On Sunday evening, the 2277 Seaforth Highlanders of Canada Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps held their annual reenactment of the Ortona Christmas Dinner at the Cloverdale Legion.
The cadets have hosted the dinner every December since 2001, in honour of the meal shared by the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in Italy nearly 75 years ago.
The original dinner was held on December 25, 1943, in the bombed-out church of Santa Maria di Constantinopoli in Ortona, Italy. Members of the Seaforth Highlanders sat down for a Christmas dinner in shifts, just a few blocks away from the fighting.
The Canadian troops had met the Germans at the Moro River, just outside of Ortona, on Dec. 20. They had arrived hoping for a day of fighting, but what the Canadians did not know was that they were about to meet a line that Hitler had ordered to be held at any cost. They would see eight, bloody days of action.
Ortona was a small port town, just 500 yards wide. The streets were narrow, and the houses tall and built wall-to-wall. When the Canadians arrived, the elite German First Parachute Regiment had already dug in and booby-trapped the entire town. They were waiting for the Canadians to advance through the streets.
Instead, the Seaforth Highlanders captured Ortona building by building with a technique called “mouseholing.” The soldiers would gain access to a house from the roof and clear the building from the top floor down. They then blasted their way into the neighbouring house and moved on. In this way they were covered from the sniper fire they would have met on the streets.
The Germans, realizing that the Canadians were making ground, began to collapse the buildings with the soldiers still inside. The Canadians retaliated in the same fashion, and by Christmas day, the battle was reaching the peak of its intensity.
Captain D.B. Cameron knew his men were exhausted and needed a boost to morale, so he and his men scrounged chinaware, table clothes, beer, applesauce, roast pork, chocolate and cigarettes and set about serving a Christmas dinner. An organist was found, and he played “Silent Night” on the church’s surviving organ.
Although the battle still raged just blocks away, the Canadians around the dinner table had a semblance of normality, if even for a moment.
The meal served to the cadets on Sunday evening was as close to the original meal as possible. Vegetable soup was served out of mugs before a dinner of roast pork and vegetables, followed by a dessert of Christmas pudding. Oranges and apples, candies and chocolates were set out on each table. The only real difference was the substitutions made for beer and cigarettes — diners sipped on root beer and ate candy sticks.
Cadets took turns reading about the history of the dinner, and following the meal, they led the room in a rendition of “Silent Night.”
The walls of the Legion were decorated to resemble the interior of the church, and the menu was as close as possible to the original, but the part of the evening that was perhaps the most similar to the first Ortona dinner was the mixture of camaraderie and solemnity.
In stolen moments, cadets balanced oranges on salt shakers and posed for photos, laughing, with candy canes held up as mustaches.
But they also toasted to the empty table in the corner of the room, which was dressed with a white table cloth and a single red rose, an upside-down cup and a plate that held a lemon slice and spilled salt. There would be no more toasting from that glass, just the bitter taste of losing a friend, and the salty tears of losing a loved one.
In 1943, the fighting continued after Christmas dinner and lasted until first light on December 28, when the German forces withdrew under the cover of darkness. More than 1,400 Canadian men died in the Moro River battles, of which Ortona was part.
Seventy-four years later, the Seaforth Highlanders cadet corps continues to gather each December to remember the fallen, and to enjoy the peace and good company of friends.
For more on the 2277 Seaforth Highlanders, visit www.2277rcacc.com.