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.