Why Canada Killed Civilians in World War II

by Rafael Medoff

The prime minister of Canada recently blasted Israel for accidentally killing civilians in Gaza— even though the Canadians deliberately killed German civilians in World War II.

Hypocrisy? Cynical indifference to the historical record? Perhaps a little bit of both.

The Canadian Royal Air Force was a participant in the Allies’ strategy of “area bombing” in World War II, the policy of attacking civilian areas in order to undermine the German public’s morale. Canadian bombers took part in some of the war’s most famous strikes on civilian targets—including the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943, which left 40,000 dead, and the attack on Dresden in February 1945, which killed tens of thousands more.

The bombings were reported in the Canadian press at the time, and nobody protested. The Hamilton (Ontario) Spectator, for example, reporting on July 30, 1943 about one of the attacks on Hamburg, noted: “A great many Canadian bombers participated in this attack as they have in every Hamburg raid since the round-the-clock bombings began last week-end.”

And that’s not all.

Canadian troops fought a storied urban battle in World War II that had more than a few similarities to the situation in Gaza today: enemy fighters holed up in underground tunnels, savage house to house fighting, booby-traps everywhere—and more than a few civilian casualties.

In late 1943, Canadian troops pushing through Italy took aim at German forces situated in the quiet seaside town of Ortona. Many of the town’s 10,000 residents fled after the Germans took over, but some remained, as the Canadian military historian Mark Zuehlke made clear in his book, Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently demanded that Israel stop “this killing of women, of children, of babies” in Gaza, asserting that “the price of justice cannot be the continued suffering of all Palestinian civilians.” Yet the suffering of innocent Italian civilians was regarded by Canada as a just price to pay for the wholesale destruction of Ortona in 1943.

Trudeau told Israel to “exercise maximum restraint,” warning that “the world is watching.” The world was watching in 1943, too. The New York Times provided a day-by-day, blow-by-blow description of the battle during the final week of  1943—yet nobody urged the Canadians to show restraint.

“Mines, demolitions and booby traps” planted by the Germans “are steadily taking [a] toll” on the Canadian troops, the Times reported. Holed up in “cellars and sewers,” German snipers would pop up, shoot at the advancing Canadians, and then disappear underground again. “You can hardly stick your head around a corner without hearing a sniper’s bullet zing by,” one Canadian soldier remarked.

The Nazis “have defended the town street by street and almost house by house,” the Times explained. Utilizing the city’s underground railroad tunnels, the Nazis had turned Ortona into “a veritable underground fortress.”

The Canadians responded with a new military tactic called “mouse-holing.” To avoid venturing into the streets, they used explosives to blast their way through the interior walls of adjoining houses, moving from house to house through the rubble.

The Canadian officer in charge of the massive bombing operation “never gave a thought to the destruction he was wreaking on Ortona with his explosives,” historian Mark Zuehlke recounted. “There was a job to do, so he did it.”

When the battle was over, “Hardly a building was left intact” in “the once pleasant coastal resort,” the Times noted. One thousand, three hundred and seventy-five Canadian soldiers were killed. So were more than 1,300 innocent Italian civilians.

Considering the similarities between what the Canadians faced in Ortona and what the Israelis are facing in Gaza, you would think Prime Minister Trudeau might show a little more understanding. And considering the huge number of German civilians whom Canadian pilots deliberately helped kill in World War II—by contrast with Israel’s careful and risky efforts to avoid killing civilians—the prime minister might be a little more restrained in his comments. Perhaps he needs to brush up on his own country’s history.

(December 2023)