Sacrifices in muck of Ortona remembered
ORTONA, Italy — Touring around the peaceful and picturesque town of Ortona and the surrounding lush green valleys, it is impossible to imagine this was the site of one of Canada’s bloodiest battles.
As my husband Richard and I consider the beautiful landscape, we try in vain to conjure the terror and devastation of December 1943: ruined buildings, torn vineyards, decimated orchards, and soldiers drowning in mud. But our tour guide, retired teacher and local historian Saverio Di Tullio, shows us photos of unbelievable destruction and suffering.
As he drives around the outskirts of Ortona to show us the sites of the various battles, Di Tullio explains the objective of Allied soldiers battling the Germans was to seize the coastal town of Pescara, about 18 kilometres from Ortona, and from there to head approximately 100 kilometres southwest to seize the Eternal City of Rome. They were under the command of the British Eighth Army General Sir Bernard Montgomery, to which the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade belonged.
This manoeuvre would lead to
the capture of the first Axis capital to fall to the Allies. “Rome by Christmas” was the Eighth Army’s battle cry. It proved to be illusory. To quote Major-Gen. Chris Vokes, “Everything before Ortona was a picnic.”
The superior military training of the German paratroops, combined with the wintry
wasteland of sludge, so reminiscent of the First World War’s Passchendaele, resulted in a month of bitter fighting and some 4,000 dead. While Ortona fell to the Allies on Dec. 28, 1943, it would be another three months of living in a sea of mud and destruction before the journey to Rome could begin.
My father, Lt. Ian Macdonald of the 48th Highlanders, was one of the soldiers who spent Christmas that year in the muck and mire of Ortona, where he and other Canadians engaged in the most dangerous and intensive form of street fighting. It is thought the technique of “mouse-holing” (creating a hole in the common
wall between row houses to gain entry to the second house from within), allowed the soldiers to advance up the streets unseen by the enemy and was largely responsible for their eventual victory.
Dad was one of the lucky ones. While his memories of Ortona and the men he lost there would haunt him until his death in 2001, he emerged with only a small piece of shrapnel in his arm. One young soldier who grew up on McNay Street in London, Ont., would be among the thousands who would not be so fortunate. Lance Cpl. Robert McKeown of the Canadian Postal Corps was killed earlier in the Italian campaign on Dec. 5 at the age of 29.
This Remembrance Day his nephew, retired London school principal Stuart Cunningham, who was only five months old when his uncle died, will recall the stories his grandparents Florence and Harry McKeown shared with him of their son’s courage and sacrifice. His death and the deaths of so many young Canadians at Ortona and in other theatres of war must never be forgotten by we who are their legacy.
Sheila Macdonald Macgregor is lead minister of Siloam United Church in London.
Sheila Macgregor’s father Lt. Ian Macdonald of the 48th Highlanders holds binoculars as he surveys the enemy at Ortona, Italy, in December 1943.