Ortona Dinner 2014
From Dec 20-28th 1943, a small sea town in Eastern Italy on the Adriatic Sea witnessed a short, high intensity conflict so fierce, it became known as “Little Stalingrad”, and exposed a new breed of close quarter battle that would influence combat techniques for years to come. The Battle of Ortona, fought between a battalion of elite German paratroopers from the German 1st Parachute Division and the soldiers of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, of which the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada were a part, would become one of the bloodiest encounters of the Italian campaign.
As with many other battles in the Second World War, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada under the then command of Lieutenant-Colonel Syd Thomson faced a deeply entrenched enemy. Ortona was particular however, in that very rarely had the Seaforths faced the trials and tribulations of fighting in built-up areas since the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943. To make matters worse, the German paratroopers had more than sufficient time to familiarize themselves with the town’s layout and to develop a resilient defensive strategy. Facing no other option but to advance and secure the town, it was the open killing grounds on the streets of Ortona that forced the Seaforths to adopt innovative and unpredictable tactics to clear the tightly packed buildings surrounding them. Within a week of fighting, the Seaforths had developed their close quarter battle skills sufficiently enough to measure their advancements in rooms taken and buildings seize, as opposed to mere feet short days before. The skills and experience gained in these battles shaped and developed room and building clearing techniques that are still widely used today.
It became clear, however, that the lack of man power and the difficulty of the task at hand weighed heavily on the troops’ morale. Sensing despair and exhaustion in the men, Captain D.B. Cameron, the Seaforth Quartermaster took it upon himself to undertake the logistical nightmare of hosting a first class Christmas dinner for the Seaforths in the battered Santa Maria Di Constantinapoli church in the south-east part of town that after being taken, served as the Seaforth’s headquarters. On the evening of the 24th of December, Captain Cameron and his men arranged an elaborate seating plan with white table cloths, soup, pork and Christmas pudding. Each man also received a bottle of beer, fruits, nuts, candies and cigarettes. In order to maintain their aggressive advance, individual companies ate dinner in rotations, each enjoying the festive celebration and then returning to the front to relieve the next.
In December 1943, the Christmas dinner held at the church within the embattled town of Ortona offered the men of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada a short relief from the strain of battle and allowed them, if only for a short time, to relish in the festive spirit of Christmas. Little did Captain Cameron know that Christmas Eve, he had set the foundation for an annual tradition that still is maintained to this day. Every December, The Seaforths commemorate the battle of Ortona by staging a dinner much the same as the World War 2 original. The menu is similar, and the dinner allows past and serving members of the Seaforths an opportunity to remember and celebrate the accomplishments of their Regiment in one of the most arduous and costly battles of the Second World War.
On 14 December 2014 The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada held to tradition and served up a wonderful dinner to the soldiers of the Unit in commemoration of that original dinner and of the battle where fellow Seaforths fought and died in service to their country and for their fellow Citizens. The menu was the same as it had been in 1943 and it was served in a similar manner to the very first dinner…by the Officers of the unit and of the various Affiliated Cadet Corps who acted as hosts to those in attendance. It was as great turn out by all elements of the Regimental family with over 150 attendees in total.