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Canadian teens commemorate "Bloody Christmas" Battle of Ortona, Italy

Thousands of Canadian students honour their countrymen fallen in the World War II battle at Ortona on Italy’s Adriatic Coast

Canadian students at the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery proudly display the Canadian flag
Canadian students at the
Moro River Canadian War Cemetery
proudly display the Canadian flag
[Photo credit: Lisa Slaney Mitchell]

The year 2008 marked the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Ortona, Canada's bloodiest battle in the World War II Italian Campaign. Canadian kids from Canada and Italy commemorated their veterans and lost soldiers. For “Hands across a Generation,” 1,400 students and some 200 teachers from high schools across Canada visited coastal Ortona to commemorate the Battle in ceremonies at the Moro River Cemetery and Saint Thomas Cathedral. In nearby Lanciano, the director of Ortona 1943: A bloody Christmas screened his new documentary to the students and staff of the Canadian College in Italy and a panel of experts.

A deep water port on Italy's east coast, the town of Ortona's capture by the Canadians was strategically important and very dangerous. Ortona was a key German command centre. Hitler ordered troops, seasoned from years of war, to defend Ortona at all costs. For eight days, soldiers clashed in hand-to-hand combat in the close quarters of its rowhouses. Snipers, landmines, and booby-traps exacted a heavy price for any headway made by the Canadians. The tactics developed there by Canadian troops – tactics used in houses that were still occupied – became the manual on urban warfare.

The battle’s nicknames draw shivers – “Italian Stalingrad," "the Forgotten Battle," "Bloody Christmas." Reporting from Ortona in ‘43, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s war correspondent called it the "courtyard of hell."

Hands across a Generation

Each student was paired with a soldier buried at Moro River Cemetery or a soldier fighting in Afghanistan
Each student was paired with a
soldier buried at Moro River Cemetery
or a soldier fighting in Afghanistan
[Photo credit: Lisa Slaney Mitchell]

With 1,365 Canadian soldiers buried in the Moro River Cemetery, there were almost enough brave souls to pair with every visiting student. The "Hands across a Generation Remembrance Programme" also matched each student to a soldier serving today in Afghanistan. Each student did their own research on their soldiers, and raised their travel funds themselves. The lesson was to understand the importance of honouring those who sacrificed their lives to preserve freedom, justice and human rights, and to acknowledge a formative part of Canada's heritage. And, after, to appreciate the need for reconciliation, by drawing lessons from the past through first-hand, objective research, and confronting difficult issues through cross-cultural interaction and respect.

Father Gabriel Legault, a Canadian priest with NATO's Supreme Headquarters of Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE), opened the ceremony at the Cemetery with a sermon. Next, six students presented essays that they wrote regarding their twinned soldier. They discussed, in a very moving manner, what this research meant to them. Another student group accompanied a song about a soldier fading away under a tree, written and performed for the occasion by the President of Dunrobin Castle Entertainment, James Blondeau. Wreaths from each school and municipality were laid at the base of a tall, starkly-carved monument in the shape of a cross.

A group of students, teachers (and any Ortona townspeople gathered along the way) proceeded from the Cemetery in solemn procession along the same route followed by Canadian troops in 1943. They dined at the same local church that hosted the troops' famous Christmas dinner at the height of battle.

From the small church everyone marched to the Square of St. Thomas, a great cathedral bombed, collapsed and since restored to its original beauty where they sang “O Canada” and “The Hymn of Mameli” (the Canadian and Italian national anthems), heard readings, choir performances, testimonials by the students and by local dignitaries. Officials from the Embassy of Canada in Rome exchanged gifts and spoke on behalf of Canada to the audience. The following day’s programme included the Museum of the Battle of Ortona and the municipal cemetery where lie 1,350 Italian civilians killed in the Battle.

Composer James Blondeau wrote and performed a song about a dying soldier to student accompaniment
Composer James Blondeau wrote
and performed a song about a
dying soldier to student accompaniment
[Photo credit: Lisa Slaney Mitchell]

The people of Ortona, both young and old, demonstrated genuine affection for all things Canadian and were especially touched that young Canadians had dedicated the time and effort in making this journey to honour an event which has clearly marked the history and lives of Ortonians over the years. It is a memory they want to preserve.  

The "Hands across a Generation" programme was a genuinely volunteer effort on the part of chief coordinator David Robinson, the Department Head of Canada & World Studies in Port Perry High School in Ontario, and of high school teachers from twenty Canadian high schools, along with Canadian cadet and municipal organizations, the Embassy of Canada in Rome and the town of Ortona. In 2007, Mr. Robinson organized a trip by 2,000 Canadian students to France for the 90th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He also organised a visit by 200 students to Hong Kong in 2005 to commemorate Canadians who died there in 1941.

James Blondeau is producing a commercial DVD about the highlights of the students' journey to Ortona, with distribution anticipated in early 2009.

New Italian documentary screened to The Renaissance School

While the students from Canada visited the Museum, meanwhile, in nearby Lanciano, the entire school body of the "Canadian College in Italy" (aka "CCI: The Renaissance School") packed a downtown theatre. Director Fabio Toncelli screened his new Italian documentary Ortona 1943: A bloody Christmas (Un Natale di Sangue – Ortona 1943). The film is based on Marco Patricelli's 2002 book, Ortona: Italy's Stalingrad (La Stalingrado d'Italia). Patricelli himself, along with a local researcher Andrea Di Marco and staff from the Embassy of Canada in Rome, joined with Toncelli on a speaker’s panel. Di Marco has committed himself to scouring archives in Italy, Germany, Canada and the U.S. to unearth the personal stories of the combatants and civilians involved in the Battle of Ortona.

Canadian Defence Attaché, Col John Mitchell and Political and Public Affairs Counsellor, Peter Egyed
Canadian Defence Attaché,
Col John Mitchell and
Political and Public Affairs Counsellor,
Peter Egyed [Photo credit: Lisa Slaney Mitchell]

The film's well-researched narrative and skillful use of historical footage captivated the students, who listened intently to the panellists’ commentary. Colonel John Mitchell and Political & Public Affairs Counsellor Peter Egyed moderated a lively discussion with the audience. People asked about the motives, outcome and meaning of the Battle of Ortona, including lessons for modern conflicts in regions of the world where injustice, intolerance, hatred and genocide have held sway. Some of the questions focussed on the military and political aspects of the conflict, but an even larger number of students were intrigued by the personal dimension, as it affected both soldiers and civilians.

Established in 1994, CCI is an accredited private Canadian high school that follows the Ontario curriculum.

On November 13th and December 9th, the Embassy of Canada in Rome staged a successful Italian premiere of "A Bloody Christmas: Ortona 1943" which featured an audience of over 200. This was followed by a screening for university students and professors at Roma Tre University.

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Date Modified:
2009-10-02