Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

The Sicilian campaign

CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan recalls two weeks of bitter fighting for the Irish Brigade to the west of Mt Etna, before the men of the brigade spent a relaxing four weeks on the north coast of Sicily near to Patti.


“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.

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. 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.”

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 Maletto 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 Canadians 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. The poor Canadians sustained heavy casualties. 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.

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 earlier. He was a brave man who had been awarded the MM. 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. Benny, a fluent Italian speaker, became our interpreter.”

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.”



 

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