CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 26. . . . March 9, 2018
Sniper Fire begins on October 23, 1943, just outside the Italian village of Colle d’Anchise that is being defended by German troops, and it is there that readers meet the book’s central character, Private Paul Baldassara, as his platoon from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment assaults the village, an action that results in the death of Danny, Paul’s best friend in the unit. The book then jumps back in time in the second chapter, “Going to War October 1942 – October 1943". There, Paul explains that back in 1940 in Red Deer, AB, his storekeeper father, because he had been born in Italy, had been placed in an internment camp in Kananaskis for a few months as a suspected Fascist. In 1942, Paul, to prove he was a “good Canadian” and to escape “the hateful looks of suspicious neighbours”, signed up with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, an infantry unit. Just 17 at the time and too young to enlist legally, Paul had altered his birth certificate while claiming to be 19. Shipped to England for training, it was there he met and befriended Danny, and the pair participated in the Sicily Campaign before landing in Italy where Danny was killed in action.
Most of the book’s principal action, however, focuses on Paul’s involvement in the Battle for Ortona, also called the "Italian Stalingrad", which occurred between December 20-28, 1943. Allied Command had assumed that the German forces would not defend Ortona; however, the Germans had not only reinforced the village with battle-hardened parachute troops, but they had also used the time available to turn the village into killing zones. Houses were razed to the ground, their rubble being used to barricade streets and impede tanks or to serve as hidden nests for machine gun crews or as concealment for snipers. Additionally, the Germans mined the roads and booby-trapped houses.
It seems each global conflict introduces a new form of warfare. While World War I had been characterized by trench warfare, this fight for Ortona was defined by house-to-house street fighting. The streets were essentially shooting galleries, with the Canadian troops the targets, and even when the soldiers broke into a house, it could be occupied by German troops understandably expecting them to enter at ground level. Sappers, whose responsibilities include the tactical breaching of enemy defenses, came up with a “safer” method for the Canadian soldiers to access German occupied houses. It was called “mouse-holing”, and it could be used where multi-floor houses shared a common wall, as was quite commonly the situation in Ortona. A sapper would plant an explosive charge on a common wall. When the charge fired, creating a “mouse hole” large enough for a soldier to go through, the soldiers would first throw one or more grenades into the now breached house to kill or incapacitate any of the enemy troops that might have been located nearby before entering the house themselves.
While Sniper Fire is filled with lots of action, Webb does not pull his punches regarding the brutally harsh realities of war nor does he overlook the physical, emotional and psychological costs to Paul and the members of his unit as they exist in this perilous environment that calls for them to kill while avoiding being killed.
In the opening chapters, author Webb inserts sufficient historical information about World War II to provide readers with a general context for the book’s period events. As well, a four-page closing “Historical Note” offers more detailed information about the Italian Campaign and specifically the Battle of Ortona. To help readers visualize what the combat setting looked like, Sniper Fire contains six pages of black and white photographs. A map of Italy locates Ortona, and another map, this one a street map of Ortona, permits readers to follow the platoon’s advance through the town. The two maps might have been more useful to readers if they had appeared at the beginning of the book rather than being found after the reading had been completed. Webb’s closing “Author’s Note” provides an explanation as to why he elected to make this particular battle the focus of his book and why he chose an Italian-Canadian to be the book’s narrator. As well, Webb uses this section to identify which of the book’s characters and events were real and which were products of his imagination.
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor, lives in Winnipeg, MB.