On this day in 1943, the 1st Canadian Division captured the Italian town of Ortona from Axis forces. Aside from being a strategically significant sea port on the East coast of Italy, Ortona was one of the key German strongholds on the Winter Line – a series of defensive positions stretching across occupied Italy designed to block the Allies’ northward advance. While larger American and British formations prepared for the D-Day landings of 1944, the Canadians were given the thankless task of leading the Allied charge up what Winston Churchill called the “soft underbelly of Europe”. This statement was based on the mistaken belief that fighting in Italy would be easy. But once the Italians surrendered to the Allies, they were replaced in Italy by German troops, who were much more motivated and highly trained.
As Allied troops attacked positions on the Winter Line, Canadians under Major-General Chris Vokes assaulted Ortona, encountering brutal opposition from the elite German paratroopers who held the town. The infantrymen quickly found that movement in the streets was made impossible by heavy German gunfire. They instead relied on mousehole charges – explosives designed to blast holes in walls – to move from house to house, thus avoiding the streets. The fighting was relentless, and 1,375 Canadians were killed in what became known as the “Italian Stalingrad“, but the battle was an Allied success which helped facilitate the broader advance towards Rome. In Canada, the battle is often regarded as a tragedy due to the massive expenditure of human life that took place there for little tactical gain; whatever the result, Vokes’ success in Ortona convinced Allied command to give difficult objectives to the Canadians in the ensuring invasion of France.