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.

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