The time had now arrived for what became known as Montgomery’s left hook. The Americans were pressing in the west and the time had come for a strong blow in the centre. To the troops came the following message from their leader:
EIGHTH ARMY – PERSONAL MESSAGE FROM THE ARMY COMMANDER TO BE READ OUT TO ALL TROOPS.
1. The Allied Armies landed in Sicily, on Italian soil, on 10th July, magnificently supported by the Royal Navy and the Allied Air Forces, and are to-day in possession of the whole island except for the north-east corner where the enemy is now hemmed in.
2. I want to tell all of you, soldiers of the Eighth Army, that this has been a very fine performance. On your behalf, I have expressed to the Commander of the Seventh American Army on our left the congratulations of the Eighth Army for the way the American troops have captured and cleaned up more than half the island in record time. We are proud to fight beside our American Allies.
3. The beginning has been very good, thanks to your splendid fighting qualities and to the hard work and devotion to duty of all those who work in the ports, on the roads, and in the rear areas. We must not forget to give thanks to “THE LORD MIGHTY IN BATTLE” for giving us such a good beginning towards the attainment of our object.
4. And now let us get on with the job. Together with our American Allies we have knocked Mussolini off his perch. We will now drive the Germans out of Sicily.
5. Into battle with stout hearts. Good luck to you all.
BL MONTGOMERY, General,
SICILY JULY 1943.
2ND BATTALION ARRIVES IN SICILY
The key position in the German defence line across Sicily was Centuripe, a village perched on the top of a formidable line of steep hills. Its precipitous sides gave it an almost impregnable position. The lesser hills round it were well defended by the enemy and it was necessary for them to be mastered before Centuripe could be tackled.
The 78th Division got together for a drive towards Catenanuova and to capture Centuripe. The country between the two villages was wild and extremely rough. Great rocky crags, similar to those among which the 2nd Battalion had fought in North Africa, covered the one mountain road between them.
The Irish Brigade had to take Centuripe, and the scheme was for a silent night advance to be made with heavy gun-fire available at call. The 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers were given the main tasks, and the 2nd Battalion London Irish were ordered to make a dangerous flank secure.
On the evening of August 1 the battalion moved to a lying-up area in the wadis below the foothills of Centuripe. No transport was able to get forward and that meant that all ammunition, food, and other supplies had to be man-handled. That was a considerable problem, and made the operation very tiring and tedious. At noon next day the London Irish went forward to a line behind the 6th Royal West Kent Regiment, who were fighting in the hills behind Centuripe, and in the August haze they could see the village resting lazily and sleepily on the summit of the long, vast hill. The job of the London Irish was to take three commanding hills, Points 704, 611, and 703, behind Centuripe. It was not known in what strength they were held by the enemy.
It was hoped that most of his attention would be to the main battle and that he would have little time to look after his ‘‘back door.”
G and F Companies crossed the start-lines after a fifteen minutes’ warm-up by the gunners, and they were soon on Points 704 and when G Company had made good their task, H Company moved on to take Point 703. They had been unlucky on the start-line and had had some casualties. Theirs was a more difficult job and they had to face machine-guns from the hill and from the sides. G Company helped in silencing the enfilade fire, and when darkness came the London Irish consolidated on the ground gained. This third hill still held out and the decision had to be made whether to wait until it had fallen, or to carry on without delay and rely on the preoccupation of the enemy with the left-flank attack. The latter course was taken; the Royal Irish Fusiliers put in their assault towards the north and rear of Centuripe, and the Skins, who throughout had been in close contact with the enemy on the frontal sector, obtained a foothold on the southern edge of the village after a heavy barrage. The Royal Irish Fusiliers pushed through the northern end. The fighting was stubborn and hard and many good fellows were lost, but just before dawn on August 3 Centuripe fell to the Irish Brigade, and this success caused the whole German line to Catania to crack. The operation had been a tough one, in difficult country and against a dogged enemy, and chief credit for the success was due to the Skins, who bore the brunt of the fighting and fought with fine spirit and determination.
There was no respite after Centuripe had been captured. The Irish Fusiliers mastered heights beyond the village, and the London Irish, marching through Centuripe, reached rising ground overlooking the River Salso. The transport had difficulty in getting down the winding road from Centuripe because of a large crater which took the sappers twelve hours to fill in and also because the enemy, far from being finished with, scattered mortar bombs and shells in the area.
The Salso had to be crossed. There was an ugly gap about one hundred feet wide in the bridge, and no repair material could reach the river bank until the road crater had been made good. Bulldozers were up quickly, but work could be done only at night, owing to the German fire. The Royal Engineers succeeded, however, in doing a magnificent job and the gunners were soon stepped up to help the troops.
Three patrols each a platoon strong went out from G Company to locate enemy posts and to mark out approaches for the crossing. They discovered that the Salso was only a few inches deep and, getting over safely, they penetrated as far as the River Simeto, which ran northwards from a bend in the Salso to the west. Lieutenant O’Connor’s patrol went to a blown bridge over the Simeto on the main Centuripe-Aderno road; Lieutenant I. D. White and his men went to a viaduct a little to the north, and Lieutenant Lyness’s patrol reached Carcaci, a small village to the west of the Simeto. They met no enemy between the two rivers, and got back with information vital for further progress.
Patrols went out again next day, and Sergeant Donaghy and his men of F Company reported some machine-gun posts, but it was apparent that there was no strong, organised defence along the river banks. Actually, when the London Irish and the Royal Irish Fusiliers attacked at 1500 hours on August 4, there was no German opposition in strength at all. What little there was came from a few snipers and machine-guns left behind to harass the advance. The London Irish quickly reached high ground on the far side of the Salso, and at night E and F Companies got to the Simeto. Supporting arms were rushed up, and at daylight it was seen that the other bank was strongly held by the Germans. Sharp exchanges of fire took place during the morning and the mortars had a busy time keeping the heads of the enemy down on the far bank. At first light E Company occupied the village of Carcaci and pushed one platoon down to the river-side, and at the same time battalion headquarters, with H Company in reserve, moved up to the railway station. Plans were made to gain a bridgehead. The river was fast flowing, and deep in many places. Where it was not deep, smooth boulders and rocks rested on the river bed, making a foothold precarious. The banks on both sides were steep, rising at times nearly a hundred feet. That held by the enemy was covered in dense undergrowth, affording only a few good approaches, which were well covered by snipers and Spandau posts. It was honeycombed with caves, in which more Germans were hidden.
The attack was timed for 1500 hours, but during the morning a party of Germans, about fifty strong, were seen trying to work round the left of the battalion. They were scattered by fire from E Company and the heavy mortars of the Support Group. Later a Canadian force came up on the left and completed the discomfiture of the Germans, who disappeared as fast as their legs could carry them. E Company also sent patrols to try to cross the river, but they were unable to get very far owing to the vigilance of the enemy. They succeeded, however, in pin-pointing many positions.
With the artillery booming in support the crossing was made by the London Irish and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, with the Skins held in reserve. F Company got over and made for a small hill with an isolated yellow house standing near by. H Company tackled another hill on the left. Both features were hardly discernible on the ground and were a few hundred yards from the river. As they scaled the steep slopes from the river the foremost platoon of F Company found themselves in a bottle-neck among the undergrowth and bushes, and many men fell. Lieutenant Allen, who had recently joined the battalion from the 8th Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, was killed, while leading his platoon, by a sniper who fired at point-blank range. The German died soon afterwards.
The third platoon of F Company moved round to the right and after a sharp encounter found themselves facing the yellow house. It was a strongly built stone building, and Lieutenant K Daly, with Sergeant S Kelly and a handful of men, fought their way in. There was a sudden counter-attack, and to avoid being cut off by a more powerful force the small party withdrew back to the rest of the platoon. Gradually, with the enemy rushing all available men forward, the three platoons of F Company, with very little cover in open country, had to pause. They held tight under a rain of fire until, with the help of reserves from the Skins, the building was blasted at short range and stormed.
H Company had similar experiences, but lost more men from sniper and machine-gun fire. They had an even more difficult advance up the north bank of the river and were forced to proceed in single file. The leading platoon, under Lieutenant Michael Clarke, went forward clearing snipers and Spandaus, while 18 Platoon disposed of enemy groups which were harassing the company from the protection of a viaduct on the left. In a gallant attack on a well-defended German post several men, including Lieutenant Howells, the Platoon Commander, were killed but the enemy were silenced.
Throughout this hard battle G Company and the supporting weapons of the battalion gave all assistance possible from the south bank of the river. As dusk approached, two platoons of G Company moved across the river with reserve ammunition, mortars, and machine-guns for the immediate support of the two other companies. By darkness the bridgehead was secure and the Germans withdrew during the night.
In the morning a fighting patrol from the London Irish located the enemy half-way up the hills on top of which was the next objective, the much-bombed town of Aderno.
That, however, was not an Irish Brigade task, for the two other Brigades of the 78th Division went through, leaving the Irish Brigade to bathe in the cool waters of the Simeto, upon which they felt quite justifiably they had some claim.
From the afternoon of August 1 to nightfall on August 5 the Irish Brigade had advanced twenty-five miles and had had three exceptionally tough fights – Centuripe, Salso, and the Simeto. But everything had depended upon the sappers. The way they got their material forward and overcame all obstacles was magnificent. The brigade and the London Irish in particular were very well served.
The battalion spent five days resting by the Simeto, by which time the rest of the division had captured Aderno and Bronte, and were holding the hills on the far side of the latter town. The crossing of the Salso and Simeto Rivers and the fall of Aderno had cut all the German lateral communications west and south of Mount Etna, and caused the fall of Paterno, Santa Maria, and Biancavilla.
Refreshed by their stay by the river, the Irish Brigade took up the running. In front of the hills behind Bronte was a long stretch of low ground, very thickly wooded and full of terraces and narrow stone tracks. In the distance, jutting out against the sky-line, were three prominent features. The first was Mount Macherone, the second Capella, and the third a long ridge called the Sperina. The first two hid the small village of Maletto. The Irish Brigade were ordered to take these hills and Maletto, with the assistance of the 8th Argylls. The plan was for the Scots to take Mount Macherone and to make good the London Irish start-line, the Irish Fusiliers to take the Capella and Maletto, and the London Irish on the right flank to take the main feature, Sperina, and another peak just behind called Monte Maletto. On August 11 the battalions moved to a forward area south of Bronte, and there they said good-bye to their motor transport, which had worked valiantly since the landing and had negotiated with skill and coolness hazardous mountain roads and tracks, with their giddy bends, stiff climbs, and perilous descents.
The London Irish changed over to pack transport, because if the country already traversed was unsuitable to a mechanised army, that which lay immediately ahead was even more so.
The Battle of Maletto was to be a night advance followed by an attack just before dawn, preceded by a heavy artillery barrage. Late on the 11th, light bombers gave Sperina and Capella a sound and accurate bombing for three-quarters of an hour. At 2100 hours the London Irish left on the approach march to the start-line. That night advance through absolutely impossible country proved to be a most difficult operation. Major Kevin O’Connor, who was acting Commanding Officer, owing to Lieut-Colonel Rogers being on the sick-list, realised on his reconnaissance that the march would not be easy, but it was far worse than he or anyone else had conceived. There were thick, high walls, rocky tracks in close-wooded country with innumerable bushes, thick undergrowth, and steep terraces every few yards. All these were awkward obstacles, making advance by compass very difficult indeed. In addition, man-handling ammunition, supporting-arms, and the rear link No. 19 Wireless sets was by no means easy. The advance consequently took much longer than had been estimated. In that treacherous ground the battalion inevitably became split up. By 0400 hours two platoons of F Company and two platoons of G Company were in the forming-up area, under Major JD Lofting. The acting Commanding Officer was forward with the remaining platoons of those companies, and he ordered the attack to proceed.
Zero hour had been at 0230 hours, when the artillery had laid their barrage. Gun-fire had in fact ceased an hour before the London Irish were ready for their attack and as dawn was breaking the utmost speed was necessary. The platoons advanced towards their objectives, meeting heavy enfilade fire from the right. It was here that Sergeant McCrory, a first-class man and a very good platoon commander, was killed.
Due to the dash and courage shown by the leading platoons, ably led by Lieutenant HND Seymour and Lieutenant JD White, the attack went well. Before long a total of thirty prisoners had been taken, hut the position was not an easy one. The Germans were still holding wooded ground to the right rear, and keeping up continuous fire on the London Irish. At 1030 hours F Company were ready to attack, and they went across the bullet-swept ground to take their objective on the right of Sperina. Here something went wrong, because it was intended that they should sweep round to the right and on the way mop up the enemy who were making life unpleasant for the forward companies. They did not carry out this plan but went straight for the hill, which they took despite heavy mortar and machine-gun fire. Why the plan partly miscarried will never be known, because Major J Fitzgerald MC , F Company Commander, was killed while crossing the open country below the hill. A delightful personality and a fearless officer, his death was a great loss to the battalion.
The Royal Irish Fusiliers in the meantime had captured Capella and Monte Maletto and cleared the village. The Skins, too, had come out from reserve and made a long, slow journey over lava country to tackle enemy forces causing trouble on the right.
The enemy’s general position became untenable after this battle. By eight o’clock in the evening firing had died down and as darkness came the enemy evacuated their lines, leaving patches of “S4” mines to hamper our progress. That night the Irish Fusiliers were relieved by a Scottish battalion and they went forward with the main Maletto-Randazzo road as their axis. The Skins continued their protective move on the right, and the London Irish, leaving one company to hold Sperina, assembled to support quickly either the Faughs or the Skins.
The Irish Fusiliers thrust forward with the help of the gunners, and by 0830 hours they had not only hit the enemy hard but had chased them in the darkness five to six miles. A detour had to be made to avoid American shelling, and then at 0930 hours on August 13 they made contact with the American 1st Division. Though German resistance was limited to a few ambushes, the Faughs’ line of advance was thick with Teller and “S” mines, which made the going hazardous in the darkness and took frequent toll of a battalion determined to complete the task given to it.
The fall of Maletto and the rapid approach to Randazzo started the Germans on their last hurried rush to the sea.
This phase of the fighting left the Irish Brigade half-way along the long slopes of Mount Etna, between Randazzo and Maletto. They were several thousand feet above the sea, and the nights were cool and pleasant. The main characteristic of the country was lava dust, a fine, reddish-brown powder which seemed to penetrate everywhere and everything. For days the troops had marched, fought, and rested in this dust, which covered them from head to foot, and they yearned for the blue waters of the Mediterranean where, from pleasant, shaded sands, they could clean themselves.
The 2nd Battalion rested near Patti, a very good spot less than fifty yards from the sea, with shady olive- and fruit-trees. In the distance the peaceful Lipase Islands turned thoughts to things other than war, to pre-war and perhaps post-war holidays. Gaily-coloured fishing boats sailed to and for, and on the horizon Stromboli poured out its clouds of smoke.
Six weeks were spent in these pleasant surroundings. Training was resumed, and new drafts arrived to bring the battalion once more up to strength. It was necessary that everyone should, once again, be fighting fit, because another and grimmer task was ahead—the invasion of Southern Italy and the forcing of the back door into Hitler’s European fortress.
SICILY IS OURS – WITH THE 1ST BATTALION
The offensive had gone well, and the Germans were really pulling out of Catania. The day that Catania fell was celebrated by the 1st Battalion, who were in a group of farm buildings, notable chiefly for a plentiful supply of wine.
Following the capture of Catania, 168 Brigade started a series of movements on the slopes of Mount Etna. After a night with very little rest the battalion set off at 0200 hours for a point west of Catania. They trekked along a miserable, winding path up a steep hill the rocky outcrops of which proved very troublesome to the carriers, whose tracks were often stripped. The London Irish pushed on and made contact once more with the enemy at St. Giovanni di Galermo. Movement forward was difficult. The roads were narrow, with stone walls on either side. The fields and olive groves were small and split up by stone walls, and there were lava “glaciers” everywhere. Even without an enemy near by it would have been difficult to go on across country. On the other hand, there was plenty of cover for German rear-guards, and the lines of advance were therefore restricted. St. Giovanni was reached but enemy mortars kept up a steady din and bullets whistled through the olive-trees. The Germans were in the adjoining village and A and C Companies were held up. D Company tried to get round from the right but ran into heavy trouble, while B Company made some progress on the left. Captain H Lofting and his men were in exposed positions and several were wounded, including the Company Commander. Captain Lofting took shelter behind a boulder and with his men held on until darkness, before agreeing to be sent to hospital.
Another casualty was Captain Adams, of the Carriers, whose vehicle went up on a mine. During a lull Major Brooks, of C Company, arrived at battalion headquarters, tired and caked with lava dust. He and his men had had very little rest for days. “Hullo, Bill, what sort of a day have you had?” said the Second-in-Command. “Frightful,” came the answer; “I have been kissed by an Italian!”
St. Giovanni was a dusty little village noisy with mortar fire from both sides. During the night a plan was made to capture the next village. A powerful bombardment was laid on, but when London Irish patrols probed forward they found the enemy had fled. As the battalion moved in they received a terrific welcome from the natives, who were more than relieved that they had not been shelled out. While grapes and other gifts were being showered on everyone, the Commanding Officer got the full force of a ripe melon on the back of his neck.
While operating in close country near Gravina a patrol from D Company was shot at at close range and an officer and two men were killed and several others wounded. One of the latter was badly hurt, and Lance-Corporal Byrne, who was unscathed, placed him under cover and returned to Company Headquarters, where he reported the situation. Two of the company stretcher-bearers, Corporal G Willis and Rifleman Staines, then set off, guided by Lance-Corporal Byrne, to bring back the wounded man. As they approached the spot where he had been hidden they, too, were fired on, and Rifleman Staines was wounded in the arm. The three men continued forward and managed to reach the wounded man, but for over half an hour they had to remain under cover because the slightest movement attracted enemy fire. Eventually, by breaking through a wall and crawling with the laden stretcher, they got the casualty safely back to the London Irish lines, a very gallant episode which did not go unrewarded.
The London Irish went on, pushing against determined groups of Germans left behind to delay the advance. Marching was done in daylight in the heat of the day, and rests were taken each night. The country was delightful and the position was such that, with the enemy on the run, the men had time to appreciate its beauty and the good nature of the Sicilians. Their welcome at times was most embarrassing. Lieutenant DA Hardy, who was in temporary command of B Company when the battalion was leading the advance, recounted that when approaching the small town of Santi Maria de Milato they were warned that Germans armed with machine-guns were waiting in hiding for them. He went forward cautiously and when they entered the town, instead of well-armed Germans, they were met by a crowd of Sicilians shouting and clapping their hands and throwing garlands of flowers. “One dark, unshaven man stood about ten yards away from me, grinning. His long arms were outstretched like a Rugby three-quarter preparing for a tackle. Suddenly he rushed in at me, threw his arms round my neck, and before I could hand him off, he brought off a resounding kiss, much to the amusement of my men,” wrote Lieutenant Hardy. “We were the first to enter another village, Timone, and the church hells were ringing and the inhabitants brought out jug after jug of their rough wine, and cool water. We bowed majestically to right and left and shouted in response to their greeting ‘Buon Giorno,’ meaning ‘Good-day.’
Each day was like the other as the London Irish pushed northwards. Some enemy fire was encountered, but it dwindled in power. The weather continued very hot and fatigue began to show itself. When rest periods came it always seemed to be at a time when it was too hot to sleep. The grapes and cool water at the farmhouses were most welcome, and shallow basins filled with cold water made excellent bathing-pools which helped to remove the dust. One night the Royal Berkshires were forging ahead on the left of the London Irish over the spurs of Mount Etna, and C Company carried food to them over a long and strenuous route, an act which cemented the warm feeling of friendship between the two battalions, and particularly with their gallant Commanding Officer, Lieut-Colonel Ian Baird.
The absence of roads caused the brigade to he squeezed out. Then 69 Brigade took over the chase, and the next stop was at Giarre, where the London Irish had their first real night’s rest for about three weeks.
A clay or two later the Americans entered Messina and Sicily had been won.
The 1st Battalion suffered about a hundred and sixty casualties, of whom forty were killed, mostly on the Catania Plain. The Divisional Commander complimented the battalion on its work, and generously conceded that in the Fosso Bottaceto action his appreciation of the situation in so far as the German dispositions were concerned had been proved to be wrongly based.
An amusing adventure befell one of the men during the first night at Giarre. He was well known to be attracted by the smell if not the sight of alcohol, and he succumbed to the temptation of two glasses of vino from a civilian. In a semi-comatose condition he was found subsequently by some kindly persons and taken to a dressing-station. There he was diagnosed as being “bomb happy” and he settled down comfortably to sleep.
The next morning he had the inevitable hang-over, and he submitted willingly to be moved to the MDS and thence to the CCS. Here he felt better and made inquiries as to what was happening to him. He was told stories about being sent to a mental hospital in North Africa and, when he was interviewed by a doctor, he strongly protested his complete recovery. However, the medical services had him in their grip. His head was tapped with rubber hammers, they wrote down his answers to innumerable questions. By now almost hysterical, he was transferred to the General Hospital at Syracuse. There, in spite of his request to return to his unit, he was ear-marked for evacuation to North Africa. Fortunately he saw an officer who seemed to have an understanding face walking through the ward. He asked leave to speak to him, and told him the story. The officer consulted the medical officer, and together they asked the soldier questions and finished by telling him to get up, dress, and return to the battalion. The patient did so without delay.
That London Irishman was subsequently very careful about accepting drinks from strangers.
The battalion moved to Fiumefreddo on August 15 and spent some delightful days by the sea, swimming and doing some light training in lifting mines on the beach. In search of a less malarious area, a move was made inland to Piedimonte Etneo, a small town at the north-east foot of Mount Etna. It had not been much damaged, and the inhabitants welcomed the London Irish warmly. But the prices of everything purchasable soared, from haircuts to laundry, and strong action had to be threatened through the machinery of Allied Military Government before prices went down to reasonable levels. The battalion said good-bye to its supporting gunners, the officers and men of the 465th Battery of the 90th Field Regiment RA, which returned to England to prepare for other tasks. There was a pleasing little ceremony when the gunners were presented with a replica of “The Man of Loos” to commemorate their excellent co-operation with the London Irish. Loos Day was observed at Piedimonte with a parade and service. A local composer wrote a tune for the pipes, though the battalion was still without most of the instruments, which were in the luggage on a later convoy. This prompted the Commanding Officer to declare that on any future invasion the pipes and drums would be in the first flight. Before leaving Piedimonte the wine harvest began and the sight of the conditions under which the wine was prepared drove everyone off vino. The muddy boots which trod the grapes, the creosol on the wine floor, which had been used as a mess-room, and the general lack of any attempt to keep the floor clean, were too much.
Thus finished the first campaign of the 1st Battalion and the second of the 2nd Battalion. It was regarded by high authority as a perfect little campaign, well conceived and planned and well carried out.
PERSONAL MESSAGE FROM THE ARMY COMMANDER TO BE READ OUT TO ALL TROOPS
The campaign in Sicily is over.
We landed in the island on July 10. By July 20, together with our American Allies, we had driven the enemy into the north-east corner of the island. On July 30 I told you we would now drive the Germans out of Sicily And by August 17 the Germans had been driven out, and the Allied Armies, American and British, were in possession of the whole island.
In February last the Italian overseas empire had ceased to exist. To-day, August 17, 1943, we have captured our first slice the Italian home country.
In these tremendous events, you, the soldiers of the Eighth Army, have played a notable part. By your splendid fighting qualities and devotion to duty you have helped to change the whole course of the war.
It is difficult to find words to tell you my true feelings. Since I assumed command of the Eighth Army in August 1942, exactly one year ago, you have given me your confidence, and you have never failed to respond to all calls I have made on you.
I thank you all. And I say to you:
WELL DONE! WELL DONE INDEED. TOGETHER, YOU AND I, WE WILL SEE THIS THING THROUGH TO THE END.
GOOD LUCK TO YOU ALL.
BL MONTGOMERY, General,
Sicily, August 18, 1943.