The 70th anniversary of an infamous battle – and the faithful Canadian tradition it has inspired – will be marked this Sunday (Dec. 8) at the Cloverdale Legion when more than 350 cadets recreate the Seaforth Regiment Christmas dinner.
This is the first time all six Seaforth Cadet units will gather under one roof for the Ortona Christmas Dinner since they started recreating the dinner in 2001, said Major Rob Thompson, area cadet instructor cadre officer.
“This is a great event for the youth because it involves a whole new generation in continuing to perpetuate a tradition born from a truly amazing moment in the history of our regimental,” Thompson said.
The cadets will dress in their combat uniforms to be served by their officers, in a solemn ritual steeped in Canadian military tradition, paying tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Second World War.
“With fewer and fewer surviving Veterans of Ortona,” Thompson said, “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 – a society and world that the soldiers of our regiment and so many other Canadians fought for and in some cases paid for with their life that we may live in peace.”
For Sunday’s Ortona dinner, some members of the Canadian Military Education Centre in Chilliwack are volunteering in vintage Second World War uniforms. They’re also lending artifacts from their personal collections for decoration and education, creating an added sense of realism.
Dignitaries include Hon. Col. David Fairweather of the Seaforth Highlander Regiment, who was a young officer at the Battle of Ortona.
He enlisted two days after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. His five brothers enlisted as well.
“With all six sons in service, I can well imagine the anxious moments my parents had during the war years, especially on the receipt of telegrams advising them that George had been killed in action and both Alec and I had been wounded,” said Fairweather, who lives in West Vancouver.
For eight days in December of 1943, Canadian troops with the Seaforth Highlanders regiment from Vancouver were locked in a bloody house-to-house battle to claim the Italian town of Ortona from hardened German paratroops ordered by Hitler to hold it at all costs.
Winning the town would give the Allies an important new port on Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast, shortening supply lines in the Italian campaign.
But it was also a death trap, riddled with mines and snipers. Allied tanks and troops were vulnerable if they moved in the narrow streets.
So Canadians advanced roof by roof, or by “mouse-holing” through the walls into adjacent buildings and clearing the enemy out.
Germans would then lure Canadian troops into a house and blast it to rubble.
Nearly 1,400 Canadian soldiers died in the ruins of Ortona, dubbed Little Stalingrad, before the Germans were routed on Dec. 28.
At the peak of battle on Christmas Day, in the Church of Santa Maria de Constantinopoli, officers organized a memorable dinner to cheer the troops.
The officers scrounged table linens, china dishes, beer, wine, roast pork, applesauce, cauliflower, mashed potatoes, and gravy.
Special provisions included a bottle of beer each, cigarettes, candies and chocolate. (When cadets gather at the Cloverdale Legion, the beer and smokes will be substituted with root beer and candy cigarettes.)
An organist played Silent Night while the men ate in shifts before returning to battle; they’d take control of Ortona two days later, but at a great cost – the lives of hundreds of men.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of that remarkable meal.
The dinner will include the Cadets of 2812 Surrey, 2277 Langley, 1867 Delta, 2893 Port Coquitlam, 72nd Vancouver, and 2963 Sechelt Corps.
They will be joined by various dignitaries, officers and parents, and a filmmaker who’s working on a documentary about the Canadian victory in Ortona.
Tim Morris, chaplain at Pacific Regional Institution in Abbotsford is volunteering in the part of Major Roy Durnford, an Anglican military padre who prayed with the men, and musician George Bissonnette is playing the organ.
A table will be set up, off on its own, reserved to honour fallen comrades in arms. It will have a white tablecloth and a single red rose in a vase, a slice of lemon on a bread plate, a bible and other symbols serving to remind those present of their sacrifice, said Karen Murphy Corr, of the 2277 Langley Corps sponsoring committee.
Normally parents do the cooking, but with so many people to feed when all six cadet corps come together, organizers turned to the pros: culinary experts Amanda Smith, chef, Mark Ross, head chef, and Drew Hill, sous-chef, are volunteering their time to prepare the food, along with parent volunteers.
“They are pulling out all the stops,” Murphy Corr said.
– With files Black Press