The Seaforth Highlanders

of Canada

The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada are Vancouver’s infantry regiment, based in Vancouver, British Columbia. As a reserve force in the Canadian Forces, The Seaforth Highlanders have served in times of war, humanitarian and disaster relief and in peacemaking efforts abroad, and during times of civil emergency at home.  The Regiment is comprised of volunteer soldiers who offer their time, their commitment to serve, their skills and their ever-lasting dedication to achieving the Canadian freedoms we enjoy today.

The Mystery of the Christmas Day Photo Revealed

By: Karen Storwick, Director, Mural of Honour, The Military Museums, Calgary

What was considered to be a minor objective in the offensive to capture Rome during the Italian Campaign of the Second World War, Ortona became the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in Canadian history. On 20 December 1943, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the 12th Canadian Armoured Regiment entered the town of Ortona, engaging in some of the fiercest street fighting during the Second World War. What became known as “Little Stalingrad”, the Canadian infantry took Ortona in 8 days of bitter warfare, quite literally street by street and house by house.

In the decades after the Second World War, a photograph emerged that became a symbol for the battle of Ortona. On December 25th, just blocks from the front line, men rotated back for a shared Christmas dinner then returned just as quickly to the fighting, many killed only moments later. A rare photo of the Christmas dinner being served to the troops became a symbol of civility amidst the horrors of war. It also served as a Regimental icon of the Seaforth Highlanders’ remarkable experience in the Church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli on Christmas Day, 1943.

Some years ago, however, doubt was cast on the authenticity of the photo. When closely examined by Seaforth veterans present at the Christmas feast in the church that day, they realized this photo wasn’t their dinner.

The Seaforths ate inside the church nave. The tables were set in long rows, complete with tablecloths, real silver and china, and the two pints of coveted beer. In spite of the fact that the two other regiments from 2nd Brigade, as well as supporting units, were all in the vicinity of the church during the heavy fighting, only the Seaforth Highlanders were lucky enough to be spirited away from battle to enjoy some remarkable moments of peace and good cheer on Christmas Day.

In the classic photograph, a canopy of foliage drapes over a medieval brick fortress wall. This picture was not shot inside a church. Even more telling, the tables in the photograph are arranged in a square. There are no tablecloths, and, most of the men are eating out of their mess tins. Only the odd man has the treasured two bottles of beer that each Seaforth was given with dinner. Furthermore, some men in this photo are clearly wearing shoulder patches from units other than the Seaforths. Too many details in the photograph were inconsistent with the well documented event and had been verified by Seaforth veterans.  It was a natural conclusion. This beloved image, capturing the spirit of that incredible moment in history, was not taken at the Seaforth dinner after all.

Consequently, the photograph was dismissed from the iconography of the Regiment and removed from its annals of history as representative of that historic day. Recent publications of the photo indicate that it was taken at a brigade dinner at an unknown time and unknown location behind the lines. It is now a widely considered fact that the dinner in the photo was not at the Santa Maria de Constantinopoli church "as often said", but at the Divisional Headquarters at San Vito Chientino.

Unaware of the controversy over the Christmas dinner photograph, Ernie Bagstad, a Seaforth veteran who lived in Calgary, proudly showed where he was sitting in the classic photo each year to school children. Ernie is in the upper right hand corner.

He talked about his own experiences during the war and became especially emotional when recalling how he was pulled from the midst of brutal fighting into a church where he was served a real Christmas dinner along with a few other lucky men. He talked about how luck ran out for some of those men when they were killed right after dinner, reentering the line. One of those men sat beside Ernie. The two of them are smiling, seemingly carefree, as they pose for the camera. He remembered the bagpipes playing in the background; a moving rendition of the Seaforth Regimental March, "The Piobaireachd of Donald Dhu".

When he returned home at the end of the war, his father announced excitedly that he had been listening to Matthew Halton’s broadcast on the radio from Ortona on Christmas Day that year. When he heard the Seaforth’s March Past, his heart leapt and he said, “Ernie’s having Christmas dinner”.

You can imagine Ernie’s shock when told the photo had nothing to do with the Ortona Christmas dinner.

As a Military Historian with a proud Seaforth lineage, I was fascinated by the clarity of Ernie Bagstad’s recollection of the event. I took every opportunity I could to get to know this wonderful veteran better and was compelled to action to sort out the controversy. If this was not the Seaforth’s regimental dinner, why was Ernie’s account of dinner that day so consistent with the iconic photograph? When the photograph is enlarged, Ernie’s face is clearly smiling at the camera.

Why was the photo not in sync with the documented report and collective memory of the Seaforth Highlanders’ dinner? If the so-called “Christmas Dinner” photograph was not actually taken at the Seaforth Christmas dinner, where and when was it taken?

I visited Ortona in May 2008 determined to solve the mystery. Armed with the famous photo, I walked the streets of Ortona to ask the locals if they were familiar with the story. Every few feet I would stop and ask them and without hesitation, young and old, the people of Ortona, responding in broken english, confirmed that in the popular memory of the town, this was the Christmas Dinner. They then pointed me in the direction of the church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli. Clearly, the photograph held the same iconographic status in Ortona as it once had for Canadians.

The next step was to find out if the walled structure in the background of the photo still existed. In the school next to the church, I spoke to some of the young teachers who knew the story but couldn’t quite locate the spot. They led me to the office of the old Abbot who presided over the church as, apparently, he knew everything there was to know about the church’s history. He had stepped out for the afternoon so I took down his name and phone number and left that trail for another day.

I wandered over to the church and looked around. It was empty but open and I was able to get a good look at the structure inside and out. I didn’t see anything at all that resembled the architectural details in the photograph. After some time scrutinizing the building a man walked up and asked if I needed assistance. He was the Director of the school and knew the history of the area well. I showed him the picture and asked him about the Christmas dinner. “Sure, sure!” He said in his thick Italian accent. “It was here, inside the church!”. I was skeptical that he understood fully what I was asking and wondered if everyone in Ortona had been brought up to believe this photo represented the Christmas dinner or if he knew more than I did. “Yes, but this photo, it wasn’t taken indoors, can you tell me where it might have been taken?”. “Of course”, he exclaimed, “this photo was taken in the Oratory, I will show you”.

He brought me outside through a maze of little hallways and doors until we arrived in the Oratory, a courtyard just outside the church. He gestured around the square and told me this is where the tables in the photograph were set up. He continued that TWO Christmas dinners had been served that day. The Seaforth’s were served inside the church, but there were others that were served simultaneously outside! The photograph was of the second dinner in the Oratory. Hence the confusion.

But what about the danger of eating dinner outside when battle raged so close to the church? Wouldn’t the soldiers have been too vulnerable to shell fire eating here in this exposed courtyard? The man told me that during the war, the courtyard was surrounded by taller buildings that sheltered it from any incoming fire from the north. To the south, adjacent to the sea, the church was protected by an old fortress wall that no longer exists. In 1960, the Oratory was converted into a children’s playground for the students at the school. The wall was torn down to create more space. In the dirt on a sheet of paper he diagrammed where the Christmas dinner table had been set up relative to the wall which had been torn down.

As I studied the photograph, I discovered that the olive trees hanging just above the Christmas dinner are still there. Even the cracks in the concrete appeared to be in the same place relative to the trees. I felt quite sure that that I was standing on the spot where Ernie Bagstad and the others had eaten and were photographed. Jubilant as I was, I wanted further proof.

The local library is housed in the old convent that the Canadians used as a First Aid Post. I found a local publication with the Christmas dinner photo. The caption reads, “Pranzo di Natale nei pressi della chiesa di S. Maria di Constantinopoli”. The translation: “Christmas Dinner close to the church of S. Maria di Constantinopoli. Good evidence but I still needed more concrete proof versus local legend.

On returning to Canada, I tried in vain for the next several months to find an Italian translator to help me call overseas to talk with the old Abbot of the church. I also enlisted the help of a fellow historian in Ortona to search the Municipal archives for photos and original architectural plans for the church to see if I could find proof that the old Medieval wall in the photo actually surrounded the Oratory. All to no avail.

Then, by chance, while editing the English subtitles of the film, “Ortona, Bloody Christmas”, a remarkable image flashed across the screen. The film was an Italian documentary and there was footage of the Christmas dinner which I had never seen in any Canadian production. Stored in the Italian archives, it was filmed by a French Canadian Army Newsreel camera team. I obtained an unedited copy of the footage, and watched with great delight as I realized this was the definitive proof.

The footage begins with Canadian troops singing Christmas carols in the Oratory, in front of the medieval wall and surrounded by foliage. The cameraman pans to the cookpreparing the meal in the kitchen. Soldiers line up inside the church for soup. Others walk outside to grab their two bottles of beer. The Seaforths are caught on camera inside the church, seated at long rows of tables set with china and tablecloths. Outside in the Oratory, men from a variety of units, including Seaforths, are seated at tables set up in a large square. They look up, wave and smile at the camera. The camera finally pans to a cheerful looking soldier bringing his plate through an arched doorway and stepping back inside the church.

Ernie Bagstad, who was in Dog Company, remembers being ushered over to a place setting at the inside right table before they closed the square with another table structure. He remembers eating out of his mess tin. You can find him in the top inside right corner reaching for the tin.

I was told by fellow historian, Ken MacLeod, that Seaforth Acting Company Seargent Major Jock Gibson, also Dog Company, had always claimed that he looked up during dinner and someone took a photo. You can see Jock at the top left corner of the table.

William Challen, a Seaforth private who enlisted in the army in Windsor, Ontario also attended the Christmas dinner in Ortona. Family members have identified him in the lower inside corner of the photograph. William was killed in action while the unit was on patrol north of Ortona on 27 January 1944.

The riddle now solved, Ernie’s memories have been substantiated may he rest in peace. Some of the Seaforths from Dog Company apparently didn't make it inside the Church for dinner that day and were ushered outside to the Oratory to enjoy their meal. It is worth noting that the Seaforths inside the church were unaware of a dinner being served simultaneously, outside the church. Conversely, the men eating outside seemed equally unaware of dinner being served inside. There was enough distance between the two settings that any one soldier would have had to make a significant effort to wander over to the other dinner. So focused were they on their brief retreat from war raging around them, they had little time to stop and take note of their surroundings. What wasn’t lost on any of them was the poignancy of that moment of true Christmas spirit in the midst of one of the most vicious battles of the Second World War.

Analyzing Ortona

The Canadians at Ortona: Putting the Lie to Hart and Stacey’s

“Donkeys Led by Lions” by MCpl Jonathan Avey

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ar from being a simple, straightforward process, the state of war is one of confusion and chaos. This is equally true for the individual soldier, and in a different but no less potent way, for higher commanders. These commanders, who, by the nature of their job, are required to attempt predicting the course of events days, weeks, and sometimes months in advance, are required to take far more into account than mere military strength. While numbers of soldiers, available equipment, and training are factors that must be considered, there are other dynamics, such as morale and leadership, which can strongly influence the outcomes of engagements that are not easily measured or predicted. When military commanders plan the deployment of their troops, operations are planned with a focus on the strategic importance of the operation at hand. Due to the nature of war and its unpredictability, however, forces sometimes find themselves engaged in battles for territory or objectives that have little strategic value. The Battle of Ortona was one such battle and victory for Canadian forces in Italy. Despite that both sides considered the town of Ortona to be of minimal strategic importance, the fierce fighting in what would become known as “Little Stalingrad” received much attention from the world press, and continues to be remembered to this day as one of, if not the most unconventional battle of the Second World War. Much more than being simply a transition point during the Italian Campaign, however, Ortona was granted a position of importance in the historical annals of the Italian Campaign not because of its value as a strategic asset, but because of the esteem earned by the Canadian troops who defeated one of Hitler’s finest divisions through their prodigious skill and ingenuity, excellent leadership, and exceptional courage in combat.

Some five-and-a-half months before the fighting at Ortona, on 10 July 1943, more than 26000 Canadian soldiers joined what at the time was the largest amphibious operation in history: the invasion of Sicily. Among those who landed were 1851 officers and 24835 enlisted men, who together made up the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade, under the command of General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery as part of the British Eighth Army. The island of Sicily fell in thirty-eight days, costing the Canadian forces 2310 casualties, 562 of whom died. It was not long before the Allied forces continued their advance; less than one month after Sicily was captured the Allies landed in Italy. Beginning on 3 September 1943 and continuing through the remainder of the year, the British Eighth Army and the American Fifth Army split the country in two, fighting up the eastern and western coastlines, respectively, while separated by the Apennine Mountains in between.

For the first two months of the fighting on mainland Italy, the German forces were content to conduct a fighting retreat, simultaneously inflicting casualties on Allied forces while regrouping at prepared defensive positions. This strategy allowed the Germans to consolidate their forces along the Winter Line: a network of obstacles, machine gun posts, and minefields that stretched across Italy from Geata on the west coast to Ortona on the east. This defensive network fulfilled the double objective of giving the Germans a prepared defensive position on high ground, while

simultaneously denying the Americans access to Rome.  General Montgomery, seeing an opportunity to rout the Germans as well as win much personal glory, put in motion a plan to have the Eighth Army race up the eastern coast to Pescara before charging west and encircling the Germans, taking them from behind and leading the troops victoriously into Rome.

December found the Eighth Army poised at the southern bank of the Moro River, overlooking the town of Ortona. The plan of advance was straightforward: the 1st Canadian Division would cross the Moro River, move into Ortona, and clear out the German forces. It was believed that this would only take a few days; however, the German forces had determined to make a stand against the Canadians, dispatching first the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division and later the 1st Parachute Division under the command of Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich, some of their best troops, to defend the city. In fact, Adolf Hitler was so desirous of holding Ortona that he sent a communication to Heidrich on 24 December ordering him to hold the town at any cost.

The Division crossed the Moro under the cover of night, taking the villages of San Leonardo and Villa Rogatti, successfully fighting against the fiercest German resistance than anything they had seen during the Italian Campaign. Some members of The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry even had the audacity to eat the breakfast that had been prepared by German cooks for their own soldiers at Villa Rogatti. Despite these advances, General Montgomery felt the Canadians were making little progress, and paid a personal visit to the battlefield. The day he spent there changed his opinion completely; as a result he believed the Canadians were facing an exceptionally challenging task, all the while staring down some of the German army’s most capable units. His perception of Canadian contributions to the Italian Campaign changed accordingly. After San Leonardo and Villa Rogatti, the Germans moved to Ortona, where they had determined to make their stand.

The Battle of Ortona was unlike any the Allied forces had ever fought. The town itself was small, the streets narrow, and the buildings joined together. The German forces had created obstacles by blowing up buildings and using the rubble to block side streets, in an effort to funnel the Canadians into areas covered by machine gun, rifle, and mortar fire. They took up positions in towers and windows, patiently waiting to rain bombs and bullets down on the attacking troops. Explosive traps were set in houses, and the threat of snipers was ever present. The Canadians valiantly assaulted the town, often taking buildings by day only to lose control of them the following night. The Canadians fought not only against the elite of the German army, but against exhaustion, against lack of sleep, and against the paralyzing loss of morale as the month of watching their comrades fall took its toll. By Christmas Eve the Canadian Division had a substantial portion of the town under their control, and it was so apparent that they would eventually emerge victorious that Luftwaffe Generalfeltmarschall Albert Kesselring ordered the German forces to perform a fighting withdrawal. The Germans held out for another four days, however, not fully withdrawing until the morning of 28 December. That they were able to hold out for this long reinforces the designation of the German 1st Parachute Division as one of the finest regiments in the German army, but even the knowledge of the identity of their opponents wouldn’t stop the Canadians. Said Harry Fox, a veteran of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, “In the long run we didn’t mind because we could beat the best of the German Army. So if we could beat the best, we were pretty good.”

While Fox may have been being glib in his comment, his statement does reflect a reality for the Canadians during the war: nearly every engagement was decided by the skill, resolve, and effectiveness of the infantry involved in the battle. Canadians were distinct among the Allied forces in this regard, as the terrain they commonly engaged the enemy on negated the effectiveness of the armoured and artillery forces.  In the lead-up to Ortona, the Canadians had to face the rugged mountains of Italy; upon reaching the city, they had to deal with the close-quarters urban fighting for which there was little doctrine or training. It stands to reason, therefore, that the Canadian infantry were skilled, despite having relatively little combat experience. This, however, is not a point of view universally accepted. While there has been little written from the perspective of Canadian infantry effectiveness in the Italian Campaign, the subject has been addressed multiple times with regard to the Normandy Campaign. For years the dominant point of view, first espoused in 1962 by Canadian military historian Charles Stacey in his book The Victory Campaign, was that when contrasted with the German army, the Allied soldiers were found lacking.  Regarding Canadian troops specifically, Stacey wrote that they “had probably not got as much out of our long training as we might have.” According to British historian Liddell Hart, who influenced Stacey’s writings, the Allied soldiers performed so poorly that instead of being lions led by donkeys, they aptly fit the reverse.  Despite that Stacey and Hart were specifically referring to soldiers during the Normandy Campaign, it is reasonable that their point of view would have been similar regarding the troops in the Italian Campaign; after all, the Canadian forces in Italy underwent the same training in England as those who invaded Normandy, and were a product of the same joint Canadian-British system.

The very nature of the Battle of Ortona, and the manner in which the 1st Canadian Division acquitted itself throughout, is a clear illustration of the inaccuracy of this perspective. Fighting in a built-up area, especially one that was actively being destroyed, as Ortona was, presented challenges that no army at the time had properly trained for. Even in the modern Canadian Forces, urban operation training is considered advanced level training, and is intended to be taught and practiced for months prior to being performed in combat conditions. Nonetheless, the 1st Canadian Division not only managed to carry out their deceptively simple-sounding objective of clearing the small town, but also to develop several practical refinements to the tactics that had been rehearsed in England. The narrow streets, back-to-back buildings, and copious amounts of debris all combined to create an environment that “promised little room for maneuver, though ample opportunity for ingenious solutions to the problem of clearing houses.” The Canadians, recognizing that following standard doctrine would result in heavy casualties, swiftly indulged their tactical creativity, devising methods to make them more effective. The most notable of their solutions was the advent of mouse-holing, whereby soldiers would blow a hole in the wall separating two back-to-back buildings, either with explosive charges or the man-packed PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank) launcher, in order to avoid entering the streets and exposing themselves to fire.  This inventiveness gave the Canadians a substantial advantage at Ortona, as the German forces were not only surprised by the switch from conventional tactics, but failed to adequately counter the improvised warfare, instead having to rely on conventional counterattacks, usually under the cover of night.

In addition to developing new strategies for their environment, the Canadians demonstrated initiative and flexibility, as the choice of which tactics were employed became determinate on the preferences and temperament of the soldiers on the ground doing the fighting. One example of this is the manner in which different platoons or sections entered buildings and proceeded down streets. Some sections elected to storm the building at the head of the street, clear it from bottom to top, then blow a hole in the wall between that building and the next before clearing the next from top to bottom, only to begin again with the next building on. Other sections preferred to always enter from the ground level, crossing the street after each building by using smoke grenades and covering fire from either mortars or anti-tank guns.  This improvisation of tactics, combined with the flexibility in their employment, points to, if not a particularly well-trained, certainly an effective combat force that was far removed from the donkeys the Canadians were so derogatively labeled by Liddell Hart.

By contrast to the Canadians’ ingenuity and superior junior leadership, the German forces, so loudly praised by military historians from the end of World War 2 on, fought Ortona entirely by the book, using conventional tactics of the day. It can be argued that their lack of creativity and improvisation ultimately cost them the battle, as the defending force in an urban area has a great advantage over the attacking. If the general historical notions about the German military effectiveness were correct, the Canadians should not have been able to win this battle, as none of the reasons cited by Stacey for the Allied victory - superiority of numbers, air superiority, and superior higher commanders – applied in this case.

It would be impossible to overstate the influence of effective junior leadership as it impacted the Battle of Ortona. Until this time, battles had been fought under the control of higher commanders; senior military officers who had made careers out of military service. The nature of Ortona, however, prevented command and control by such senior officers, as the fighting was intensely close-quartered and low-level units fought much of the battle in isolation from each other. For the first time in modern warfare, Ortona had become a platoon commander’s battle, with the troops being led by junior officers and senior non-commissioned members (NCMs; sometimes referred to as non-commissioned officers, or NCOs). Much has been written about commanding officers and generals, as well as the junior ranked soldiers; conversely, the ranks between Lieutenant and Major have had little attention paid to them. In 1940 the Canadian Army had begun implementing a policy of commissioning soldiers from the ranks, that is, that all of their junior officers were selected from those who had spent at least five months as non-commissioned members. The result was a junior officer corps that was greatly a meritocracy, and a system designed to cultivate the most effective leadership possible. This, in turn, led to platoon and company commanders who exemplified personal leadership to their men.

Captain Paul Triquet was a prime example of this leadership. The approach to Ortona was dependent on, among other things, crossing a gully and securing the town of Casa Berardi. On the initial assault, all the company’s officers, save Capt. Triquet, and fifty percent of the non-commissioned members were killed. By the time Casa Berardi was taken, Capt. Triquet was alive, along with fifteen soldiers. Throughout the assault, and the subsequent defense against a nearly immediate German counterattack, Capt. Triquet “showed the most magnificent courage and cheerfulness under heavy fire. Wherever the action was hottest he was to be seen shouting encouragement to his men and organizing the defense. His utter disregard of danger, his cheerfulness and tireless devotion to duty were a constant source of inspiration to them.” In acknowledgement of his outstanding leadership, superb tactical skill, and glorious courage Capt. Triquet was awarded the British Commonwealth’s highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross.

Admirable demonstrations of leadership were not the exclusive property of in-combat commanders; the officers of the various support staffs also exemplified this quality. One example of this is Captain D.B. Cameron, the Regimental Quartermaster of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. On Christmas Eve, 1943, Capt. Cameron made the decision that the small matter of a frenzied battle was not enough to prevent a proper Christmas dinner, and so he and his staff went scurrying around the countryside searching for foodstuffs. Capt. Cameron’s work led to the entire regiment enjoying a Christmas feast that left none wanting, and the effect on the morale of the troops was considered so great that the Ortona Dinner, as it became known, was the foundation for Capt. Cameron being invested as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.).  The lightening of the morale on the men did not go unnoticed at the time; upon observing the men cycling through the Church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli, singing, feasting, and celebrating, unit chaplain Captain Roy Durnford commented wryly, “at least I’ve got you all in church.”

Describing Ortona, Charles Comfort wrote:

“It was a medieval battle in its close-quarter violence, groping through suffocating dust and smoke, stumbling over upturned furniture and debris, struggling breathlessly in nightmare darkness, felling, clubbing, blasting, shooting it out.”

Fighting in this environment would be difficult beyond imagination, let alone leading that fight and commanding subordinates. The Canadian officers and senior NCOs rose to the challenge, and led their troops through arguably one of the hardest-fought battles of World War 2. They managed to maintain the morale of their troops despite a tactical situation that dictated changing expectations by the hour. This was demonstrated by Colonel Jefferson, the Commanding Officer of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, through his daily orders groups over the course of the battle. As recorded by a Saskatoon Light Infantry officer:

At the first Orders Group he laid out his plans to get Pescara. The next day the objective was to take Ortona. The third day we had to reach a line midway through Ortona. After that for more than a week he would start off the Orders Group by saying, ‘Well, we will see what we can do today.’

As much credit as must be given to the soldiers for the part they played, equal acclaim must be accorded those who led the charge; inspiring, encouraging, and driving their troops on to success.

Since World War 2, it has been widely acknowledged that all those who fought, regardless of individual decorations or commendations, fought bravely. Those who fought at Ortona, though, displayed exceptional courage in a different way. In addition to the ever-present threat of the German forces, the Canadians had to fight against the nature of the battle itself. No fighting in Sicily or Italy had prepared them for urban warfare, where a single mistake or even no mistake at all, often resulted in death. The lack of doctrine and training for urban operations took its toll in lives; during the month of December 1943, the total number of Canadian casualties is estimated at 1 837 wounded or sick and 502 killed. This included a total of 35 officers killed, 127 wounded, and 14 missing.  Brigadier Daniel Spry, commander of the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade, attributed the high casualty rates, especially with regard to the loss of officers and senior NCOs, to the necessity of exposing themselves in order to lead their men, saying an “officer must of course be prepared to expose himself in a crisis when this will save the situation… In this division we have lost a great many officers and NCOs where more adequate training in this respect might have saved them.”

Yet even with the increased casualties and the frustration that must come with trying to fight a battle for which one is unprepared, there is no record of any refusal to do what was necessary to push forward. In fact, the opposite is true: one senior Seaforth NCO recorded his observations regarding a soldier, who had been repeatedly treated for combat shock, writing:

He is a bundle of nerves, but he never asks for a favour and gives everything he’s got until he snaps… There is deep humiliation as he goes back to join the dead… He thinks he has let his friends down. He will be back again and again, shaking like a leaf every time we see action, going on to the breaking point. He will finish the war unwounded, and carry a sense of shame for the rest of his life. He is a very brave man.

Nor was that man alone; while some men were awarded decorations for their bravery, all those involved in the fighting demonstrated courage, and for most their bravery went unacknowledged, at least on an individual level. That many were not individually recognized for their acts in no way lessons their valour, nor does it in any way subtract from the effects their bravery must have had on their comrades-in-arms.

The Battle of Ortona was not fought because either the Germans or the Allied forces deemed Ortona to be of any particular strategic value. Nor was it attributed any as a matter of hindsight. Nevertheless, eight regiments have been authorized to emblazon “Ortona” across their Regimental Colours as a battle honour.  When one examines the combat - its soldiers, leaders, and the manner in which it was fought - it is clear that the officers and soldiers of the 1st Canadian Division acquitted themselves admirably. While it would be easy to view the high casualties as an indication of ineptitude, in actuality they indicate an entirely different conclusion: that despite being faced with an extremely challenging objective, the Canadians prevailed. Their tools were not better training, superior firepower, overwhelming numbers, or advanced tactical doctrine; but rather their prodigious skill and ingenuity, excellent leadership, and exceptional courage, all of which when combined enabled them to defeat one of Hitler’s finest divisions. This victory is remembered, not for the land it secured, or the tactical advantage it provided, but for those qualities that cannot be measured or diagrammed; those qualities that carried the 1st Canadian Division through Ortona.



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The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada