Mouse Holes in Italy
After the liberation of Sicily and the downfall of Mussolini’s fascist government in the autumn of 1943 the Canadian troops stationed in Italy expected to celebrate Christmas in Rome. Instead they found themselves immersed in a fierce eight-day street battle that decimated the coastal town of Ortona and cost the lives of over a hundred Canadians.
When the 1st German Parachute Division learned that the Canadians were advancing on Ortona they ordered the Italian civilians to leave and began to destroy their homes. The town clock was knocked out of its tower and replaced with a fortified machine gun position. Mines were planted in the rubble that blocked Ortona’s narrow streets and explosives were set in schoolhouses. The Canadians were not going to take Ortona without a fight.
By the second day of the battle the Canadians found themselves scattered throughout the town in small groups and unable to move without being caught by enemy fire. Unlike their German opponents, the Canadians had not been trained in street fighting and suffered heavy casualties. By December 23 they realized that advancing through the open streets was hopeless, so they took the battle inside. Instead of advancing in the open they began to blow “mouse-holes” in the walls of connecting buildings and advance through people’s living rooms.
At 2300 hours on the evening of December 27 after another day of fierce fighting in which twenty-three Canadians were killed in a single explosion, the Germans silently withdrew from Ortona’s devastated streets and regrouped several miles outside the town. When the Canadians woke up the following morning the remnants of Ortona’s medieval streets were silent.
Main photo: Lieutenant I. Macdonald (with binoculars) of the 48th Highlanders of Canada preparing to give to the infantrymen of his platoon an order to attack, San Leonardo di Ortona, Italy, 10 December 1943. (Credit: Lieut. Frederick G. Whitcombe / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-163411)