J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

St. Thomas and Canadian troops remembered in Italian town  

Voices Nov. 8, 2017

The Price of Peace monument in Ortona, Italy, depicts a Canadian soldier comforting a wounded comrade. Designed by Canadian artist Rob Surette, the memorial was unveiled in 1999 to commemorate the sacrifices and achievements of Canada's soldiers during the Battle of Ortona. (J.P. Sonnen / OC-Travel)

Silent witness to the horrors of war, the Italian coastal town of Ortona stands thanks to Canada and her brave soldiers.

Liberated by Canadian troops during the Second World War, the town draws curious Canadians who visit to honour the fallen and experience a bit of not-so-distant history.

In addition, Ortona contains the relics of St. Thomas the Apostle, which after a long journey over the centuries were brought to Ortona for safe keeping in the year 1258. There they have remained. 

Although Ortona has been rebuilt since the war, older residents still remember the events and recall them with great gusto.

Damage from the war can be seen in some places, especially with the rebuilt exterior brick walls of the cathedral. 

Formerly the Cathedral of St. Thomas the Apostle of the Diocese of Ortona, the church is today a basilica and “co-cathedral” after the diocese was combined in the 1980s with nearby Lanciano.

Inside the mighty church is the tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle in Italy, containing some of his relics, the others being held at shrines in other countries.

The bones are kept in the crypt chapel. Pilgrims have been visiting for nearly 800 years. 

The bones are kept in the crypt chapel, inside a protective silver urn, under the main altar. Pilgrims have been visiting for nearly 800 years. 

The relics survived both the Islamist Saracen looting of 1566 as well as the destruction of the Second World War, when the cathedral was blown up by the Allies because its tower was considered a possible lookout point for the Nazis. 

Just before the battle, it was rumoured the Nazis were planning to take and sell the relics which prompted the Italian clergy to hide them inside the bottom of the bell tower. It was a miraculous decision as the bottom of the bell tower was the only surviving part of the semi-ruined church after the battle for the city.

The story of the battle begins on Nov. 20, 1943, when the Allied offensive on the Adriatic coast of Italy began a unified effort to liberate eastern Italy from Nazi terror, inch by inch.

Hitler ordered his elite paratroopers to hold Ortona at all costs. The battle-hardened German 1st Parachute Division dug in to make a determined stand. 

Because the British 8th Army was stalled outside the town, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was called in to lead the charge. 

Like a big broom, the Canadians swept their way into Ortona, eternally forging their names for perpetual remembrance in the annals of World War II history.

The savage battle became the culmination of the fighting on the Adriatic front and was known as the “Italian Stalingrad.”

The battle of Ortona commenced on Dec. 21 and lasted until after Christmas. For the next seven days, the Canadians battled the enemy at close range. It was during this epic battle that the Canadians became the acknowledged masters of house-to-house combat.

With the Allied advance, the Nazis had dynamited buildings to block the narrow side streets with heaps of debris, laying booby traps in the central road through the town. 

Today tourists walk through here, imagining the sniper positions and machine gun nests in the solidly built-up blocks that were set up hoping to trap the Allied forces in the streets.

This is where Canadians made combat history.

This is where Canadians made combat history, making use of a new urban warfare tactic, giving it a new name, “mouse-holing.”

This clever manoeuver, newly taught in combat manuals of that time, provided the Canadians a significant tactical advantage. 

The Canadian soldiers would enter and climb to the upper floor of the first row house on the edge of town; along a shared side wall that separated it from the adjoining house a delayed-action explosive charge would be planted.

The soldiers retired down the stairs and waited for the charge to explode, quickly tossing grenades through the hole before storming through the still smoking breach. The process was repeated, blasting their way and tunnelling from house to house, keeping out of the open streets.

It was a Christmas never to be forgotten. In a bombed-out church in Ortona, company by company, the Canadian soldiers were served Christmas dinner. For some, it proved to be their last Christmas on earth. 

After heavy fighting, the Canadians saved the day, but only at a great price. During one particularly deadly incident, the Nazis demolished an entire building packed with Canadian soldiers, leaving only one survivor.

During the night of Dec. 27, the Germans finally gave up and abandoned Ortona.

During the night of Dec. 27, the Germans finally gave up and abandoned Ortona, retreating to the north. 

General Montgomery ordered a halt for the Canadians to recover and rest, observing the heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy, which as intended, had drawn away enemy strength from Rome which lay vulnerable to destruction. 

St. Thomas the Apostle was one of the 12 Apostles of Christ. He is known as the “doubting Thomas” on account of his having doubted the Resurrection of Christ, recounted in the Gospel of John 20:24-29.

The episode has been depicted in countless works of art, revealing the incredulity of Thomas, which was followed by his strong confession of faith, “My Lord and my God,” upon seeing the wounded body of Christ.

History recounts that after the death and Resurrection of Christ, St. Thomas set out east outside the Roman Empire. This led him to the southern shores of India, where he is said to have planted the faith. This area has a strong Catholic presence, located in the Indian state of Kerala. 

With the first baptisms, the famous community of “St. Thomas Christians” was born. These devoted Christians are known for their faith and devotion dating back to apostolic times. St. Thomas is the patron saint of India. 

The beautiful coastal city of Mt. St. Thomas in the Indian town of Chennai is where the saint was martyred, overlooking the Indian Ocean. Today there is a lovely shrine there. After his death, his relics were enshrined and over the years moved to various places.

To visit Ortona is a memorable experience.

To visit Ortona is a memorable experience. Since 2002 there is a small war museum located in the restored 15th-century convent of St. Anna that was damaged during the battle. It has become the Museo della Battaglia di Ortona (Battle of Ortona Museum). Located on Corso Garibaldi, it has an interesting collection of items and memorabilia related to the battle.

In addition, in the Piazza Plebiscito is a very fine outdoor memorial sculpture of Canadian soldiers next to a vintage World War II Sherman tank. Known as the Price of Peace Monument, locals drive by and tourists climb on the tank posing for pictures.

The city of Ortona commemorates the battle every Christmas at the nearby Moro River Canadian War Cemetery, located on the south side of Ortona, near the sea. There can be found the graves of 1,615 Commonwealth soldiers of the Second World War. Never to be forgotten, the limestone monument reads: “Their Name Liveth for Evermore.”

The Canadian soldiers of Ortona included the Seaforth Highlanders, a light infantry regiment based in Vancouver. Their last surviving member of the battle was Colonel David Fairweather of West Vancouver, who grew up on a farm in Maple Ridge. A national hero, he passed away this year in his 97th year. 

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.