December 25, 2018 8:57 pm

Canadian soldiers ate Christmas dinner in a port Hitler wanted ‘at all costs.’ They took it 2 days later

Back in 1943, Canadian troops were deployed in Italy, to a place called Ortona. It was the height of the Second World War. On Christmas Day 75 years ago, the soldiers there had a different kind of meal. As Seán O'Shea reports, dinner that night was a respite from fierce fighting.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked an important anniversary when he visited Canadian soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Mali last weekend.

This wasn’t just a visit for the holidays. It was also the 75th anniversary of the Christmas dinner that Canadians ate in Ortona, as they fought to take a town that Adolf Hitler wanted held at “all costs.”

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In December 1943, Allied forces had reached Ortona, a historic Italian port on the Adriatic Sea.

Forces had invaded Italy five months earlier, and Canadian troops including the Seaforth Highlanders and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment found themselves facing down the Nazis’ elite paratroopers, according to an account by Veterans Affairs.

Canadians hoped they would only have to spend a day taking the town; it lasted a whole month.

B Company, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, is forced to follow a narrow footpath for two miles along the hilly Adriatic coast during the Allied advance through Italy in the Second World War.

CP Photo from National Defence

Canadians first encountered Germans at the Moro River, in a month that would prove to be its wettest.

The river’s banks rose by eight feet, forcing soldiers to trudge through fields of mud as they dodged enemy fire.

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They arrived in Ortona on Dec. 20, coming upon a town of narrow streets where the Nazis had only left room for them to travel down a single highway that could accommodate tanks.

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And there they fought — Canadian tanks were blown up in the street, while snipers and machine gun operators rained fire down on troops from strategic positions in buildings reduced to rubble.

The Canadians would innovate a tactic known as “mouseholing,” which involved placing a charge against the wall of a house so they could blow it up and walk straight through and avoid the streets.

They used this tactic to put down the enemy.

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Christmas came five days later, and soldiers with the Seaforth Highlanders spent it in Santa Maria di Constantinopoli, a church that had been bombed out.

There, they ate a homemade meal of roast pork, mashed potatoes, cauliflowers, nuts, gravy and applesauce.

READ MORE: In Christmas message, Trudeau urges Canadians to ‘stand together,’ help out

Servicemen returned from the front lines, laid down their weapons, ate and sang Christmas Carols.

Other soldiers couldn’t leave the front.

The fighting resumed shortly, and the Germans withdrew from Ortona two days later.

The battle of Ortona left 213 Canadians dead during Christmas week, in what would come to be known as “Bloody December.”

The anniversary left Trudeau in a reflective mood as he spoke with peacekeepers, now on the front lines of a conflict in Mali.

“That idea of coming together and pausing, and remembering or reflecting on why we serve and our families back home is a really important thing,” he said.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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