July 22, 2014

Street Fighting in Ortona

German defensive lines in Italy
1. German defensive lines south of Rome.
Ortona is located at the eastern end of the Gustav Line.
Toward the end of December, 1943, the Canadian 2nd Infantry Brigade assaulted Ortona, an Italian town, at the eastern end of the Gustav Line. The town was defended by elements of the 1st Fallschirmjäger-Division.

Ortona was described as a town of well-built houses and narrow streets. Most of the houses had cellars leading out into underground passages under the street; such a passage may link as many as six houses. The southern part of the town was more modern. There the streets were wider, and there were numerous squares. It was in the southern area that the Canadians encountered the heaviest opposition.

A Canadian officer who took part in this action gives the following account of how the Germans planned and executed the defense of the town.

The German defense of Ortona was well planned. The defensive layout was based on an intimate knowledge of the town, the approaches, the streets, the alleyways, and the best routes from street to street, building to building, and even room to room. With this detailed knowledge, the enemy sited his weapons and carried out a determined defense, the outstanding feature of which was acknowledged by our [Canadian] troops to have been "sheer guts."

The enemy had chosen a "killing-ground" and all his weapons were sited to cover this area. Where the approaches to the "killing-ground" could not be covered by fire, the Germans had demolished buildings so as to create debris obstacles. The enemy could, and did, cover these debris obstacles by fire. Groups of machine guns were always sited so that the fire of one supported the fire of another.

The figure bellow shows a typical German defensive position at the intersection of a street and an alley. 

German defensive position in Ortona
2. German defensive position in Ortona.

In this instance, machine gun No. 1 was sited so as to cover the crest of the pile of debris which had been created in the main street on the other side of the alleyway. Machine gun No. 2 was sited high up in a building so as to fire over the top of the debris pile—that is, so as to cover our approaches to it. Machine guns No. 3 and No. 4 gave supporting fire and also had the mission of intercepting any of our troops who might contrive to get past the pile of debris and attack machine gun No. 1. (In almost every case, the piles of debris had been booby-trapped and mined with S-mines and Tellermines.)
Canadian infantryman
3. Canadian infantryman in Ortona.

The enemy made use of flame throwers, although not extensively, employing them for missions similar to those of supporting machine guns. In the few instances in which flame throwers were used, they were sited at ground level behind piles of debris, so as to cover the approaches to the street crossings.

The enemy's antitank guns had been well sited so as to cover the approaches suitable for tanks. These guns were cleverly camouflaged, and each was provided with all-around defense by light machine guns, heavy machine guns, and snipers.

The Germans did not use mortar fire extensively. When it was employed, firing was not observed, but was placed on parts of the town behind those areas where our troops were committed. There were several instances in which the enemy placed mortar fire on his own areas.

The enemy used snipers to support machine-gun and antitank positions.

The corner buildings of major road intersections were invariably demolished so as to create debris obstacles, up to 12 feet high, which were to be impassable to tanks. These obstacles also provided the enemy with good ground cover.

As the enemy was driven back, he carried out a planned demolition of buildings. In certain instances, he had prepared buildings for demolition and blew them after they had been occupied by our troops.

At no time did the enemy make a determined counterattack to retake the buildings that we had occupied. However, he immediately reoccupied any building which had been captured by our troops and later evacuated to permit our tanks and antitank guns to place fire on adjoining buildings. He surrendered none of his positions readily. They had to be knocked out one by one, and, if our troops did not get forward and occupy them promptly after disabling the German holding force, the enemy would reoccupy them almost at once. 

The fight in Ortona

It was a grim and bitter defense, and a very costly one for the Germans. The enemy frequently replaced personnel in positions as often as four times before our troops were able to occupy and consolidate the ground or the building. Since the enemy was thoroughly familiar with the layout of the town, he was able to use this knowledge to advantage. As he was forced back, he chose his successive "killing-grounds" and sited his weapons accordingly. It was only by attacking with the greatest determination that we were able to win these areas from the enemy and, by so doing, eventually complete the occupation of Ortona.

Canadian armour passing through Ortona
4. Canadian armour passing through Ortona.

U.S. War Department, Military Intelligence Service. Intelligence Bulletin Vol. II, No. 11. 1944.

Photos attribution
1. Stephen Kirrage, GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons
2. author
3. Erikh at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons
4. Dr. Charles Fraser Comfort, via Wikimedia Commons