Ortona: Canada’s Mini-Stalingrad

“Everything before Ortona” said the Canadian Divisional commander “was a nursery tale.”

Wherever the Canadian infantry tried to advance through the rubble and narrow streets of Ortona in December 1943 they were exposed to murderous crossfire from the well-hidden defenders. Captain Bill Longhurst of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment had an inspiration. Instead of moving through the killing ground, he would go through the houses. He got two pioneers to make a demolition charge with plastic explosives and tie them together in a “beehive.”

With the men huddled safely on the first floor, Longhurst sent the pioneer up to the top floor to place the explosive against the wall. After the explosion the men tore up the stairs and scurried through the “mouse hole,” wildly firing their guns and tossing grenades. Word of Longhurst’s ingenious “mouse-holing” spread and the Canadians used the tactic to bludgeon their way through the streets of Ortona.

Every battle is an affront to humanity and a horror to those caught in its grip, but the battle of Ortona in December 1943 was particularly savage. The face to face, house to house fighting reminded British journalist Christopher Buckley of “the fury of Stalingrad.”

The Italian campaign began when the Allies invaded Sicily in September 1943 and then crossed the Strait of Messina and established a toehold on the boot of Italy. The Germans were determined to put up fierce resistance and they were aided by the mountainous terrain and fast-flowing rivers. Scarcely a bridge or road cutting escaped the attention of the German demolition engineers as they carefully withdrew to more defensible positions.

The plan of the Allied commander General Bernard Montgomery was to divert German forces from the main Allied thrust against Rome by sending the Canadians across the Moro River and towards the port of Ortona.

Highlanders, Ortona, December 10, 1943 (NAC/PA 163411).

On December 6, in cover of darkness, three Canadian regiments crossed the Moro. As the Princess Patricias scaled the opposite bank and seized the hamlet of Villa Roati, the Germans counterattacked with mounting violence. It was an early test of the Canadians’ resolve and the Patricias and the 44th royal Tank Regiment proved equal to the task.

No sooner did the Germans retire from the Moro River then they fortified a gully some 2 km further on. It was a prickly objective virtually impossible to take head on. Finally a small group of Seaforth Highlanders managed to slip through, finding a vulnerable spot at Casa Berardi. On December 14 the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Van Doos) advanced at great cost and tried to hold on against great odds. Captain Paul Triquet, a 33-year-old native of Cabano, Quebec, organized a brilliant defence with only 15 men and four tanks. His heroism and leadership earned him the Victoria Cross.

With the success in the gulley and at the Berardi Crossroads, the Loyal Edmontons and Seaforth Highlanders were now free to swing northwards to the main objective, Ortona, supported by the tanks of the Three River Regiment.

Ortona is an ancient seaport on the Adriatic, which dates back some 3000 years, some say to the time of the Trojans. The old town was a jumble of narrow buildings crowded together on a steep promontory thrusting out into the sea. The Germans blew up many of the old stone buildings and reduced areas of the town into rubble fortresses. By the end of the day of December 20th the forward platoons were fighting in the outskirts.

For the next six days the battle progressed with agonizing caution. Every stone house and every pile of rubble was a viper’s nest. Every captured building was a potential death trap as the Germans left charges that could be set off by invisible trip wires. In one instance twenty Edmontons were crushed in an explosion in a building that they had just occupied. (One man was miraculously found alive three days later.)

With the tactics of “mouse-holing” and street fighting the men advanced house by house, tossing grenades through windows, kicking in doors, bursting into rooms with a rampage of fire. Gradually the Eddies moved down the main street towards a huge mound of rubble blocking the Corso Emanuele. A small group clambered over the roofs and came out behind the enemy and captured the Town Hall.

By December 24 the Canadian attack had depleted the elite German paratrooper ranks. On Christmas Day the Seaforths had a table set for dinner at the cathedral, while the Edmontons, still in the city, had their Christmas dinner delivered. The Germans put up a small Christmas tree and some of their comrades braved great danger to bring them some sausage and cake. Their leader Carl Beyerlin noted: “there is no place of Christmas sentiments here. We do not know how long we can hold on to Ortona.” It was not long. By nightfall of the 27th, the defenders realized that they were beaten and they slipped away like ghosts.

“Everything before Ortona” said the Canadian Divisional commander “was a nursery tale.” The battle was the first protracted campaign of the war for the Canadians and the cost had been heavy.  Casualties in December reached 2265, including 484 dead. Those among the Germans and among the innocent populace were certainly greater still.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.


  • Mick Stewart


    Very interesting story ... which caught me in a google search with the words "Canada's mini-Stalingrad." I came across the word ' Ortona ' 30 years ago in pipe band when a photo of Pipe Major Edmund Esson appeared on the bulletin board at our pipe band hall. I only remember the black beard, the solemn faces of the Canadian soldiers with the name of this strange city emblazoned across the bottom of the photo. I was readying for Seminary; the word was very close to ' atonement .' The Canadians paid dearly for Ortona, a physical atonement was surely given, ' and their names liveth ever more. ' I was on the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada website and watched one of the movies that can be downloaded - photos, pics, videos shows rubble, destroyed blocks, dust, the savagery of this battle. A mini-Stalingrad it was. Thanks so much for sharing this. Cheers, Mick Stewart Webmaster, Pegasus at War * 1939-45 Webmaster, D-Day Dodgers WWII Research Group (facebook)

  • Tom van Riel


    Very interesting story indeed. I would like to pay my respect for all casualties, especially the Canadian.

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