by Karen Murphy Corr, Contributor
More than 350 Seaforth Highlanders, including several Abbotsford cadets who belong to the 2277 Langley Corps, gathered for a special dinner on Dec. 8 to honour the memory of Canadian soldiers on the 70th anniversary of an epic battle fought along the Adriatic coast of Italy.
In 1943 the Battle at Ortona was a much-celebrated victory in Canadian newspapers and on radio, but history books and news reports today tend to focus more on Juno or Dieppe and few even realize Canadians were involved in the Italian campaign.
The cadets of 2812 Surrey, 2277 Langley, 1867 Delta, 2893 Port Coquitlam, 72nd Vancouver and 2963 Sechelt Corps listened to anecdotes about the hard-won battle and got to look at displays of military artifacts by the Canadian Military Education Centre in Chilliwack. The battalion dinner became an unforgettable history lesson for the youth.
“It is really interesting,” said Grade 8 student Cadet Jamie Kliewer of Abbotsford Middle School, who recently joined the 2277 Corps. His fellow cadet agrees.
“I always love historical war stories,” said Corp. Cole McCrindle, a Grade 8 student at Walnut Grove Secondary School and member of the 2277 Corps. “I am really interested to hear about what they have experienced.”
The mood at the meal was festive, but became more sombre when speakers shared stories about the harsh realities of war with the teens. They were especially attentive when a much decorated Second World War veteran spoke.
“I am utterly astounded at the numbers that are here today, that so many are commemorating the battle we fought,” said Col. David Fairweather of West Vancouver. “I had the dubious pleasure to be there that December for the beginning of that battle.”
Canadian troops were tasked to secure the Italian village of Ortona, but it was an important German winter defence line held by Hitler’s elite paratroopers and the fighting was intense and gruesome. Amidst the brutality, Canadian officers were determined to serve their men a Christmas meal.
They scrounged china and put together a menu of soup, roast pork, applesauce, cauliflower, mashed potatoes, gravy, chocolate, oranges, nuts, beer, wine and cigarettes. The soldiers ate in shifts, most in the ruins of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli Church.
Col. Fairweather was a young officer at the Battle of Ortona. He and many of his men had signed up with the Seaforth Highlanders in Vancouver just days after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. In the Italian conflict, Col. Fairweather said he was put in charge of a D Company platoon that was nowhere near the size it should have been.
“We were right down to bare bones and we were the last to enjoy the dinner. At 5 p.m. we had dinner and finished about 7 p.m., but we did not dare go outside because it was impossible to move on the rubble without making a noise so we stayed in the church overnight.”
Recreating the event is important for youth, says Major Rob Thompson, Area Cadet Instructor Cadre Officer (ACICO): “It involves a whole new generation in continuing to perpetuate a tradition born from a truly amazing moment in the history of our regimental. With fewer and fewer surviving veterans of Ortona, it’s important that our youth take up the torch and remember those who gave so much that all of us may enjoy our Christmas each year in a free and democratic society.”
For many Canadian soldiers the Christmas meal would be their last supper, while others only got to eat a bit before returning to the fight.
“My grandfather was not able to finish his,” Jocelyn DeLorme told the gathered cadets.
Her grandfather Jack DeLorme served with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, and the DeLorme family has a long established relationship with the Seaforth cadets in Surrey and Langley.
She said her grandfather and some other soldiers were in a bombed-out house near the church, just starting to enjoy their plates of food when they came under attack and he was knocked unconscious.
“He woke to a severed foot lying in the middle of his precious Christmas dinner.”
After that shock, Private DeLorme resumed fighting. The Canadians were ultimately victorious and the Battle at Ortona gained much media coverage at the time as a significant battle won at huge cost.
It saddens his granddaughter that Canadian history books seem to have forgotten this pivotal battle of the Italian campaign, which does not get the same remembrance as Juno and Dieppe.
The cadets have recreated the Ortona Dinner since 2001, but this is the first time the corps have come together as a battalion, thanks in large part to the generosity of the Cloverdale Legion donating their entire space.
Many volunteers decorated the Legion to look like the ruins of a church and three professional chefs volunteered to prepare the food for several hundred.
Fittingly, there was an empty table set in memory of fallen comrades adjacent to the head table.
The night ended with the cadets and their officers singing the same carol the Canadian soldiers sang seven decades ago while an organist played in the ruins of the Italian church and German soldiers listened from nearby tunnels.
It was very poignant when Abbotsford musician George Bissonnette began to play Silent Night on an organ; when these young Canadian Seaforth Highlanders raised their voices in song they knew they were going home and not back into the nightmare of battle.
However, judging by their faces, they were thinking long and hard about those like Col. Fairweather who did.