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Posted on Mar 6, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Canadians in Italy, Part 1, The Battle of Ortona

By Danny Bouchard

The Edmontons spent most of the 21st clearing houses, fighting in close quarters until nightfall. By this time they were about one quarter mile from the town square. (*7) The Seaforth’s approach from the south-east was developing into a major battle. The entire battalion was committed to the attack in order to support the Edmontons. By this day, it was apparent that Ortona would be a tough nut to crack. All day the Edmontons fought house by house, brick by brick and fought to within 25 yards of the Piazza Municipale. But their supporting tanks could not go any further due to a high pile of rubble. (*8) The Germans were making the Canadians pay dearly for their advances. Every building was defended, machine guns supported each other from the buildings and charges were placed in order to explode the façade of a building if and when it was captured, allowing the opposing Germans to now fire at the unprotected Canadians who were seeking shelter in that building. Tanks were used for close support by the Canadians. More often than not, they were used to fire point blank into houses where Germans were pouring a savage fire onto the infantry. These tanks from the Three Rivers Regiment performed admirably under constant threat of concealed anti tank guns.

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Casualties were mounting and the Edmontons were quickly dwindling in numbers. They hadn’t received any reinforcements since the Sangro River and by the 22nd, could boast three companies of about 60 men each. (*9) On the 22nd and the 23rd , the Seaforth attacked on the left flank in order to ease the strain on the Edmonton’s. The infantry was receiving terrific support from anti tank guns used also at point blank range. The guns would fire an armor piercing round into a house and then fire a high explosive round inside the building. Infantry was being picked off by snipers and it was dangerous to remain outside. Therefore the Canadians reverted to using a technique called “mouse holing”. This technique had been taught since 1942 and consisted of blowing a hole into the wall of a house therefore allowing access to the adjoining house. The Canadians would enter through a top storey and attack the defending Germans who would be on the bottom floor. The houses of Ortona were perfect for this as they were all lined up side by side. By using “mouse holing” the Canadians were able to clear whole rows of houses without stepping outside and being exposed to enemy fire.

The Germans had by now the 2nd battalion of the 3rd Parachute Regiment who had faced the initial onslaught of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the 2nd of the 4th Parachute Regiment. (*10) German losses were heavy but they were relentless. After all, these parachute troops were the elite, the best the Germans could field and all were staunch Nazis.

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Canadian 6 pounder anti-tank gun in action (National Archives of Canada)

By the 22nd of December, the press realized the struggle taking place at Ortona. “For some unknown reasons the Germans are staging a miniature Stalingrad in hapless Ortona”. (*11) But the German Commander in Chief, Field Marshall Kesselring wasn’t about to defend this town to the last man. “It is clear we do not want to defend Ortona decisively” (*12) he told the commander of the Tenth Army. It would therefore appear that the press was reporting on the importance of Ortona and the struggle between the Germans and the Canadians. Regardless of what the press or Kesselring were saying the fact remained that both sides were fighting for every house in this town…and dying.

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Truck destroyed by mortar hit (National Archives of Canada)

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