By late 1943, the Allies’ Italian campaign was progressing from its initial landings in Sicily. This campaign was never intended to win the war. As I have discussed in previous posts, the Allies real strategic objective in Italy was to remove Italian troops from the war, to reduce the strength of the German Army and to divert German forces from France. Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in Normandy, remained the focus for the Allies. The elimination of the Nazi scourge could only be achieved from the north.
By the fall of 1943, the advance had bogged down in the face of determined German resistance, anchored on two defensive positions – the Gustav Line to the west and the Bernhard Line in the east. In early November, General Montgomery decided that a bold advance up the Adriatic coast would allow his command to take a left at Pescara and move inland to Rome with the goal of seizing the Italian capital before Christmas. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division relieved the British 78th Division on the Adriatic coast of Italy at the start of December 1943.
The Moro River
On 6 December 1943, the Canadians began a series of large-scale assaults on major crossing points along the Moro River with the objective of securing a large bridgehead along the defensive line. Three primary points of attack were chosen:
- Villa Rogatti, along the western flank of the Canadian sector. This objective was given to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). They quickly reached their objective and forced the German 200th Panzergrenadier Regiment to withdraw. By mid morning, the Germans had begun to mount counterattacks and although they were being effectively repulsed, the PPCLI were ordered to handover the villa to the Indian 21st Infantry Battalion. The PPCLI then worked to establish a bridgehead at San Leonardo.
- San Leonardo, 5 km (3.1 mi) south of Ortona was given to the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada (SFC). A Company successfully established a bridgehead over the Moro River, then mounted an assault on the village. After taking heavy casualties, they were withdrawn and the PPCLI took over security of the bridgehead and two other companies of the SFC continued the assault; and
- San Donato, a small town near the Italian coast. The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (HPER) mounted a small assault on the village, but were quickly repulsed by the entrenched Germans.
Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE) completed a Bailey Bridge (similar to the one in the adjacent painting) across the Moro River in the morning of 9 December enabling tanks of the 14th Armoured Regiment (Calgary Regiment) to move with two companies of SFC across the river into San Leonardo.
Interestingly (from a military engineer’s perspective), to the Canadian’s western flank engineers of the Indian 21st Infantry Brigade also constructed a bridge across the Moro River. Local geography required that it be built backwards from the enemy bank of the river. As a result, the bridge was named the “Impossible Bridge”.
By the end of that day, the Canadians controlled San Leonardo and the Germans fell back to their next line of defence, a formidable obstacle just south of Ortona, known as “The Gully”. This was a natural ravine with an average depth of 61 m. It was reinforced with defensive positions including gun-pits, bunkers and shelters.
Given the preparations made by the Germans, the Gulley was not an easy objective for the Canadians. Initially, Major-General Christopher Vokes, the commander of 1st Canadian Infantry Division, was unaware of the depth and preparation of the German defences. He had decided that a full frontal assault was to be made by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, which would seize Vino Ridge, capture The Gully and gain positions on the Ortona to Orsogna road. The assault was launched on 10 December 1943, but was quickly defeated by the German defenders. Over the next few days, several similar assaults were made; each of them were driven back by tenacious German resistance at the cost of many Canadian casualties.
On 14 December 1943, a new tactic was devised. A small force from the Royal 22e Régiment (R22R) would move to Casa Berardi, a small set of farmhouses west of The Gully, before outflanking German positions with infantry and armour. The attack began at dawn, with two companies, under Captain Paul Triquet, of the R22R attacking Casa Berardi with armoured support from the Ontario Regiment and artillery support. Although suffering significant casualties, Triquet’s remaining forces captured the manor house at 14:30. Only 14 men of C Company were fit to continue fighting. For his efforts to capture Casa Berardi, Triquet was awarded the Victoria Cross.
On 20 December, a final push was made to capture the Gully. Starting with a heavy rolling artillery barrage and with significant armoured support, Canadian troops, facing very little resistance, secured the Cider Crossroads. From there they moved into the Gully. By this point, the German defenders, realising the untenable nature of their position withdrew to their next defensive positions.
On to Ortona
When The Gully was finally taken, no one expected the Germans to remain in Ortona. The standard German tactic was to withdraw to easily defensible terrain; the Arielli River was only five kilometres north of Ortona and would make a good defensive position.
In the next post, I will cover the Canadian move into Ortona.
Honour the Fallen, Help the Living