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The battle for Ortona, the reasons for history and memory

The battle for Ortona, the reasons for history and memory

It was called the "Italian Stalingrad": in 1943 Canadian soldiers, German troops and Italian civilians were all victims of a single tragic fate in Ortona. An event that has helped build a common history and whose memory helps and strengthens the relationship and the strategic cooperation between peoples, once enemies, who are now leaders of a new world order.

 

Laura Borzi*

 

The dynamics of multilateral cooperation, which characterized the post-1945 world, suffered a setback from the beginning of the 21st century. The story "returns protagonist", although over two decades ago, in the enthusiasm of a pacified world with the finish of the conflict between irreconcilable ideologies, we were quick to decree the end. 

Throughout the year that is about to end, there have been demonstrations, remebrances, events to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. The President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, during the demonstrations for November 4, has observed that "celebrating together the end of the war and jointly honoring all the fallen of the war means to strongly insist, all together, that instead of war we prefer to develop friendship and cooperation ".

 

After the First World War, the diktat of Versailles and the other peace treaties of 1919-20 failed to respond adequately to the deep and often contradictory demands of the peoples and governments, and the failure to reconstruct the European balance ended up nourishing the germs of a new global war.

This was evident to the Allies after the victory over Nazi-fascism and the end of the Second World War. Therefore, we opted for an economic reconstruction of the former enemy states, favoring (with the Marshall Plan) the recovery and at least the initial integration of the EU economies. They wanted to spread the idea that the enrichment of nations could be pursued through economic development and not through the war. With the construction of multilateral institutions, first the United Nations, an international organization aimed at containing winners and losers in an appropriate legal framework, an attempt was made to create a system that would ban war as a means of resolving international disputes.

 

THE COMMON HISTORY AND THE SHARED VALUES BETWEEN EUROPE AND CANADA

We find ourselves today in a world completely changed by a system of power, by the presence of new actors, due to the fragmentation and diffusion of transnational threats.

The war in the past was a tool for resolving a political conflict, while today conflicts play the role of an intermediate phase, to arrive at the creation of conditions that are completely different from those previously used. The war was the symbol of the strength and power of the states, while today it is rather a sign of their failure to collapse corporate contracts, the weakness of human development, the asphyxiation of the political aspect.

Today, more than ever, the challenge is to affirm that democracy is a moving universe and not an immobile system and the war must be rejected, starting from the recovery of the importance of history and its dramas.

Faced with the international political debate, it is worth mentioning the fierce and bloody battle of Ortona, fought from December 20 to 28, 1943, which made victims among the Canadian soldiers along with Italian civilians, and among the German troops.

Canada, Germany and Italy are now allies and friends members of the Atlantic Alliance, the regional organization born of a need for military defense based on a commonality of values and interests, but it is interesting to note how history reminds us that the friendship with Canada, which shares a system of inalienable values with Europe, can contribute to a global rebalancing as a space for exchange and cooperation. Within the West, now no longer the center of gravity of the world, the consolidation, and strengthening of political relationships, commercial and cultural exchanges is to be considered a commitment to remove and dampen conflicts in whatever form they may manifest.

 

The values of democracy and the West are in crisis in the present international panorama and the memory of the battle of Ortona, but in general of the European war of three generations (from the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870, to the Second World War) can serve today to settle the relationship between the protagonists of the time and the friendship between peoples. The enemies of the past, Canada, Italy, Germany, as individual states and through the strategic cooperation (EU-Canada Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2017, just to be clear) after 75 years, they still have the responsibility of rebuilding an international order that has suffered huge landslides in the last quarter of a century and in which there is widespread conflict.

 

Area of the Sangro and Moro Campaigns, Italy November and December 1943

Kirrages [CC BY-SA 3.0 o GFDL],  Wikimedia Commons

 

THE BATTLE OF ORTONA OF 1943: THE ITALIAN STALINGRAD

The battle for Ortona known as the Italian Stalingrad is a not particularly well-known episode of the Second World War, but it is unique on the western front due to the type of clash and the very high price paid, with more than two thousand fallen Canadians.

The victory of the Soviets at Stalingrad and the weight sustained by them against the enemy in Europe led them to request the opening of a new front since 1942.  At the end of 1943, while on the western front there was a standoff situation, it was necessary to give visibility to the allied action with a media and political operation that gave a concrete signal to Stalin. Soviet "invitees" became observers on the field. Hitler ordered the Field Marshal Kesserling, Supreme Commander of the German forces in Italy, the defense of Ortona to the last man. The allied press following the troops played a primary role in the sacrifice of the citizenry of Abruzzo.

The young Canadians, numerically the triple of the enemies and logistically well organized, were eager to show their value and their courage, even if they had little experience. The German soldiers, with special forces unit, were smaller in number but with specialized equipment and grew up with the nourishment of the "Fὕrerprinzip" of obedience characteristic of the Hitler Youth. 

The conquest and defense of Ortona became for both parties a lethal and inseparable union of propaganda and morality.

Ortona saw the victory of the Canadians on the orders of General Christopher Vokes, but the German troops, the specialists of the first division of the paratroopers Fallschirmjäger under the command of Richard Heidrich of the Luftwaffe, managed to stop the enemy's advance by breaking it down in every part of the city conquered. The Germans lined up 5 km to the north where they resisted for months until in June of the following year the Italian capital will be freed.

 

It was not the Germans or the Canadians who defined Ortona "the Italian Stalingrad", but the comparison was immediate. The Battle of Stalingrad had been fought in January 1943, while the Battle of Ortona nearly a year later, in December 1943. There were many similarities, despite the diversity in the order of magnitude, the extent of the forces in the field and consequently the relative losses in terms of victims and destruction.

In Stalingrad first and then in Ortona, the medieval battle was evoked in a modern key: body to body, house by house, room by room these are the words used for both clashes, in an urban setting, a hell paved with explosive traps. The war in the past had been that of the clash in large spaces, there was no fighting in the cities. The fighting in the urban scenario was rather relegated to the Middle Ages.

 

At the beginning Ortona, like Stalingrad, was considered a strategic goal, but with reversed roles. Hitler had conceived an enveloping maneuver to the east, allowing the Wehrmacht to seize the oil resources desperately needed to Germany. The allies had the objective to break through Ortona, take a pincer maneuver through Rome Tiburtina and force the enemy to retreat or surrender.

But all the plans on paper have to deal with reality, and so the battle for Ortona will end up shattering, splitting into a series of tactical objectives that have as protagonists above all the simple soldiers, the ordinary men.

In the days when nothing happened on the western front, Hitler himself asked for news from Ortona as if the fate of the entire Italian campaign depended on this battle. Certainly, the Germans were motivated to fight in the peninsula to defend Germany from the allied bombings, but the fury on the Ortona objective was for all due to a matter of political propaganda.

The historian Marco Patricelli told during a public intervention in Ortona: «The German snipers controlled the ranks of the Canadians trying to eliminate the officers because this meant leaving men without orders, even the bullets have a specific weight, considering that under the uniforms there are always men».

 

       

Infantry from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and Tanks from the Three Rivers Regiment during the Battle for Ortona.

 

THE CONTEXT 

In July 1943 with the landing in Sicily, the Allied forces had invaded the peninsula, thus opening a new front in Southern Europe. The advance towards Rome of the Americans led by General Clark had stopped in Cassino, while the 8th Anglo-Canadian army under the orders of Bernard Montgomery had run aground, going up the Adriatic coast to Ortona. The small town of the Italian region of Abruzzo was the eastern point of the Gustav line, the fortification built by Hitler to stop the invasion of Italy. The strategic goal of the Allies, to break through Ortona and from Pescara to reach Rome, was however conceived by underestimating the difficult weather conditions that would be presented to them by crossing the Apennines Mountains of Abruzzo at the end of the autumn. 

The offensive of the Sangro was delayed precisely because of the rainy weather and the swelling of the river, but on November 28, the attack began on a large scale and after 2 days of fighting a strategic ridge was obtained on the river costing about 2,800 victims. The Germans retreated on the river Moro preparing for another fight. 

This was the first division level battle fought by Canadians during the Second World War. All the battalions of the Infantry Division fought a desperate battle for two weeks through the valley of the Moro River.

The Canadians arrived about a kilometer from Ortona to find that the Germans had dug a deep ditch in the south bank to defend themselves from artillery fire. When the bombing ceased, the Germans jumped out to fire against the advancing Canadian infantry. "The Gorge", as it was called by the Canadians, could not be overcome by the direct attacks ordered by Volke because each attack of the single battalion was rejected with huge losses between the mud and the winter temperatures in a re-edition of trench fighting that was soon to have its deadly urban variant.

On the night between December 14 and 15, the Canadians managed to circumvent the Gorge and break the German resistance until they reached Casa Berardi, a farmhouse that constituted the first outpost of the enemy where the fighting lasted four days before the Germans stepped back. For the value shown the Captain Triquet received the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration of the Commonwealth for military courage.

It was not obvious that the Germans would remain in Ortona, in fact they could have retreated to a territory more easily to defense. Moreover, the impressions provoked by the defeat of the 6th Army in Stalingrad, which had underlined the difficulties of fighting in an urban environment, were very recent. Finally, the Allied Forces from the west (including Indians and New Zealanders) could have cut the main artery north of Ortona by trapping the Germans in the town. Instead for non-military considerations, the events were unexpected.

 

THE BATTLE

In Ortona, the First Division of the Fallschirmjager, the men of the third paratrooper's Regiment, were preparing to defend the city, under the command of Liebscher, who with a battalion had stood up to an entire English Brigade during the fighting in Sicily. These men who had already fought in Norway, in Russia, in Sicily and Centuripe had distinguished themselves in urbans operations. The Germans had started to defend the city from December 12 blowing up the buildings, creating piles of rubble from which to derive ditches for the battle. In particular, the Germans blowing up the buildings of the lines that go from Porta Caldari to Piazza del Municipio but the whole city had been mined and the streets blocked with rubble prevented the passage of Sherman tanks, easy to burn once hit by the rocket launchers Panzerschreck. So the Canadian soldiers had to advance on foot. The Canadians were faced with combat in urban areas, MOUT - Military Operations in Urban Terrain. In the impossibility of venturing into the streets, the mouse-holing tactic was resorted to. It was a question of advancing not only from house to house but room by room. Once a building was freed the dividing walls were blown up and they moved in this way to the neighboring building, where however often there was the enemy waiting, so they had to build shelters before undermining the walls of the houses with a continuous adaptation to the situations that presented themselves. It was impossible to go out on the street because the Germans blew up buildings that collapsed on the soldiers when they ran away. The demolition of the tower adjacent to the Cathedral of St. Thomas, probably bombarded by the allied naval artillery to remove the enemy from a vantage point, caused the regiment D of the Edmonton Regiment to be isolated in an attempt to advance: of the 60 men who they constituted the regiment, only 17 remained alive. However, they managed to gain ground, gaining reinforcements from other companies of the same battalion: the Seaforth Highlanders and the wagons of the Three Rivers Regiment arrived. These two infantry battalions and a single-tank regiment carried on a very tough fight for eight days. The attempt by two Canadian brigades to reach the city from the west was blocked by the Germans. Only on December 28th a patrol of Edmond discovered that in the night, the Germans were out of the town.

 

THE VANQUISHED

The Allies paid a very expensive price for a propaganda objective, they managed to expel the Germans from Ortona, who, with a few men, had delayed the enemy's advance. 1,300 was the number of civilian deaths, 2 German divisions lacerate between the Battle of the Moro and Ortona, while for Canadians there were more than 2,300 victims.

In Abruzzo they fought for Rome, this explains the strenuous defense from Sangro to Moro. In Abruzzo they fought to defend Germany from the allied bombings, blocking the enemy in the Italian campaign. In Ortona, however, they fought above all because captured by a murderous whirlwind of prestige and propaganda from which derived an absurd carnage with innumerables deaths.

 

CANADA- ORTONA

Today the relationships between Ortona and Canada can only be profound, in memory of what happened. The city has been officially declared a place of national interest for Canada, where the Italian community has many emigrants from Abruzzo. Since 2002 in Ortona the Battle Museum (MUBA) has been created, housed in the premises of the former convent of S. Anna, to pay homage to the fallen Ortonese and to all the soldiers who lost their lives to defend the city.

In September 2018 the "Ortona Challenge" running race took place, at the same time as the one organized in Ottawa by the Canadian army, and a solemn ceremony was held at the Canadian War Cemetery, the Moro River Canadian Cemetry, near Ortona, in the presence of the Canadian Ambassador, Alexandra Bugailiskis, who on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Ortona had a very particularly profound meaning.

 

Cover: Ra Boe, Moro river canadian war cemetery, CC BY-SA 2.5

 

*Analyst