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The Chieftain's Hatch: Canadians at Ortona

This is my nod to our neighbors in the Great White North. Unfortunately, due to a significant failure in advance planning, Canada Day seems to always be the same weekend as Independence Day and we always seem to overlook them in our WoT celebrations.

Well, we're going to have a gander at the "Little Stalingrad" they fought over -- Ortona, in Italy. In the previous Hatch, the stage was set with a description of the town and the German techniques for defending it.

Urban fighting, known today as either MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), FIBUA (Fighting in Built-Up-Areas) or FISH & CHIPS (Fighting in Somebody's House & Causing Havoc In Peoples' Streets) is, with good cause, known for significant expenditure of men and ammunition. Ortona was no exception.

The following are the techniques the Canadians reported using.

When the leading battalion reached the outskirts of the town, where street fighting really started, it was advancing on a two company front approximately the width of the town. The main road acted as the inter-company boundary. As the fighting developed the battalion commander realized that to keep tight control and to keep the fighting efficiency of the battalion as high as possible, he would have to shorten his front and limit his company objectives. The result of this was that the brigade commander had to commit a second battalion to help clear the town. The main road was made the inter-battalion boundary and divided the town in half with the main defence position, including the fort, in the top right sector. Neither battalion had a front of more than 250 yards.

It's worth noting that if a battalion is over 600 men, that's a lot of people rotating into and out of the line, and also on multiple floors at once.

Each battalion divided its respective sectors into various sub-sectors as company objectives, which were again divided by company commanders into a series of platoon objectives. The latter might consist of not more than two or three houses. Rigid control was essential, and it was soon realized that a company commander, on completing occupation of his immediate objective, must report back before making any further advance. This was strictly adhered to, irrespective of whether the opposition was strong or slight in any one sector.

This is perhaps a bit counter to most philosophies of command. Usually one would expect their subordinates to be aggressive and to use their best initiative. In a city, however, the fight is going to be slow and methodical.

The company commander usually had his HQ in a house convenient to his two leading platoons and apart from exceptional circumstances would remain there. As his leading platoon or platoons moved forward, so his HQ would move forward just in rear of them. In a similar way the platoon commander had his HQ just behind the leading section. [I might observe here, for Americans, that the US Army is in a minority by having platoon leaders as opposed to platoon commanders. There are differences in authority between a commander and a leader in the US Army. Perhaps a Canadian or Brit can chime in with their perspective. --Chieftain] In this way he could keep watch on the section's progress and observe any signals from the section leader. The platoon commander never committed more than one section at a time. When given a street to clear, the platoon commander placed his 'fire group' so that they controlled both sides of the street. Except under the best conditions troops did not work along the streets but worked their way from house to house. In some cases 'mouse-holing' was necessary, which, generally being done by hand, took some considerable time. Frequently this was avoided by using courtyards and balconies to get from house to house.

Then and now.

It's said Ortona was where 'mouse-holing' was developed as a technique. I honestly have no idea if this is true, or if the Germans and Soviets hadn't figured it out by then. It's entirely possible that the Canadians developed it independently. In any case, it's generally making a new portal between two houses by breaking down a partition wall so you can go from one house to the next without ever going outside. Pickaxes are the typical method if explosives aren't available. (That said, in the film 'Zulu,' there's an example of mouse-holing in a hospital, using bayonets. Hmm...)

Every possible battalion and support weapon was used whenever and wherever possible. As an example, the right flank battalion got 17pr anti-tank guns on a ridge SouthEast of the town, and, at a range of approximately 1,000-2000 yards, literally ripped the buildings apart in front of their advancing troops.

Tanks were invaluable in spite of the cramped surroundings. They were used by the attackers both singly and in small numbers as assault guns or as pillboxes. They were also used to carry ammunition and mortars forward to the fighting troops and to evacuate wounded over bullet-swept ground. Several were lost due to anti-tank fire, mines and grenades, but the cost was considered negligible compared to the value of their assistance. An excellent example of their employment is given in the platoon commander's story attached [further in the article].

As a personal observation, I'll say that tanks do certainly have their place in cities. When first dispatched to Mosul, I was adamant against my platoon going anywhere in the city without a Stryker platoon to keep us company. The infantry certainly didn't mind the company. As we grew more experienced, we grew more confident in roaming around. Although I always did keep my rifle handy as we went under higher buildings, such as the above (I took that photo as we were commuting in Mosul), and we tried to avoid roads so narrow that we couldn't turn our turrets.

Though masses of artillery were available, it was found relatively ineffective in this type of fighting. The first reason was the close proximity of attacked and defender which often reduced no-man's land to the width of a narrow street.

Such situations required accurate pin-point shooting which cannot be provided from field guns and, therefore, tanks and anti-tank guns were both employed in direct-fire tasks. The second reason for the ineffectiveness of our artillery was the excellent cover provided by the old stone buildings. The upper storeys were battered and tumbled but only the pounding of our medium and heavy guns could destroy the lower floors. The main artillery tasks were the continual harassing of the coast road in the rear of the town and the destruction of strong points by the 200lb shells of the heavy regiment. The full effect of its fire is not known, but prisoners of war spoke dazedly of the merciless pounding they had received. Heavy and light mortars were also used, but their chief value seemed to be in harassing the main streets and squares. These and the approach to the town were continually plastered causing considerable casualties to the enemy. This fire, combined with that of the artillery, effectively dissuaded the enemy from making full use of the upper stories of the houses in the town.

The issue of indirect fire in towns has, of course, not been entirely solved, although the development of guided munitions from both tube and air delivery systems has simplified some of the problem. As a rule, though, harassing fire with HE, and HC smoke and white phosphorous still have their use.

The advance was slow, it was methodical, but it was relentless. By rapidly shifting the focal point of the attack and by making the fullest possible use of all our weapons, the paratroops were cleared from the town. Casualties on both sides were heavy.

Lessons learned

The first and primary lesson learned was that street fighting is an acquired art and that there are only two ways to acquire it -- by careful planning and training and a high standard of discipline, or by bitter experience.

One outstanding point disclosed from the fighting was the absolute necessity of having an organized and detailed plan for the clearance of the town. The town must be cleared by sectors and troops made responsible for each sector. The sectors themselves must be completely cleared before troops attempt to pass through them to further objective.

Another important point was the necessity for occupying houses immediately they were cleared. Several times the garrisons of enemy strong points were wiped out but the buildings themselves were not occupied by us. Within a few minutes the enemy would re-occupy these vantage points and a new operation would become necessary to dislodge him. This placed a heavy drain on fighting troops and should be considered in the planning stage.

This is also related to the earlier point in the previous article about the German tendancy to infiltrate. Unlike conventional fighting, there are three dimensions to worry about. Today, they're known as the surface, subsurface, and supersurface. In other words, ground level, basements/sewers/tunnels, and upper floors. Subsurface is a particular nuisance, and as the Japanese showed, isn't confined to urban environments.

Tanks can be used effectively in street fighting in spite of the limits placed on movement. They should be used either singly or in small numbers and always in close co-operation with infantry. A dozen rounds of AP through a building followed by a dozen H.E. have a most destructive effect on an enemy strongpoint.

If we had to go anywhere with just one tank, we were unhappy. If one got stuck and had to get pulled out (e.g., with a tow rope), only another tank could do it. However, the idea of firing two dozen rounds at a single position should give a fair impression both as to why ammunition capacity was always a very significant concern in the development process of the tanks as well as the ammunition expenditure required in street fighting.

There are two schools of thought in street fighting. One, the commando type which depends on surprise to cover its rapid assault and two, the much slower system of methodically clearing every house. The latter method was found essential on the occasion and it is believed that it will always be preferable once surprise has been lost.

The town could not be bombed prior to attack as the port facilities were required undamanged. When the fighting was over, Ortona was a shambles, one of the most devastated towns in Italy. It is felt that no value was gained by not bombing the town and if it had been heavily blitzed just prior to our attack the task might have been considerably easier.

Of course, hindsight is wonderful, and one always does wonder about the parallel of Monte Cassino.

In planning this type of operation, air photos should be secured in large numbers, if possible down to the section commanders. They are of the greatest possible assistance and can be understood by everyone.

Amen to this. Blue Force Tracker in satellite view (think of it as a military version of Google Maps) was incredibly useful. Also not only are towns sectored out on such photographs today but it gets down to the level of each building being numbered, and even to the level of walls being designated by color. By this method, you can specify individual windows if you have to.

The expenditure of small arms ammunition is very high in comparison with any equivalent operation. Extra ammunition should be carried on the man and the battalion reserve kept well forward. This applies to explosives and tank ammunition also, very large quantities of which were used.

Every battle brings out the necessity for discipline and absolute control by officers and NCOs. This was no exception. Street fighting demands the utmost individual initiative from every soldier, and for this reason the greatest possible sense of discipline if the close co-ordination and control of effort demanded by this type of fighting is to be achieved.

To add to the lessons learned above, they were two anecdotes by officers. To help orient the readers, they even provided a hand-drawn map showing where they were.

We start with the platoon leader, at the church and school. As near as I can tell, this area was demolished and rebuilt (For reasons obvious below), but the angled church and school are still visible at the Piazza S. Francesco.

It was the day before Christmas in Ortona. My platoon had been working their way forward until by about 1000 hours we held the two houses marked A and B on the diagram. From here we could get observation into the square and maintain a brisk exchange of fire with the enemy. The paratroops were in the church and school, as well as in those blocks marked D and E. The end of the school facing us was solid as was the corner of the block C and offered no easy entrance. My objective was the school.

Several days before I had obtained a town plan from the Municipio, which now proved of great assistance. It showed that the only entrance to the school was the main door facing the church and another small door at the far end of the building. It was obvious that we could not get through the main door without coming under murderous fire from the church as well as from the defenders of the school itself. The alley towards E was a death trap, its entire length being swpt by fire from both D and E. PIATs could have knocked a hole in the end wall of the school large enough for a man to squeeze through, but I felt it was also essential to obtain fire superiority, to win the fire fight, before movement could take place.

Obviously not a tanker. We make our own door with the main gun.

Knock, knock...

This was going to be rather tricky as the enemy had all our likely fire positions taped and completely dominated the square.

Having considered the situation I decided to make a direct assault on the school, supported by tanks, and if necessary, to cover their movement and my own with smoke. We had a tank liaison officer with the company commander, and therefore liaison was excellent. A troop (Platoon, in American terms) of tanks was immediately made available and a plan worked out between us to cope with the enemy MG. One of our problems was the block of rubble which obstructed the entrance to the square between A and B, but this was overcome by the tanks who had discovered a satisfactory bypass. Zero Hour was set for noon.

The first tank came rumbling up the street, as shown by the arrow, to position 1 from here, at a range of 30 yards it blasted down the side of the school with its 75mm. This tank then moved to position 2 --a second tank to position 3 and a third to position 1. Tanks at positions 2 and 3 covered the church with MG and 75mm fire while the tank in position 1 covered the street leading to B. The fire fight was won and the stage set for my platoon. So much dust had been kicked up by the gun fire and falling masonry that smoke was unnecessary and without further preliminaries the first section dashed across the street, and struggling over the rubble, entered the school. This section then set about clearing the building, the tanks meanwhile, concentrated their fire on the church and succeeded in knocking down a portion of the front wall and in silencing the post there.

After what seemed to be an interminable time, probably not more than half an hour, the section leader gave the sign that all was well. I ordered a section to move to the house at C in order to control the back of the school, also to enable them to bring fire down the street towards G. I hoped, in this way, to maintain fire superiority once the tanks withdrew.

With the remaining sections I now dashed across to the school. Everything was under control. The section leader had his men posted at various windows, and though he had not as yet searched the cellars, the main floor was clear. There was no upper stoery. The section leader stated that he had little difficulty in clearing out the few Germans that were left in the school. Our method of attack had caught them by surprise and the rain of tank shells had driven them from the exposed end of the building. Once the section had gained a footing it moved rapidly forward using grenades and Tommy Guns, clearing each room as it advanced. The enemy put up little opposition and had succeeded in evacuating the building from the rear exit, taking with them most of their casualties. We searched the cellars rather gingerly and though we found no Germans, we did discover some explosives. I believed these to be booby traps or time charges, but did not have time to investigate further.

The sun was beginning to set by the time the building was cleared and I therefore ordered the tanks, who were running out of ammunition, to withdraw and go back to their forward rally. Throughout this small action my platoon sustained only one casualty and I am positive that this success could not have been obtained if I had not received the invaluable assistance of the tanks.

To finish, we'll move to the the other side of town, and the experience of a company commander. Here's his map:

The commanding officer had given me my task, namely the clearing of the block of houses 'D' the day before I actually had to do it. I threrefore had ample time to thoroughly appreciate the situation and draw up my plan of attack. Our own troops were in occupation of B1 and B2. Enemy were located all through D, the church, and other side of the street. Located somewhere in the area of C there was also an MG42 which commanded the whole of the square, and the stretch from B1 to house !. I rather hoped that the MG at 'C' would be silenced by the time my company had to cross 'A' the next day.

On the day of the show my company occupied the houses in B1. I had decided that I was going to accompany the first section across as my plan for using 'Beehives' was new to the company. When I decided to move with my first section across to A, the MG at C had shown no signs of life. I therefore decided to run the gauntlet without using any smoke. The first group to enter A consisted of myself, a corporal, and six men. I led off with the remainder following at approximately five paces interval behind. We crossed to A in nothing flat and after entering the house realized that the MG at C had not even given a brrrp. Luckily there were no enemy on the ground floor of A and, as it turned out, nowhere in the house.

The first house was only a two-storey job, but the next one, I knew, was at least three storeys. The section having manned the windows covering the street, I then prepared for my experiment.

On my signal from B1, the next section plus the two pioneers who were going to use the 'Beehives' were to cross. However, no sooner did they start for A than the MG at 'C' opened up, and they immediately returned to the safety of B1. My 2" mortar then laid smoke in the square opposite C. The smoke screen was thickened with 77 grenades and from now on until dark I kept the square well fogged up. The second party then crossed unscathed.

The two pioneers went to work to prepare the first 'Beehive' on the top floor. To get the right height they placed the 'Beehive' on a chair and leaned it against the wall. While the 'Beehive' was being set I gathered all my men on the ground floor. With the fuses set the pioneers tumbled down the stairs and, as they reached the ground floor, there was a loud explosion. We all tore up the stairs in order to get through the 'mouse-hole' before the dust subsided, but there was no hole. What we had thought was one wall was actually two walls. Again we set a 'Beehive', went through the same routine as before, and this time found ourselves in the next house.

The leading section into this house was the follow-up section to A. It immediately cleared the floor and manned all windows covering the house on the opposite side of the street. The first section then came through, cleared the next floor up, then moved down and cleared the bottom floor. No risks were taken and 36 grenades were thrown into any room which gave reason for suspicion before we actually entered. [Chieftain's note: 77 and 36 are model numbers of grenade. 77 being white phosophorous, 36 being high explosive. They didn't actually throw 36 grenades into a room, although I do suspect that that would do a reasonable job of clearing it. Having cleared the house and gained fire control of the windows across the street, my pioneers set to work on setting two 'Beehives' to open a way from the top floor through to the top floor of the next house.

We followed the same routine of everybody down on the ground floor then one section bursting up and through, cleaning the top floor and manning the windows, followed by the next section working down to the ground floor. I soon had a drill going and in this manner we cleared the whole row of houses without once showing ourselves in the street. Also, much to my amazement, I found that as we cleared the houses in our row, the Germans automatically cleared out of the houses on the other side of the street.

By adopting a method, not used until then in our street fighting, I feel certain we took the Germans by surprise, to such an extent in fact that he vacated houses with scarcely any fight. I reached the last house having only committed one platoon. My company HQ and one more platoon were in A. My third platoon was still in B1.

In the meantime, the 3" mortars had been engaged in a task in support of my attack. Under the battalion commander's orders they had been firing HE on a section of houses just about the church and had succeeded in muffling the explosions of my 'Beehives'. Not only did they keep the enemy there pinned down, but they actually 'camouflaged' my method of breaking through from house to house.

Even today, it's preferred to clear a house from top to bottom, not bottom to top, and mouseholing by use of prepared charges is still the preferred method. If you happen to have enough charges handy. Note that in this case, the Canadians were using multiple charges per building, whereas I don't often see more than a couple of charges per infantry platoon. It is evident that the company commander in this instance basically developed the preferred form of houseclearing today.

Finally, notes on the weapons used and their employment in street fighting:

2" Mortar. An extremely efficient weapon. Generally used for laying smoke to cover crossings that were under enemy fire. HE was found effective for harassing and when lobbed into courtyards of houses, excellent results were also obtained from 'low angle' firing down streets and at barriers. This weapon was once used still clamped to its base to silence an MG position across the street. Several PIAT bombs blew a fair sized hole in the wall of the building into which a mortar man quickly placed a couple of HE bombs at almost flat trajectory.

3" Mortar. A good diversionary weapon, and also has a good harassing effect probably kept snipers off the roofs but otherwise no effective results obtained.

PIAT Mortar. Employed mainly in localizing MG positions and anti-tank guns. Used effectively in holding [sic, I think 'holing' was intended] houses on the other side of a street. At a range of 50 yards could form a hole approximately 3 feet in diameter. Definitely should not be fired inside a house -- the back blast is very dangerous and the roof may fall in.

This is a very surprising comment. Because of the way PIAT works, there is in effect no backblast, unlike a bazooka or similar. I am unsure as to precisely what effect the Canadians were referring to here.

36 Grenades. The most useful weapon in street fighting and house clearing. Approximately 4,000 of these were used during this period and much preferred to the bakelite type. It is much easier to put a grenade into a room first -- then look, than to look first and see if one is needed.

77 smoke: Extremely useful, but the present method of carrying these grenades in pockets and inside the blouse is very dangerous. Several men were badly burned when the grenades they were carrying were hit. It was found that the 77 grenade had considerable morale effect on the enemy at night and that he definitely did not like them. Approximately 2,000 of these grenades were used from the 20th to 30th Dec 43 [Chieftain's note: It's worth observing that there is a common misconception that the use of white phosphorous in the anti-personnel role is a war crime. This is not correct, the Canadian use mentioned here is neither unlawful nor unusual for the time]

75 Hawkins. Very effective in setting up of booby traps and for making a quick demolition charge but was NOT large enough for mouse-holing. The grenade was not used as an anti-tank weapon.

Prepared Demolition Charges. Very effective for blasting 'mouse-holes' between buildings. Generally two were used to obtain best effect. Made up by division engineers and contains approximately 30lbs of explosive in a 4-gallon non-returnable petrol tin. A long fuse is advised at all times.

6pr Anti-tank. Very effective in blasting houses and hidden mg posts, but difficult to handle in city streets

Note the heavy barrel on this particular 6pr.

Captured Teller Mines "were frequently used for demolition or mouseholing and were most satisfactory."

Thus ends the report as found in Armored Force's archives.

I'll finish this off with a couple more observations. First, the techniques learned by the Canadians are still relevant and taught today. The nature of city fighting really hasn't changed all that much in 60 years, and technology can only go so far in replacing numbers. It's often been pointed out that as the world's population becomes more urbanized, the need for this sort of skill will increase, not decrease.

What will get even more interesting is that while the urban areas are increasing in size, the militaries are decreasing. Ortona, a small town, had a frontage of one battalion in 300 yards. If you go to Google Maps and take a look at today's Seoul, Korea, you'll see that you can draw a line over 9 miles long without leaving urbanized, city block-type construction. Attacking it, on the same ratio of troops to frontage, would take some five divisions. The entire active US Army today consists of eight divisions. There's a reason that the field manual of today (FM 3-6) uses case studies of Metz, Hue, Stalingrad and Seoul, among others.

The other is the inherent value in further professional development. There is something of a push going on in military circles to get troops to read history. Not just officers, but NCOs as well. And not just the grand strategic moves of how Bradley did this or Montgomery did that, but reading after-action reports like the above will provide some excellent lessons learned at cost by our predecessors, which we have forgotten in the normal curriculum simply due to competing priorities or lack of training time.

Forum thread is here

Nicholas Moran (The_Chieftain) is the Military Specalist at Wargaming America.

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