Storming Etna

A spreading bay is there, impregnable

to all invading storms; and Aetna’s throat

with roar of frightful ruin thunders nigh.

Now to the realm of light it lifts a cloud

of pitch-black, whirling smoke, and fiery dust,

shooting out globes of flame, with monster tongues

that lick the stars; now huge crags of itself,

out of the bowels of the mountain torn,

its maw disgorges, while the molten rock

rolls screaming skyward; from the nether deep

the fathomless abyss makes ebb and flow.

 

Description of a volcanic eruption at Etna in Virgil’s Aenead.


As the Tunisian campaign was coming to a close, Allied leaders met in the Trident Conference in Washington DC.

Chief of the General Imperial Staff Sir Alan Brooke again pressed the case for the attack to continue in the Mediterranean and argued that Italy would be much more difficult for Germany to reinforce than the coast of France.Churchill made the political argument. Taking Sicily to ease the passage of shipping through the Mediterranean was a logical extension of the North African campaign. But invading Italy would knock Germany’s principal ally out of the war and force Berlin to take over garrison duties from the Italians in the Balkans and Aegean area. The British Mediterranean fleet would be free for the Pacific war against Japan. The conference ended in a compromise. General Eisenhower was told to draft plans for the invasion of Sardinia and Corsica as well as south Italy. There was consensus that Sicily should be attacked. If this was successful, a decision would then be made about the next step.

Sicily was separated from Tunisia by a 100-mile channel that had, through history, been an invasion route between Africa and Italy. To the east of the channel lies the island of Malta which had held out against continuous bombing and served as a key way-station serving the war effort in Egypt and Libya. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. It had been invaded and settled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Muslim Saracens who were eventually expelled by Norman fighters in the 11th century. Control over the island fluctuated with the changing balance of European power for almost 800 years until Sicily was absorbed into the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860. A rebellion six years later was brutally repressed. Like Italy, Sicily is dominated by mountains. Mount Etna, at more than 10,000 feet, is Europe’s highest active volcano. The landscape encouraged a tight-knit clan system resistant to outside intervention. The Vendetta (revenge) culture gave a further edge to a society where the Mafia, a system based on kinship, attracted greater loyalty than government. Migrants to the US in the late 19th century and early 20th century brought Sicilian practices to New York and other American cities. Unfairly, Sicilians and Italians generally were associated with organised crime. The Sicilian-American connection was to help the Allied campaign in Italy.

The invasion of Sicily was called Operation Husky and it began on the night of 8 July 1943. It called for the 8th Army taking the south-east of the island while the US 7th Army under General Patton landed on the south coast. The Americans swiftly headed northwest and captured Palermo on 22 July. Montgomery had a more measured plan to drive north from the 8th Army’s beachhead and capture Messina on the north-east tip of the island.

The first British troops waded ashore at Pachino Beach south of Syracuse at first light on 10 July. The Irish Brigade started to land at Syracuse on 26 July to join the 8th Army’s developing advance.

“We embarked in the early morning into the various vessels awaiting us in Sousse harbour. Companies were packed in pairs into infantry landing ships. With the company transport, I boarded a tank landing ship, a very roomy vessel with bunks and other luxuries. E Company Commander was Major APK (Kevin) O’Connor. We were chatting on the upper deck when we were approached by a desert warrior dressed in a blue flannel shirt, immaculate shorts and stockings and wearing what we called brothel creepers (brown suede half-boots).

He threw up an impeccable salute and said: ‘Sir, I have three priests and crews with me, where shall I put them?’

O’Connor returned the salute. ‘Put the men on the mess decks and the priests into the officers’ mess.’

The desert warrior looked bemused.

I interpolated: ‘Sir, priests are mobile, tracked 25 pounders.’

To the Major, who was a Catholic, a priest was a chaplain. Like many of our officers, he was unfamiliar with the names of our weapons.”

“As we left the shelter of the harbour, we were met with mountainous seas. Our large ship was heavily buffeted but the Infantry Landing Ships were tossed about like cockle shells. We knew that the first assault landings had encountered heavy weather and that Commandos and Airborne troops had suffered heavy casualties. Many parachutists finished up in the sea, and some were dropped as far away as Malta. I remembered that both St Paul and St Anthony had been wrecked in storms in the Mediterranean.”

“I took to my bunk, occasionally going aloft to be greeted by howling winds and spindrift. Finally, we entered the port of Syracuse. The companies literally crawled off their ships. Most had been seasick during the voyage and had had nothing hot to eat or drink as the galley fires could not be lit. They were speedily boarded onto TCVs and we made our way towards the centre of Sicily.”

The route involved heading north-west from Syracuse towards Catenanuova, a small town near one of the crossings of the Dittaino river, one of the which joins the Simeto river about 20 miles from where it enters the Mediterranean between Syracuse and Catania. From this point, the brigade mainly moved by foot:

“As we moved through the countryside, we were struck by its natural beauty but appalled by the poverty of the villages and towns. Our welcome was subdued, as the people were obviously uncertain whether we were friend or foe. The Irish Brigade advanced steadily, passing through the town of Catenanuova. Here we became infantry once more and prepared for our attack on the centre of enemy line at Centuripe. I served the company by jeep.”

“One evening, I was being driven by Corporal Allen when we were hit by heavy shellfire. We jumped out of the vehicle into the roadside ditch. It was so shallow that, despite crouching, our heads and chests were exposed. We clung to each other, shivering. The fire was coming from our rear. The bursts lifted and through the smoke emerged a figure with his face masked by blood.

‘Stop these bloody shells. They are killing my boys.’

It was a Sergeant Major of the East Surreys. Our 25-pounders had been firing continuously for more than six months. Their barrels were so worn their shells were unable to clear the mountain peaks. Supporting fire for our attacking troops was falling on resting and reserve battalions. In mountainous terrains and isolated positions, such tragedies would not be unusual.”

The Irish Brigade was ordered to take Centuripe, a village high in the Sicilian mountains that was the centre piece of the first of three German defensive lines that curved in a convex line from Sicily’s north coast to the island’s east coast north and south of Catania. The strategy was to work around the western perimeter of Mount Etna. But first, the Centuripe stronghold had to be taken. On the evening of 1 August, the London Irish moved to an area in the valley below the foothills of Centuripe while the Skins and the Faughs pressed home a night attack by scaling the steep terraced southern face of the hill under machine gun fire, mortars and shells. The town was in fact lightly defended, though the brigade suffered losses on the way up to the town.

The following day, the London Irish were sent to take hills behind Centuripe. With the assistance of the rest of the brigade, the objectives were seized just before dawn on 3 August.

The battalion pushed forward and made a fresh attack with the Faughs in the afternoon of the following day to get across the shallow Salso river. It crossed the River Simeto, which ran north-south along the foot of Mount Etna, on 5 August. This involved all three battalions crossing the river and eliminating German defensive positions along its northern banks. By the end of that day, the Irish Brigade had advanced 25 miles and fought in three bloody engagements since the attack began.

“When we took Centuripe, I followed closely behind and entered the town in the early morning of its capture. I was not allowed to progress beyond the town walls as the battalion had to clear up pockets of resistance. Dysentery had me in its grip and I was in desperate need of a latrine. I knocked at the nearest house and stumbled out: ‘Scusati, il gabinetto?’ The lady went into the house and brought out a brown earthenware pot and held it out to me. I shook my head, saying: ‘Grazie.’ I saw a young man and approaching him I said: ‘Dove si trove il gabbinetto.’ Looking puzzled, he motioned me to follow him. We went to the town wall and climbed down steps and a steep path. There before us under the walls was a vast culvert lined with metal. With municipal pride he pointed to it and said: ‘Il gabbinetto.’ I thankfully made use of it despite the terrible smell. Hygiene and sanitation were primitive in central Sicily. Most people had only the earthenware pot which was emptied into the vast dump under the town walls. I suspect that the open fields were more frequently used.”

“I rejoined the company at the River Salso for the advance to the River Simeto where there was heavy resistance to the crossing. After this was cleared, E Company occupied the village of Carcaci (this was the battalion’s base before, during and after the Simeto crossing. It is on the railway to Syracuse which crosses the Simeto to the east). I was allocated a large room in a house as a cookhouse. I observed that its walls were black. As I approached, the walls moved. They were a mass of flies and mosquitoes. Both had painful bites and alarming consequences.”

The London Irish had five days rest around Carcaci. On 11 August, they moved forward to join an attack against the third defensive line which straddled three high points: Macherone, Capella and Sperina. In the middle lay the village of Maletto. The fighting companies had to advance by compass to the starting point for the attack was roughly across the lower slopes of south-west slopes of Etna.

“We were once more operating in mountainous conditions, on the slopes of Mount Etna. It was back to mule transport as we advanced across the lava fields of the very active volcano. The new rock was in parts still hot and plastic but in most places it had cooled and hardened into sharp pumice. This cut up our boots and played havoc with the mules’ legs. We were to make a dawn attack on Sperina and the approach to the forming-up point required a compass march in the dark across the lava fields. To add to our difficulties, the terrain was criss-crossed by stone walls.”

“Compass-marching is difficult in daytime. At night, there could be only one result. Some units got lost. The attack went in with the few platoons which had arrived on time at the forming-up point. Heroically, they took their objective. When dawn broke, the rest were still floundering in the lava beds. A message came from the Commanding Officer. The battalion had run out of ammunition and we were to take up supplies immediately. We knew it was nonsense and we grumpily loaded up two mules with ammunition. I strapped two boxes each side of my first mule which immediately rolled over and died. Sicilian mules were not as robust as African ones.”

“We set off in the hot sun, clambering over walls and avoiding the steaming fissures of Europe’s largest volcano. Finally we passed through a small wood which was the forming-up point. In front of us was a valley in which a tank battle was progressing. Also in front of us was a mound of ammunition. RSM Girvin knew his job. It was not the shortage of bullets that was the problem but the shortage of men to fire them in the precariously held position. The missing platoons joined their fellows during the day while we took back our burdens and reloaded our carriers. A valuable mule was dead and most of the others unfit for work after a pointless and dangerous journey. The exhausted Colour Sergeants rejoined their companies that evening.”

“The brigade had made excellent progress, but we were cut out by the Americans who had advanced across our front from the west and occupied the town of Randazzo. Unfortunately, others were unaware of this movement and spent that day bombing the town. It was reported that heavy casualties were sustained. The planes came from North Africa and communications had broken down. We bivouacked in a pleasant little valley where the next day we buried our many dead in a multi-denominational service. Among them was Sergeant Leo McRory, whose platoon had arrived on time at the start line due to his efforts. That evening, I obtained a supply of NAAFI beer and augmented it with a hot rum toddy. We held a campfire at which Corporal Howarth presided. Colonel Rogers, then Commanding Officer of the battalion, attended and was asked to sing. When the men were happily maudlin, officers and NCOs put them to bed. Maletto was the battalion’s last battle in Sicily.”

Patton’s Americans were the first to enter Messina, arriving on 17 August just hours after the last German troops had left. The Allied armies suffered more than 20,000 casualties in the six-week campaign. More were struck down with malaria. Ted was one of them.

“The next morning, I was unable to get out of the stretcher I used for a bed. I dressed and was taken to Doc Samuels who diagnosed malaria. I was put into an ambulance and finally arrived at a General Hospital in Augusta. Here I remained for a few days, but when I heard I might be evacuated to Tripoli, I discharged myself. I swallowed a handful of tablets and made my way back to the Regiment, but I managed to get to Mass in the Cathedral at Augusta on the Sunday. I caught a train to Patti on Sicily’s north coast where the London Irish were stationed. The battalion was very short of men due to malaria and dysentery. The Simeto had particularly nasty mosquitoes and flies. George Charnick, who never took his mepachrine, had been immune, but many others had succumbed. I heard sad news. Corporal James Murtagh, my friend and assistant from my stint in the Sergeants’ Mess, had died of gangrene after sustaining a shrapnel wound in the Maletto battle. He was a brave man and was subsequently awarded the Military Medal. Eddie Mayo rejoined us. He had been wounded three separate times. But because he had only been hospitalised twice, he was returned to his unit after being patched up. Promoted to full Sergeant, Mayo became a close and valued comrade. He, George Charnick, Jock McNally and I became a tight-knit and inseparable quartet. When out of the line, we would be joined by Jim Sadler and Benny Goodman, the Armourer Sergeant. A fluent Italian speaker, Benny became our interpreter.”

It was later said by E Company officers that the unit was effectively ‘run’ by Charnick, Mayo and O’Sullivan.

“Patti looked out over the blue Tyrrhenian sea. In the distance, we could see smoke and steam issuing from the volcano island of Stromboli. The men trained and rested while I continued in my never-ending task of feeding, clothing, quartering and equipping my company. This necessitated making a journey to Palermo, a beautiful city.”

“We were to spend the remainder of August and most of September in this comparative paradise. I managed to bathe in the sea most days. A little way out, seemingly, was an attractive little island which always drew my eyes. One evening, I foolishly decided to swim to it. I entered the sea and made towards it with steady strokes, but the island appeared to get farther away. Tiring, I sensibly turned back and used an economical side-stroke to get to shore. I had not reckoned with the current and my evening swim became a struggle to remain afloat. As the shore finally came nearer, I repeatedly tried to find the shingle bottom with my toes but to no avail. Being the shore of a volcano, the beach was steep. Finally I found a toe hold and desperately threw myself above the water line. Here I lay panting for a quarter of an hour. It was a very narrow escape. This was confirmed the next day when two men were drowned trying to make the same short swim. The island was in fact more than two miles distant. The current was treacherous.”

The invasion of Sicily ended Italy’s patience with Mussolini, the country’s dictator since 1922. The Allies bombed Rome on 19 July. On 24 July, The Fascist Grand Council passed by a majority a vote of no-confidence in Mussolini. The next day, he was arrested. Marshall Pietro Badoglio was appointed head of a military government. But the new regime continued to reassure its allies that it would continue to fight with them. The Italian Army was urged to maintain its commitment to the war Mussolini had started. Secretly, however, Badoglio was trying to end the war. The duplicity was to provoke a furious response from the Germans and divide the Italian Army when it was discovered.

But the Allies had a second victory in the Mediterranean. After the battle of Maletto, the Irish Brigade enjoyed six blissful weeks in Sicily. Capturing it had taken just 38 days. Opposition had been moderate. The Allies had suffered just over 30,000 casualties and the Germans 37,000. The Italians had lost 130,000 of their troops, most as prisoners of war. And the invasion had knocked Italy out of the war, removing almost 1 million Italian troops from the forces at Hitler’s disposal. The victory created the illusion that taking Italy would be equally swift. The reality was that the Germans had no intention of fighting for Sicily to the last man as they had in Tunisia. Their three defensive lines served as a screen which allowed practically the whole of what was left of the German army on the island to escape across the Strait of Messina. It had resisted an Allied army totaling 450,000. About 55,000 escaped, taking with them 10,000 vehicles and 50 tanks.

Hitler was about to make life much more difficult for Ted and his comrades. 

Read Chapter 8 here.