THE GUNS OF CHRISTMAS
T. J. Allen
This is a story of two thousand Canadian soldiers and the most gory and gaudy Christmas week of their lives. It is a story of the fiercest, closest, bloodiest street-by-street, building-by-building, hand-to-hand Allied battle of World War II in western Europe, fought against the most trained and determined soldiers Hitler could muster. And it is a story of feasting to the tune of Christmas carols and the scream of shells. It is the story of Ortona twenty-one years ago this festive season as I, a new junior infantry officer on the sidelines of that great Canadian battle, recollect it now.
Christmas Eve: 1943
OUR TRUCK, leading a convoy of five hundred army reinforcements up the long leg of Italy, came to a halt. Three of us lieutenants jumped out. It was six o'clock. The night air was raw. We shuddered, whether from excitement or the cold, I don't know. We didn't know where we were. We knew only that we were somewhere near the front on the Adriatic coast, because for the last half hour the truck lights had been dimmed for blackout — a sign we were getting well forward.
Other junior officers joined us from trucks behind. Soldiers clumped around. A Canadian voice said in the gloom, “So here you are.” Men came up with lanterns, flashlights and
military papers. Lightning flashed. Then we heard a boom.
“It’s the real thing at last,” Jim said at my elbow.
It was. The flashes were from guns. The guns were German. Somebody said, “Ortona.”
I had read the name Ortona in the Eighth Army newspaper back at the reinforcement depot in North Africa. We had heard rumors about it on the way up. It was said to be quite a battle.
So this was the reason for and end of our hectic four-day journey across the Mediterranean and half way up Italy, a frantic safari from the sand and sun of our quiet camp in a cork forest in Algeria to this cold shattered darkness of the Adriatic coast of
Italy. This was Ortona. The real war.
Ortona didn’t mean much to us at that moment. But in the next seven days I and other new reinforcements, and more hundreds of battle-scarred soldiers, witnessed the fear, horror, gallantry, comradeship and stupidity of war, crowded into one small Italian town. And we had, at the same time, the most memorable Christmas dinner of our lives.
Ortona is now a Canadian name. But it was, and still is, an insignificant Italian seaport.
It had an old town of narrow fourstory houses and cramped streets. This merged with a new town on the flat tableland to the south. Tourists never used to visit it, although it is halfway up the Adriatic coast and on the
same latitude as Rome. It didn't deserve to have a major battle fought for it. But some of the most preposterous places have been history's battlegrounds. The German high command in Italy decided to cast the die at Ortona and it became, as for Julius Caesar’s troops two thousand years earlier, our Rubicon (a river farther north that, incidentally, the same British Eighth Army was later to cross).
Why we were fighting for Ortona we didn’t know or care. To seasoned troops it was just part of the long slogging march up the Italian peninsula.
1 discovered later that the Allied high command in Algiers and "Monty'' (Sir Bernard Montgomery
in command of the Eighth Army, of which the Canadian First Division formed a part) figured that the enemy would withdraw farther north and try to establish a winter line on a small river there. Our back-room boys reckoned that Ortona could be used as a port for our supplies and a convenient rest centre for battle - weary troops when the war moved north. That is why the Desert Air Force of fighterbombers did not blast it.
However, Ortona commanded the coast road to the north and Venice. Hemmed in by sea and a deep ravine, it seemed naturally impregnable; the old townsite was only five hundred yards wide on the average. The enemy decided to defend it.
Well, our infantry soldiers were
there; the grand strategy was outside their sphere of interest. They were at Ortona. They had a job to do. They did it.
Three western infantry regiments of the Canadian Second Brigade took part in that battle, which started on December 22 and reached its climax Christmas day: the Seaforths of Vancouver. the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, and my own in reserve — the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, whose home base was Winnipeg-
They were supported by sappers of the 4th Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, the 10th and 90th Antitank Batteries, and tanks of the Three Rivers regiment. They fought against the First Paratroop Division —
“the elite of the German Army,” as Lt.-Col. G. W. L. Nicholson, the official Canadian historian of the Italian campaign has described them. A "little Stalingrad,” war correspondents named this battle over Ortona.
CHRISTMAS EVE and the sky alight from gunfire — the first firing in anger we newcomers had seen.
The major who met our trucks said, “Allen, you take over Number 12 platoon, Dog Company. A runner will guide you to its position.” My friend Jim got another assignment.
So I was led up to the first outfit I commanded in action — No. 12 platoon, D Company, PPCLI. It was down to twelve men, instead of the usual thirty-six. The battalion has
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Half my men vanished — then returned from Ortona with odds and ends for a Christmas party
been shattered a week before, fighting the approaches to Ortona at the Moro River.
General Chris Vokes, commanding the First Canadian Division, reported on January 3, 1944, that the monthlong advance had cost his division casualties of 176 officers and 2,163 other ranks, and sickness had further depleted his strength by 1,617 all ranks. Reinforcements that arrived before Christmas and in the following week amounted to 150 officers and 2,258 other ranks.
It was farther down that same road to Ortona that, on December 14. Captain Paul Triquet of the Royal 22nd Regiment of Quebec (the Van Doos) won the first Canadian Victoria Cross of the war in the Mediterranean theatre.
The platoon area was a mess of blasted vineyards, dead cows, dead Italian peasants, dead Germans and three dead Canadian soldiers. The platoon headquarters was a stone animal shed beside a shelled farmhouse. The hillside had been heavily mined by the Germans; only a path to the platoon area had been mine-swept by our sappers.
The old sweats of the platoon were in a fairly happy mood, content to be in reserve and to let the Seaforths and Eddies (the Loyal Edmonton Regiment ) fight through the streets of Ortona, which was down a gully to our right. Self-preservation is the creed of experienced soldiers.
Christmas morning before dawn we all manned the slit trenches. But no enemy attack developed. We stood down after two hours.
For men holding the front line, my old-timers (average age about twentyone) were, I thought, pretty casual. Half of them disappeared Christmas morning. I found out why four hours later, when they returned.
Rifles slung over their shoulders and hand grenades stuffed into their pockets, they went into Ortona to loot.
The Seaforths and Eddies were making headlines and sacrificing their lives fighting in the town. My Corporal Coderre and five buddies were facing the situation voluntarily, just to see what they could scrounge for a Christmas party.
We had no Christmas mail, no Christmas parcels from home. (Mine arrived in February.) But we were in luck as far as food went, Sergeant Cronin informed me. The platoon had had many casualties in the past ten days but the Army Service Corps was still issuing rations for the full complement of thirty-six men. On Christmas day, even with five new men assigned to my platoon, we had only eighteen to feed.
The special Christmas rations came up by donkeys from rear battalion headquarters Christmas morning. They included thirty-six bottles of beer (two instead of one each), a double allowance of rum, and candies, nuts,
oranges. Canadian cigarettes, chocolate bars, cauliflower, roast pork and applesauce in tins. Sergeant Cronin set men to cooking potatoes, carrots and gravy and reheating the pork on an improvised grill beside our farm shed.
The wayfaring men returned at two o'clock, laden with loot and tales of adventure.
Corporal Coderre had a very large pink bedspread under his arm. This was put to use as a tablecloth spread
over two doors that had been yanked off their hinges and set out on the slope outside the farm shed; the shed itself was too small, airless and dirty to use for dining. Coderre had had a little contretemps, getting the cloth. Coming out of the house that he was looting, he ran into a German soldier. Discretion being the better part of valor, each dodged the other.
Two of my old sweats had a problem foraging through a ruined store. They discovered paratroopers were
using an adjoining room to machinegun the Seaforths below. My men tossed a couple of grenades into the room and ran off, scooping up two rag dolls and some trinkets as they left. These became the ornaments of our Christmas dinner table.
We had had only two stubs of issue candles to light our platoon headquarters. My stalwart wanderers raided a church sacristy and came back with two dozen altar candles. It was then that they saw how the Seaforths
were faring for Christmas dinner.
The Seaforths’ banquet hall was the abandoned church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli, in the secure southern end of the town. Long rows of tables were set up in the church, with a bottle of beer for each man, cigarettes and nuts as trimmings. The main course was pork with applesauce, topped hy special-issue Christmas pudding and mince pie. The rifle companies ate in relays. As each finished its meal, it went forward again into the embattled streets, to relieve the next company. During the dinner the signals officer played the church organ.
These men came in tired, dirty, unshaven, muddy. They had not expected such a festive spread in the grim days. Their faces lit up. Cheer and good fellowship prevailed. Even some carols were sung before they went out again to do battle to the thunder of collapsing walls and the fury of German flame throwers. For some of the men it was to be their last meal.
The Eddies fared as well, though less festively. The officers and men ate their Christmas dinner in small groups, being relieved from the fighting a few at a time.
No mess-tin munching for us
As for us PPCLI, we dined well. We even had drinking glasses and real chinaware which the looters had liberated in Ortona. No mess-tin munching for us that meal.
We stood up to' eat, however, for we could find only two chairs in the ruins of the peasant’s house. The ground was too cold and wet to sit on, even with ground sheets. And we didn’t have a padre to lead us in Christmas carols, as the Seaforths had in their church.
Halfway through the meal we were jolted from festivity to reality. A “Moaning Minnie,” a six-barrel German mortar, got our range and started lobbing bombs into our Christmas party. Nobody was injured, but Moaning Minnies were nerve-racking; you could hear their weird whine a few seconds before they exploded. Our festive board packed up in a hurry.
Night was coming on anyway, and we had another reminder of our job: a runner from company headquarters said there was likelihood of a German counterattack on our position. We were required to man our slit trenches all night, in the sleet and cold.
So Christmas day came to a close. No counterattack developed. About midnight there was a noise behind us and a young soldier came running wildly, babbling in a mixture of French and English: “Aion officier, mon officier. He is hurt.” So was the young soldier. When I got him into the candlelight of platoon headquarters, I found him carrying half his right cheek in his hand. Another soldier ran up, in a frenzy, too.
They were from the West Nova Scotia regiment, stationed a mile behind us. The commanding officer had seen fit to send out a small contact patrol, to “blood” his fresh reinforcements. He succeeded. They got lost, blundered into our position, and stepped on German “S” mines that seeded the vineyard beside us. (The “S” mine was a fiendish small device set into
the ground like a tulip bulb, with its wire no^e protruding. A man stepping on this would have had his groin and guts shattered.)
Above the wind and rain I could hear the West Novie officer groaning.
Grotesque dead cows and dead peasants were witness that the area was not a picnic ground. I didn’t feel at all like Good King Wenceslas, but I stepped out, one fearful foot at a time, into this hell, picking the way by the light of gunfire flashing across the front, testing each move for “S” mines. One of the men volunteered to come with me to the rescue. As I led, he followed, carefully placing his feet, step by step, in my tracks.
So we reached the young officer. It seemed an eternity, but it was only one hundred yards from the platoon headquarters shed. We dared not use a light to see what his condition was. We picked him up and carried him back through the mine field, afraid we’d all be blown up at each step. We put him on a blanket on the stone floor.
There he died, quite soon. In his delirium, he cried out once for his mother. I put my hand on his forehead and he smiled. In the candlelight, I never saw him properly. I never knew his name. Two men carried the body back to the regimental aid post. He was buried in the morning in a temporary grave near it, and later transferred to the formal military cemetery that came into being in Ortona and which contained 1,372 Canadian graves by the end of the war.
The battle for Ortona raged with unabated fury the day after Christmas, through the booby-trapped houses and piles of rubble the Germans had created. They had blown the old Italian walls into the street to block it and make killing grounds for their antitank weapons and flame throwers. Early on the twenty-seventh an Edmonton officer and twenty-three of his men were distributing ammunition in a house. At that moment it was blown up by a German charge. Only four men were dug out of the ruins alive.
The angry Eddies retaliated fast. They reconnoitred two buildings occupied by paratroopers and, under cover of smoke, sent in men to lay heavy charges of explosives captured the day before. The two houses were blown up and two German platoons with them.
Meanwhile we were out patrolling by day and night — one of the most haunting, difficult and hazardous jobs infantrymen have. They are out on their own, ten or a dozen men without artillery or air support or smoke screen, penetrating enemy-held territory.
The German paratroopers were losing their hold on Ortona. On the morning of the twenty-seventh Brigadier E. M. Hoffmeister, commanding our Second Brigade, ordered the PPCLI to clear out the far (north) side of the bloody shambles that was Ortona.
Our target was an old walled cemetery, which for days had been part of the battleground of Ortona.
But General Traugott Herr, who commanded the 76th Panzer Corps facing the Eighth Army on the Adri-
atic sector, had decided that very day (as captured documents later showed) that the defense of Ortona should be abandoned. The Loyal Edmonton Regiment entered the castle on the coast unopposed. As for us, hugging walls as we advanced and with our hearts in our issue boots (we did not know the Germans had withdrawn), we occupied positions around the cemetery, and roads leading northwest, without a shot being fired.
So ended the battle of Ortona.
Total Canadian casualties during the eight days, including some elements of the First Brigade and supporting tanks and guns, amounted to six hundred and fifty men killed or wounded. The German paratroop division had losses totalling four hundred and fifty-five men. "It cost so much blood . . . ,” General Joachim LemeHson, in command of the German Tenth Army, commented bitterly on Christmas Day, in a telephone call to Berlin.
On December 29 a proud sign went up at the southern highway entrance to Oitona: ORTONA - A WESTERN
Our brigade went into reserve in the town for a brief rest, while other units passed through. They advanced only two miles up the road in the next few days and were stopped by dug - in Germans. And that was as far north as the invading armies of Europe got until spring.
NEW YEARS DAY 1944
THE SUN WAS at high noon. The sky was blue and cloudless. 1 picked my way through the silent rubble of Ortona, past the gaping cathedral of San Tommaso, past the shattered fifteenth-century castle on the promontory jutting into the sea, and came to the walled cemetery, our target of a few days before.
It was a beautiful New Year's Day. It even seemed peaceful. There was quiet, except for a pair of birds twittering on a twisted olive tree by the cemetery wall, and except for the sound of guns far off — maybe two miles away.
Peaceful — but the peace of death. The cemetery was a ruination of corpses, a desecration of holiness. It stank of cordite, of raw human flesh, of putrefaction.
Italian tombs, in shelves bordering the wall, had been burst open by shellfire, the bodies scattered with the marble. An old creature, probably a woman ceremoniously buried ten years before with bell, book and candle. An infant whose swaddling grave clothes had withered. A young dandy with a moustache, the embalmed face like a harlequin's. Amongst them, remnants of German paratroopers, even a whole body in its green greatcoat, the face contorted. By their side a Canadian sapper.
And at the wall by my feet my friend Jim who had come with me all the way from North Africa only the week before; Jim who had been too eager for "the real thing at last.”
When I returned from my solitary walk that bright New Year’s Day, 1 wrote his parents that he had died gallantly in a major action. And that he had a wonderful Christmas dinner. ★