Near Ortona, in the region of Abruzzo, Italy, there is a place that links Italians and Canadians: the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery. The Battle of Ortona was Canada’s bloodiest battle in the World War II Italian Campaign.
A deep water port on Italy’s east coast, the town of Ortona’s capture by the Canadians was strategically important but also very dangerous. It was a key German command centre and Hitler ordered troops, seasoned from years of war, to defend Ortona at all costs. For eight days, soldiers clashed in hand-to-hand combat and the battle’s nicknames draw shivers: “Italian Stalingrad,” “the Forgotten Battle,” or “Bloody Christmas.” Reporting from Ortona in ‘43, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s war correspondent called it the “courtyard of hell.”
By the winter of 1943 the German armies in Italy were defending a line stretching from the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Naples, to the Adriatic Sea south of Ortona. The Allies prepared to break through this line to capture Rome. For its part, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was to cross the Moro River and take Ortona.
On December 6, 1943, the Canadians crossed the river, attempting to take Villa Rogatti and San Leonardo, two towns on its far bank. The Germans resisted, but, by focusing on San Leonardo, the Canadians succeeded in establishing a bridgehead. The following week, members of the Royal 22e Régiment, supported by tanks of the Ontario Regiment, launched an attack on the flanks of the deep gulley near Casa Berardi, where the Germans held their defensive positions and continually thwarted the Canadian advance. This attack, combined with a further assault by the 48th Highlanders and the Royal Canadians, finally drove the enemy out and after two weeks, the Canadians were free to advance to Ortona.
The battle of Ortona was one of the most bitter of the war and the seaside town was taken after eight days of fierce fighting. On December 28, having been driven to the town’s northern outskirts, the Germans withdrew. In all, the fighting in December cost the 1st Canadian Division over 500 victims. In January of 1944 the Canadians made further, but limited, advances and then settled into patrolling activities in this sector until March.
In January 1944 the Canadian Corps selected this site, intending that it would contain the graves of those who died during the Ortona battle and in the fighting in the weeks before and after it. Today, there are 1.615 graves in the cemetery, of which over 50 are unidentified and 1.375 are Canadian.
Author’s note: The Moro River Canadian War Cemetery is located on high ground near the Adriatic Sea at San Donato, in the municipality of Ortona (about 5 kilometres south of the town), in the Province of Chieti.