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A Canadian Christmas Story: Remembering the Battle of Ortona

At this time of the year, when many of us gather with friends and family to share a meal and celebrate, the Condo Adviser would like to share this Canadian Christmas story.  It has nothing to do with condos, case law or legislation. It’s a little unknown page of our history which took place on Christmas day, nearly 75 years ago.

It was the dead of winter of 1943, near the seaport town of Ortona, on the Adriatic coast of Italy. The Second World War had raged on for five years and there was no peace in sight. That December had been the wettest on record.  The Moro River had risen more than eight feet and the surrounding fields became seas of mud that clung to soldiers as they tried to advance. The battle surrounding Ortona, a strategically minor objective in the offensive to reach Rome, opposed the Canadian 1st Infantry Division to Hitler’s elite 1st Paratrooper Division. Ortona was part of the “Winter Line” defence and Hitler is said to have ordered that the town be kept at all costs.

The Canadian soldiers, composed mainly of volunteers in their twenties, were unknowingly about to engage in one of the war’s bloodiest battles, which became known as the “Italian Stalingrad” due to the intensity of combat and the high number of casualties.

Matthew Halton, a renowned war correspondent for the CBC reported:

It wasn’t hell. It was the courtyard of hell. It was a maelstrom of noise and hot, splitting steel… the rattling of machine guns never stops… wounded men refuse to leave, and the men don’t want to be relieved after seven days and seven nights… the battlefield is still an appalling thing to see, in its mud, ruin, dead, and its blight desolation.

But this battle is famous for another reason.  On December 25, 1943, it was Christmas day in Ortona. While the battle raged on, members of the Canadian Seaforth Highlanders and their Quartermaster managed the impossible task of scrounging the essentials to offer the soldiers a Christmas meal. This meal was held in the ruins of the battered church of Santa Maria Di Constantinopoli, in the southeast part of the town, a few blocks away from the front lines.

The Regiment’s War Diary reported the following:

picture-war-santa-maria-de-constantinopoli“The setting for the dinner was complete, long rows of tables with white tablecloths, and a bottle of beer per man, candies, cigarettes, nuts, oranges and apples and chocolate bars providing the extras. … Lt.-Col. Thomson, laid on that the Companies would eat in relays… as each company finished their dinner, they would go forward and relieve the next company… The menu… soup, pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, Christmas pudding and mince pie… From 1100 hours to 1900 hours, when the last man of the battalion reluctantly left the table to return to the grim realities of the day, there was an atmosphere of cheer and good fellowship in the church. A true Christmas spirit. The impossible had happened. No one had looked for a celebration this day. December 25th was to be another day of hardship, discomfort, fear and danger, another day of war. The expression on the faces of the dirty bearded men as they entered the building was a reward that those responsible are never likely to forget… During the dinner the Signal Officer… played the church organ and with the aid of the improvised choir, organized by the Padre, carols rang out throughout the church. ”– Seaforth Highlanders Regiment, War Diary, December 25th, 1943

For some, this meal was to be their last.

Ortona was liberated 2 days later, but at a great cost. More than 1,375 Canadians were killed in the Italian campaign. A quarter of them in the 8-day battle of Ortona.

This historic event has led to an enduring tradition in many Canadian regiments, including my former Regiment, 763 Communications regiment (now 33 Signal Regiment). To this day, the Officers and Senior NCOs serve the Christmas dinner to the men and women of the regiment. After having served the meal, they often gather and sing Christmas carols to the troops, in memory of the Signal Officer who is said to have played the church organ that Christmas night in Ortona.

As we gather with friends and family during this Holiday season, each with our own traditions, let us be thankful for what we have and let us hope for peace in a world in dire need of it.

We take this opportunity to thank our readers for an amazing year and to wish you the very best this Holiday season and for the year to come.