The battle of Ortona (20-27 December 1943) saw the Canadians capture a key part of the Adriatic section of the Gustav Line in the first major urban battle of the Italian campaign, but by the time it ended the Eighth Army was in no condition to carry out further offensive operations.
At the start of December the Eighth Army attacked the German positions on the Moro River, and soon had a foothold across the river. However the advancing Canadians were then help up at ‘the Gully’, a ravine and ridgeline that ran inland from the coast just to the south of Ortona. The Canadians were held up at the Gully until 18 December, when they finally managed to outflank the right of the German position. The defence of the gully gave the Germans time to turn Ortona into a fortress, making it part of the Gustav Line, the main line of German defences across southern Italy. It was defended by part of the elite 1st Parachute Division, which had spent the week before the battle fortifying the town. They demolished houses to form massive barricades across the streets, and buried tanks up to their turrets in the rubble. Every street was guarded by gun positions, making movement in the open lethal to the infantry. The Paratroops also had a defensive position south of the town, between Berardi and the coast, but they were soon forced out of this after the start of the renewed Allied offensive on 18 December, and forced back into Ortona. Montgomery had hoped to use Ortona as a port, and so the town hadn’t been subjected to Allied air attack before the battle.
The town was attacked by the 1st Canadian Division. The first footholds were gained on 20 December, and the main attack began on 21 December, when the Edmontons and some tanks from the Three Rivers regiment advanced along a 500 yard wide front, attempting to advance down the main streets of the town. By 23 September the Seaforth battalion had also been committed to the battle.
The German plan was to funnel the Canadian infantry into a killing zone in the Piazza Municipale, but they didn’t fall for the trap. The Canadians soon developed a series of techniques for dealing with the defences. Most of Ortona was made up of built up blocks, where neighbouring houses shared walls. The Canadians would clear the first building in a block, move to the upper floor, and blow a hole through the wall into the next house, which they would then clear from top to bottom. They would repeat this ‘mouseholing’ technique until the entire block had been cleared. In order situations entire houses were demolished onto their defenders. Their tanks used the main routes into town, while the infantry stayed on minor routes and in the buildings.
On 24 December the town was subjected to a heavy artillery bombardment, but this just created more rubble to be defended. By 27 December the Canadians were threatening to cut off the defenders, and that night the surviving Germans withdrew to avoid being trapped. On the morning of 28 December the Canadians finally completed the conquest of Ortona, reaching the northern end of the town. The battle had cost them 650 casualties, and had given the Allies invaluable experience of urban warfare in Italy. By now the Eighth Army was exhausted. Its supply lines ran all the way back to Bari, and the winter weather threatened to ground its crucial air support. Montgomery realised that there was little chance of reaching his target of Pescara, and asked for permission to cancel the offensive. Alexander agreed, but ordered Montgomery to keep carrying out offensive patrols to prevent the Germans moving reinforcements from the Adriatic front to the Mignano front.