Christmas in Ortona: 1943

The Christmas holidays are already here, approaching faster than you can say “egg nog.” It dawned on me now that it’s two days away. It’s that time of year where both our bank accounts and blood pressures surge, feeling the time crunch to check off interminable lists of final chores and errands. We get vastly preoccupied with traveling, cooking, buying gym memberships and gifts, decorating, and family fun (and at times, family squabbles).  The stress can easily lead to momentary grievances of how tough Christmas can be.

But for millions of others, this time of year is difficult. The realities of war and conflict severely compromise the enjoyment of holiday comforts. Even in seemingly peaceful communities, it wasn’t always this way. Each year leading up to Christmas, I am reminded of a small, Italian village once mired in warfare and destruction. And hundreds had died to liberate it.

In November 2008, I flew to Italy on a class trip, my very first adventure abroad. I was the only student from my own school, having the chance to link up with another school thanks to a mutual connection. My Dad accompanied me as a parental guardian. However, this wasn’t just an ordinary school trip. Congregated in a quiet cemetery outside the fishing town of Ortona shivering from the chilly damp air of the Adriatic, were hundreds of Canadian students in bright, red jackets.

This year was the 75th anniversary of the Italian Campaign of the Second World War, in particular, the liberation of Rome from the Germans’ Gothic Line. Nearly 6,000 Canadians died in Italy alone.

But during my travels, it was 65 years since the Battle of Ortona. The town was a seaport located along the shoreline of the Adriatic Sea, as far south as Rome. It was here that about 500 Canadian soldiers lost their lives from December 20-28, 1943. 

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Ortona, Italy

When the Canadians approached Ortona, it was held captive and fortified by German paratroopers. For days, they found themselves creeping through the ravines of the Moro River that stood between them and the town perched uphill and guarded by a stone wall. And history taught me that Canadian soldiers never had the luck of weather on their side. Record high precipitation caused incessant flooding from the Moro as high as eight feet. Troops and tanks were encumbered by thick mud, thus rendering their mission more perilous and burdensome than expected. A near facsimile to life in the trenches nearly 30 years prior. For eight days straight, the Canadians strove to diffuse the Germans’ “winter-line” through hand-to-hand combat.

65 years later, we were equally cursed with arduous weather, as I stood shivering in the very same spot, fighting my own battle against sickness. My first time understanding how time zones work left me discombobulated, mixed with lack of sleep and exposure to unfamiliar crowds and climates. This felt nothing like the balmy Mediterranean paradise that vacationers to the Italian coast would expect. Take icy rain pellets over the smoldering sun, and bitter winds over the soft sea breeze. I found myself confronted with a challenge bigger than I had foreseen in all my 16 years.

We arrived the previous night and promptly visited the Museum Battle of Ortona. It was a hybrid military-museum-art gallery filled with artifacts like weapons and uniforms including murals and dioramas depicting scenes of combat. Parts of Ortona in miniature lay before us with hollowed-out buildings, bodies, piles of debris and tanks. Later that evening, as we strolled through the promenade it felt impossible to experience such contrasting scenery 60 years prior.

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A replica of the war-torn Ortona in 1943

The next afternoon, our tour bus dropped us off at the Moro River Cemetery. We walked through rows of olive trees and the muddy footpath to find our assigned gravestones.

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Entering the Moro River Cemetery
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Cold and rainsoaked but united

Each student was given the name of a Canadian soldier buried here. After researching their biographies and services in Ortona, we stood by their graves during the ceremony and placed a small poppy cross for remembrance. I browsed through almost every veterans’ affairs website or military registrar I could find and sadly found little information on my soldier. However, to this day I recalled his name – John Millar – who died at the age of 20.

I pre-emptively took some medication but the cold wind was relentless, blowing right through my windbreaker. Combined with insufficient layering on my part and a punishing head cold made this experience rather ill-advised for my health. But I persisted despite these warnings as to not miss this experience.

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My poppy cross at John Millar’s grave

Before our arrival, the school had pre-arranged a brief video interview with a journalist for Canada’s Legion Magazine – and I was the student chosen to speak. Despite being camera shy, I managed to string together some cohesive responses before my mouth trembled too much to talk. I reflected on what it felt to be present, what this meant to me. Of course, it meant a great deal, as I pointed out, but I didn’t truly gain perspective until what was to come afterward. Parts of my interview was later featured in their commemorative film.

After taking group photos, my Dad and I went to find Millar’s grave, which was separate from everybody else in my group. Shortly afterward, the ceremony progressed, but I was already shivering violently, my face paperwhite and my fingernails turning into a light purple. To try and offset the chills, my mind focused on the procession – there were veterans present with delegates making speeches with a choir too. I tuned into what I could hear best over the wind and the loud tapping from my chattering teeth.

It was perhaps the coldest I’ve ever been, convinced that my temperature reached a dangerous threshold. My worried Dad behind me was two seconds away from dragging me back to the coach. But I felt compelled to endure the physical hardships. My momentary pain hardly compared to the severe injuries and traumas felt from battle.

I was reaching what felt like near hypothermia when the ceremony was starting to wrap up. Next, the moment I was waiting for, was the march into Ortona. Again dismissing refuge in the coach, I rejoined our crew as all the students and teachers arranged themselves into position like a regiment. Like a sea of red from our jackets, we walked in their footsteps, passing through the same ravine, looking up at the town ahead. The Canadians have returned.

The numbness in my fingers was ebbing away and my face started to flush the longer I walked in close proximity to the others. We entered Ortona and the locals turned their heads, conscious of our striking presence.

This is the moment most cemented into my mind – reception was met with little to no bewilderment. Not only did the citizens of Ortona expect us, but their welcome brimmed with celebration. At one point, we passed a school during lunchtime. I glanced towards the schoolyard and saw children running to the fence, watching us. Fervently, they waved at us with tiny Canadian flags in their hands. Even a gelato shop we visited had its own flavour decorated with a red maple leaf.

Our first stop was a nearby gymnasium beside the church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli. On Christmas Day, 1943, the Seaforth Highlanders regiment held an exquisite Christmas dinner within the church’s bombed-out ruins. After some meticulous scrounging,  they assembled the perfect feast – tablecloths, beer, wine, roast pork, mashed potatoes, gravy, and even chocolate for dessert. Of course, all that was missing was the shelter and safety of home with their families. But I hoped they at least enjoyed the comforts of merriment with friends, albeit short. Just like the march, we resurrected their Christmas spirit, on a much smaller scale. Once indoors, we enjoyed a warm soup with bread – something my ill self desired most.

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Christmas dinner in Ortona, 1943. Photo from the Library and Archives Canada.

After lunch, we moved further into the centre of town, through the same narrow streets that were once filled with tanks and debris. During the war, the main drag was perhaps the most hazardous spot for any soldier who dared to cross. As the Germans blocked the side roads, the army found themselves bottlenecked onto bigger streets where their tanks could fit, making them easier targets. There were roadblocks made of rubble, land mines and booby traps placed inside with machine gun snipers stationed strategically at every corner. To avoid further danger, the Canadians invented the tactic of “mouse-holing” – demolition charges were moulded out of plastic explosives, blasting a hole through the interior walls of a house. They would proceed to clear out the enemy from house-to-house, in each and every room.

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Streets of Ortona in 1943. Photo from Library and Archives Canada.
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Rebuilt 65 years later

The street opened up to the Piazza San Tommaso. Here, an old man approached us waiting outside of the Basilica of St. Thomas the Apostle. He spoke to one of our teachers in broken English. From what I gathered, he was quite young when the Canadians arrived. He had vivid memories of everything he had seen and recalled the soldiers who helped liberate his city. He pointed to a big clock watching over the square. A German sniper was often perched there, eyeing unsuspecting enemies.

Our final procession was a short mass in the Basilica. Although tired, I had recovered well enough to further commence with the ceremony. We had already been here the previous night, surveying the relics of Thomas the Apostle (more commonly known as Doubting Thomas) below the altar. The bombing had caused the church’s dome to partially collapse, and what was rebuilt currently rests above our heads.

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A reconstructed Basilica of St. Thomas the Apostle

I felt lucky to have escaped my studies for a trip to Italy at 16 years old. I had vivid memories biting into soft pink gelato for the very first time and the smooth gondola rides under the streets of Venice. I wandered for hours with friends through Florence, listening to the melodies of Renaissance fanfare. We browsed some of Rome’s most prestigious shops of Rome, even getting scolded once for simply touching the clothes. Then, I spent two hours in the village of Assissi, peering into odd shops full of medieval trinkets and bakeries with pizza loaded with french fries (not joking). I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing Europe, after imaging it for so long.

But there was something I really didn’t expect to happen from this journey – I loved Ortona best. It was crucial to both my memory and understanding of what made travel meaningful. For the first time, I experienced the real and intimate aspects of a new place. Through Ortona, I witnessed a part of Italy’s history unlike Rome – something recent, difficult yet personal. The city still feels its legacy to this day.

More importantly, thinking about Ortona emphasized the importance of being grateful for the food, the family fun and comforts of home during Christmas. And as evident through the soldiers and veterans – even in times of peril, there are those who seek consolation of friends in shared hardships.

*Info about the Battle of Ortona can be found here.

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