It's been eight decades since Edmontonians defeated Nazi Germany on the Adriatic coast of Italy in an often unsung yet important battle. This Remembrance Day, we remember their sacrifice.
By Jesse Cole | November 6, 2023
The seaside town of Ortona lies between a bucolic, Italian hillside to its west and Adriatic azure to its east. Home to some 23,000 people, this quintessentially European town has long been a tourist destination on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where people flock to walk its slender, cobblestone streets, sunbath on picturesque beaches and marvel at the Basilica of San Tommaso Apostolo, where relics from the town’s patron saint, Thomas the Apostle, are housed.
But in December of 1943, this idyllic coastal town was left in ruins; its cobblestone streets upheaved and lined with rubble, the scenic hillsides turned to pit and trench by heavy winter rains and the iconic dome of the basilica rendered concave from mortar fire. It was here that one of the most arduous urban battles of the Second World War took place and it was fought, in large part, by Edmontonians.
This year marks eight decades since men from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment fought tooth and nail to take Ortona from Nazi Germany in what became one of the deadliest battles fought in Canadian military history.
“[The battle of Ortona] takes place as part of larger scale fighting in the Italian Campaign,” says Dr. Jeff Noakes, the Canadian War Museum’s Second World War historian.”It’s a nasty, brutal war that is fought along almost the entire length of the Italian peninsula.”
Canadians, alongside British, Indian and New Zealander forces are pushing to break Hitler’s defensive Gustav Line, fighting through mountains and gullies and across the Moro River outside the town in a taxing and violent battle that sees heavy losses for the Canadians.
As they arrive at Ortona, a strategic deepwater port that anchors Hitler’s Gustav Line in the east, they are met with an unexpected level of resistance.
“The Canadians had expected that once they crossed the Moro River, the Germans would withdraw,” says Noakes. “But the Germans don’t leave. They stay in Ortona. What that means is that it then becomes a fight taking place within this ancient stone town that the Germans have been fortifying and preparing with defensive positions.”
The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, which is already considerably understrength due to casualties, alongside Vancouver’s Seaforth Highlanders, launch a two-pronged siege of the town but aren’t used to fighting in such close quarters. The Germans, employing knowledge from their recent defeat in Stalingrad, begin using the town against the advancing Canadians.
“It’s an old town with narrow streets and big open squares and [the Germans] start carrying out heavy demolitions work and creating rubble that can be put into defensive positions and block people and tanks,” Noakes says. “They funnel an attacking force into an area where they can wipe them out.”
It’s here that the Loyal Edmonton Regiment did something that would change the course of the battle and influence urban military campaigns all the way up to the modern era.
“The minute you move onto the streets there are snipers and machine guns, there are mortars,” Noakes says. “It’s really dangerous, so they do something called ‘mouseholing.'”
Mouseholing, which involved using the interconnected buildings of Ortona to advance without compromising cover, allowed the Canadians to even the playing field. The Loyal Edmonton Regiment use explosives to blast through walls, toss in a grenade and carry on with the attack. At times, the fighting is in such close quarters, that two forces are fighting between rooms of the same building.
It’s this type of brutal, face-to-face combat, that led to the nickname “Little Stalingrad” by the accompanying media.
“It’s nowhere near the scale [of Stalingrad], but the idea of the absolute brutality and viciousness of house-to-house fighting, where in some cases it’s room-to-room.”
Ultimately, after eight days of battle, the Germans withdraw, threatened by advancing Canadian forces from the south and now the west and weakened by heavy losses. The Loyal Edmonton Regiment takes Ortona.
Casualties of War
But the battle and its brutality had real consequences. The Loyal Edmonton regiment lost 63 of its members — nearly a third of regiment members who had sieged the town — in the fighting. Hundreds more were injured.
It wasn’t just soldiers who died in the fighting. During their occupation of the town, Nazi Germany hadn’t evacuated civilians, and of the nearly 10,000 people who then called Ortona home, more than 1,300 were killed in the fighting.
“The town is devastated by what’s happened,” Noakes says. “if you visit Ortona today, it’s been rebuilt, but you can still see damage. Still see bullet marks.”
Today, although it is sometimes overshadowed by other, more notorious battles like Dieppe or Normandy, the legacy of Ortona is still with us. The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, which still exists today, commemorates it regularly. In the halls of the Prince of Wales Armouries Heritage Centre in downtown Edmonton, there hangs an eight-foot by 48-foot mural, painted by Gerald Trottier, commemorating the battle.
In Italy, if you walk the roads of the town with names like Viale Albertazzi (Avenue Alberta) or the Piazza delgi Eroi Canadesi (Canadian Heroes Square), they’ll take you south of the town, through the hills where countless more Canadians laid down their lives, to the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery, where for decades the efforts of these brave Edmontonians have been honoured.
“It’s awfully easy to talk and draw arrows on maps about how the advances went and defensive lines,” says Noakes. “But the fighting in Ortona is fighting at the very sharp end of things.
“It’s become a touchstone for some people and it’s important to know about these events … for those members of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, who took part in that fighting, who survived or, in many cases didn’t and why it took on this significance.”