Battlefields Tour: The Italian Campaign (Final Part).

​November 15th, 2016


Ortana is a relatively small town on the Adriatic coast south of Rimini.   Sits on a bluff and has one vital asset – a deep water port which was predominantly used for fishing. This made it a vital and strategic target for Monty and its capture was essential to maintain the advance in order to prevent the Germans regrouping.  All fuel, ammo, food & medical supplies etc. was having to come up from the toe of Italy by convoy – a port would solve the supply nightmare – but of course the enemy knew this too and were ordered to hold at all cost.  The battle for the town began on 20th December 43 and lasted for 8 days & nights after which very little of the town was left standing.  Only one fifth of the population of about 11,000 were left alive.  It was house to house & hand to hand fighting hence it became known as the Stalingrad of Europe.  The British 78th Infantry Division was by now exhausted and severely depleted so the task fell to the Canadian 1st Infantry.  Almost a quarter of all Canadian casualties in the entire Italian campaign were suffered here.

The town today still shows the scars on the sides of some buildings and one door still shows the sign painted on the door by soldiers who opened up a temporary bar and aid post.  The “Do drop in Cassa” can still be seen on the door – “Cassa” meaning house.    There is a model of the town constructed showing Sherman tanks fighting through the streets and the other photographs hang in the local Museum in the town centre – these give some idea of the conditions. The Canadians lost 1,376 dead.  One infamous German Paratrooper named Karl Bayerlein single-handedly destroyed an entire house packed with Canadians who he noticed were using it as a regrouping point and only 1 Canadian survived.  His exploits have been published and are well worth a visit on the Internet.

The Germans withdrew from the town on the 28th December in order to fall back and regroup again at the next defensive line known as the Gothic Line in northern Italy.  It took the Allies all of 44 and not until April 45 was Bologna reached. 

​Sangrio River Cemetery

I know what some will be saying – another Cemetery- but this one is considered by visitors to be the most beautiful. Yet, one of the most difficult to reach, and because of that it receives very few visitors.  The approach road is very narrow and winding.

It was carefully chosen as it overlooks the valley of the River Sangro where there were enormous losses trying to cross the river itself.  Efforts were being made to push the Germans back and breach the defensive line and advance onwards towards Rimini in the north & Ortona 4 miles away.  The latter, only a small fishing town of about 11,000,  had a deep water port and this was essential to Montgomery as all his supplies were having to come up overland from the toe of Italy.  Of course, German High Command knew this and Hitler himself ordered that there must be no retreat or surrender.  Ortona became known in Italy as the Stalingrad of Europe but more of that later.

A fact just emerging 70 or so years later and still shrouded in secrecy.  There were over 600 casualties offshore on a ship which was hit as the vessel was carrying Mustard Gas and the purpose of this has still to this day not been disclosed.  Those guys died in a horrendous way.

An even sadder footnote – prior to arriving at this cemetery we had passed another rather unusual one in the mountains.  Its design was distinctly North African and indeed was the burial place of a large number of French Moroccan troops who were tasked with clearing the Germans from the central mountain areas because of their particular skills in mountain warfare.  They were successful and were rewarded by their C.O with time off in the local towns.  Over 1200 local women were raped.   Needless to say, few visitors will stop there.

Three particular graves were pointed out to us – first a VC holder – Private Mitchell of the London Scottish Regiment.

Those wishing to join this particular Regiment had to pay £10 – quite a sum in those days – it was considered an honour to be accepted.

His citation in the London Gazette reads:
In Italy on the nights of 23rd and 24th January, 1944, a Company of the London Scottish was ordered to carry out a local attack to restore the situation on a portion of the main Damiano ridge.
The Company attacked with two platoons forward and a composite platoon of London Scottish and Royal Berkshires in reserve. The Company Commander was wounded in the very early stages of the attack. The only other officer with the Company was wounded soon afterwards.
A section of this Company was ordered by the Platoon Commander to carry out a right flanking movement against some enemy machine guns which were holding up the advance. Almost as soon as he had issued the order, he was killed. There was no Platoon Sergeant. The section itself consisted of a Lance-Corporal and three men, who were shortly joined by Private Mitchell, the 2-inch mortarmen from Platoon Headquarters and another private.
During the advance, the enemy opened heavy machine gun fire at point blank range. Without hesitation, Private Mitchell dropped the 2-inch mortar which he was carrying, and seizing a rifle and bayonet, charged, alone, up the hill through intense Spandau fire. He reached the enemy machine gun unscathed, jumped into the weapon pit, shot one and bayonetted the other member of the crew, thus silencing the gun. As a result, the advance of the platoon continued, but shortly afterward the leading section was again held up by the fire of approximately two German sections who were strongly entrenched. Private Mitchell, realizing that prompt action was essential, rushed forward into the assault firing his rifle from his hip, completely oblivious of the bullets which were sweeping the area. The remainder of his section followed him and arrived in time to complete the capture of the position in which six Germans were killed and twelve made prisoner.
As the section was reorganizing, another enemy machine gun opened up on it at close range. Once more Private Mitchell rushed forward alone and with his rifle and bayonet killed the crew.
The section now found itself immediately below the crest of the hill from which heavy small arms fire was being directed and grenades were being thrown. Private Mitchell's ammunition was exhausted, but in spite of this, he called on the men for one further effort and again led the assault up the steep and rocky hillside. Dashing to the front, he was again the first man to reach the enemy position and was mainly instrumental in forcing the remainder of the enemy to surrender.
A few minutes later, a German who had surrendered, picked up a rifle and shot Private Mitchell through the head.
Throughout this operation, carried out on a very dark night, up a steep hillside covered in rocks and scrub, Private Mitchell displayed courage and devotion to duty of the very highest order. His complete disregard of the enemy fire, the fearless way in which he continually exposed himself, and his refusal to accept defeat, so inspired his comrades, that together they succeeded in overcoming and defeating an enemy superior in numbers, and helped by all the advantages of the ground.[1]

Sergeant M Rogers VC of the Wiltshires

The citation in the London Gazette of 8 August 1944, gives the following details:
In Italy, a battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment was ordered to attack high ground held by the enemy. The carrier platoon of the leading company, dismounted were ordered to capture the final objective. They advanced under intense fire and sustained a number of casualties. The platoon, checked by the enemy's wire and the intensity of his machine-gun fire, took cover some 70 yards short of their objective. Serjeant Rogers continued to advance alone, and penetrated 30 yards inside the enemy's defences, drawing their fire and throwing them into confusion. Inspired by his example, the platoon began the assault. Serjeant Rogers was blown off his feet by a grenade and wounded in the leg. Nothing daunted, he ran on towards an enemy machine-gun post, attempting to silence it. He was shot and killed at point blank range. This N.C.O.'s undaunted determination, fearless devotion to duty and superb courage carried his platoon on to their objective in a strongly defended position. The great gallantry and heroic self-sacrifice of Serjeant Rogers were in the highest tradition of the British Army.
The picture hangs in the Sergeants Mess

The third is just one of many very young lads – we saw many relating to 15,16 and 17 years olds.

Brenner Pass

Our route home took us over the Brenner Pass – that area of Italy is lovely and we stopped at a town called Bolzano for a lunch break.    Those of you who watch  the Italian chef Gino De 'Campo may have seen his program a couple of weeks ago from this region – well worth a visit sometime.

Anyway, we moved on into Austria to a small village called Neidereau for an overnight stop.  You can see the Gasthof  (Guesthouse) below which was run by a local family. 

That’s it – 3,092 miles later arrived home.  Had a break and some Harry Ramsdens fish & chips at the Watford Gap service area but I tell you what – the Italian service areas are fantastic – the food was superb – so much variety and freshly prepared – really put ours to shame.

Arriverdechi & Ciao

Please see below for books on a similar topic.