The Seaforth Highlanders enjoy their Christmas dinner, in the bombed-out church at Santa Maria di Constantinopoli, Ortona, Italy, 25 December 1943.Photo: Terry F. Rowe / Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-152839, copy supplied by Ernest Bagstad
"These paratroopers were top-notch German troops and we came to almost admire them because they just excellent soldiers. And they treated their prisoners well too which didn’t always happen in some of the German regiments."
The Battle of Ortona really began mid-December when the Vandoos were given the objective of capturing a place called Casa Berardi just beyond a deep gully. And beyond Casa Berardi was what became known as the Cider Crossroads which was the Vandoos objective to obtain control of this road junction just before Ortona. The Vandoos on the 14 December were launched across the deep gully that had become the main defensive point of the 1st Parachute Battalion. These paratroopers were top-notch German troops and we came to almost admire them because they just excellent soldiers. And they treated their prisoners well too which didn’t always happen in some of the German Regiments. But anyway, the Vandoos went across -- Triquet, Paul -- Paul Triquet’s Company, C Company, was leading and with him was this Captain Donald. Bob Donald was a classmate of mine and also was one of my own officers at the time and that night, Bernatchez held an O Group and there was a toss up who would actually go in on the attack with Triquet and his C Company. In other words, leading in a sort of circular, at least a route to encircle us in Casa Berardi.
Also, with them were some tanks from the Ontario Regiment. Major Herschel Smith, Smitty, he was Commanding this troop and they were lucky enough to get some tanks across and shot up some of the German tanks on the other side of the gully. And then they swung towards Ortona and started meeting really serious opposition. These German troops, of course, these paratroopers had a few Mark IV tanks which were really superior both in armour and the guns that they had. The armament was better than the Sherman tanks that Smith had. Nonetheless he was able to, as I say, knock some of them out in very short order.
And they pushed on towards Casa Berardi which was a huge big stone building, as I recall, that became the focal point for this whole battle and once captured by Triquet and his company. By this time, mind you, they had something like 50 men left out of the company. But they managed to hold it during the first night or so. And then the second night, I guess, that it was Colonel Bernatchez and the rest of the Headquarters moved across this gully and up into the Casa Berardi as the Battalion Headquarters. Completely surrounded by German troops. Many of them were on the other side of the gully and able to shoot and, so sort of speak, from behind us, keeping the Casa Berardi under observation, under fire. But once they managed to get other companies into their positions, this became a very focal point and was the only little bridgehead across this very deep ravine that ran right across the front and right on down to the Adriatic Coast.
So it really was another two days before they captured the Cider Crossroads that was the main objective of the Vandoos. The other Battalions were, of course, put in to try and link up. They suffered badly because the Germans on the southern side of this ravine were still in strength. There were quite a number, including my classmate Bob McNeil. Captain McNeil, was taken prisoner there and his crew. The little bridgehead that we had around this Casa Berardi was still a pretty small perimeter. But thanks to the tanks that had got into position. Triquet, of course, had well earned his VC, while in capturing Casa Berardi. Smith,I think, received the Military Cross for his efforts in defending the little bridgehead using artillery fire. Of course, I was also with Bernatchez at his Headquarters and we managed to bring down defensive fire around the area until the whole situation stabilized. We -- eventually the Division, of course, organized a large fire plan to break out of the little bridgehead and push onto Ortona. The situation was so intense there at Casa Berardi, that Colonel Bernatchez almost became a battle exhaustion case and the Second in Command, John Allard, Major then shortly Colonel, took over command of the Vandoos at Casa Berardi. I worked with him, of course, later through other battles into Italy such as the Hitler Line.