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Towards Ortona
In the weeks before the assault on the town of Ortona itself, the Canadians were involved in bitter fighting in the Moro valley on their way to Ortona.
 
 
Location: The Western Front Italy, Adriatic Coast
 
Battles
- The Moro, Dec. 5-7
- San Leonardo, Dec. 8-9
- The Gully, Dec. 10-19
- Casa Berardi, Dec. 14-15
 
Overview

In mid-November, the Fifth Army and the Eighth Army got closer to the Bernhard Line. Under General Montgomery the British column moved on the right flank, along the Adriatic Sea with a view to reach Pescara before turning west along the Pescara-Rome road. Between November 28th and 30th, the Eighth Army took the ridge overlooking the Sangro River valley. The 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade supported the 8th Indian Division tasked with maintaining a steady base on the ridge. Two divisions were to move towards Pescara: the 2nd New Zealander Division along an inland route, and the 1st Canadian Division along the coast. The first obstacle was the Moro River, beyond which German troops were waiting.

Moro Valley

The attack was launched on December 6th. The slopes were steep; heavy winter rains had swollen the river and turned the ground into thick mud that bogged down armoured vehicles. The enemy was well entrenched and each inch of ground had to be gained the hard way. Counter-attacks followed and the Canadians were forced to retreat. It took two days, December 8th and 9th, to capture San Leonardo. In spite of numerous obstacles, the Seaforth Highlanders, riding on the tanks of the Calgary Regiment, were able to get close to the village. On the narrow road, two tanks plunged down ten metres into the ravine after missing a sharp turn. Violent artillery and mortar fire hit the armoured column and the infantry as they were approaching the Moro River. On the other side, the lead tank struck a mine as it was climbing towards San Leonardo and was stalled, blocking the road and forcing the other vehicles to find their way through the olive groves. Only five tanks were left when the Canadians entered San Leonardo. The Seaforth Highlanders engaged the enemy and silenced their machine gun positions, killing or capturing many German soldiers. Twelve enemy tanks drove into town from the east but in spite of the difference in strength, the Calgarys held fast and destroyed or drove back the German tanks. On December 9th at 1740, the Canadians were solidly positioned in San Leonardo.

At some distance to the right, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment had also succeeded in crossing the river and in establishing a bridgehead on the road along the seashore. They withstood a violent counter-attack but that proved to be costly and inefficient for the Germans and the Hastings retained the position.

After San Leonardo, the Canadian Division faced what seemed to be a dead-end: a deep and narrow gully that tanks could not cross. In addition, the 90th Panzer Division was entrenched in it, with gunner foxholes dug into the steep slopes, out of the reach of shells. After several ill-fated attempts to cross the gully, the Canadians faced with heavy machine gun and mortar fire were forced to retreat.

In the morning of December 13th, the Royal 22e Regiment and the tanks of the Ontario Regiment launched an attack on the enemy's flank, towards the Casa Berardi. The resistance was formidable and the infantry found itself facing artillery fire; only 50 men survived. The sole remaining officer, Captain Paul Triquet told his men: "There are enemy in front of us, behind us and on our flanks. There is only one safe place-that is on the objective." Triquet captured Casa Berardi at the end of the afternoon but the situation was desperate: only 15 men were left of the Royal 22e and Squadron "C" of the Ontario Regiment was reduced to four tanks! Triquet told his troops "They shall not pass!". As the night fell, Company "B" of the Royal 22e provided some relief and the Canadians were able to hold the position. Paul Triquet was awarded the Victoria Cross.

This was the breach the Canadians needed to move on but several days of violent and costly fighting against enemy defence positions were to follow until, on December 19th, they took control of the strategic crossroad on the Ossogna to Ortona road. On December 20th, the troops reached Ortona; it took eight more days of desperate fighting before the city could be captured, as the Canadians moved in slowly, disputing every house and every street with an enemy determined to defend its positions.

While the racket of automatic weapons and explosions tore apart the silence of Ortona's usually quiet streets, the 2nd Canadian Brigade bypassed the city by the west and marched towards the Riccio River and the villages of Villa Grande and San Tommaso.

In early 1944, new Canadian units joined the Eighth Army's order of battle: Canada dispatched an additional division to the Mediterranean theatre, the 5th Armoured Division, under Major-General Guy Simonds at first and, from January 29th, 1944, onwards, under Major-General E.L.M Burns. The 1st Infantry Division, the 5th Armoured Division and the 1st Armoured Brigade were now part of the newly formed I Canadian Corps, under the command of Lieutenant-General H.D.G. Crerar.

The 11th Infantry Brigade was put to the test on January 17th, 1944. Reaching the advanced lines north of Ortona, it resumed its northwards march along the coast of the Adriatic, towards the Arielli River. The Canadians fought their last battles of the winter and in March and April, the unit of I Corps were relieved, leaving the Adriatic front for some training and rest.

On the western side of the Italian peninsula, on January 17th, 1944, the Fifth Army engaged the Germans who were still blocking the access to Rome. On January 22nd, a sizeable Anglo-American contingent, under the command of the VI US Corps, landed in Anzio, 56 kilometres south of Rome; it was to meet, however, with unexpected resistance.

 Audio & Video Files
Canadian troops lead the attack on San Leonardo. (Runs 1:58)
 
 Photo Gallery
Private R.W. Hansen of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment watches warily down a street of San Leonardo Di Ortona covered by German fire.
A soldier of The Loyal Edmonton Regiment is helped back from the battle front down a San Leonardo Di Ortona street.
During the fighting to gain San Leonardo Di Ortona, it was essential to put a bridge across the nearby Moro River. The Canadian Engineers constructed one overnight despite enemy shelling.
Trooper J.W.McConnell, Three Rivers Regiment, examining a knocked-out German PzKpfW III tank.
Soldiers of the 1 Canadian Division carry a dead comrade killed by shell fire while escorting German prisoners. None of the prisoners was killed. 10 Dec 1943, San Leonardo di Ortona, Italy.
Infantrymen of The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada searching German prisoners near the Moro River, Italy, 8 December 1943.
Burial service of Canadian soldier killed by shell-fire. San Leonardo di Ortona, Italy. December 10, 1943.
Infantrymen of The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada searching German prisoners on the Moro River front, Italy, 9 December 1943.
The terrain in the vicinity of the Moro River fighting added difficulties for the assaulting troops. Brigadier Wyman noted in his scrapbook that these tanks had been driven off the road by mortar fire.
The terrain in the vicinity of the Moro River fighting added difficulties for the assaulting troops. Brigadier Wyman noted in his scrapbook that these tanks had been driven off the road by mortar fire.
A jeep ambulance of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (R.C.A.M.C.) bringing in two wounded Canadian soldiers on the Moro River front south of San Leonardo di Ortona.
Capt. F.M. Ritchie, Adjudant (14 C.T.R.) climbs down from straw-camouflaged tank. 10 Dec 1943, San Leonardo, Italy.
Platoon Commander Lieutenant I. Macdonald (with binoculars) ready to give order to attack at S. Leonardo di Ortona, Italy, 10 December 1943. Left to right, Sergeant J.T. Cooney, Privates A.R. Downie, O.E. Bernier, G.R. Young (kneeling, with Lee-Enfield rifle), Corporal T. Fereday and Private S.L. Hart (lying down with Bren gun) all of the 48th Highlanders.
Sergeant George A. Game of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit operating his camera near San Leonardo di Ortona, Italy, 10 December 1943.
Private G.C. Butcher, 48th Highlanders of Canada, examines the wreckage of a German PzKpfW III tank destroyed by the Calgary Regiment.
L. to R.: Private L.N. Welbanks, Sergeant G.D. Adams and Private L.G. Thompson all of the 48th Canadian Highlanders during German counter attack. 10 Dec 1943, San Leonardo Di Ortona, Italy.
 
Privates J. Miller and W.H. Hall digging on a slit trench during a lull in the German counter-attack. 10 Dec 1943, San Leonardo Di Ortona, Italy.
An attack on San Leonardo Di Ortona is preceded by artillery shelling.

Sources: Juno Beach Center, Archives Canada


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