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Commemorations in Sicily, September 2019

The London Irish Rifles Association were extremely honoured to be invited to attend a Service of Remembrance and Conference in Maletto that covered events in and around the town during the Sicily campaign of July and August 1943.

The Conference in Maletto, which is on the north western slopes of Mount Etna, was organised by Town Assessor Gabriella Giangreco and addressed by local historian, Giorgio Luca, and the Mayor of Maletto, Giuseppe De Luca.

Following these presentations, Richard O’Sullivan passed on the greetings of the London Irish Rifles Association to the audience of more than 60 people, including a number of townspeople who had been present in Maletto in August 1943.

One of them, Vincenzo Gangi, then a 14-year-old working in a barber shop on Maletto’s main road, had fled the town before the attack to avoid the fighting and hid in caverns and other sheltered places in the lava fields between Maletto and Mount Etna. At the Conference on 14th September 2019, Vincenzo said that he had witnessed men of the Irish Brigade, who were on the steps to Maletto’s Town Hall, come under fire from a machine gun post on top of a building 100 yards to the south. A sniper was then called in and silenced the opposition.

Vincenzo, who celebrates his 90th birthday in October, also remembered how he saw machine gunners positioned on a rooftop in his home town of Maletto shoot down an allied plane during the build-up to the Irish Brigade’s assault on the town in the early hours of 12th August 1943.

Vincenzo still possesses the 10 lire allied note that he was later paid for shaving a British soldier. It was equivalent to 10 cents in 1943. “I looked so young, they couldn’t believe I was qualified to cut hair,” he said. Vincenzo continued to work as a barber after the war and still cuts hair occasionally

During the Sicily campaign, Maletto had been the location of the final German attempt to block the advance of the 78th Division towards Randazzo and they had duly carried out fighting defensive engagements on the main road around the west side of Etna.

The campaign had begun on the night of 9th July 1943 with paratroop drops in the southeast of the island and amphibious landings started early the next day. 38 (Irish) Brigade, which also included battalions of the Royal Inniskilling and Irish Fusiliers, formed part of the 78th Division and landed on the island on 28th July to support the 8th Army’s drive to the west of Mount Etna to seek to outflank Axis defences south of Catania which were blocking its advance along the coast to Messina.

The brigade had taken the mountain stronghold of Centuripe on 2nd August before crossing the Salso and Simeto rivers over the following days. This advance prompted the withdrawal of all Axis forces from the Catania line and the start of large-scale evacuations from Sicily across to the Italian mainland. The 78th Division nevertheless faced resolute rearguard forces at Adrano and Bronte on the road around Etna.

The Irish Brigade was ordered to lead a further advance to capture Maletto and the high points south and east of the town which overlooked the road to Randazzo.  The operation began with the capture of Monte Macherone by the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and in the early hours of 12th August, the Irish Fusiliers deployed south of the road and advanced uphill to take Monte Capella. It was quickly captured and the battalion descended down its north side into Maletto. Fighting in the town would continue for most of the morning.

Later that same day, the London Irish attacked uphill to the east of Capella and captured Sperina. Opposition was resolute. Meanwhile, the 6th Battalion of the Inniskilling Fusiliers advanced to capture a high point named Monte Nave just to the east of the Maletto to Randazzo road.

Alongside Richard at the Conference were his brother, Edmund, and Edward Graham, one of the twin sons of Irish Fusilier Edward Graham, who was killed on the road from Maletto to Randazzo in the early hours of 13th August 1943.

Before the conference, Giorgio Luca was able to take a group on a short tour of the battlefield area near Maletto, which included pointing out the locations of the fighting advances of both the Irish Fusiliers and London Irish Rifles on 12th/13th August 1943.

The full list of officials of the Municipality of Maletto in attendance at the Conference were: Mayor Giuseppe De Luca; Deputy Mayor Giuseppe Spatafora; Assessor Gabriella Giangreco; Assessor Maria Foti; Assessor Francesco Tirendi; President of the Town Council, Cristiana Schilirò; Councillors Domenico De Gennaro, Antonino Mineo, Vincenzo Saitta, Salvatore Liuzzo, Mario Allia, Vincenzo Parrinello.