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Peace on earth - the greatest gift of all

Several years ago my husband and I were travelling through Italy. One of our last stops and most memorable ones was at a cemetery where Canadian soldiers who had fought and died in the Second World War were buried.

The grounds were beautifully maintained and as I wandered through this peaceful spot reading the names etched on the grave markers, I couldn’t help but notice that many had been killed in action in 1943. This prompted me to learn more.

Allied forces began their military campaign to take back Italy in July of 1943. But it would be December of 1943 that would see the heaviest engagement. Hitler was determined to hold this peninsula at all costs, so fighting would be intense and deadly.

Slowly Allied forces began to push back the German forces, but each engagement saw high casualties. After managing to take “The Gully” where the enemy had dug deep holes into the bank, our forces were surprised that the Germans withdrew only as far as Ortona.

The narrow streets of Ortona made fighting difficult as the Germans had blocked off side streets forcing Canadian troops into the booby trapped main streets. Land mines had been planted, and machine gunners and snipers lay in wait in this “killing zone.”

Unexpectedly, Canadian forces found themselves involved in a street battle for which they had no training. But they responded by employing a tactic known as “mouseholing” where they blasted openings through the interior stone walls of the old buildings which butted up against each other. This way they could advance without venturing into the dangerous streets.

What is most remarkable is that in the midst of this terrible battle, commanders were determined that soldiers would enjoy a Christmas dinner. In a bombed out church at Santa Maria di Constantinopli a delicious meal was scrounged together. In the background an organist played “Silent Night.”

One company at a time was brought out of the line of fighting to be fed. Only the Loyal Edmonton Regiment had their rations brought to them because of their position.

Somehow, even under the worst of circumstances, Christmas was observed and celebrated.

Ortona fell on December 27th, but not before 213 Canadians died in that week leading up to Christmas in what was referred to as “Bloody December.” On the morning of December 28, it was discovered that German paratroopers had pulled out the night before. Ortona had been won by Canadian forces.

As we prepare to celebrate one of the most glorious holidays of the year, let us remember the sacrifices that were made and continue to be made so that we might enjoy our Christmas dinner in peace.

Merry Christmas!