Last in a series
Part 1 documented the story of how Canadian soldiers fought to free the small seaside town of Ortona, Italy, from the Nazis during the Second World War. Today, the story of that battle and how the Canadian effort is remembered. Every year.
On Dec. 20, 1943, Canadian forces engaged in one of their bloodiest and most costly battles of the Second World War.
While trying to break the Gustav Line – the German defensive position stretching across Italy from the Adriatic to Tyrrhenian seas – Canadian soldiers came across unexpectedly heavy resistance in the Adriatic port town of Ortona, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
More than 500 Canadians were killed and there were 2,300 total casualties. Although the battle was a victory for the Canadians, the German army lost fewer troops.
The battle was fought in close quarters, with much hand-to-hand fighting in the cramped streets of Ortona.
The Germans had levelled buildings in order to create impasses on some streets, funnelling Canadian soldiers and tanks up booby-trapped avenues where land mines and strategically placed machine guns wreaked havoc, according to veterans.gc.
Since the open streets were death traps, Canadian soldiers used a tactic called “mouseholing” to advance – blowing holes in the walls of houses to gain ground.
For eight violent days, Canadians struggled to liberate the town.
“It was a battle for every single building on every street, for every block in every corner of the town,” according to the article “Christmas in Ortona” on veterans.gc.
“The enemy used every trick and every weapon. Heavy artillery was placed in the ruins of buildings to provide cover for the German infantrymen. Basements were packed with explosives, which could be remotely detonated by German engineers.”
“The Germans blew up a building packed with Canadians and the only surviving Loyal Edmonton Regiment soldier was pulled from the building three days later.”
Angela Arnone said her work with veterans has not only enriched her life but even saved it.
“I could have given up on my life because I’ve had cancer three times. The first time it was the veterans who sent me a get well card that said, ‘We need you so don’t give in.’”
“That kind of determination has kept me going for all these years. So, I’m still here but I’m a bit of a wreck,” the 65-year-old said.
“But I’m still here and I’m still annoying everybody with my demands that the Canadian memory cannot be set aside.”
A CHRISTMAS DINNER
Angela Arnone’s work to recognize the Battle of Ortona began in 1998.
In co-operation with Canadian veterans who fought in Ortona, she orchestrated a Christmas dinner in honour of one held on the battlefield during the siege in 1943.
One of the surviving organists from the battle, Seaforth Highlander piper Edmund Essen, was on hand and performed many of the same songs he did 55 years earlier, Arnone said.
There were Canadian and German veterans of the battle at the dinner, as well as Italians who had lived through the destruction of their town.
Since that initial celebration, Arnone has ensured that every year on Nov. 11 there is a solemn gathering in the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery.
That has proved challenging because of the pandemic. In 2020, the celebration was cancelled due to COVID-19.
But Arnone did not let the day pass without recognition.
“I went to Rome and I picked up a Canadian wreath and I took it to the cemetery to make sure that there was no interruption in our ceremony that had gone on for 25 years,” she said.
“So, there has been no hiatus. Every 11th of November for the past 27 years there has always been a Canadian wreath and poppies on that cenotaph and there was that year as well.”
And it is the descendants of the people of Ortona, liberated by Canadian life, who take the time to commemorate what Canadians did.
“There were no Canadians there. It was only the people of Ortona.”
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report