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Ortona, Italy, 1944: Canadian troops arrive after a hard-fought battle for the Adriatic port city. The conflict is known as 'Little Stalingrad' for its fierce house-to-house combat and high death toll.

Canadian Department of National Defence/Reuters

Everything before Ortona was a fairy tale.” – Major-General Christopher Vokes, commander of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division in Italy, 1943

The Canadian war monument in the heart of Ortona, the Italian city on the Adriatic coast, does not paint a picture of glory. It depicts a Canadian infantryman on his knees comforting a fallen comrade who lies before him, dying. The monument, installed in Ortona in 1999 by the battle’s Canadian veterans, is called the Price of Peace.

Friday, Dec. 28, marks the 75th anniversary of the Canadian victory at the Battle of Ortona, one of the fiercest battles of the Second World War and the only example of house-to-house urban combat in the war’s Western European theatre. Known as “Little Stalingrad,” Ortona was Canada’s first big stand-alone victory of the war but it came at a huge cost.

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The total casualties of the Canadian 1st Infantry Division – dead, wounded and missing – in the battles in and around Ortona in the month of December, including the savage Moro River campaign immediately south of Ortona, totalled 2,339 men, of whom 502 were killed. The Canadian war cemetery just outside Ortona holds the graves of 1,375 Canadians who were killed in the region. It is the biggest Canadian military cemetery in Italy and one of the biggest in Europe.

The German casualties were also atrocious but they were fewer than the Canadian losses. According to military historian Mark Zuehlke’s gripping book Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle, the German 1st Parachute Division, the elite soldiers who defended Ortona itself between Dec. 20 and Dec. 28, officially reported 455 casualties (the figure excludes the heavy Moro River losses taken by another German fighting unit, the 90th Panzergrenadier Division). The Germans didn’t consider Ortona a defeat. There was no mass surrender. The paratroopers vanished like ghosts three days after Christmas, leaving the utterly destroyed city to the Canadians.

Today, only a few Canadian veterans survive, each of them well into their 90s. One of them is Edmund (Ted) Griffiths, who was a Sherman tank commander in the Three Rivers Regiment in the Moro River and Ortona battles. Stoutly built, with a white beard, he is 96 and lives in the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre in Ottawa, where he gets around in a wheelchair. He was born in London, Ont., is the son of a First World War veteran and worked for many years as an executive assistant to John Turner, the former Liberal Party leader and prime minister.

Edmund (Ted) Griffiths, 96, speaks with The Globe and Mail about his experiences at Ortona in a veterans' health centre in Ottawa. Pictured below are his Canadian Army identification and dog tags.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Interviewed by The Globe and Mail just before Christmas, Mr. Griffiths said he landed with the Allies in Sicily in July, 1943, and fought his way up Italy’s eastern coast with the 1st Canadian Division, which was part of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army. At first, in Sicily, the Canadians were met with little resistance. “Only met Italians in the beginning and they wanted to make love, not war,” he said.

The fighting intensified the farther north they went and became brutal by the time they reached the Moro River in early December as the Germans dug in along the Gustav Line, which stretched across the Italian peninsula, preventing the Allies from reaching Rome.

He remembers the Germans having filled the narrow streets of Ortona with enormous piles of rubble from demolished buildings. Prevented from moving forward in the clogged streets, the Canadians were in effect funnelled into the few unclogged streets – a trap – where they were mowed down with MG42 machine guns, capable of firing 1,200 bullets a minute, or blown up in booby-trapped buildings. To avoid the streets, the Canadians pioneered "mouse-holing,” which saw them blast holes through the walls of adjoining houses so they could flush out the Germans and keep moving through the town.

mouse-holing at ortona

The battle to take Ortona featured some of the bloodiest house-to-house fighting of the Second World War. To avoid the deadly crossfire slicing down heavily mined streets piled high with rubble, Canadian soldiers resorted to ‘mouse-holing’ or using explosives to blast their way through building walls, clearing each house one by one.

Attached houses

or buildings

Mouse

hole

Mouse

hole

Enemy machine

gun or sniper fire

The process

Soldiers entered a building through a

breach in the outer wall or used explosive

charges or PIAT anti-tank guns to blast

a hole and gain access

After entering, infantrymen would clear a

house working their way up, breaching an

interior wall, then clearing down in the

next building

Interior walls could be breached

with explosives

The Germans created obstacles with

strewn rubble and mines to impede the

passage of armoured vehicles

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

Canadian military engineers Association; pbs

america, Ortona 1943: A Very Bloody Christmas

mouse-holing at ortona

The battle to take Ortona featured some of the bloodiest house-to-house fighting of the Second World War. To avoid the deadly crossfire slicing down heavily mined streets piled high with rubble, Canadian soldiers resorted to ‘mouse-holing’ or using explosives to blast their way through building walls, clearing each house one by one.

Attached houses

or buildings

Mouse

hole

Mouse

hole

Enemy machine

gun or sniper fire

The process

Soldiers entered a building through a breach in

the outer wall or used explosive charges or PIAT

anti-tank guns to blast a hole and gain access

After entering, infantrymen would clear a house

working their way up, breaching an interior wall,

then clearing down in the next building

Interior walls could be breached with explosives

The Germans created obstacles with strewn

rubble and mines to impede the passage

of armoured vehicles

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

Canadian military engineers Association; pbs

america, Ortona 1943: A Very Bloody Christmas

mouse-holing at ortona

The battle to take Ortona featured some of the bloodiest house-to-house fighting of the Second World War. To avoid the deadly crossfire slicing down heavily mined streets piled high with rubble, Canadian soldiers resorted to ‘mouse-holing’ or using explosives to blast their way through building walls, clearing each house one by one.

Attached houses

or buildings

Interior walls could be

breached with explosives

Enemy machine

gun or sniper fire

Mouse

hole

Mouse

hole

The Germans created

obstacles with strewn

rubble and mines to

impede the passage

of armoured vehicles

After entering, infantrymen

would clear a house working

their way up, breaching an

interior wall, then clearing

down in the next building

Soldiers entered a building

through a breach in the outer

wall or used explosive charges

or PIAT anti-tank guns to blast

a hole and gain access

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

Canadian military engineers Association; pbs

america, Ortona 1943: A Very Bloody Christmas

mouse-holing at ortona

The battle to take Ortona featured some of the bloodiest house-to-house fighting of the Second World War. To avoid the deadly crossfire slicing down heavily mined streets piled high with rubble, Canadian soldiers resorted to ‘mouse-holing’ or using explosives to blast their way through building walls, clearing each house one by one.

Attached houses

or buildings

Interior walls could be

breached with explosives

Enemy machine

gun or sniper fire

Mouse

hole

Mouse

hole

The Germans created ob-

stacles with strewn rubble

and mines to impede the

passage of armoured vehicles

After entering, infantrymen would

clear a house working their way up,

breaching an interior wall, then

clearing down in the next building

Soldiers entered a building through

a breach in the outer wall or used

explosive charges or PIAT anti-tank

guns to blast a hole and gain access

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

Canadian military engineers Association; pbs

america, Ortona 1943: A Very Bloody Christmas

mouse-holing at ortona

The battle to take Ortona featured some of the bloodiest house-to-house fighting of the Second World War. To avoid the deadly crossfire slicing down heavily mined streets piled high with rubble, Canadian soldiers resorted to ‘mouse-holing’ or using explosives to blast their way through building walls, clearing each house one by one.

Attached houses

or buildings

Interior walls could be

breached with explosives

Enemy machine

gun or sniper fire

Mouse

hole

Mouse

hole

The Germans created obstacles

with strewn rubble and mines

to impede the passage

of armoured vehicles

After entering, infantrymen would

clear a house working their way up,

breaching an interior wall, then clearing

down in the next building

Soldiers entered a building through a

breach in the outer wall or used explosive

charges or PIAT anti-tank guns to blast

a hole and gain access

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

Canadian military engineers Association; pbs

america, Ortona 1943: A Very Bloody Christmas

At one point after the famous Christmas Eve dinner, where the Canadian soldiers rotated in and out of a church courtyard for their first warm meal in weeks, Mr. Griffiths got lost in the alleyways and ran into a lone German soldier. In his memoirs, he wrote: “Lunging forward I drove a knife in deeply just above the belt buckle then swiftly drew it upward, effectively gutting him before he could utter a sound.”

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Mr. Griffiths returned the next day and, after going through the dead German’s pockets, learned that his victim had yet to reach his 17th birthday.

Then there were the sticky bombs. “They had a bomb that they could slap against the tank and it would stick and explode a moment later." Mr. Griffiths said the Germans "used to go up into the second story of a building and as you moved along, they would lean out and drop these sticky bombs which glommed onto the top of the tank, which was the weakest point of the tank. And it would blow in and kill the crew.”

By Dec. 26, six days after the battle for Ortona started, the Canadians had advanced only 400 metres into the city. At one point, Maj.-Gen. Vokes, the Canadian commander, considered calling off his apparently futile frontal assault.

But Gen. Montgomery had ordered Ortona to be taken and Adolf Hitler had ordered the city to be defended. An Italian documentary about Ortona called Bloody Christmas, which made its debut on the 65th anniversary of the battle, confirmed the battle’s political nature by revealing that Joseph Stalin had taken a keen interest in Ortona. He sent observers to the site. They returned to the Soviet Union well aware that the Allies were fighting hard in Europe, not just drinking beer while the Soviets took horrendous losses against the Germans on the Eastern front. Remember, this was six months before D-Day.

Mr. Griffiths said he felt no sense of victory on Dec. 28. “I don’t think we thought about that,” he said.

Perhaps the Canadians were simply too exhausted and had suffered too many losses to relish their hard-fought win. But Mr. Griffiths said the British 8th Army commanders were impressed by the Canadians’ determination. “The British took the Canadians for granted and we had to teach them a little respect,” he said. “It was an important battle in the sense that it was longer and bloodier than some of the ones that preceded it and some of the ones after it.”

A painting of Mr. Griffiths wearing his medals. He says he felt no sense of victory when Ortona came firmly into Canadian hands.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

The Battle of Ortona was largely forgotten after the war, even if it was big news during the war – the CBC war correspondents Matthew Halton and Peter Stursberg had risked their lives covering Ortona. The 1st Canadian Division received more glory for its role in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945. Gen. Montgomery did not even mention the battle in his memoirs.

On the 75th anniversary of the Canadian victory, ceremonies, including an oratorio written by former poet laureate George Elliott Clarke, are being held at Ortona. But the federal government is not sending a minister. The Ortona literature is limited to a small number of books whose authors tried to determine why the Allies considered the minor port town such a crucial target, and why the Germans chose to defend it. The debate continues to this day.

The oldest residents of Ortona have not forgotten the battle. Absolutely every family was effected in some way by the fighting, some tragically so – more than 1,300 civilians died in the onslaught. The grandmother of Leo Castiglione, the current Mayor of Ortona, was killed in the battle and his father, then a child, was wounded. Not all the stories are grim. As in all wars, there are incidents of epic bravery and small miracles.

Tommaso Cespa, 85, a former metal worker, was 10 years old during the battle. On Dec. 21, 1943, he and his parents fled Ortona with members of another family, not all of whom could escape – a few were trapped in the city without food or water as buildings around them were blown apart in German and Canadian attacks. The other family’s small back dog, Bric, was with the group that had escaped. They wrote a message to the effect of “We will come soon to bring you food – don’t give up hope.” The message was tied to the dog’s neck and he was told to “go home.”

Bric scurried off through the battle and found the family. Two days later, a relief party bearing food made it to the hungry family members. “They were safe,” Mr. Cespa said. “I’ll never forget that dog. It was a hero.”

With the help of the Canadian veterans and a local British guide and translator, Angela Arnone, Ortona has built a small museum devoted to the battle and is trying to raise funds to enlarge it. Some still visit the vast and heart-rending Canadian war cemetery, where one of the graves belongs to Gordon Ott, of Brantford, Ont., who was a private in the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, known as the Hasty Ps. He was just 16 years old.

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Canadian war graves at Moro River, Italy, near Ortona.

Roger Hallett/The Globe and Mail




At Ortona: An oratorio, by George Elliott Clarke

Canada’s former poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, wrote a poem that will be read on Dec. 28 at Ortona for the 75th anniversary of the battle. Here is the full text.

Stalingrado. Apello per la pace. —Photo exhibit poster, City of Ortona, Italy (August 29-September 9, 2018)

I

September’s Calabrese sun — Plus passing of each assassin — Those black-hearted, black-shirted few Who told peasants to suck up dew And chew dust. Well, basta! They’re done!

Before our troops, they stoop — or run! Scarcely dare they point a gun. But still we tramp and them pursue — To Ortona.

On we progress! Press each bastion (Fascists backed by Nazi faction), Who top each peak and from these spew Bullets, so ruddy blood plays dew, Sprays grass…. But we Canucks forge on — To Ortona.

II

Off Sicily, northward pressing Through Calabria, undressing To suit sirocco, cool the head, We free the poor to store their bread. Liberation’s our progressing!

But our foe’s dour and distressing! Shelling, sniping, keep us guessing Where land-mines lurk to quirk our tread — To Ortona.

Mussolini’s fall? A blessing! But Hitler’s troops have us stressing O’er which of us might next fall dead — Or which friend dies for us instead — As e’er northward we keep pressing — To Ortona.

III

File through vineyard and olive grove. Exchange for wine, paired boot or glove: Poverty is the peasant’s cross. We trade rationed soap for cactus Meat (a cantaloupe-tasty trove).

Unto cliff-hung pillboxes, rove We, our pure mettle to prove. Never can we lounge, loll, in moss, Til Ortona!

From peak to peak, we switchback, cross; Serve our foes each skirmish a loss. But they just shrug, pack up, and move! — Crushing grapes, crashing olive grove — Still to bleed us as pale as ghosts — Til Ortona.

IV

Dawns now December. The Moro River beckons. Soon, tomorrow, We’ll smash the Gustav Line and make Way to Rome…. No: A double-take! Dug in’s the foe: Their slugs arrow!

Guns splatter blaze; shots furrow Black tide. We strive to burrow In guck, muck, black as devil’s cake! — At Ortona.

Rain streaks icy, whites the Moro With each drop. Tears borne of Sorrow Streak faces while bullets strafe, stake, Dark tides, where friends float in wan wake, Face-up, whitening the Moro, At Ortona.

V

Dec. 10th: Three Rivers fellows surge, Plus the Loyal West Eddies emerge And seize a house — the upper floors — Then rain down fire with scorching force. Ortona’s “open” at their urge!

But streets are ruins; church bells clang dirge. Machine-gun nests spray lead to splurge — E’en from cathedral towers, of course — At Ortona.

Tanks can’t clear wreckage, though we urge, Strive in vain. Booby-traps emerge At careless steps. TNT cores Scores. Shell-shocked, spooked, bolts a black horse! But sly shots mare — and owner — purge — At Ortona.

VI

What nightmare is, that’s “Dead Horse Square” — Blood twice-steaming up frost-creamed air — From shot through horse and man shot now — Screaming — then slaughtered, pow-pow-pow — At Lil Stalingrad’s “Guernica.”

But miraculous bleeds the blare Of bagpipes, so that cannons’ swear And all guns quell — quiet — brief — now — At Ortona.

Seaforth Highlanders — cavalier — Piped: Honeyed brogue pleased each eased ear, German and Canadian now — Music to smooth each troubled brow — As if deceased could be Death-Fear At Ortona.

VII

Now Captain Bill Longhurst’s plotted A scheme to bypass streets clotted With rubble, but still clear each house Where sly foes lurk: To act a mouse — And forge a hole! Walls, allotted

Plastic explosives, thus dotted, Detonated, smash as slotted, So Canucks charge, barge through each house, At Ortona.

Hostiles, one by one, are halted, Hand-to-hand, their haunts now swatted By fire and smoke. Each Canuck “mouse” Leaps through holes, sweeps through gutted house; Thus, the holed-up rival’s routed — At Ortona.

VIII

War is risks, hazards, Happenstance: Death frisks with grisly Nonchalance Soldiers and civilians. But, one Canuck crossed four times a mined run To save two gals. Brave was his stance —

To piggy back each fille — and chance Death, if his feet had played askance — If just one misstep had he done — At Ortona.

To thank this lad for his balance — The young gals skirted all Romance, But scoured Canuck threads til they shone — Bundled — for pick-up — fresh wash done: But some nevermore had the chance — At Ortona.

IX

(Years later, the sisters, now aged, Laid a rose yearly where’d languished Dying troops.) Ortonans—innocents — Cringed in tunnels, cowered in basements, While bombshells and bullets had raged.

In homes — and hospital — War’d staged Massacres — Sorrow — unassuaged. Cadavers be War’s consequence — At Ortona.

Citizens, blasted and damaged — Their limbs blown off where shrapnel plagued — Once whining bombs made wounding wince — So flooding tears no wound could rinse — No bloodshed stanch or be assuaged — At Ortona.

X

Cattedrale San Tommaso — Dynamited (to smite the foe) — Couldn’t serve for Christmas repast — To serve up meals that could be last Ever for a Canuck to know….

Santa Maria di — was “go” — “Constantine,” though blasted out. So, Lads hung trimming, rummaged (in cast), At Ortona.

Roast pork, apple sauce, port drained low, Cabbage, plum pudding, chocolate, slow- Puffed smokes, smoked long (as if the last) — Mince pies, ale, oranges for breakfast — Ushered some Peace — enough for now — At Ortona.

XI

Guys feasted, then fought, in relays, Or fell. (Death awaits us always.) The price of Peace, borne by the brave — Is priceless, the cost of each grave That each soldier pays — as always.

Doves signal Peace, each chaplain prays. But troops are rebel doves always — Til tyrants end, til Peace we have. See Ortona.

Stroll by the Moro as always. No “thunder” sunders birds these days: Cannons now are quiet as the grave — Or cypress’d grounds where lie our brave. Remember them now — as always — At Ortona.

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