In late 1943, the western allies attack the so-called "soft-underbelly of Europe" and worked their way up from Sicily through the boot of Italy. Horrendous battles ensued with names writ large in history, Salerno, Cassino, Anzio are a few that are evoked.
On the extreme right hand side of the Allied Line, at a coastal village called Ortona, a personal contest of wills was under way between the German Parachute Regiment of battle-hardened soldiers who has seen tours of duty on the Russian Front, against Canadians from dispirate backgrounds with little combat experience.
In the month-long battle that followed nearly 2000 Canadian soldiers were killed to capture a small village. Farley Mowat was a young officer in one of the Canadian regiments, the Hastings Prince Edward Regiment "Hastie-Pees." After a landing at Sicily and fighting their way up this far in Italy what to come at Ortona made all that came before pale in comparison.
Mowat, a writer known for his wit shows that even during the dark, wet, winter months he was able to find things that give him joy in the charnel house of Ortona. He describes the pressure on an officer just before and attack goes in, the corssing of the Moro River, and, in one of the most amazing tales of battlefield desperation, describes his charge against a German tank with fixed bayonets.
As the battle drew on streets in the town changed sides frequently with the focus of the battle being a particular house in a particular street. Ortona earned the name of "little Stalingrad" for those who faught there and Mowat describes the drama day by day as the battle winds on and the Germans are forced out leaving the legacy of 1600 Canadian corpses buried in the British Commonwealth Moro River Cemetary.
It is a changing experience for Mowat and one wonders how he retained his wit and verve to produce the wonderful naturalist novels that he later became famous for.
This is lyrical poetic auto-biography of an intelligent, well-educated young man coming to terms with the horrors of war. As such Mowat is very much like Robert Graves in "Goodbye to all That" --- smart enough to be troubled by the nature of war yet too young to come to terms with all that it entails. Perhaps that is why Mowat waited over 40 years before he wrote the book in the first place.