In early July 1943, the British Eighth Army, fresh from their triumph in North Africa, landed on the beaches of the east coast of Sicily, south of Syracuse, the ancient city founded by the Corinthians several centuries before Christ. The port, scene of stirring battles between the Athenians and the Syracusans, was captured and was quickly made ready to receive the reinforcements which followed up behind the assault troops. The historic old city had escaped devastation. The next objective was the Catania Plain and its spacious airfields, thence east and west of Mount Etna, to converge again in the neighbourhood of Taormina. The American Seventh Army landed on the south coast near Gela and proceeded towards Palermo and Marsala on the west side of the island.
Montgomery’s plan initially went with a swing. The Eighth Army pushed northwards up the coast until stiff resistance was met outside Catania. The Americans made impressive progress against less stubborn opposition. Palermo and Marsala fell, and the western half of Sicily was almost cleared up. There were about three German divisions in the island and they were reinforced by several paratroop brigades fighting as infantry. They were all handpicked troops and they put up a desperate, stubborn, but hopeless fight with skill and determination. There were four hundred thousand Italians there, too, but they did not seem to function much as soldiers. They surrendered in thousands.
Forsaken by the Italians, the Germans found that their best friend was the country, which could not have been more suitable for a defensive battle. The first impetus of the invasion over, the enemy recovered from his surprise and regrouped his forces to meet the main Allied thrusts. The Allied troops had been fighting in difficult country in an oppressive and tiring heat, and it was necessary that the original invaders should be rested and that new men should go forward. A new coordinated plan was prepared to overcome the reorganised resistance of the Germans. There was, of course, no breaking of contact and no relaxation in the pressure by the British and American forces on land and in the air. Fighting continued in each sector, but advances were made with a view to preparing for the final push.
The 50th Division had been on the first assault, and within that Division, 168 Brigade, with the 1st Battalion London Irish, began to reach the island three days after the initial invasion. The 78th Division, in which was the 2nd Battalion London Irish, landed on July 26-27. The 78th Division had now left the First Army and was making its first appearance with the Eighth. This was the first time that the two battalions of the Regiment had been in the same theatre of war since leaving England.
The plans for the final push were roughly that the Eighth Army should proceed along the eastern side of the island, capture Catania and Regalbuto, and encircle Mount Etna by the inland road through Aderno, Bronte, and Randazzo. The American Seventh Army should cover westwards of Regalbuto to the north coast and advance on Messina by the two northern routes. The 78th Division was on the left flank of the Eighth Army and became a connecting-link with the Americans. The 50th Division was on the right flank, fighting its way up along the east coast.
THE LONDON IRISH LAND IN SICILY
The 1st Battalion of the London Irish Rifles had sailed from Suez in the SS Karoa at the end of June and left there for Port Said on July 1. Two days later it joined a convoy of twelve ships sailing to Alexandria, which was reached on July 4. The battalion went into camp for a few days in order to prevent congestion in the city in the event of an air attack. Re-embarking on July 8 the battalion left in convoy for Syracuse the next day. Lieut.-Colonel Good explained to all ranks that as the battalion was part of the reserve brigade, its role was still uncertain, because the invasion of Sicily had already started.
It was a little comforting to know that our role was not to be that of assault troops on the Sicilian beaches! Four days were spent at sea and the voyage was uneventful. Everyone expected at least an attempted raid by aircraft or submarine, but there was not the slightest hint of one, so complete was the Allied command of sea and air. The SS Karoa was the first British merchant vessel to enter Syracuse harbour, and she did so with the willing assistance of an old Sicilian pilot who had been put aboard by a Royal Naval launch. He was a picturesque character in shirt-sleeves and an old straw hat, and he amused everyone by shaking hands with all he met. He, at any rate, was glad to see us in his beloved Sicily.
The battalion docked without mishap on July 13, and marched to an assembly area five miles from the port and past ruins of the fortifications which had for many months held back the Romans in their siege of Syracuse. The day was very hot and everyone was heavily laden with rations and extra ammunition. Mortars, additional wireless sets, and the usual signal equipment were also carried. For the first time could be heard the distant sound of guns. The night was spent in almond and lemon groves. Holes were dug more for comfort than protection, and the men were kept awake most of the night by the flak that screamed in the air above Syracuse as raid after raid was made on the port and the ships still left in the harbour. The battalion was soon joined by the transport, whose drivers had had by no means such an uneventful voyage as the rest. They got more than a thrill when a ship two hundred yards away was bombed and sunk off Avola. It was particularly unpleasant because she carried a cargo of petrol. During this incident the London Irish sustained their first battle casualty, Rifleman Smith, a transport driver, being wounded while firing a Bren at the enemy dive-bombers from the bridge of the ship.
At eight o’clock the next morning the battalion set off on foot for Mellili. The march, a long one, was very strenuous because of the great heat. The second night also was spent in the coolness of the groves, and it was here that the battalion took its first battlefield prisoners. Captain C Byrne, the Medical Officer, and a rifleman bodyguard went to look for wells. They came to a cave full of Italians and, looking in, Captain Byrne saw three men in uniform, two soldiers and a sailor. They came out without any fuss and surrendered. Captain Byrne brought them back in triumph without a shot having been fired and without the Medical Officer breaking the Geneva Convention. There was a further move next day to Carlentini, and the battalion sheltered in an orange-grove with plentiful supplies of water. The battalion’s first task was a long-distance patrol or “mopping-up” sweep on the Carlentini-Agnone road, during which A Company captured fourteen men of whom three were German parachutists. There were no casualties, and the battalion was able to proceed in three-tonners to an area overlooking the Catania Plain.
ATTACK ON FOSSO BOTTACETO
An attack on a brigade scale through the bridgehead which had already been forced over the Gornalunga River near the Primosole Bridge had been planned. Its direction was northwards towards Catania to the line of a ditch known as the Fosso Bottaceto. That afternoon some of the battalion, including the Mortar Platoon under the command of Captain D Gibson had their first taste of shell-fire when just south of the bridge. A hasty dive for cover was followed by a quick dash over the bridge, and the mortar carriers gathered in a sunken road on the north side. It was aptly named Dead Man’s Gulch on account of the large number of dead German paratroopers, and some of our own fellows, too, who lay along it.
The brigade attack was by night on July 17, with the London Irish on the left of the thrust, the London Scottish on the right, and with the 10th Royal Berkshire Regiment in reserve. Support was to be given by the whole of the divisional artillery plus a field regiment, a medium regiment, and two regiments of self-propelled Priest guns. In addition the Cheshire machine-gunners were to fire in support, and the light “ack-ack” to fire directional tracer on the flanks of the attack. The objective given was the Fosso Bottaceto, and thereafter it was expected that either the reserve battalion or one from another brigade would pass through. The battalion’s plan of attack put ‘A’ Company on the right, ‘C’ Company in the centre, ‘D’ Company on the left, and ‘B’ Company in reserve; a mortar detachment in a carrier in support of each forward company and three carriers in reserve.
The assembly area was close vineyard, giving only low cover from view. It had seen considerable fighting earlier and was strewn with dead and quantities of equipment and smashed vehicles. The movement of any wheeled vehicle was extremely difficult, and all trucks were virtually confined to one narrow track in and out. Prior to the attack difficulty was experienced in getting ammunition and tools to the companies, but this task eventually was accomplished. About thirty minutes before zero hour information came that as it was believed that the enemy had gone—this was based on the report of an armoured reconnaissance by the Royal Tank Regiment and carriers of the London Scottish and the Royal Berkshires—the attack would now be silent, and that the preliminary artillery programme would be laid on only if called for. In any case the full barrage would come down on the German positions fifteen minutes before the infantry were timed to arrive on them.
There was hardly time to get this information to the companies who were out at the start-line. At 2200 hours, zero hour, it became apparent that the new orders for a silent attack had not reached all concerned, for the light “ack-ack” and the machine-gunners began to fire on their tasks. The enemy did not reply. The London Irish had moved up in daylight through vineyards and remained under cover. The start-line was one thousand five hundred yards beyond, and to reach that they clambered through German wire a foot high. When the order came to advance they moved forward steadily with bayonets fixed. The ground was flat, hard, and apart from a few shallow ditches was devoid of cover. The first bound was a long narrow wall or bank of earth and stones protected by barbed wire. The leading companies had covered about two thousand yards and were four hundred yards from this wall when the supporting barrage opened. When it lifted they went in to the attack. The wire was cut and they reached the bank and clambered over. The enemy had not manned it, hut as the London Irish passed over they saw another bank, much higher, thirty yards ahead. As they approached it the Germans opened fire. The Irish got to the hank, hurled themselves up and over it, and slithered down the other side. Here they found themselves in a wide gully with yet a higher bank in front. That was their main objective, the Fosso Bottaceto. As they made towards it the enemy opened up with machine-guns, mortars, and automatics. They were so close that oil flares were thrown by the enemy and landed among the leading troops.
Along the gully from left and right German machine-guns fired deadly bursts about knee-high. Mortar bombs burst and shells came from two light-calibre guns hidden away on the flanks. Suddenly a great mass of flame went up. An oil-storage tank just behind the German lines was hit and the whole area was illuminated as by day. The London Irishmen were caught in the glare and some were killed at short range. The crossfire spattered against the sides of the carriers and the mortars were lifted out and mounted behind them, the only cover available. During a vital half-hour two carriers received direct hits, one of which wounded all three mortar crew. The others mounted their mortar in a ditch and fired on.
Despite the fierce and perhaps unexpected German resistance, the men of ‘A’ Company on the right, led by Major Cantopher and Captain MD Ryan, clambered up and down the banks and reached the main ditch, the Fosso Bottaceto. In the centre, ‘C’ Company reached their objective, and inspired by the example of their Commander, Major Brooks, engaged the enemy hand-to-hand among the pill-boxes and earthworks. ‘D’ Company on the left, under Captain Sir James Henry and Captain John Strick, pushed on doggedly but were pinned down by the fierce reaction of a wide-awake enemy. Each company had lost valued officers. Lieutenant Power was killed leading his platoon, Lieutenant Orr and Lieutenant Coghlin fell as, with great gallantry, they had pressed forward under a hail of fire.
Most of the officers and the CSM of ‘A’ Company became casualties and Sergeant John Madigan, despite a wound in the arm, tackled a pill-box with one of his corporals. Indifferent to personal danger, he found his Company Commander lying wounded and he took over from him. Under his direction the company were organised once again and the fight went on. As Lieutenant AE Crampton took his men forward a bullet passed through the rim of his steel helmet and grazed his scalp. The officer was momentarily stunned, but he recovered and went on.
With their forward troops holding precariously to their gains, the situation was rapidly assessed at battalion headquarters. The intense enemy fire from the right was due to the fact that the London Scottish had been unexpectedly and heavily opposed from the wood on their front which earlier had been reported empty. This prevented adequate support being given to the London Irish from that direction and their right flank became exposed. During the confusion of the battle a party of London Scots managed to get through and joined Major Cantopher and his men. By midnight the leading platoons were back on the bank one hundred yards from the Fosso Bottaceto. This gave some cover from the crossfire, and all ranks were calm and steady. Stretcher-bearers moved fearlessly over the ground, tending and evacuating the wounded. One of them, Piper Thomas Brightman, who had been hit in the leg himself, moved about calmly and efficiently and tended fifteen wounded men who were carried to the aid-post in the rear.
Support from the gunners and the mortars enabled the London Irish to hold tight and maintain their positions, precarious though they were with both flanks open and a well-armed and well-placed enemy in front. For two hours attempts were made to find out from brigade what was the exact position of the London Scottish. That proved impossible by wireless, and as no information was forthcoming, Lieutenant S Sharp, the Intelligence Officer, made the long journey back to find out. The situation was still confused and it was obvious that the Scots had been unable to reach their target, but just how they were placed was very obscure.
A plan for a battalion from the reserve brigade, the Green Howards, to move through the rear of the London Irish and to endeavour to widen the bridgehead was put into operation at 0100 hours. After some further confused fighting in the dark, it became evident that this attack, too, had not succeeded, and the Green Howards withdrew to their original position. The London Irish were thus in a predicament. The forward companies had a hold on the German defences, but any move to advance over the bank was met by heavy fire from the enemy’s second and principal defence line. It was realised that no further progress could be made without considerable additional support and the silencing, in particular, of the German flanking fire. If the London Irish maintained their position they would find themselves at daylight on a clearly defined bank, very close to the enemy, with both flanks exposed, and with practically no cover from the German machine-guns, mortars, and grenades. The forward companies had suffered rather heavy casualties and ammunition was running short. More could not be sent up before daylight because the trucks could not get across the irrigation ditches, and five carriers had already been knocked out or stranded in the attempt.
The situation was discussed with the Brigade Commander, and it was decided that the London Irish should withdraw by daylight. That was unpleasant, but it was the only sensible thing to do. ‘B’ Company, under Captain HCS Lofting, moved into position to cover the forward companies and with support by the mortars the withdrawal was carried out in good order and with no further loss. The London Irish soon reorganised on new lines a little to the rear, and then daylight came.
A VETERAN REMEMBERS
Here is a soldier’s impression of that night:
“The darkness of the night had fallen over us with all the suddenness of the eastern hemisphere. The stars glittered and shone like jewels in a dark-blue sky, the soft breeze drifted off the calm Mediterranean and stole sighing gently through the trees. … In the orchard there was the scent of luscious fruit, and our world seemed enclosed by a myriad of whispering thoughts. Only a few hours before had we landed on the island, and in the dark depths of the orchard we slept fitfully or talked quietly of things which come into the minds only of soldiers waiting for their first battle. We had marched for miles into a new, strange country along dusty roads beneath a blazing tropical sun. Each man carried the full scale of arms for battle, and a lot more besides. Carrying a weight of ninety-six pounds was no light task..And as we marched we laughed and we swore. We would have sung but our lips and throats were parched, one could hardly raise a whistle.
Our exertions over for a while, we rested. Occasionally whispered mutterings came through the darkness to the spot where I laid, queer fragments of conversation which, pieced together, showed that men’s thoughts were far from the field of battle, they were away in better days and peaceful times, in the homes they had left far behind in England. Suddenly the order came to prepare for the work ahead. There was no shouting, just a quiet terse word or two passed from man to man: ‘Get ready.’
The orchard seemed to echo to a soft activity, yet in fact the stillness of the night was undisturbed. We were the forward company, and silently we set off into the darkness, the darkness of a night which might hold for us all the horrors and hatreds of which mankind was capable. Our tongues were still but our minds were strangely active as we filed nearer, ever nearer, to ‘no man’s land.’ We were on the alert—we had to be because this was war. Christ! when would it end? … The going was rough as we passed along vineyards that seemed endless. Each one we thought might reveal an enemy position and we tried so hard not to make a noise. The surprise, we thought, would be Jerry’s. A muttered command and we halted. Instinctively each man dropped to the ground in his tracks. There was a little movement, some coming and going as runners passed on vital orders.
The attack was to start at once. Hardly had we absorbed this news than the silent, almost beautiful, night was made hideous by the crash of guns. Flares and Very lights and tracers made the night as day. Ahead of us I could see a long double row of barbed wire glittering maliciously in the light. The guns suddenly stopped, and then ‘Forward!’ We went in. I clutched my rifle like a drowning man holds on to a straw. Sweat rolled off my body and my palms were sticky on the rifle. We ran ahead, dodging and ducking, slipping and cursing, over hazards which we could see only as we reached them. The enemy now was wide-awake. With his Spandaus he swept the ground over which we passed. His mortars whizzed and banged. Sand and dust and earth crashed heavily around us.
The man ahead of me coughed, slipped to his knees, sighed,. and rolled over slowly. . . . I raced past him, hoping that the stretchers would not be far behind. He was my friend. . . . A carrier swept by, its guns spitting out death as it had come to us.. Somehow I reached the wire and fell flat. I hacked away like hell and a gap was made. We crawled through and as we did so a murderous pill-box in front went up with a roar and a great flame. Well done the Mortars, I thought. Bayonets moved forward in a relentless line. A burst of fire and the men again fell flat, some never to get up again. Out on the left the section there was catching it hot because they were exposed to deadly fire, not from their front, where they had expected it, but from an unexpected quarter, their flank. There was no time to swing the direction of their attack and they just held on in ever-dwindling numbers.
Pressing myself to the earth I choked and spluttered in the smoke from the flares and fires around me. We had reached our first objective and the thought came to me: would we press on or stay where we were until daylight? The shelling died down and with it the flares, but to the left there was still the venomous spatter of the Spandaus. Darkness returned and the firing slackened. It seemed ages, but in a short time an order was passed forward. We must fall back in good order to prepared positions. Cursing to myself, I dodged back through the wire and slipped hastily into an improvised trench. We heard then what the trouble was. We had got a bit ahead of the rest of the brigade and the line had to be straightened out. That was all. In the pale shafts of dawn we checked up on who had come through that first great ordeal… and who had not.”