Friday, December 24, 2010


Bill Twatio, National Post · Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010

As Christmas 1943 approached, Canadians read in the newspapers of a fierce battle being fought by their troops in Italy for "a key Adriatic port."

That port was Ortona, a picturesque place dominated by the cathedral of San Tommaso and a castle perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. The town had boasted a pre-war population of 10,000, but few were left by the winter of 1943.

Neither the Germans nor the Allies considered Ortona an important military target. But the more Ortona was defended, the more bitterly it was attacked. As one Canadian military historian put it: "The struggle for Ortona assumed a public relations importance out of all proportion to its military significance."

Since mid-July, the 1st Canadian Division, part of Montgomery's Eighth Army, had been slogging through Sicily and southern Italy, Churchill's "soft underbelly of Europe." "It is going to be one of the greatest marches in history," an enthusiastic civilian in Cairo told the American novelist Irwin Shaw, then a sergeant in Mark Clark's Fifth Army. "A long narrow green country, full of handsome people who have been enslaved for 20 years and now are being liberated and know it. You will be greeted like water in the desert, like a circus on the Fourth of July, like Clark Gable at Vassar."

That was news to the footsore Canadians. It had been very tough going indeed, but they had at least maintained some sense of freedom of movement. Now, as they closed on Ortona, the front became crowded and confined and conditions brought to mind Ypres and the Somme of the First World War.

To reach Ortona, the Canadians had to cross a deep gully to gain the Orsogna-Ortona highway. The Germans would contest every step of the way through a tangled wilderness of wire and vine, mud, ruined farmhouses and mangled trees, reeking with the stench of cordite and decomposing bodies. "What followed was what men dream about in after years, waking in a cold sweat to a surge of gratitude that it was only a dream," Farley Mowat, an officer with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment wrote. "It was a delirium of sustained violence."

The battle for Ortona itself began on the morning of Dec. 21, 1943, when the Seaforth Highlanders and Loyal Edmonton Regiment moved into the outskirts.

The German paratroopers who held Ortona were determined to keep it. The harbour had been wrecked. Houses were fortified and booby trapped. It became a house-to-house battle of platoons, sections and sub-sections as the troops could not spread out, nor could movement be easily co-ordinated. Covered by Bren guns, two or three men would rush a house, kick in the door and lob grenades.

The Canadians became adept at "mouse-holing," moving under cover from house to house by blasting through the walls. A section might storm its way into a house at the end of a block, clear it to the top, then blow a way through at roof-level into the adjoining house, which it would clear to the bottom. The Germans placed demolition charges beneath the houses in the line of advance, firing them as the Canadians moved in. A platoon of Edmontons was wiped out this way with the exception of a corporal who was pulled out of the ruins after being buried for three days.

A soldier described the battle as "an intimate affair." "You tried a little game," he said. "If it succeeded, your opposite number was dead; if it failed you were dead."

Some companies were soon reduced to a third of their strength as the battle raged through Christmas week. "Four more killing days to Christmas," the troops joked sardonically. "Three more killing days ...."

Christmas Day dawned overcast and cold and the fighting went on. But for the Seaforths there was a brief respite in the ruins of the Church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli, a Christmas miracle of sorts produced by the regimental quartermaster. Seaforth padre Roy Durnford describes the scene:

"Preparations for Christmas dinner were well advanced when I arrived ... The companies came in rotation ... The men looked tired and drawn, as well they might, and most of those who came directly from the town were dirty and unshaven. 'Well,' I said, 'at last I've got you all in church.' The floor had been cleared and tables set up, and it was a heart-warming sight to see the white table cloths and the chinaware which some of the boys had scrounged from houses we had occupied, and the beer, cigarettes, chocolate bars, nuts, oranges and apples laid out as extras. For the dinner itself, there was soup to start, then roast pork with apple sauce, cauliflower and mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy. Christmas pudding and mince pies for dessert ... Plates were heaped high, as much as any man could eat.

"So the tables filled and emptied and were filled again all day ... What a concert of noise it was! As the sense of relief took hold, the talk became louder, and shouted greetings and jokes were exchanged from one table to another. Up behind the altar, in a ruin of church furnishings, the company cookers hissed and sizzled, and the plates clattered as they were cleared from the tables and piled high on the altar itself ... In one corner, the battle still being in progress, the signal bell would ring urgently and there would be shouted snatches of conversations on the radio sets. Above the din one could hear the chatter of machine-gun fire and the whistling crump of shells landing not far from the church. And through it all the visitors came and went ..."

At each sitting, Padre Durnford held a service with a few short prayers and carol singing. "I have talked with many men in the course of the day, most of them, I'm sure, fearful of what lies ahead, but they are fine men and I know they will give the best that is in them," he said. "My heart grieved to see them turn their faces again to the battle."

Across town, the Germans sheltered in a railway tunnel and sang Silent Night around a Christmas tree decorated with candles.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cpl. Steve Martin is shown in a Canadian military handout photo. Cpl. Martin, 24, from 3rd Battalion Royal 22e Regiment, was killed by an improvised explosive device, or IED, while on foot patrol in Afghanistan, early Saturday afternoon, Dec.18, 2010.

CFB TRENTON, ONT.—The remains of a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan just before his 25th birthday will be brought back home Tuesday.

Cpl. Steve Martin, from 3rd Battalion Royal 22e Regiment, was killed by an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol Saturday.

He was going to turn 25 Monday.

Martin arrived for his second tour shortly after burying his grandfather in his hometown of Saint-Cyrille-de-Wendover, about 115 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

Fellow Canadian soldiers bid him farewell Sunday at a ramp ceremony at Kandahar Airfield and the military plane carrying his casket is set to return to Canada on Tuesday.

Dignitaries such as Governor General David Johnston and Defence Minister Peter MacKay are set to attend a repatriation ceremony at 2 p.m. at CFB Trenton in eastern Ontario.