In Italy Farley Mowat was with the First Brigade of the Canadian 1st Infantry Division and had survived the brutal fighting for ‘The Gully’ on the approaches to the town of Ortona. On the 19th they had been pulled out of the line and they expected to have a period of rest and recuperation. After the experience that they had been through the freezing rain was now just a minor inconvenience. The rest did not last long:
During the morning of December 22 the sun broke thinly through the driven scud of another bora gale and men reacted like plants beginning to unfold after a too-long night.
Groups gathered around the cook trucks for a mug of tea. As the wan sun fell upon us, there were even jokes about “only three more shooting days to Christmas.” And there was hopeful talk of a possible mail distribution and of parcels from home. It was a time to think about presents. One came to us.
Just before noon a single 8-inch shell from a long-range German gun came snoring overhead to bury itself in the center of the bivouac area.
The explosion seemed of unprecedented violence. I was standing some distance from the burst and as the concussion buffeted me I saw a massive cone of mud spring full blown, like an instant genie, out of the sodden ground. A hot wind filled my nostrils. Childlike I screwed my eyes tight shut against this terror and willed my body not to run.
When I looked out into the world again it was to see a black-rimmed crater where the regimental aid post had stood short seconds earlier. There remained only some meaningless fragments of the equipment which, alone in war’s panoply, is intended to heal rather than to destroy.
There remained only bloodied fragments of Charlie Krakauer, of the medical sergeant and half a dozen orderlies and stretcher-bearers.
And yet this ghastly gift was but a token of Christmas still to come.
Farley Mowat was an accomplished novelist, published in many countries, before he wrote his memoir of wartime experiences in 1979. See Farley Mowat: And No Birds Sang.
Shortly after this Mowat was called to an Orders group where he learnt that their Brigade was going back into the attack on the town of Ortona. The Second Brigade was now in Ortona, stuck in a stalemate with the German Parachute troops. Ortona was to be described by some as the ‘Italian Stalingrad’ where the house to house fighting adopted a particularly murderous quality. After the briefing Mowat learnt the real reason they were being sent back into combat
He did not tell his officers what the brigade intelligence officer had told me: “Monty blew into Div H.Q. last night and he was frothing at the mouth. Passed the word to get on with it at any cost. The General told him the Div is worn down to the nub and ought to be relieved, but there ain’t no reserves, so no reliefs. It’s carry on, boys, and do-or-die, and bring me Pescara on a bleeding silver plate!”.
Everything before Ortona was a nursery tale
Maj Gen Chris Vokes, Divisional Commander, 1st Canadian Infantry Division.
In Ortona the Fallschirmjager were conducting a very skilful fighting withdrawal, making the Canadians pay for every small advance:
From the manner in which they are employed, it is evident that the Germans consider their ‘Fallschirmjager’ as specialist infantry. They have nearly always been used to hold and delay until a suitable defensive position further back can be organised and manned by infantry or Panzer Grenadiers. Often, they are thrown in to help restore a critical situation.
This manner of employment has largely governed the organisation and equipment of the paratroops: they tend to be well supplied with MGs, mortars and anti-tank guns, but generally operate without their own artillery. Armour support must come from elsewhere and they have no mobile recce element.
The fact that these “specialists” have appeared on our front to relieve the exhausted 90 PG Division gives us a clue to the enemy’s intentions and fears.
The most noteworthy characteristics of paratroop defensive tactics are: dogged tenacity, extreme economy in manpower (evidenced by their reluctance to counter-attack), skill in timing a withdrawal, and skill in concealment.
This was the Canadian intelligence report on their opponents dated 22nd December 1943:
Since 16 Dec, some 50 parachutists have been interrogated, among which were representatives from 1, 3 and 4 Para Rgts. These troops were the toughest we have had to face yet and, of course, the most security minded. In spite of that, moreover one could very clearly distinguish between the good type and the better type.
The first were those young men who in their keenness and eagerness for an adventurous military career, volunteered to join this hazardous branch of the GAF but who have not been in the service long enough to be instilled with that fanatic discipline and sense of security. A few months with a Parachute Training Bn, in FRANCE, training which did not even include jumping, and they were rushed to the front. The reality of war and capture must have been a rather sudden revelation to them, and they were quite willing to impart their limited knowledge.
The latter type were the older veterans who were in SICILY, CRETE, and who, at some time or other, had seen service on the RUSSIAN front. Those men knew what the score was and their discipline, morale and security are excellent.
It is no wonder that they are the ’picked troops’ and sent to whichever sector of the front needs strengthening. It is also interesting to note the condescending way in which the parachutists talk about the inf, ’they always mess things up, and we, the parachutists have to straighten them out again.’ This, then, is the better type and the type which does not talk – irrespective of their knowledge. And they too are the troops which have been put into the line to stem the adv of our Div.
For more on Ortona see Canada at War.