New Brunswick

A daughter's search: Woman finds Italian rooftop where dad spent Christmas 1943

A Saint John woman travelled to Italy in search of the exact spot where her father spent Christmas 1943 as a soldier in the bitter battle for Ortona.

Nancy Thorne wanted to know more about her soldier father's war experience

Nancy Thorne with a wartime photo of the building where her father worked as an artillery spotter during the Battle for Ortona in the Second World War. It was presented by staff at the hotel where she stayed during a visit this summer. (Mike Heenan, CBC)

Nancy Thorne grew up knowing her father, Ronald Yeomans, was a respected Second World War veteran.

And Nov. 11 was always a huge day for the west Saint John family of seven.

"He was usually the person in front of the parade, carrying the flag. I always remember that, he was always at the very front. And I had other uncles who were in the parade. It was a big family day until the parade was over. 

Even so, she knew little about her father's experiences in the war. It was his policy not to talk about those years he spent in Europe as a young man. Thorne knew he had lost friends and suspected the experience had not been a good one. 

So she was surprised years later when his resolve suddenly crumbled at a family dinner under direct questioning from his granddaughter, Cindy Thorne.

This Saint John woman travelled to Italy to retrace her father’s steps during the Second World War. She found the rooftop where he was stranded for days fighting the Germans. 4:28

Nancy listened, astonished as her father began talking about the Christmas he spent in 1943 as a 22-year-old soldier fighting in Ortona, Italy. 

"We were just at the dining room table and it was after dinner on a Sunday night," she recalled. "It was just close to [Remembrance Day] because she was working on a school project and she asked him to tell a story about the war.

"And he chose to tell the story about — it was Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing day — that he spent on the roof of a building in Italy. Ortona. And that it was freezing cold, he talked about the cold and the rain."

Ronald Yeomans of Saint John, right, as a young soldier. He was radio operator with a forward observer team at Ortona, Italy. (Nancy Thorne)

The story stayed with her, she'd never heard of Ortona, on Italy's Adriatic coast, or the brutal battle fought there by Canadian soldiers during the war. Or that her own father had been at the very centre of it, wet, freezing and fearing for his life.

It all came back, many years later while Nancy Thorne and her husband Bill were vacationing in southern Italy with Saint John friends John and Gail Rocca. John Rocca, an Italian by birth, remembers they were on an excursion at the time to his hometown, Reggio Calabria, a city on the Strait of Messina.

"And as we were walking down the street [Nancy] mentioned that her father must have landed in Reggio on his way from Sicily to Ortona," said Rocca. "Well Ortona didn't mean anything to me. And then she tells me the story about her father being on the rooftop for three days. That's when I said, 'Well, we've got to go find that building, that rooftop.'"

Historian's help enlisted

The four made plans for a return visit to Italy the following year, July 2019.

They did research on the town, and made arrangements to hire an expert local guide, historian Angela Arnone, who also happens to chair the board of the Battle of Ortona Museum. 

What followed this past summer was an immersive experience, tracing the steps taken by Ronald Yeomans and an exhausted Canadian Army as it fought round the clock through the month of December 1943 under unforgiving winter conditions against experienced, and well entrenched soldiers of the 90th Panzergrenadier and 1st German Parachute divisions.

Lee Windsor, Fredrik Eaton chair in Canadian Army studies at the University of New Brunswick, has visited Ortona, about halfway up the right side of boot-shaped Italy, numerous times. 

He describes the battle for Ortona and its approaches at Moro River as the "most prolonged and intense, and bloody period" for Canadian soldiers to that point in the war.

"It was grim, absolutely grim and desperate for the soldiers that were involved," said Windsor.

The Canadians suffered more than 2,300 casualties in the battle, and 1,375 are buried in a perfectly manicured cemetery just outside the city.

Windsor conferred with Angela Arnone in the lead-up to Thorne's visit and examined battle records from Yeomans's unit, the 3rd Field Regiment.

The Saint John visitors and guide Angela Arnone, facing camera, are invited into a private home in Ortona for tea, coffee and treats. (John Rocca)

The young Saint Johnner was the radio operator for the forward observer officer calling in artillery fire on German positions in and around the town. 

Windsor and Arnone determined exactly where he was hunkered down on those three days.

"He was on the tallest building in town and able to see into the ravine the Germans were using to infiltrate back and forth into Ortona," said Windsor.

That building, on a major city square, the Piazza di Porta Caldari, not only still stands, it looks almost exactly as it did during the battle more than 75 years ago. It's become a symbol that can be seen in documentary footage shot in the thick of the battle.

Nancy and Bill Thorne stand in front of the building on the Piazza Porta Caldari today. (Submitted by John Rocca)

Arnone made sure the two couples received everything the city and its people could offer during the tour that followed.

"She spent the two days that we were there with us and took us to all of the places and venues and explained in detail everywhere we were, and she knew the people personally," said Thorne. "She taught us a lot."

Arnone translated while elderly people in the community described the events as they remembered them. The couples were invited into private homes for coffee and sweets. An elderly woman even shared photographs she had taken of Canadian soldiers in the days after the battle. 

Included was a surprise visit to City Hall, where Mayor Leo Castiglione presented Thorne with a formal letter from the city. It names her and her four siblings and thanks her father for his service.

That experience was secretly arranged by Arnone and by Rocca, who said he wanted Thorne to have something to share with her family when she returned home.

The battle for Ortona was, of course, an experience shared with the people of the town.

Some 1,300 civilians are believed to have died during the conflict.

After the Germans retreated, giving up the city, the offensive paused. The Canadians spent three months dug in there, forming relationships with the people and assisting in the rebuilding.

Important battle for Maritimers

It's a legacy that appears to be holding.

Thorne said there was to be yet another surprise as they were preparing to leave. Staff at the hotel where they were staying had learned why the two couples were in town. They formally presented her with a framed wartime photo of the building on the Porta Calderi Square. It brought her to tears.

"I've never been so proud to be Canadian," she said. "The people of Ortona love Canadians. They recall memories, they took us into their homes, just celebrated us because we were Canadians."

Lee Windsor said the battle is an important one for Maritimers because they made up a disproportionate number of the Canadian troops fighting on the Italian front.

"It's a big Atlantic Canadian story, most of Atlantic Canada's Armed Forces were in Italy as opposed to northwest Europe," he said. That's always what's drawn me to the subject." 

About the Author

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726