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ORTONA: Canada's Epic World War II Battle
By Mark Zuehlke Stoddart, 443 pages, $40

A few days before Christmas, 1944, The New York Times ran stories about a massive Canadian army assault on an obscure Italian port. "For some unknown reason," one of the stories said, "the Germans are staging a miniature Stalingrad in Ortona."

A week later, the Canadians captured Ortona and the story dropped out of the headlines. Today, the reasons why such bitter house-to-house fighting had to occur still aren't well understood. In tactical theory, urban battles are to be avoided at all costs. In retrospect, Ortona could have been bypassed, or a more enlightened battle plan executed. By the time the smoke had cleared, the struggle had cost the 1st Canadian Infantry Division a searing 2,000 casualties.

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Some responsibility may rest with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery of the British Army. When deteriorating weather and stiffening German defence failed to give him Rome, Montgomery instead decided to attack Ortona, a town of arguable strategic importance. Unfortunately, he gave the job to Major General Chris Vokes, commander of 1st CID. Regarded by Montgomery as little more than "a plain cook" tactician, Vokes was disliked by his men and held in contempt by officers who described him as a pompous bully and a sycophant. Vokes, it seems, imitated the eccentric Monty -- right down to carrying a fly whisk and affecting a British accent.

In any event, Vokes elected an old-fashioned frontal assault. That was his big mistake. The German army never gave ground easily, and Ortona was no exception. Situated on a promontory overlooking the Adriatic, laced with secret tunnels and approachable only by a network of gullies and paths, Ortona offered adroit and experienced defenders an ideal redoubt.

After extensive research and recent interviews with survivors, Mark Zuehlke conveys the apocalyptic feel of the battle in agonizing detail and recounts the exploits and sacrifice of 1st CID with extraordinary thoroughness. All too soon, Ortona became a meat-grinder.

"Ortona ate up reinforcements at a frightening rate. There was no leeway in the streets for inexperienced soldiers to learn the art of urban combat," writes Zuehlke, whose earlier titles include The Gallant Cause: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. Told to expect reinforcements, one young officer set off to guide the 20 men into forward positions. Negotiating the rubble, he encountered them marching up the street as if on parade. "Dougan started waving the men off, calling to them to take cover. He was too late. A mortar bomb exploded directly in their midst. Seventeen of the men were immediately killed or wounded."

The seasoned fighters had earlier elected to attack from concealed positions, or to "mousehole" from the inside of one row house to the next using explosives. Sometimes, Canadian soldiers found the homes still occupied by their owners.

"In the half-darkened room, the pasta for the midday meal was simmering over the fire. Haggard, prematurely aged women kept emerging shyly one after another from some inner chamber. . . . Then [the homeowner's]wife surprisingly produced a jeroboam of marsala and a half dozen glasses and moved among the soldiers, filling and refilling glasses. . . . The children clambered around the Canadian soldiers and clutched at them convulsively every time one of our anti-tank guns, located only half a dozen paces from the door of the house, fired down the street."

Perhaps even more bizarre was an all-the-trimmings Christmas dinner that headquarters laid on for the men. Unit by unit, they took turns to break off the fight and make their way to a huge table set up in a church. Intended to boost morale, the surreal event had a disturbing effect.

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After a week of the desparate fighting, the guns fell silent. In a tunnel below the town, a Canadian patrol found a decorated German Christmas tree bearing a handwritten sign that read: "Sorry we can't stay to put mistletoe on, but we'll make it hot for you in the hills."

The prudent Germans, deciding they had exacted their toll, withdrew a few miles to the north and made another stand. In the classic sense that they had quit the field, the Germans lost the battle of Ortona. In another sense, they determined the agenda and would do so for many long months of fighting. At Ortona, they had offered bait and Vokes took it. Colin Haskin is The Globe and Mail's Science and Environment editor. He has a keen interest in military history.

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