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The Battle of Ortona (20–28 December 1943)[1] was a battle fought between two battalions of elite German Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) from the German 1st Parachute Division under Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich, and assaulting Canadian troops from the Canadian 1st Infantry Division under Major General Chris Vokes, most of whom were fresh recruits whose first taste of combat was during the Invasion of Sicily. It was the culmination of the fighting on the Adriatic front in Italy during "Bloody December". The battle was known to those who fought it as the "Italian Stalingrad,"[6][7] for the brutality of its close-quarters combat, which was only worsened by the chaotic rubble of the town and the many booby traps used by both sides. The battle took place in the small Adriatic Sea town of Ortona, with a peacetime population of 10,000.

Battle of Ortona
Part of the Moro River Campaign, of the Italian Campaign, World War II
Canadian Armour Passing Through Ortona, by Charles Comfort. Canadian War Museum (CN 12245).
Date20–28 December 1943[1]
Ortona, Italy

Canadian victory

 Canada  Germany
In support of:
 Italian Social Republic
Commanders and leaders
Canada Christopher Vokes Nazi Germany Richard Heidrich
Canada 1st Infantry Division Nazi Germany 1st Fallschirmjäger Division
Casualties and losses
1,375 killed (including Moro River battles)
964 wounded[nb 1]
867 killed.[5]
1,300 civilians dead[6]



The British Eighth Army's offensive on the Winter Line defences east of the Apennine mountains had commenced on 23 November with the crossing of the river Sangro. By the end of the month, the main Gustav Line defences had been penetrated and the Allied troops were fighting their way forward to the next river, the Moro, 4 miles (6.4 km) north of the mouth of which lay Ortona. For the Moro crossing in early December the exhausted British 78th Infantry Division on the Allied right flank on the Adriatic coast had been relieved by the Canadian 1st Infantry Division, under Major-General Christopher Vokes.[8] By mid-December, after fierce fighting in the cold and mud, the Division's 1st Infantry Brigade had fought its way to within 2 mi (3.2 km) of Ortona and was relieved by the 2nd Infantry Brigade for the advance on the town.

Ortona was of high strategic importance, as it was one of Italy's few usable deep water ports on the east coast, and was needed for docking allied ships and to shorten Eighth Army's lines of supply which at the time stretched back to Bari and Taranto. Allied forces were ordered to maintain the offensive, and going through the built-up areas in and around Ortona was the only feasible option. Ortona was part of the Winter Line defence system and the Germans had constructed a series of interlocking defensive positions in the town. This—together with the fact that the Germans had been ordered to "fight for every last house and tree"—[9][10] made the town a formidable obstacle to any attacking force.


Canadian sniper at the Battle of Ortona
Ortona's castle today

The Canadians faced elements of the renowned German 1st Parachute Division.[Note 1] These soldiers were battle-hardened after many years of war, and defended doggedly.

The initial Canadian attack on the town was made on 20 December by Canadian 2nd Brigade's Loyal Edmonton Regiment with elements of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada under command.[10] Meanwhile, elements of the division's 3rd Infantry Brigade launched a northerly attack to the west of the town in attempt to outflank and cut off the town's rear communications but made slow progress because of the difficult terrain and the skillful and determined German defence.

The Germans also concealed various machine guns and anti-tank emplacements throughout the town, making movement by armour and infantry increasingly difficult.[11] The house-to-house fighting was vicious and the Canadians made use of a new tactic: "mouse-holing". This tactic involved using weapons such as the PIAT (or even cumbersome anti-tank guns) to breach the walls of a building, as houses within Ortona shared adjoining walls.[11] The soldiers would then throw in grenades and assault through the mouse holes, clearing the top floors and making their way down, where both adversaries struggled in repeated close-quarters combat.[10] Mouse-holing was also used to pierce through walls into adjoining rooms, sometimes catching enemy troops by surprise. The tactic would be used repeatedly as assaulting through the streets caused heavy casualties for both Canadian and German troops.[12] Throughout the battle, engineers on both sides used the brutal but effective tactic of using demolition charges to collapse entire buildings on top of enemy troops.[13] After six days of combat, 2nd Brigade's third battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, joined the battle together with tanks from 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade's Three Rivers Regiment.

On 28 December, after eight days of fighting, the depleted German troops finally withdrew from the town. The Canadians suffered 1,375 dead[3] during the Moro River battles of which Ortona was a part. This represented almost a quarter of all Canadians killed during the entire Italian Campaign.


See alsoEdit



  1. ^ "the best German troops in Italy" in [General] Alexander's estimation. Atkinson 2013, p. 303
  1. ^ Mainly Canadian. Includes losses to the Loyal Edmonton Regiment of 172 casualties, of which 63 killed; the Seaforth Highlanders 103, of which 41 killed.[2] Sources are often confused between figures for the eight days of fighting at Ortona and those for the whole of the December campaign. Zuehlke gives Canadian losses for this period of 1375 dead and 964 wounded[3] while the website says casualties for Canadian 1st Infantry Division in December (including 1st Brigade's crossing of the Moro, 2nd Brigade's fighting in the town and 3rd Brigade's attempted outflanking attack) totaled 4,206 including 695 killed.[4]


  1. ^ a b Canada at War website: Battle of Ortona
  2. ^ Landry, Pierre (2003). Beauregard, Marc, ed. "Juno Beach Center: The Capture of Ortona". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  3. ^ a b Zuehlke (1999),[page needed]
  4. ^ " Ortona". Archived from the original on 2007-09-26. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  5. ^ Fabio Toncelli. Sd Cinematografica, ed. "ORTONA 1943: UN NATALE DI SANGUE, Page 10" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 31 August 2015.
  6. ^ a b Zuehlke (1999)[page needed]
  7. ^ Atkinson, p. 305
  8. ^ Zuehlke (1999), p. 14
  9. ^ Farley Mowat, And No Birds Sang.
  10. ^ a b c Zuehlke (1999), p. 160
  11. ^ a b Bercuson, p. 175
  12. ^ Atkinson, p. 305-6.
  13. ^ Zuehlke (1999), p. 343


External linksEdit