Return to Ortona: A Battlefield Redemption
CBC News Online | January 1999 | Updated September 21, 2004
"The enemy was the enemy�and certainly we fought them and killed them, without any thought you know�we were just killing
Germans, period." - Canadian veteran Ted Griffiths
Ortona, Italy, was once a killing ground for young men's dreams; Ortona itself
was a town that ceased to exist
over Christmas in 1943.
"War is a terrible thing ... You see the white color in the eyes of your opposite, and you know exactly when you don't shoot him, he will shoot you, of course" - German veteran Joseph Klein
Ortona is on Italy's Adriatic coast and during the Second World War, it was the town where the Germans chose to take a stand and delay the allied advance up the Italian boot. It was Canadian troops
who met the Germans at the Moro River, just outside Ortona and fought their way into the town during eight bloody days in 1943.
Over Christmas, 1998, Canadian veterans of the Second World War came back to Ortona, trying to bury the ghosts of a terrible December. The CBC's Senior Washington Correspondent David Halton was with the men. It was David Halton's father, Matthew, who covered the battle of Ortona for CBC News. This website is based on David Halton's documentary, which was produced by Jonathan Whitten.
The few of the Canadian veterans that are left plan to meet
with the Germans they were trying to kill 55 years
But before any reconciliation with the
Germans, the Canadians want to be alone and so they go to the cemetary outside Ortona where they left so many of their comrades behind.
John Matheson was a forward artillery officer maimed during the battle for Ortona.
He notes an irony as he walks among the graves of dead Canadians and stops at a headstone. "You know," he says, "the first person to die in my regiment was a fellow by the name of Schultz. German, pure German. Here's a fellow, Hess. Private Hess, now there would be a boy of pure German background."
Samuel Lenko was a private with the Loyal Edmonton
"It's tough, I tell you, it's really tough," he says as he walks among the headstones. "I got to find Don Maclean..a stretcher bearer..he went out to find a wounded German soldier�and another German shot him. He had a red cross band on and everything. It was one of those things�that just happened."
They were mostly young volunteers in their twenties,
who had come ashore in Sicily in August, 1943
as part of the First Canadian Infantry Division.
Their first victories were fierce but small-scale battles
against the retreating enemy.
The Allied strategy was to keep German troops pinned down, away
from the Russian front and to keep them
from bolstering defences against the planned
D-Day invasion in France.
For some, like the Seaforth Highlanders of
Vancouver, it was a time when they could still revel in
the adventure and glory of war.
Town after town was liberated as the Canadians
advanced rapidly up the boot of Italy.
It was, their general later said, a "nursery tale"
By the first week of December, the Canadians had advanced up to the valley of the Moro river, until they were less than seven kilometres away from Ortona. Some hoped they'd be there after a day or so of fighting.
What the Canadians didn't know is that they were about to crash into what the Germans called their winter liene, or winter line, a German defence line that Hitler had ordered held at any cost. Canada was about to be sucked into its bloodiest battle of the Italian campaign, legendary in its valour, brutal in its cost, a battle that was to become known as "Canada's Stalingrad."
Suddenly, the twenty-five thousand soldiers of the
First Division were up against some of the best units
of the Wehrmacht. The Germans were holding ideal defensive
positions above the ravines and gullies of the Moro
The inferno had begun.
Mathew Halton, the CBC's correspondent at the Moro River described it this way.
In a morass of mud, against an enemy fighting harder than he's fought before, the Canadians attack, and attack, and attack.
John Matheson's war ended that day, with six pieces of shrapnel in his brain.
"It went through my steel helmet...tiny little shrapnel...would cut the arteries like a massive stroke," Matheson says.
"But we were young...and very fit.
I was paralyzed...from then on...[they]
said I'd never have kids again...but didn't prove to be so."
After a series of bloody assaults, there was a
a breakthrough, described Matthew Halton, whose voice
that was to become more and more
familiar to Canadians.
But at last light that day, a great officer took his men over again, through a curtain of fire..they made a desparate rush, and took the high ground, and we were established across the Moro River.
"It was a trap."
It took almost two weeks before the Canadians were able to attack Ortona itself.
Inside the town, batallions of Germany's elite First Parachute Regiment were dug in, waiting.
Fifty-five years later, the Germans are also back,
waiting once more for the Canadians.
Among the parachute veterans are Willy Fretz,
who directed the German artillery around Ortona,
Hugo Baeur, whose grim job was to rescue the wounded,
and Joseph Klein, who was 19-year-old lieutenant in 1943.
As they walk streets with memories that have scarred their
all agree reconciliation has been too long in coming.
"I am proud to be allowed to say, as a German,
that the Canadians invited us," Bauer says, "even though it
is difficult�they were the worst days of my life."
"It is terrible, all this killings, but you can't do anything for that," Klein says. "It is gone, it is history, you know, but now we have to be friends"
Back at the cemetery, some Canadian
veterans are uneasy about becoming
friends with the men who killed their buddies.
The Seaforth Highlanders' Bill Whorton says it won't
be easy for him, reconciling with men he once regarded as arrogant Nazis. He has mixed feelings. "You know, he says, "I'm not going to come out and say I'm glad to see them. But as an individual, I might see the man and I have no feelings of hate for him but� I think as far as I'm concerned they'll be very gentlemen but I still have that underground feeling that you wonder about it."
Fernand Trepannier, who saw 26 of his Vandoos (The Royal 22nd Regiment)
platoon killed in action, confesses to mixed
"You know when we meet them and we think of our boys," Trepannier says. "I would say somtime we may forgive, but we can not forget"
If you walk among the graves, you see unidentified headstones. Some of Canadians were so broken
they could never be identified.
Incredibly some were as young as 16.
Some veterans are ready to salute their old enemies.
"These people are worthy of every honour�you know," Matheson says.
It was their misfortune to ...but they were gallant people�and they thought their cause was right"
"Who the hell is going to carry
hatred around all their life," asks Ted Griffiths,
head of the Canadian delegation.
He admits he ran into early resistance to the idea of a meeting with the Germans.
"I heard more or less 'No, I'm not that keen on sort of meeting with the German.' On occasion some of them used the word 'kraut' which I hadn't heard for many years, but as I say, a little bit of thought, they came around."
Griffiths was in one of the first Canadian tanks into
Ortona, trying to clear the way for the infantry.
The Germans had blocked off the sidestreets
to force the Canadians onto Ortona's main street,
the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele.
"The hope was to kill tanks as they proceeded down," says former German lieutenant Joe Klein. "So it was a trap."
Three of the Canadian Sherman tanks were blown up
as riflemen of the Seaforths and the Loyal
Edmontons moved further into Ortona.
Almost everywhere, they were in the sights
of German machine gunners or advancing through an
explosive tangle of mines and booby traps.
It was a battle for every block...every corner of the
town� a battle at close quarters.. fought with brutality...
but with such stamina that both sides wondered at
the courage of their enemy.
Mathew Halton reported:
"If it wasn't hell, it was the courtyard of hell. It was a malestrom of noise, and hot splitting steel�
the more murderous the battle, the harder both sides fought. From window to window, from door to door, in a carnival of fury�
the enemy used every trick, and every weapon, including flame throwers."
"We'd had many battles but none before in a built up urban area," Griffiths says. "We had to develop tactics as we went along in this battle."
The tactics included mouseholing, as it was called.
Explosives and shells were used to break through the
walls of adjoining buildings so that the Canadians
could advance through buildings not open streets.
In the single most deadly incident of the battle,
the Germans blew up a building packed with
Canadians. The one surviving Loyal Edmonton soldier was pulled from the building three days later.
Karl Bayerlein confesses it was he who set the
explosives. He is reluctant to talk, fearing
it will poison the approaching reconciliation.
"I say only this," he says. "We destroyed a house� in
this house was [booby-trapped] was soldiers in.
"Mr. Bauerline� he was one who blew up a house with some
Canadians in it," Klein says, "[he] not so happy. War is a terrible thing, you have to do it, otherwise they will do it on you.
"I think the reaction was, you blew up my house, I'll blow up yours," says Loyal Edmonton Mel Mcphee. That is exactly what the Canadians did.
"It was a desire for revenge we've got to get back at them," McPhee says, "because they can't pull that kind of thing off without consequences."
"A hasty Christmas dinner"
On Christmas Day, the battle for Ortona
was reaching the peak of murderous intensity.
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander deplored the bloodletting but said the paratroopers had to hold on because the allies
had made Ortona as important as Rome.
On Christmas morning, Griffiths tells was
in his tank, moving into the Piazza San Francesco.
German snipers in a church were about to mow down several Seaforth highlanders.
"The machine guns opened up from the church." Griffiths didn't hesitate. He blew the church and smashed it into pieces.
"The fact it was an old medieval church never entered my mind," Griffiths says "Bear in mind the business of the day was killling. The fact it was Christmas, didn't enter my mind at that time, but when you survive a battle, and you begin to think back on what transpired, this is when all the ghosts arrived and it is the ghosts of Ortona, the ghosts of that church that keep coming back to haunt you."
At another church, Santa Maria di Constantinopoli, the Canadians were brought back in shifts for a hasty Christmas dinner a few blocks from the fighting for roast pork and Christmas pudding.
As part of a desperate search for normality, an organist played Silent Night amid the inferno raging outside.
Wilf Gildersleeve, who played the organ that day describes the mood as they sang.
"For that moment we were able to live in another world�almost in tears, I think, to sing those words," he says, "and then in an hour or so to go back to their fate, whatever it might be and for some of them it was the last meal on earth.
"I'm sure that possibly some of the men on the other side were singing the same tune and I'm sure their feelings were much the same."
Many of the Germans spent their Christmas Eve huddled in an Ortona railway tunnel; crowded with wounded and dead. Memories of the tunnel that night are draped in trauma.
"At two thirty in the morning, we had to sing Silent Night," Bauer says. "And we had a Christmas candle and a sack of oranges. That was our Christmas gift. For everybody that was in the tunnel.
"And that's the kind of Christmas you have to carry around
for the rest of your life.
The people at home can't get me excited about Christmas
on the 23rd and 24th. It doesn't work.
It's as though I am dead on those days.
On a cold December night in Ortona, the German veterans arrive
for their first meeting with the Canadians.
The reconciliation of old warriors is about to begin.
Ted Griffiths meets Joe Klein saying, "Very pleased to meet you...it's been a long time," And then comes the invitation "but you must come in an meet the boys."
Some of the Canadians had calmed their anxieties
over the meeting by reminding themselves they
were volunteers but believing
the Germans they felt had no choice but to be
conscripted in Hitler's army.
In fact, all the parachute veterans were
The topic is dropped.
The first meeting goes well, with the exception of one
Vandoo Leopold Beauchamp insists on showing
Willy Fretz a ring he wears,
a wartime trophy
cut off from a dead German's finger. Fretz tells Beauchamp it was a paratroopers ring
from one of their own.
In the days before Christmas, old hostilities
begin to dissolve, a sense of camaraderie is
The Seaforth's Bill Whorton, who had reservations about the meeting swaps addresses with Joseph Klein.
Maps are brought out as the battle is fought again
At first Hugo Baeur, perhaps the
most traumatized of the veterans, is isolated by his
lack of English.
But Sam Lenko, who once used his German to
encourage the paratroopers to surrender
uses it now to put Baeur at ease.
On Christmas eve, with Wilf Gildersleeve playing the
organ at Santa Maria as he did 55 years ago,
the memories of that other Christmas
come flooding back.
This time, the old enemies are side by side.
The veterans sit down for a memorial dinner together
in the same church hall where Canadians got their
small ration of comfort on that other Christmas.
Klein toasts with Griffiths "I must say we were never enemies, we were opponents," he says, "and we just had to defend our lives as you had to defend your lives."
"It's really been fantastic," Lenko replies, "this is something I never ever dreamt of�I never thought it would happen..it's something totally unbelievable."
Before saying goodbye to Ortona and each other there's one last visit to their battle ground.
"I told Joseph I had mixed feelings," Bill Whorton says, "but I don't now because when you meet these gentlemen, you realize when you talk to them, they are some of the finest people in the world because they had an espirit de corps in the paratroopers like the Canadians had because we were a volunteer army."
The tensions have gone now; the reconciliation is almost complete.
The old veterans exchange final hugs.
"And I hope someday us old buggers can meet again," Whorton tells Fritz.
"I think we will set an example...to a lot of countries...with what we are doing now," Johnson says.
"This meeting has been a cleansing of the soul in many ways," Ted Griffiths says.
"It's a shedding of some of the ghosts of Ortona they have forgiven us sort of thing, we have forgiven them..and we've come together in the spirit of friendship."