Excerpt From Ortona

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Ortona, Mark Zuehlke

Chapter 26: They Always Mess Things Up
A bold dash. Another madman’s gamble. Major Jim Stone believed he knew how to smash through 1st Parachute Division’s defences along Corso Vittorio Emanuele. If the German intent was to funnel the Canadians down its length through one killing zone after another, and there was no way for the Loyal Edmonton Regiment to outflank these zones, then the solution was to do the unexpected. Running like wildmen up the ditch had allowed his mangled company to win entry to Ortona. So why not do the same thing on a grander, more daring scale? Was not the Corso itself rather like a ditch?

After the first day’s dreadful fighting in the Ortona streets, Stone knew that the Germans would expect the Canadians to advance cautiously in the morning. But moving into the face of the enemy could only result in a prolonged and bloody house-to-house fight. Yesterday had proven how costly such an approach would be. Stone sought a way to prevent the regiment being decimated by the heavy casualties that a protracted battle in a town must entail. It was entirely likely that the paratroopers were not holding the town in great depth. They probably had a strong, well-manned defensive line. Behind that there was unlikely to be any significant number of defenders. The paratroopers would be planning on withdrawing in staged steps from one prepared defensive position to another, bleeding the Canadians every step of the way. Stone was certain that the parachute division was implementing in Ortona a small-scale version of the strategy which Tenth Army had implemented so effectively to slow the Eighth Army’s advance all the way up the boot of Italy.

If he could pierce the line and get behind the Germans, they would be unable to re-establish a blocking line in front of his advance. The paratroopers would have to abandon Ortona or be isolated inside the town and face destruction. Boldness was the key. What Stone needed was to hit the paratroopers with a miniature “colossal crack” that would send them reeling right out of Ortona.

Stone tracked down the Three Rivers Regiment tank commander and explained his plan. “Let’s start at first light tomorrow morning,” he said. “You put your tanks in low gear, get your sirens going, and fire your main armament at every building forward of you and your machine guns at the houses on the side of the road. I’ll put my infantry alongside the tanks and let’s try and go through.” It took some argument, because the commander started quoting chapter and verse from armoured tactical doctrine that stated tanks were not only of limited value in fighting within built-up areas but also extremely vulnerable to being destroyed by enemy action. Finally, however, Stone won the tank commander’s somewhat reluctant agreement to give the gamble a try.

That Stone was developing the tactics for the Edmontons’ December 22 attack reflected a shift in the regiment’s lines of command. Lieutenant Colonel Jim Jefferson had established his battalion headquarters on Ortona’s outskirts. This was unlike Seaforth Highlanders of Canada battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Syd Thomson, who had set up shop right on the town’s edge in Santa Maria di Costantanopoli. In fact, Jefferson’s headquarters was almost as far back as 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade commander Brigadier Bert Hoffmeister’s. In a battle where troops were facing each other across distances of mere feet, trying to exercise effective control or to dictate strategy from such a distance to the rear was difficult, if not impossible.

Because of the distance between Jefferson’s headquarters and the rifle companies in Ortona, command of the Edmonton Regiment effectively shifted to the senior commander on the immediate scene. That was Major Jim Stone. The officer was well suited to the role. He was resourceful, independent-minded, determined, brave to the point of near recklessness and, because he had come up through the ranks, well versed in small-unit tactics.

Stone’s attack went forward as planned. Tanks of the Three Rivers Regiment’s No. 2 Troop moved out in single file down the very centre of the Corso, Stone’s ‘D’ Company led for the Edmontons, the other two companies following. Losses on December 21 had been so high that Jefferson had ordered the rifle companies reduced from their normal strength of four companies to three. Even so, each company, including a reinforced ‘D’ Company, barely mustered 60 men apiece instead of what should have been a total strength of more than 400. Stone found the noise made by the tanks’ sirens and the thunder of their 75-millimetre guns in the narrow street “terrifying.”

The distance from Piazza Vittoria to Piazza Municipali, where a small cathedral and the municipal hall stood, was 300 yards. The Corso descended from the Canadian-held square to the municipal square on a grade of about 3 percent. This meant that the Canadians would be well silhouetted for the German defenders during their advance. The buildings lining this section of street were relatively modern, built in the last two centuries. To the west of the Corso, for the entire length running from the Piazza Vittoria to Piazza Municipali, the streets and buildings dated back to the Renaissance. Beyond Piazza Municipali, past the shattered ruin of Cattedrale San Tomasso to the ancient castle overlooking the sea, the Corso narrowed and the surrounding buildings and streets became a warren of buildings dating back to the 1400s.

Stone was elated. The attack rolled forward against virtually no opposition. He figured the Germans were frozen by fear and confusion. Progress toward the main square was rapid. Ahead stood a massive rubble pile, perhaps 25 feet high. It appeared to have been constructed by blowing the better part of the cathedral on the edge of the square out into the street. Despite the height of the pile, Stone thought the tanks could get over it. If tanks and men kept going, they would get right through to the castle and the battle would be won.

But suddenly, little more than 25 yards short of the rubble pile, the lead tank paused. The other tanks ground to a halt, maintaining their preset intervals between each other. They also ceased firing their guns. The infantry milled, unsure what was happening. By pausing, the tankers were hopelessly messing up the attack. As an infantryman, Stone believed, it was an all-too-common experience. Stone jumped up on the lead tank. “What the hell’s the matter?” he yelled. The tank commander pointed at a scrap of sheet metal lying in the road. “It’s probably concealing a mine,” he said. Stone was incredulous. The entire street, from one end to the other, was littered with bricks, stones, chunks of metal, broken boxes, and other debris from the battered and destroyed buildings fronting it. What made this piece of metal special? Stone tried to convince the man to get going again. He could feel the attack’s momentum slipping through his fingers, like so many grains of wheat. The tank commander said petulantly, “Don’t you realize a tank is worth $20,000? I can’t risk it.”

“You armoured sissy,” Stone snapped. “I’ve got 20 to 30 men here with no damned armour at all and they’re worth a million dollars apiece. You’re just a bunch of goddamned armoured sissies.”

But it was too late to save the plan. Whether the Germans had been in shock from the violent directness of the attack or had never intended to defend that stretch of the Corso, they were alert now. Small-arms fire started snapping around the Edmontons and the men dived for cover. The tanks would advance no farther. Suddenly a 57-millimetre PAK antitank gun started shooting at the lead tanks from a position on the corner next to the church. It was so placed that the Three Rivers tanks were unable to return its fire. Stone ordered his PIAT man to knock the gun out. The man fired from too far away, the round sailing harmlessly over the armoured shield that protected the crew manning the weapon, and exploding in a white flash of smoke inside the church.

In a dark fury that his bold plan had failed because the tankers lacked sufficient courage, Stone yelled in frustration at the PIAT man, who was starting the unwieldy process of trying to reload the antitank weapon. Knowing that at any moment the Germans were likely to hit one of the tanks, Stone pulled a smoke grenade and chucked it in front of the antitank gun. He then charged the gun single-handedly, pulling a fragmentation grenade off his webbing belt as he went. Running up to the gun’s armour shield, Stone pulled the pin on the grenade, tossed it over the shield at the gunners, and pressed himself against the shield’s protective cover. The grenade exploded, killing the entire crew.

The forward attack was faltering fast despite Stone’s heroic attempts to get things moving again. He and Lieutenant John Dougan moved up to the rubble pile, trying to find a way for the tanks to get across it. On the way, Stone saw that the sheet metal scrap hid nothing but cobblestones. Knowing he had been right and the tanker wrong just made him all the madder.

Dougan was more philosophical. He thought the great height of the rubble pile had scuttled Stone’s plan, but in his friend and superior’s current state of mind, there was no way Dougan was going to make the man see this truth. Dougan saw that a couple of men from ‘D’ Company had managed to crawl over the pile. They were moving cautiously up the street toward the municipal hall. One suddenly crumpled. Stone told Dougan that it looked as if the man might have been electrocuted because there were some live power lines lying on the street. However the man had died, there was no doubting that the other side of the rubble pile was a bad place to be. Dougan called the remaining soldier on the north side of the pile back. The officers then ordered the infantry to batter their way into the houses on either side of the street and get to work.

The house-to-house battle that Stone had hoped to avoid now started in earnest. Within minutes, the fight ceased to be one he could effectively control. Sergeants, corporals, even privates, operated on their own initiative. On the other side of the rubble pile, three machine guns were covering the Piazza Municipali from a nearby building on the left side of the street. Combined with the fire coming from at least two other machine guns, these guns meant that anyone moving around the rubble pile was likely to get killed. One of the other machine guns was firing out of a circular opening in the upper portion of the municipal hall’s front wall. The paratroopers had developed this machine-gun position by removing the town clock and sandbagging the opening to create a stout fortification.

Private C. G. Rattray and two other soldiers set their sights on knocking out the three guns in the building on the left. Under fire, the men crawled over the rubble pile and forced their way through the front door. Rattray left it to the other men to clear the riflemen defending the lower floor. He stormed upstairs and surprised five paratroopers manning the three guns. The startled Germans surrendered. Rattray found himself in possession of five prisoners, three machine guns, four rifles, and three Luger pistols.

Elsewhere the battle did not go so well. When a stick grenade came bouncing down the stairs at him, Private Melville McPhee ducked into an alcove off a stairwell. The 21-year-old from Drumheller had been plagued since Sicily by stomach ulcers, and for the next hour at least, his experience did little to ease the condition. Every time he tried to move from the alcove, the German above him tossed down another grenade, forcing McPhee to cower back until the shrapnel stopped flying around. It seemed the man had a limitless supply of grenades. Outside the walls of the house he was cornered in, McPhee could hear machine guns blazing, rifles cracking, and grenades exploding. But nobody came into the building and there was nothing he could do to get out. Finally he poked his head out of the alcove and no grenade came bouncing down the stairs. McPhee took off, leaving the grenade-throwing German in undisputed possession of the building.