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Posted on Mar 6, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Canadians in Italy, Part 1, The Battle of Ortona

By Danny Bouchard

This article is the first installment of many on the Canadian participations in conflicts ranging from the colonial times (XVIIth century) to Korea and Peacekeeping. It is not meant to be exhaustive, but informative. This first installment is dedicated to a true Canadian hero: my wife’s grandfather, gunner Robert Béland, who served as a volunteer with the Canadian Army from 1940 to 1945.

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In September 1939, Canada followed France and Britain in declaring war against Nazi Germany. The 1st Division found itself in Great-Britain by the year’s end, defending the island from a potential German invasion. For the better part of 3 years, the 1st Division trained, drilled, participated in sporting events and… defended against an invasion that never came. By 1943, this was evident and the Canadian government, under public pressure, advised the British government that the Canadians wanted to see their soldiers get into the fight. In the summer of 1943, the men of the 1st Division, the Canadian Government and the public got what they wished for: Operation Husky – the invasion of the European soft underbelly; Italy. The invasion would begin with an amphibious assault on the island of Sicily and the 1st Division would play an important part in this operation. Canada’s young men and women would embark on the war’s longest campaign up the Italian peninsula.

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Canadian advance 1943 (The Canadians in Italy 1943-1945)

By the fall of 1943, Italy had been out of the war since September 8th; the Germans had surrendered in North Africa and were being pushed back by the Soviets in the East. But the Germans wouldn’t give up Italy without a fight. The Italian mainland was well suited for defense and the Germans were experts at this. Blown bridges, mine fields, booby traps, snipers, the Germans were indeed masters. The German plan wasn’t to drive the Allies out of Italy but to fight a delaying action and make them pay dearly. These tactics allowed the Germans to setup their winter defensive line roughly from the Monte Cassino Abbey to just south of Ortona. By mid-November, 1 Cdn Division had advanced 500 kilometers from their point of landing at Reggio di Calabria.

The Plan

Montgomery ordered that 5th Corps break out and cross the Moro River. The capture of Ortona and Pescara would allow 8th Army to turn west and outflank the Germans and open the road for Rome. If the plan worked, Montgomery would beat General Mark Clarke in capturing Rome. 1st Canadian Infantry Division would not only take part in the offensive, but would bear the brunt of the tough and hard fighting that lay ahead. US forces were to attack in the Monte Cassino area.

The Moro River crossing

In December 1943, the 1st Division was on the opposite side of the Moro River. Facing it, remnants of the German 90th Panzer Grenadier Division and the 26th Panzer Division (*1) were very well dug in and waiting for the inevitable crossing. At midnight on the 6th of December 1943, 2 battalions of the 2nd Brigade, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (P.P.C.L.I.) and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada crossed under cover of darkness, without any preliminary bombardment and took the Germans by surprise, while the 1st Brigade would perform a diversionary attack. Key objectives were being captured by the PPCLI’s but the Seaforth’s were running into problems. Heavy machine gun fire, mortar and artillery fire kept the companies pinned down. They could only hope that by the coming daylight armor and artillery would be able to break the defenses. German counter-attacks were beaten back with heavy German losses. The Germans were throwing everything at the Canadians including Mark IV tanks but the Canadians were not moving and defended their positions gallantly. By the end of the counter-attack, the PPCLI had suffered 68 casualties including 8 taken prisoner (*2) but had mauled the Germans. By the 10th the crossing was achieved and the Canadians were preparing for their advance on Ortona. On the road to Ortona, the Canadians would face a terrific defensive position, a ravine they called “The Gully”. Far worse was yet to come.

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