Remembrances: Canada and the Second World War

The War

The War on Land - Themes

Fighting in Italy

In December 1943, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division reached the coastal town of Ortona. The battle lasted a week, during which the enemy was dislodged in house to house combat. "C" Company, Royal 22e Régiment freed the road to Ortona. In thanks, the community gave the regiment the "Freedom of the City" on April 14, 1993.

Freedom of the city given to R22eR by city of Ortona in Italy.
Freedom of the city given to R22eR by city of Ortona in Italy. © Musée du Royal 22e Régiment.
Bridge to Gambatesa destroyed. Watercolour. Artist: Gérard Morel.
Bridge to Gambatesa destroyed. Watercolour. Artist: Gérard Morel. © Musée du Royal 22e Régiment.
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During the great battle for Rome, Canadians had to cross the Fortore River to reach Gambatesa. The Royal 22e Régiment led the 1st Canadian Infantry Division in the attack. The road was under the control of the German artillery and the Thirteen Arches bridge had been destroyed. The regiment had to advance on cliffs alongside the road while enemy fire prevented it from crossing the Fortore. On October 8, 1944, Gambatesa fell after twenty-four hours of bitter combat. From the 5th to the 7th, forty men of the Royal 22e Régiment were wounded or killed in action.

Battle blouse, Army. (19800966-001)
Battle blouse, Army. (19800966-001) © Canadian War Museum.

Supporting the Canadian infantry and armoured formations fighting in Italy at all times were the gunners of the Royal Canadian Artillery. One of those units, the 1st Survey Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, fought throughout the Sicilian and Italian campaigns. This battle dress blouse was worn by a member of the regiment severely wounded during this period of fighting. Because of the loss of his leg, the blouse was modified on the right side to accommodate the use of a crutch.

This painting, "Reinforcements Moving Up in the Ortona Salient", was created by a Canadian war artist, Lawren Phillips Harris. It shows the devastation of the area in which the Canadian Army was fighting at the end of 1943.

Oil painting,
Oil painting, "Reinforcements Moving Up in the Ortona Salient", Harris, Captain Lawren Phillips, 1946. (19710261-3100) © Canadian War Museum.
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On September 3, 1943, The Royal Canadian Regiment landed at Reggio, a small Italian city on the toe of Italy just across from Sicily. This landing was a success with no casualties suffered by the regiment. Other encounters with the enemy would prove more costly.

Canadian soldiers, as they make their way through a liberated Italian town.
Canadian soldiers, as they make their way through a liberated Italian town. © The Royal Canadian Regiment.
The town of Campochin outside of Ortona was one of the many taken by the 1st Canadian Division in brutal street fighting which produced many casualties such as this Canadian soldier.
The town of Campochin outside of Ortona was one of the many taken by the 1st Canadian Division in brutal street fighting which produced many casualties such as this Canadian soldier. © The Royal Canadian Regiment.
Soldiers of The Regiment line up for water. Owing to the scarcity of potable water, lineups were common and another hardship to endure. Italy, 1943.
Soldiers of The Regiment line up for water. Owing to the scarcity of potable water, lineups were common and another hardship to endure. Italy, 1943. © The Royal Canadian Regiment.

From September to the end of December 1943, The Royal Canadian Regiment moved further inland and along the Adriatic coast. Every town and village became a fortress and was regarded by German forces as an excellent defensive strong point and anti-tank position. Constricted streets and tall, strongly built houses provided superb cover against advancing forces. Every house provided a possible ambush location, and in essence became a death trap.

Prior to reaching Ortona, The Royal Canadian Regiment was engaged in fighting in a valley west of San Leonardo. Code-named Operation Orange Blossom, the regiment was to attack on the morning of December 18, 1943. The battle opened with the tremendous roar of firepower, and continued well into the day. During this assault, however, confusion reigned – many maps were very inaccurate, the artillery barrage was unfocused, and soon cancelled altogether. As a result, enemy gunners sprang up behind the line of infantry and swept it with machine guns. "The advancing RCR suddenly found themselves faced with a strong group of paratroopers whom the lifting of the barrage had left unscathed.

The road to Ortona was not an easy one to travel. Some of the bitterest fighting took place around this Adriatic coastal town. The Regiment moved out to secure the road north of Ortona 24 December, 1943.
The road to Ortona was not an easy one to travel. Some of the bitterest fighting took place around this Adriatic coastal town. The Regiment moved out to secure the road north of Ortona 24 December, 1943. © The Royal Canadian Regiment.
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From these and from the east side of The Gully, where the modification of the artillery plan had given the enemy unexpected freedom of action, a murderous cross-fire laced the Canadians. Men dropped like flies. The two leading companies were smashed to pieces, all officers becoming casualties; 'Never before' wrote a surviving officer, 'either during the Sicilian or Italian campaign, had The Regiment run into such a death trap.'

One week later, on Christmas Day, The Royal Canadian Regiment was fighting for Ortona in one of the regiment's more famous efforts.

At Ortona, the Canadians developed a technique called 'mouse-holing' and it was this method that established the standard for town-clearing operations in Italy.

Scenes such as this were a common sight in the battle of Ortona where medical resources were severely tested. Italy, December 1944.
Scenes such as this were a common sight in the battle of Ortona where medical resources were severely tested. Italy, December 1944. © The Royal Canadian Regiment.

'Mouse-holing' meant blasting your way through walls and buildings to move from one house to the next and then clear the enemy out, with assistance from tanks and anti-tank guns. Troops would blow an opening through the connecting wall from one dwelling to the next with a small explosive charge, then pour through with grenades and submachine guns. Mouse-holing parties sometimes fought their way down whole blocks, without ever seeing open air.

Cloth escape maps were lighter in weight and more easily concealed than paper versions, and could get wet without the information being ruined, making them a very useful resource in the event of capture.
Cloth escape maps were lighter in weight and more easily concealed than paper versions, and could get wet without the information being ruined, making them a very useful resource in the event of capture. © The Royal Canadian Regiment
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In Ortona, the Canadians became the acknowledged masters of house-to-house fighting. As 1944 began, Major Galloway of The Royal Canadian Regiment wrote, "Of the 41 officers who had landed at Pachino less than six months before, only nine remained with the Battalion and these six already had been wounded. The Battalion had landed 756 strong; by now over 550 of the 'originals' were numbered among the killed, wounded, missing and prisoners of war, or had fallen victim to the scourges of malaria, jaundice and other ailments….

To those who remained, who day by day fought the enemy, moved into the teeth of his machine guns, maintained their positions under the hammering of the mortars, no tribute could be great enough. Bleeding, soaking wet, hungry and terrified, they did as they were bidden. No more could be asked of any mortal."

Leaving Ortona, the 1st Canadian Division went into a holding pattern on the Adriatic coast for four months then, in May 1944, moved up the coast to the Liri Valley area of central Italy, which culminated in the breaching of the Hitler Line on May 24, 1944.

While ensuring the Germans have left the immediate vicinity of the village, a Canadian soldier stops to talk to an old Italian woman spinning wool. Italy, 1944.
While ensuring the Germans have left the immediate vicinity of the village, a Canadian soldier stops to talk to an old Italian woman spinning wool. Italy, 1944. © The Royal Canadian Regiment.
Canadian soldiers breaching the Gothic Line in Northern Italy described it as one of the finest battles ever fought in the history of the 8th Army, 26 August, 1944.
Canadian soldiers breaching the Gothic Line in Northern Italy described it as one of the finest battles ever fought in the history of the 8th Army, 26 August, 1944. © The Royal Canadian Regiment.
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After the Hitler Line, the formidable Gothic Line in Northern Italy awaited the Allied soldiers. It was built by Italian forced labour and consisted of machine gun posts, concrete gun positions, deep dugouts, steel shelters, tank turrets, miles of barbed wire and thousands of mines. Although it was a costly battle, by September 19, 1944 the Germans had abandoned their positions. Of all its Second World War casualties, The Royal Canadian Regiment suffered over eighty percent of them in Italy, and earned nineteen of its battle honours there.