seems only the Mediterranean side of Italy that is reported on, maybe it is because the American 5th Army proved to be more attractive to the TV producers or they had better PR service personnel?! In addition, they had wanted to be “first” into Rome! It is interesting to note that in the film “Anzio” showed two American soldiers entering Rome to find no Germans there. Having reported back to the American generals they decided not to follow-up on the information fearing it was a trap by the Germans. In fact the truth is that it was two British soldiers that were first to drive into Rome, not the Americans. I wonder if the two British soldiers are still alive and remember the occasion.

An interesting situation developed when a New Zealander, Lt. Titchener, with a patrol of eight men set out for Casoli. “Before they set out an Italian who spoke English informed them that the Germans had vacated, or were vacating, Casoli and he offered to take them there by a back road. His offer was accepted. There were no Germans in the first village, Altino, so they moved into Casoli. The Italian led the way, with Lt Titchener armed with a tommy gun immediately behind him, waiting to deal with him if the whole thing was a trap.

The patrol descended a steep hill, which they had to do in stages marvelling all the while at the untiring pace of the Italian guide, a short stumpy man. At last, on reaching the top of the hill they were greeted by a farmer and his family, offered chairs and given a glass of wine each, we moved on again however, and refusing repeated offers of wine and food, we came to the main street. It was a big town of 9,000 inhabitants and at first, the people did not seem to realise who we were. Then it suddenly struck them, they rushed out, shook our hands and as we neared the centre of the town started clapping, cheering and many of the women wept, Lt Titchener said he felt very embarrassed.”

Should any member of the Italy Star Association like to have a photograph of a relative buried in Italy, they can get in touch with the program director of the War Graves Photographic Project, Steve Rogers (www.twqpp.org) requesting a copy of a photo. There will be a small charge to cover postage and packaging. Please state the name of the service person, together with service number, and name which cemetery the person is buried at.

As it is, just over 70 years since 1942 and a considerable number of service personnel who died in Italy were no more than 20/21 years old. Many of them are about 90 years old now. Does anyone remember any of the occasions I have mentioned?

We are aware of the D-Day remembrance programmes that were promoted but sadly, nothing was highlighted about the fighting in Italy, even though the fighting stopped in Italy at the same time as fighting on D Day 1945. This is why I headed this article “The Forgotten Army “, remembering the 50,000 Commonwealth personnel that died in Italy! It is very interesting to note that The Far Eastern Association asked the same question! They also seem to have been forgotten!!

Any British Ex-Pat living in Italy reading this article, who would be interested in adopting a Cemetery in Italy near where they live, and be prepared to lay a wreath at a cemetery in November each year to remember those who are buried there and not forgotten, please do contact me. I would love to hear from them.

Bernard Warden

Bibliography :

Some of the following books may be of interest to readers.

“The Forgotten 500” The story of how the Americans rescued the 500 POW’s in Yugoslavia.

“Ortona” The Canadian efforts to capture Ortona.

“The Allied Forces in Italy 1943 – 1945” – Guido Rosignoli

“Italy’s Sorrow”. Fighting in Italy – James Holland.

“Travel Guide to WW2 sites in Italy” Including cemeteries – Ann Saunders.

“Rome remembers her Liberators” Story of Anzio and the role Italian Partisans played during WW2. – H Shindler

“4 th Battalion Parachute Regiment – War Diaries, November 1943 – December 1943”.


Sangro River War Cemetery

The Sangro River War Cemetery lies in the Contrada Sentinelle in the Commune of Torino di Sangro, Province of Chieti. Take the autostrada A14 (the road that runs from Taranto in the south to Ancona in the north) and exit at Val di Sangro. After approximately 2.5 kilometres from the exit turn right onto the SS16, Pescara to Vasto road, for nearly 2 kilometres. There is then a sharp right turn up to cemetery. If you come from the station, take a taxi from Torino di Sangro station, otherwise follow the road signs to SS16 (see direction), turn right at the crossroad and continue following the signs. The station is about 7 kilometres from the cemetery. Cemetery address: Contrada Sentinelle s.n. - 66020 Torino di Sangro (CH) Abruzzo. GPS Co-ordinates: Latitude: 42.218406, Longitude: 14.535594.

On 3 September 1943 the Allies invaded the Italian mainland, the invasion coinciding with an armistice made with the Italians who then re-entered the war on the Allied side. Allied objectives were to draw German troops from the Russian front and more particularly from France, where an offensive was planned for the following year. Progress through southern Italy was rapid despite stiff resistance, but by the end of October, the Allies were facing the German winter defensive position known as the Gustav Line, which stretched from the river Garigliano in the west to the Sangro in the east. By 4 November, the Allied force that had fought its way up the Adriatic coast was preparing to attack the Sangro river positions. A bridgehead had been established by the 24th and by nightfall on the 30th, the whole ridge overlooking the river was in Allied hands. The site of this cemetery was selected by the 5th Corps and into it were brought the graves of men who had died in the fierce fighting on the Adriatic sector of the front in November-December 1943, and during the static period that followed. In addition, the cemetery contains the graves of a number of escaped prisoners of war who died while trying to reach the Allied lines. SANGRO RIVER WAR CEMETERY contains 2,617 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War. Within the cemetery will be found the SANGRO RIVER CREMATION MEMORIAL, one of three memorials erected in Italy to officers and men of the Indian forces whose remains were cremated in accordance with their faith - the other two cremation memorials are in Forli Indian Army War Cemetery and Rimini Gurkha War Cemetery. The memorial at Sangro River commemorates more than 500 servicemen.


It was called the “Italian Stalingrad”: in 1943 Canadian soldiers, German troops and Italian civilians were all victims of a single tragic fate in Ortona. An event that has helped build a common history and whose memory helps and strengthens the relationship and the strategic cooperation between peoples, once enemies, who are now leaders of a new world order.

Laura Borzi*

The dynamics of multilateral cooperation, which characterized the post-1945 world, suffered a setback from the beginning of the 21st century. The story “returns protagonist”, although over two decades ago, in the enthusiasm of a pacified world with the finish of the conflict between irreconcilable ideologies, we were quick to decree the end.

Throughout the year that is about to end, there have been demonstrations, remebrances, events to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. The President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, during the demonstrations for November 4, has observed that “celebrating together the end of the war and jointly honoring all the fallen of the war means to strongly insist, all together, that instead of war we prefer to develop friendship and cooperation “.

After the First World War, the diktat of Versailles and the other peace treaties of 1919-20 failed to respond adequately to the deep and often contradictory demands of the peoples and governments, and the failure to reconstruct the European balance ended up nourishing the germs of a new global war.

This was evident to the Allies after the victory over Nazi-fascism and the end of the Second World War. Therefore, we opted for an economic reconstruction of the former enemy states, favoring (with the Marshall Plan) the recovery and at least the initial integration of the EU economies. They wanted to spread the idea that the enrichment of nations could be pursued through economic development and not through the war. With the construction of multilateral institutions, first the United Nations, an international organization aimed at containing winners and losers in an appropriate legal framework, an attempt was made to create a system that would ban war as a means of resolving international disputes.

THE COMMON HISTORY AND THE SHARED VALUES BETWEEN EUROPE AND CANADA

We find ourselves today in a world completely changed by a system of power, by the presence of new actors, due to the fragmentation and diffusion of transnational threats.

The war in the past was a tool for resolving a political conflict, while today conflicts play the role of an intermediate phase, to arrive at the creation of conditions that are completely different from those previously used. The war was the symbol of the strength and power of the states, while today it is rather a sign of their failure to collapse corporate contracts, the weakness of human development, the asphyxiation of the political aspect.

Today, more than ever, the challenge is to affirm that democracy is a moving universe and not an immobile system and the war must be rejected, starting from the recovery of the importance of history and its dramas.

Faced with the international political debate, it is worth mentioning the fierce and bloody battle of Ortona, fought from December 20 to 28, 1943, which made victims among the Canadian soldiers along with Italian civilians, and among the German troops.

Canada, Germany and Italy are now allies and friends members of the Atlantic Alliance, the regional organization born of a need for military defense based on a commonality of values and interests, but it is interesting to note how history reminds us that the friendship with Canada, which shares a system of inalienable values with Europe, can contribute to a global rebalancing as a space for exchange and cooperation. Within the West, now no longer the center of gravity of the world, the consolidation, and strengthening of political relationships, commercial and cultural exchanges is to be considered a commitment to remove and dampen conflicts in whatever form they may manifest.

The values of democracy and the West are in crisis in the present international panorama and the memory of the battle of Ortona, but in general of the European war of three generations (from the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870, to the Second World War) can serve today to settle the relationship between the protagonists of the time and the friendship between peoples. The enemies of the past, Canada, Italy, Germany, as individual states and through the strategic cooperation (EU-Canada Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2017, just to be clear) after 75 years, they still have the responsibility of rebuilding an international order that has suffered huge landslides in the last quarter of a century and in which there is widespread conflict.

Area of the Sangro and Moro Campaigns, Italy November and December 1943

THE BATTLE OF ORTONA OF 1943: THE ITALIAN STALINGRAD

The battle for Ortona known as the Italian Stalingrad is a not particularly well-known episode of the Second World War, but it is unique on the western front due to the type of clash and the very high price paid, with more than two thousand fallen Canadians.

The victory of the Soviets at Stalingrad and the weight sustained by them against the enemy in Europe led them to request the opening of a new front since 1942. At the end of 1943, while on the western front there was a standoff situation, it was necessary to give visibility to the allied action with a media and political operation that gave a concrete signal to Stalin. Soviet “invitees” became observers on the field. Hitler ordered the Field Marshal Kesserling, Supreme Commander of the German forces in Italy, the defense of Ortona to the last man. The allied press following the troops played a primary role in the sacrifice of the citizenry of Abruzzo.

The young Canadians, numerically the triple of the enemies and logistically well organized, were eager to show their value and their courage, even if they had little experience. The German soldiers, with special forces unit, were smaller in number but with specialized equipment and grew up with the nourishment of the “Fὕrerprinzip” of obedience characteristic of the Hitler Youth.

The conquest and defense of Ortona became for both parties a lethal and inseparable union of propaganda and morality.

Ortona saw the victory of the Canadians on the orders of General Christopher Vokes, but the German troops, the specialists of the first division of the paratroopers Fallschirmjäger under the command of Richard Heidrich of the Luftwaffe, managed to stop the enemy’s advance by breaking it down in every part of the city conquered. The Germans lined up 5 km to the north where they resisted for months until in June of the following year the Italian capital will be freed.

It was not the Germans or the Canadians who defined Ortona “the Italian Stalingrad”, but the comparison was immediate. The Battle of Stalingrad had been fought in January 1943, while the Battle of Ortona nearly a year later, in December 1943. There were many similarities, despite the diversity in the order of magnitude, the extent of the forces in the field and consequently the relative losses in terms of victims and destruction.

In Stalingrad first and then in Ortona, the medieval battle was evoked in a modern key: body to body, house by house, room by room these are the words used for both clashes, in an urban setting, a hell paved with explosive traps. The war in the past had been that of the clash in large spaces, there was no fighting in the cities. The fighting in the urban scenario was rather relegated to the Middle Ages.

At the beginning Ortona, like Stalingrad, was considered a strategic goal, but with reversed roles. Hitler had conceived an enveloping maneuver to the east, allowing the Wehrmacht to seize the oil resources desperately needed to Germany. The allies had the objective to break through Ortona, take a pincer maneuver through Rome Tiburtina and force the enemy to retreat or surrender.

But all the plans on paper have to deal with reality, and so the battle for Ortona will end up shattering, splitting into a series of tactical objectives that have as protagonists above all the simple soldiers, the ordinary men.

In the days when nothing happened on the western front, Hitler himself asked for news from Ortona as if the fate of the entire Italian campaign depended on this battle. Certainly, the Germans were motivated to fight in the peninsula to defend Germany from the allied bombings, but the fury on the Ortona objective was for all due to a matter of political propaganda.

The historian Marco Patricelli told during a public intervention in Ortona: «The German snipers controlled the ranks of the Canadians trying to eliminate the officers because this meant leaving men without orders, even the bullets have a specific weight, considering that under the uniforms there are always men».

Infantry from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and Tanks from the Three Rivers Regiment during the Battle for Ortona.

In July 1943 with the landing in Sicily, the Allied forces had invaded the peninsula, thus opening a new front in Southern Europe. The advance towards Rome of the Americans led by General Clark had stopped in Cassino, while the 8th Anglo-Canadian army under the orders of Bernard Montgomery had run aground, going up the Adriatic coast to Ortona. The small town of the Italian region of Abruzzo was the eastern point of the Gustav line, the fortification built by Hitler to stop the invasion of Italy. The strategic goal of the Allies, to break through Ortona and from Pescara to reach Rome, was however conceived by underestimating the difficult weather conditions that would be presented to them by crossing the Apennines Mountains of Abruzzo at the end of the autumn.

The offensive of the Sangro was delayed precisely because of the rainy weather and the swelling of the river, but on November 28, the attack began on a large scale and after 2 days of fighting a strategic ridge was obtained on the river costing about 2,800 victims. The Germans retreated on the river Moro preparing for another fight.

This was the first division level battle fought by Canadians during the Second World War. All the battalions of the Infantry Division fought a desperate battle for two weeks through the valley of the Moro River.

The Canadians arrived about a kilometer from Ortona to find that the Germans had dug a deep ditch in the south bank to defend themselves from artillery fire. When the bombing ceased, the Germans jumped out to fire against the advancing Canadian infantry. “The Gorge“, as it was called by the Canadians, could not be overcome by the direct attacks ordered by Volke because each attack of the single battalion was rejected with huge losses between the mud and the winter temperatures in a re-edition of trench fighting that was soon to have its deadly urban variant.

On the night between December 14 and 15, the Canadians managed to circumvent the Gorge and break the German resistance until they reached Casa Berardi, a farmhouse that constituted the first outpost of the enemy where the fighting lasted four days before the Germans stepped back. For the value shown the Captain Triquet received the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration of the Commonwealth for military courage.

It was not obvious that the Germans would remain in Ortona, in fact they could have retreated to a territory more easily to defense. Moreover, the impressions provoked by the defeat of the 6 th Army in Stalingrad, which had underlined the difficulties of fighting in an urban environment, were very recent. Finally, the Allied Forces from the west (including Indians and New Zealanders) could have cut the main artery north of Ortona by trapping the Germans in the town. Instead for non-military considerations, the events were unexpected.

In Ortona, the First Division of the Fallschirmjager, the men of the third paratrooper’s Regiment, were preparing to defend the city, under the command of Liebscher, who with a battalion had stood up to an entire English Brigade during the fighting in Sicily. These men who had already fought in Norway, in Russia, in Sicily and Centuripe had distinguished themselves in urbans operations. The Germans had started to defend the city from December 12 blowing up the buildings, creating piles of rubble from which to derive ditches for the battle. In particular, the Germans blowing up the buildings of the lines that go from Porta Caldari to Piazza del Municipio but the whole city had been mined and the streets blocked with rubble prevented the passage of Sherman tanks, easy to burn once hit by the rocket launchers Panzerschreck. So the Canadian soldiers had to advance on foot. The Canadians were faced with combat in urban areas, MOUT – Military Operations in Urban Terrain. In the impossibility of venturing into the streets, the mouse-holing tactic was resorted to. It was a question of advancing not only from house to house but room by room. Once a building was freed the dividing walls were blown up and they moved in this way to the neighboring building, where however often there was the enemy waiting, so they had to build shelters before undermining the walls of the houses with a continuous adaptation to the situations that presented themselves. It was impossible to go out on the street because the Germans blew up buildings that collapsed on the soldiers when they ran away. The demolition of the tower adjacent to the Cathedral of St. Thomas, probably bombarded by the allied naval artillery to remove the enemy from a vantage point, caused the regiment D of the Edmonton Regiment to be isolated in an attempt to advance: of the 60 men who they constituted the regiment, only 17 remained alive. However, they managed to gain ground, gaining reinforcements from other companies of the same battalion: the Seaforth Highlanders and the wagons of the Three Rivers Regiment arrived. These two infantry battalions and a single-tank regiment carried on a very tough fight for eight days. The attempt by two Canadian brigades to reach the city from the west was blocked by the Germans. Only on December 28th a patrol of Edmond discovered that in the night, the Germans were out of the town.

The Allies paid a very expensive price for a propaganda objective, they managed to expel the Germans from Ortona, who, with a few men, had delayed the enemy’s advance. 1,300 was the number of civilian deaths, 2 German divisions lacerate between the Battle of the Moro and Ortona, while for Canadians there were more than 2,300 victims.

In Abruzzo they fought for Rome, this explains the strenuous defense from Sangro to Moro. In Abruzzo they fought to defend Germany from the allied bombings, blocking the enemy in the Italian campaign. In Ortona, however, they fought above all because captured by a murderous whirlwind of prestige and propaganda from which derived an absurd carnage with innumerables deaths.

Today the relationships between Ortona and Canada can only be profound, in memory of what happened. The city has been officially declared a place of national interest for Canada, where the Italian community has many emigrants from Abruzzo. Since 2002 in Ortona the Battle Museum (MUBA) has been created, housed in the premises of the former convent of S. Anna, to pay homage to the fallen Ortonese and to all the soldiers who lost their lives to defend the city.

In September 2018 the “Ortona Challenge” running race took place, at the same time as the one organized in Ottawa by the Canadian army, and a solemn ceremony was held at the Canadian War Cemetery, the Moro River Canadian Cemetry, near Ortona, in the presence of the Canadian Ambassador, Alexandra Bugailiskis, who on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Ortona had a very particularly profound meaning.


The Battle of Ortona – When 2,600 Canadian Men Were Sacrificed for a General’s Pride

In December 1943, a group of largely untested Canadians went up against German forces in the Italian town of Ortona. The result was a bloodbath so intense that the media called it the “Italian Stalingrad.” Sadly, it could have been either avoided or mitigated had two Allied generals just cooperated with more good will.

On 10 July 1943, the Canadian 1 st Infantry Division (under Major General Chris Vokes) were headed for Sicily. A volunteer group, none had seen combat, yet they were about to land on Axis territory. They were there as part of Operation Husky – an attack on Italy which began on the evening of July 9.

Brigadier Robert Moncel (left) and Major General Christopher Vokes, 10 April 1945.

The Americans (under General George Smith Patton, Jr.) were to land on the west, the British (under Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery) to the east, and the Canadians (who were also under Montgomery) in the middle. It didn’t turn out well.

German U-boats sank three Canadian ships, killing 60 men. With those ships went 500 vehicles, including several ambulances and 40 cannons. As they attacked the island, however, their luck changed as the landing site was only lightly defended. The Italians troops position there had no stomach for the war, and allowed the Canadians to take over 500 of them as Prisoners of War.

Troops of the British 51st Highland Division on the shores of Sicily on 10 July 1943.

They were greeted as liberators in the nearest towns, lulling them into a false sense of security. It wouldn’t last. Hitler had ordered Italy to be held at all costs. Worse, the rivalry between the Americans and the British had begun.

Patton and Montgomery hated each other and were in a competition to reach Messina first. Located on the northern tip of Sicily, it was the gateway to the Italian mainland. Patton got there first, infuriating Montgomery, but it was the Canadians who would pay the price.

General George Smith Patton, Jr.

In Rome, the government was in a full-blown panic. The Allies had been bombing the Italian mainland, including Rome, causing shortages of food and material. Fed up, they ousted and imprisoned Mussolini on July 25. Then they began negotiating with the Allies as the latter took Messina in early September, crossed the Strait of Messina, and landed at Reggio on the mainland. On September 8, the government surrendered, then fled as Hitler ordered Rome taken.

The Germans held their line to the south of Rome, from Cassino to the southwest, to Ortona to the northeast. But instead of joining the American attack on Cassino (which was closer to Rome), Montgomery headed for Ortona. From there, he planned to head west to reach Rome before Patton.

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery.

What he failed to consider were the heavy rains. Tanks and heavy equipment were bogged down in the thick mud, delaying the British troops. This forced the Canadian regiment to lead the attack across the Moro River. They reached it at midnight on December 5, where they were picked off by elite German troops of the 1 st parachute division – men who had seen combat in Africa.

Ortona was just across the river, but the Canadians first had to cross vineyards strung with barbed wire. Dotted throughout were stone farm houses from which the Germans picked them off. It took the Canadians three days and heavy losses to cross the Moro, but worse was to come.

Area of the Sangro and Moro Campaigns, Italy November and December 1943. Photo Credit.

Between the river and Ortona was a ravine some 200 yards deep and 200 yards wide, which they called the “gully.” On the other side were more German troops. To cross would be suicide, but Montgomery didn’t care. After three days and even more losses, they made no headway.

On December 11, the Royal 22 nd Regiment and a battalion of the Armored Regiment targeted Casa Berardi – a large 3-story farmhouse near the gully’s end and close to the main road leading to Ortona.

A Canadian sniper takes aim in Ortona.

As they neared the house, however, they were met by a panzer division. Using smoke for cover, they managed to take the Germans out with anti-tank weapons. Captain Paul Triquet’s C Company took Berardi on the afternoon of December 14, but they were so decimated, they could go no further. Of the 35 to 40 who began the attack, only 17 were left.

Vokes wanted a new strategy, but Montgomery refused, since he considered the Canadians expendable. He ordered four rifle companies with 320 men to take the crossroads north of the gully. They secured it on December 18, but at a cost of 162 dead.

A Canadian rifleman taking aim in Ortona.

Montgomery believed that the Germans would finally retreat. What he didn’t know was that they were ordering all of the residents to leave. Then they began destroying buildings to block tanks and funnel the Canadians into streets they had secured.

Masters of mines, explosives, tripwires, and booby traps, they made the Canadians pay for every door they opened, every threshold they crossed, and even furniture and bricks they picked up. Since the buildings of Ortona shared walls, the Canadians developed a technique called “mouse-holing” to deal with fighting at such close quarters. They’d blast holes in walls, then fire at Germans on the other side.

On December 28, stunned Canadians walk through a silent Ortona.

By December 24, there was still no lull in the fighting, so the media called Ortona the “Little Stalingrad.” On Christmas day, both sides fought in shifts so that some could enjoy mass and a meal before diving back into battle. German media also focused on the event, so Ortona became a matter of prestige.

On December 27, 24 men of the Edmonton Regiment were lured into a building which was detonated. Only 4 survived. In retaliation, they shelled a building housing 40 or 50 Germans. Some suggested pulling out, but Vokes felt that far too many Canadians had died, so he ordered the fighting to continue.

Ortona Cemetery. Photo Credit.

Although Hitler gave the order to hold Ortona at all costs, the Germans had had enough. Late that night, they began retreating in small, orderly groups. The following morning, the Canadians were met with silence. It took them a while to realize that the Germans had left.

By then some 2,600 Canadians and over 800 Germans had lost their lives. While most of the residents had obeyed the evacuation order, about 1,300 chose to stay and paid with their lives.

On 25 December 1998, German and Canadian survivors of the battle reunited at Ortona to bury the past and forgive what could not be forgotten.


It was called the "Italian Stalingrad": in 1943 Canadian soldiers, German troops and Italian civilians were all victims of a single tragic fate in Ortona. An event that has helped build a common history and whose memory helps and strengthens the relationship and the strategic cooperation between peoples, once enemies, who are now leaders of a new world order.

Laura Borzi*

The dynamics of multilateral cooperation, which characterized the post-1945 world, suffered a setback from the beginning of the 21st century. The story "returns protagonist", although over two decades ago, in the enthusiasm of a pacified world with the finish of the conflict between irreconcilable ideologies, we were quick to decree the end.

Throughout the year that is about to end, there have been demonstrations, remebrances, events to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. The President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, during the demonstrations for November 4, has observed that "celebrating together the end of the war and jointly honoring all the fallen of the war means to strongly insist, all together, that instead of war we prefer to develop friendship and cooperation ".

After the First World War, the diktat of Versailles and the other peace treaties of 1919-20 failed to respond adequately to the deep and often contradictory demands of the peoples and governments, and the failure to reconstruct the European balance ended up nourishing the germs of a new global war.

This was evident to the Allies after the victory over Nazi-fascism and the end of the Second World War. Therefore, we opted for an economic reconstruction of the former enemy states, favoring (with the Marshall Plan) the recovery and at least the initial integration of the EU economies. They wanted to spread the idea that the enrichment of nations could be pursued through economic development and not through the war. With the construction of multilateral institutions, first the United Nations, an international organization aimed at containing winners and losers in an appropriate legal framework, an attempt was made to create a system that would ban war as a means of resolving international disputes.

THE COMMON HISTORY AND THE SHARED VALUES BETWEEN EUROPE AND CANADA

We find ourselves today in a world completely changed by a system of power, by the presence of new actors, due to the fragmentation and diffusion of transnational threats.

The war in the past was a tool for resolving a political conflict, while today conflicts play the role of an intermediate phase, to arrive at the creation of conditions that are completely different from those previously used. The war was the symbol of the strength and power of the states, while today it is rather a sign of their failure to collapse corporate contracts, the weakness of human development, the asphyxiation of the political aspect.

Today, more than ever, the challenge is to affirm that democracy is a moving universe and not an immobile system and the war must be rejected, starting from the recovery of the importance of history and its dramas.

Faced with the international political debate, it is worth mentioning the fierce and bloody battle of Ortona, fought from December 20 to 28, 1943, which made victims among the Canadian soldiers along with Italian civilians, and among the German troops.

Canada, Germany and Italy are now allies and friends members of the Atlantic Alliance, the regional organization born of a need for military defense based on a commonality of values and interests, but it is interesting to note how history reminds us that the friendship with Canada, which shares a system of inalienable values with Europe, can contribute to a global rebalancing as a space for exchange and cooperation. Within the West, now no longer the center of gravity of the world, the consolidation, and strengthening of political relationships, commercial and cultural exchanges is to be considered a commitment to remove and dampen conflicts in whatever form they may manifest.

The values of democracy and the West are in crisis in the present international panorama and the memory of the battle of Ortona, but in general of the European war of three generations (from the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870, to the Second World War) can serve today to settle the relationship between the protagonists of the time and the friendship between peoples. The enemies of the past, Canada, Italy, Germany, as individual states and through the strategic cooperation (EU-Canada Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2017, just to be clear) after 75 years, they still have the responsibility of rebuilding an international order that has suffered huge landslides in the last quarter of a century and in which there is widespread conflict.

Area of the Sangro and Moro Campaigns, Italy November and December 1943

THE BATTLE OF ORTONA OF 1943: THE ITALIAN STALINGRAD

The battle for Ortona known as the Italian Stalingrad is a not particularly well-known episode of the Second World War, but it is unique on the western front due to the type of clash and the very high price paid, with more than two thousand fallen Canadians.

The victory of the Soviets at Stalingrad and the weight sustained by them against the enemy in Europe led them to request the opening of a new front since 1942. At the end of 1943, while on the western front there was a standoff situation, it was necessary to give visibility to the allied action with a media and political operation that gave a concrete signal to Stalin. Soviet "invitees" became observers on the field. Hitler ordered the Field Marshal Kesserling, Supreme Commander of the German forces in Italy, the defense of Ortona to the last man. The allied press following the troops played a primary role in the sacrifice of the citizenry of Abruzzo.

The young Canadians, numerically the triple of the enemies and logistically well organized, were eager to show their value and their courage, even if they had little experience. The German soldiers, with special forces unit, were smaller in number but with specialized equipment and grew up with the nourishment of the "Fὕrerprinzip" of obedience characteristic of the Hitler Youth.

The conquest and defense of Ortona became for both parties a lethal and inseparable union of propaganda and morality.

Ortona saw the victory of the Canadians on the orders of General Christopher Vokes, but the German troops, the specialists of the first division of the paratroopers Fallschirmjäger under the command of Richard Heidrich of the Luftwaffe, managed to stop the enemy's advance by breaking it down in every part of the city conquered. The Germans lined up 5 km to the north where they resisted for months until in June of the following year the Italian capital will be freed.

It was not the Germans or the Canadians who defined Ortona "the Italian Stalingrad", but the comparison was immediate. The Battle of Stalingrad had been fought in January 1943, while the Battle of Ortona nearly a year later, in December 1943. There were many similarities, despite the diversity in the order of magnitude, the extent of the forces in the field and consequently the relative losses in terms of victims and destruction.

In Stalingrad first and then in Ortona, the medieval battle was evoked in a modern key: body to body, house by house, room by room these are the words used for both clashes, in an urban setting, a hell paved with explosive traps. The war in the past had been that of the clash in large spaces, there was no fighting in the cities. The fighting in the urban scenario was rather relegated to the Middle Ages.

At the beginning Ortona, like Stalingrad, was considered a strategic goal, but with reversed roles. Hitler had conceived an enveloping maneuver to the east, allowing the Wehrmacht to seize the oil resources desperately needed to Germany. The allies had the objective to break through Ortona, take a pincer maneuver through Rome Tiburtina and force the enemy to retreat or surrender.

But all the plans on paper have to deal with reality, and so the battle for Ortona will end up shattering, splitting into a series of tactical objectives that have as protagonists above all the simple soldiers, the ordinary men.

In the days when nothing happened on the western front, Hitler himself asked for news from Ortona as if the fate of the entire Italian campaign depended on this battle. Certainly, the Germans were motivated to fight in the peninsula to defend Germany from the allied bombings, but the fury on the Ortona objective was for all due to a matter of political propaganda.

The historian Marco Patricelli told during a public intervention in Ortona: «The German snipers controlled the ranks of the Canadians trying to eliminate the officers because this meant leaving men without orders, even the bullets have a specific weight, considering that under the uniforms there are always men».

Infantry from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and Tanks from the Three Rivers Regiment during the Battle for Ortona.

In July 1943 with the landing in Sicily, the Allied forces had invaded the peninsula, thus opening a new front in Southern Europe. The advance towards Rome of the Americans led by General Clark had stopped in Cassino, while the 8th Anglo-Canadian army under the orders of Bernard Montgomery had run aground, going up the Adriatic coast to Ortona. The small town of the Italian region of Abruzzo was the eastern point of the Gustav line, the fortification built by Hitler to stop the invasion of Italy. The strategic goal of the Allies, to break through Ortona and from Pescara to reach Rome, was however conceived by underestimating the difficult weather conditions that would be presented to them by crossing the Apennines Mountains of Abruzzo at the end of the autumn.

The offensive of the Sangro was delayed precisely because of the rainy weather and the swelling of the river, but on November 28, the attack began on a large scale and after 2 days of fighting a strategic ridge was obtained on the river costing about 2,800 victims. The Germans retreated on the river Moro preparing for another fight.

This was the first division level battle fought by Canadians during the Second World War. All the battalions of the Infantry Division fought a desperate battle for two weeks through the valley of the Moro River.

The Canadians arrived about a kilometer from Ortona to find that the Germans had dug a deep ditch in the south bank to defend themselves from artillery fire. When the bombing ceased, the Germans jumped out to fire against the advancing Canadian infantry. "The Gorge", as it was called by the Canadians, could not be overcome by the direct attacks ordered by Volke because each attack of the single battalion was rejected with huge losses between the mud and the winter temperatures in a re-edition of trench fighting that was soon to have its deadly urban variant.

On the night between December 14 and 15, the Canadians managed to circumvent the Gorge and break the German resistance until they reached Casa Berardi, a farmhouse that constituted the first outpost of the enemy where the fighting lasted four days before the Germans stepped back. For the value shown the Captain Triquet received the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration of the Commonwealth for military courage.

It was not obvious that the Germans would remain in Ortona, in fact they could have retreated to a territory more easily to defense. Moreover, the impressions provoked by the defeat of the 6 th Army in Stalingrad, which had underlined the difficulties of fighting in an urban environment, were very recent. Finally, the Allied Forces from the west (including Indians and New Zealanders) could have cut the main artery north of Ortona by trapping the Germans in the town. Instead for non-military considerations, the events were unexpected.

In Ortona, the First Division of the Fallschirmjager, the men of the third paratrooper's Regiment, were preparing to defend the city, under the command of Liebscher, who with a battalion had stood up to an entire English Brigade during the fighting in Sicily. These men who had already fought in Norway, in Russia, in Sicily and Centuripe had distinguished themselves in urbans operations. The Germans had started to defend the city from December 12 blowing up the buildings, creating piles of rubble from which to derive ditches for the battle. In particular, the Germans blowing up the buildings of the lines that go from Porta Caldari to Piazza del Municipio but the whole city had been mined and the streets blocked with rubble prevented the passage of Sherman tanks, easy to burn once hit by the rocket launchers Panzerschreck. So the Canadian soldiers had to advance on foot. The Canadians were faced with combat in urban areas, MOUT - Military Operations in Urban Terrain. In the impossibility of venturing into the streets, the mouse-holing tactic was resorted to. It was a question of advancing not only from house to house but room by room. Once a building was freed the dividing walls were blown up and they moved in this way to the neighboring building, where however often there was the enemy waiting, so they had to build shelters before undermining the walls of the houses with a continuous adaptation to the situations that presented themselves. It was impossible to go out on the street because the Germans blew up buildings that collapsed on the soldiers when they ran away. The demolition of the tower adjacent to the Cathedral of St. Thomas, probably bombarded by the allied naval artillery to remove the enemy from a vantage point, caused the regiment D of the Edmonton Regiment to be isolated in an attempt to advance: of the 60 men who they constituted the regiment, only 17 remained alive. However, they managed to gain ground, gaining reinforcements from other companies of the same battalion: the Seaforth Highlanders and the wagons of the Three Rivers Regiment arrived. These two infantry battalions and a single-tank regiment carried on a very tough fight for eight days. The attempt by two Canadian brigades to reach the city from the west was blocked by the Germans. Only on December 28th a patrol of Edmond discovered that in the night, the Germans were out of the town.

The Allies paid a very expensive price for a propaganda objective, they managed to expel the Germans from Ortona, who, with a few men, had delayed the enemy's advance. 1,300 was the number of civilian deaths, 2 German divisions lacerate between the Battle of the Moro and Ortona, while for Canadians there were more than 2,300 victims.

In Abruzzo they fought for Rome, this explains the strenuous defense from Sangro to Moro. In Abruzzo they fought to defend Germany from the allied bombings, blocking the enemy in the Italian campaign. In Ortona, however, they fought above all because captured by a murderous whirlwind of prestige and propaganda from which derived an absurd carnage with innumerables deaths.

Today the relationships between Ortona and Canada can only be profound, in memory of what happened. The city has been officially declared a place of national interest for Canada, where the Italian community has many emigrants from Abruzzo. Since 2002 in Ortona the Battle Museum (MUBA) has been created, housed in the premises of the former convent of S. Anna, to pay homage to the fallen Ortonese and to all the soldiers who lost their lives to defend the city.

In September 2018 the "Ortona Challenge" running race took place, at the same time as the one organized in Ottawa by the Canadian army, and a solemn ceremony was held at the Canadian War Cemetery, the Moro River Canadian Cemetry, near Ortona, in the presence of the Canadian Ambassador, Alexandra Bugailiskis, who on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Ortona had a very particularly profound meaning.

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British Infantry Divisions

Six British infantry divisions fought at varying stages of the Italian campaign.

The 1 Infantry Division was a pre-war Regular Army formation, which was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. In March 1943, it was deployed to Tunisia and then used to secure the Island of Pantelleria. From there, it went on to Italy, arriving on 7 December 1943. The division landed at Anzio on 22 January 1944 under the command of the U.S. VI Corps. It sustained heavy casualties during the battle for Anzio. It remained in the Anzio beach-head until the breakout. It then rested and refitted after its long period on front-line duty. The division was involved in the battle for the Gothic Line between 25 August and 22 September 1944. It left Italy on 27 January 1945 to transfer to Palestine, where it arrived on 2 February. It served in Palestine until the end of the war. The division remained on active service in the Middle East until returning to the United Kingdom in 1955.

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The 4 Infantry Division was deployed from Egypt, and arrived in Italy on 21 February 1944. It took part in the second battle for Cassino between 11 and 18 May 1944, under the command of XIII Corps. It participated in the battle for the Trasimere Line between 20 and 30 June 1944, the advance to Arezzo between 4 and 17 July 1944 and the advance to Florence between 17 July and 10 August. On 11 August 1944, the division transferred to V Corps, and then to I Canadian Corps on 7 September 1944 for the battle of the Rimini Line which commenced on 14 September. The battle concluded on 21 September and the division returned to V Corps on 1 October 1944. The division left for Greece on 12 December 1944, arriving a day later. It remained in Greece until the end of the war, and was disbanded there in March 1947.

The most widely travelled formation of the British Army in the Second World War, the 5 Infantry Division had previously served in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium, India and Iraq, with elements having also taken part in 1940 campaign in Norway and the invasion of Madagascar. The division took part in the invasion of Sicily, crossing into Italy in 3 September 1943. It took part in the battle for the River Sangro between 19 November and 3 December 1943. It was withdrawn from the mainland and landed in the Anzio beach-head on 12 March 1944, under the command of U.S. VI Corps. It fought through the battle for Anzio and onto the battle for Rome. The division left for Egypt on 3 July 1944.

The 46 Infantry Division was a second line Territorial Army formation, which was formed in 1939 as a duplicate of the 49 (West Riding) Infantry Division. It was deployed to France in April 1940 on training and labour duties. It remained in the U.K. re-equipping and refitting until leaving for North Africa on 6 January 1943. It transferred to X Corps in July 1943, and landed with the corps at Salerno in Italy on 9 September 1943. The division fought in the battles for the capture of Naples, the Volturno Crossing and the capture of Monte Camino, all under command of X Corps. It left Italy on 16 March 1944 bound for Egypt. It moved to Palestine in April 1944 and then back to Egypt in June. The division returned to Italy on 3 July 1944 and fought in the Gothic Line battles. The division was withdrawn from the line and was hurriedly transferred to Greece on 14 January 1945 to fight in the Greek Civil War. It returned to Italy on 11 April 1945. It moved onto into Austria on the 12 May.

The 56 (London) Infantry Division was a pre-war, first line Territorial Army formation. It landed at Salerno in Italy on 9 September 1943, having come from Libya. It was involved in the battles to recapture Naples in September 1943, the Volturno Crossing in October 1943, and Monte Camino in November and December 1943. In January 1944, it was involved in the battles for the Garigliano Crossing. As the position at Anzio deteriorated, the division was transferred from X Corps to the U.S. VI Corps at Anzio. The division fought in the battle to secure the bridgehead, sustaining heavy casualties. It was withdrawn from Anzio to Egypt on 28 March 1944 to refit. The final offensive in Italy commenced on 13 April 1945, with the division involved in forcing the Argenta Gap. The division remained in Italy, until it was disbanded in 1947.

The 78 Infantry Division had been deployed to North Africa in November 1942. It landed in Sicily on 26 July 1943, moving to Italy on 22 September 1943. It landed at Taranto and advanced up the Adriatic coast under the command of XXX Corps. The division fought at the Battle for Adrano between 29 July and 3 August 1943 and then crossing of the River Sangro. It took part in the Second Battle for Cassino and then the advance up the Liri Valley (Cassino III). The division fought at the battle for the Trasimene Line. It left Italy on 18 July 1944 to transfer to Egypt for a period of rest and refitting. The division returned to Italy on 15 September 1944. It took part in the final offensive with the crossing of the River Senio and then the forcing of the Argenta Gap. The division entered Austria on 8 May 1945. It remained in Austria on occupation duties until it was disbanded in August 1946.


Part V – The River Sangro

Heavy rain came to Italy during November 1943, and the opportunity for a rapidly launched assault on the German Winter Line to the north of River Sangro was lost. Several attempts to bridge the wide and rapidly flowing river failed due to the huge quantity of water now flowing down from the mountains. The bridgehead forces from 78 Division, who had crossed the Sangro in expectation of an early attack on the defence line, were now almost fully cut off from their supply lines to the south of the river.

View northwards across the Sangro valley.

A view across the Sangro during November 1943.

The 8th Army now spent over two weeks waiting for drier ground conditions to allow a build up of forces for an attack on the ridge line north of the Sangro and this delay allowed German defensive positions to be strengthened considerably both in the valley plain and on the overlooking high ground.

CQMS O’Sullivan recalled supporting the forward troops near the Sangro River, and a surprise encounter with the 8th Army Commander, General Montgomery.

“The Sangro was in full spate with great tree trunks and other debris and filled the whole valley’s full width of about three quarters of a mile. The Germans had once again harnessed nature to hold up our advance. Two heavy cruisers, which I saw steaming majestically along the coast, joined the bombardment of the enemy line.

The division was billetted south of the Sangro in Cassalbordino and surrounding farms and villages. My task each evening was to take my supplies in a decrepit jeep with a faulty clutch along miles of flooded roads to cross a quagmire near the Sangro. I then followed a road parallel to the river for about 100 yards before reaching a track to the farmhouse where the company was based. My jeep was forever breaking down. One evening, it stopped dead in the quagmire. A friendly Indian driver in a jeep pushed us out at the cost of his own clutch. I was forced to leave him as we dared not stop. The jeep failed again by the side of the flooded river in full view of the enemy and under shellfire. I push-started it and reached the battalion…

…I went to Battalion HQ and met RSM Billy Girvin outside. As we were talking, a large staff car drew up. The little general at the back responded to our salutes and called us over. It was Monty again and he handed over a large parcel. ‘Share these among the chaps,’ he said. Billy threw up a cracking salute as Monty drove off. We discovered that the parcel contained 5,000 Gallaher’s Blue Label cigarettes which would give the men in forward positions an extra day’s ration of seven cigarettes. I used to boast: ‘The last time I spoke to Monty, he gave me 5,000 cigarettes.’

Montgomery’s presence presaged an imminent fresh attack that would involve most of the 8th Army. It called for an initial wave to dismantle the perimeter fences of wires and mines. This would prepare the ground for the main attack.”


The Allies’ invasion of Italy and the Italian volte-face, 1943

From Sicily, the Allies had a wide choice of directions for their next offensive. Calabria, the “toe” of Italy, was the nearest and most obvious possible destination, and the “shin” was also vulnerable and the “heel” was also very attractive. The two army corps of Montgomery’s 8th Army crossed the Strait of Messina and landed on the “toe” of Italy on September 3, 1943 but, though the initial resistance was practically negligible, they made only very slow progress, as the terrain, with only two good roads running up the coasts of the great Calabrian “toe” prevented the deployment of large forces. On the day of the landing, however, the Italian government at last agreed to the Allies’ secret terms for a capitulation. It was understood that Italy would be treated with leniency in direct proportion to the part that it would take, as soon as possible, in the war against Germany. The capitulation was announced on September 8.

The landing on the “shin” of Italy, at Salerno, just south of Naples, was begun on September 9, by the mixed U.S.–British 5th Army, under U.S. General Mark Clark. Transported by 700 ships, 55,000 men made the initial assault, and 115,000 more followed up. At first they were faced only by the German 16th Panzer Division but Kesselring, though he had only eight weak divisions to defend all southern and central Italy, had had time to plan since the fall of Mussolini and had been expecting a blow at the “shin.” His counterstroke made the success of the Salerno landing precarious for six days, and it was not until October 1 that the 5th Army entered Naples.

By contrast, the much smaller landing on the “heel” of Italy, which had been made on September 2 (the day preceding the invasion of the “toe”), took the Germans by surprise. Notwithstanding the paucity of its strength in men and in equipment, the expedition captured two good ports, Taranto and Brindisi, in a very short time but it lacked the resources to advance promptly. Nearly a fortnight passed before another small force was landed at Bari, the next considerable port north of Brindisi, to push thence unopposed into Foggia.

It was the threat to their rear from the “heel” of Italy and from Foggia that had induced the Germans to fall back from their positions defending Naples against the 5th Army. When the Italian government, in pursuance of a Badoglio–Eisenhower agreement of September 29, declared war against Germany on October 13, 1943, Kesselring was already receiving reinforcements and consolidating the German hold on central and northern Italy. The 5th Army was checked temporarily on the Volturno River, only 20 miles north of Naples, then more lastingly on the Garigliano River, while the 8th Army, having made its way from Calabria up the Adriatic coast, was likewise held on the Sangro River. Autumn and midwinter passed without the Allies’ making any notable impression on the Germans’ Gustav Line, which ran for 100 miles from the mouth of the Garigliano through Cassino and over the Apennines to the mouth of the Sangro.


5th Army Bernhardt Line offensive [ edit | edit source ]

It had taken U.S. 5th Army, in deteriorating weather as the torrential autumn rains broke, from the middle of October to early November to fight their way across difficult terrain and through skillful and determined rearguard defences from the Volturno Line positions to the Bernhardt Line.

In the centre of the 5th Army front lay the Mignano Gap, which because of the marshy conditions on the coastal plain represented the only realistic path to the mouth of the Liri valley, the route to Rome.

Flanking and overlooking Route 6 through the Mignano Gap and its villages (San Pietro Infine, San Vittore Del Lazio and Cervaro) are, successively Monte Camino, Monte Lungo, Monte Porchia and Monte Trocchio on the left and Monte San Croce, Monte Corno, Monte Sambúcaro [nb 2] and Monte Maio on the right. Monte Sambúcaro normally appears as Monte Sammucro on Allied maps of the time. On reaching the Bernhardt positions, an immediate attack was launched by British X Corps on Monte Camino on 6 November, which was beaten back by 15th Panzergrenadier Division (15. Panzergrenadierdivision). By mid-November, it was clear that after having sustained 10,000 combat casualties since the Volturno Line offensive, 5th Army needed to pause, reorganise and re-gather its strength. ⎠]

Area of U.S. 5th Army offensive in the autumn of 1943

U.S. 5th Army resumed its attack on 1 December. The first attack—Operation Raincoat—was delivered, after an intensive artillery and air bombardment, by British X Corps on the left (comprising British 46th and 56th Infantry Divisions) and elements of U.S. II Corps, including 1st Special Service Force, on the right against the formidable Camino hill mass. The dominating peak on Monte Camino, Hill 963, is crowned by a monastery. Two slightly lower peaks, Monte la Defensa, Monte la Difensa(Hill 960) as it appeared on the military maps during the war, and Monte la Remetanea (Hill 907), lie less than 2 mi (3.2 km) north of Camino. At the upper end of the Camino feature are the numerous peaks of Monte Maggiore. The entire hill mass is about 6 mi (9.7 km) long and four miles (6.5 km) wide. On the east and northeast the slopes rise steeply to the heights, then fall away gradually to the west toward the Garigliano River. It took until 9 December before the Camino mass was secured from the 15th Panzer Grenadiers.

Meanwhile, on the 5th Army's right flank, U.S. VI Corps (comprising U.S. 34th and 45th Infantry Divisions) had attacked into the mountains but made little progress until reinforced by the mountain troops of the French Expeditionary Corps, recently arrived in Italy ⎡] they attacked again on 15 December.

On 8 December U.S. 3rd, 36th Infantry Divisions and 1st Special Service Force of U.S. II Corps launched the attack on Monte Sambúcaro [nb 2] and into the Mignano Gap. By the night of 10 December, the peaks were taken, threatening the German positions in the gap. However, the German positions at San Pietro in the valley held firm until 16 December, when an attack launched from the Camino mass took Monte Lungo. The Germans could no longer expect to hold San Pietro when the dominating ground on both flanks, Monte Lungo and the Sambúcaro [nb 2] peaks, was in II Corps' possession. Under the cover of a counterattack German forces withdrew to positions about 1 mi (1.6 km) to their rear, in front of San Vittore. Several attacks were made in the next days, and Morello Hill—overlooking the San Vittore positions from the north—was captured on 26 December.

On the VI Corps front, progress was made but proved very difficult over the mountainous terrain as the weather deteriorated further with the onset of winter. During the month of December, U.S. 5th Army suffered 5,020 wounded but total admissions to hospital totaled 22,816 with jaundice, fevers and trench foot prevalent. ⎢]

At the end of December, U.S. 5th Army had to pause once again to reorganise, replace its losses and gather itself for a final push to reach the Gustav Line defences. U.S. VI Corps was taken into reserve to train and prepare for the Anzio landings with the French troops, by this time at corps strength, taking over their front. ⎣]

U.S. II Corps returned to the attack on 4 January 1944, with attacks parallel to Route 6 north and south of it. The northern attack took San Vittore, and by 7 January the overlooking height of La Chiaia. On the south side, the attack was made from Monte Lungo and captured Monte Porchia. Meanwhile on their left, British X Corps had attacked from positions on the Camino mass to take on 8 January the Cedro hill which with Monte Chiaia and Monte Porchia had formed a strong defensive line in front of Monte Trocchio. ⎤]

The last offensive to clear the enemy in front of the Gustav defences started on 10 January. Cervaro was taken on 12 January and the overlooking hills to the north on 13 January. This opened up the northern flank of Monte Trocchio, and a heavy assault was planned for 15 January. However, the German XIV Panzer Corps considered the position to be untenable and withdrew across the Rapido. When II Corps moved forward on 15 January, they encountered no resistance. ⎥]


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