Irish Brigade

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

Faugh a Ballagh        Nec Aspera Terrent         Quis Separabit


At Rest in Sicily

“The Brigade was based at Tindari, a very perfect spot, and for the next five weeks, a good time was enjoyed by all.

Headquarters set up house in a hotel on the summit of Tindari Heights. It was a fine setting with a good view and quite the place one would have chosen in peacetime to spend a few weeks’ holiday.

Battalions were camped amongst the fruit trees by the edge of the sea. There was every kind of fruit, bags of it – apples, pears, grapes, lemons, melons and nuts. Oranges were there but not ripe. There was wine – not very good – but still wine. There was probably the most perfect bathing in the world. All this was just the soldiers’ cup of tea. He was able to have an apple in one hand, a pear in the other and be munching a mouthful of grapes. He was able to bathe three or four times a day. And so he was able to do all these things without having to walk fifty yards – he did them.

If all the advertisements are true about the advantages of fruit, I would hazard a guess that not only were doctors kept away, but the bowels of the Brigade worked well and freely during this period.

We were also well done by mobile cinemas. I will always remember shows in Sicily. Their setting was a field behind London Irish lines, a slight hump at one end acting as a grandstand for two or three thousand chaps watching the canvas screen stretched below. A perfect starlit night, with the moon beaming benevolently and casting its smooth streak on a calm, pleasant sea. Behind, the great rugged mountains of Sicily, jagged against the clear night sky.

I found I could see the picture equally well on the reverse side of the screen, so I usually sat at the bottom of the field, looking up the hill. And there for a couple of hours, war was forgotten. Two or three thousand glowing cigarettes watched the fortunes of their favourites and chuckled, laughed or were held silent as the picture told its story.

A solemn thought lodged with me one such night – that the owners of these thousands of glowing cigarettes would all in the next week, fortnight or month be affected by acts or words of mine in the battles to come. Of course, this was no new fact as I’d been commanding these good chaps and their predecessors in battle for the last nine months, but it was brought very forcibly home to me on that pleasant starlit September night in Sicily and I hoped the words and acts would be sensible.

The Eighth Army go to much trouble over the entertainment side of war – it’s been reduced to a fine art, sometimes even a shade too fine as I was once offered 400 seats at a cinema show when all my Brigade were fighting and the show was operating gaily behind the fight. I didn’t accept these particular vacancies, thinking Fusilier Muldoon might be confused at having to decide whether he’d spend a couple of hours watching Betty Grable in ‘Bums on Broadway’ or devote his time to ‘Night Patrol’ featuring the Herman Goering Boys.

Most units had concert parties, in addition to the mobile cinemas, which toured round when their own chaps had had enough of them. Some of these were extremely good, in particular our own Field Ambulance and the Divisional Signals.

Officers and NCOs were given as much local leave as possible – say, four or five days, at Palermo – and Beauchamp Butler got a seat in “Monty’s” Plane for 14 days in Cairo, from which he returned refreshed in mind and depleted in pocket.

I went to Palermo myself for a couple of days to buy Edith Agnes some silk stockings. It was a pleasant coast run of 150 miles along a road, which had been well blown by the Bosche.

Palermo had been taken over by the Americans and was extremely well run. I must say we ought to be able to pick up some point in organisation from our Allies. This is what I found 14 days after the conquest of Sicily:

Item – The town was well signposted and tidied up.

Item – A special department at their Army Headquarters for allotting accommodation to visitors in the various hotels, which had been taken over en bloc.

Accommodation included sheets, running water and all the amenities of a first class hotel and was Free. Meals were paid for, but at controlled prices.

Item – An excellent Mess had been established by AMGOT. I was invited to eat there whenever I wanted at a nominal price of about 6d per meal. The food was very good and a first class bar running the best cocktail mixer in Palermo being installed behind the counter and busy on gin slings and Manhattans, with plenty of ice.

Item – The Pay Department had set up shop in the principal bank and was ready and able to cash cheques in lira, dollars, or pounds sterling without fuss or worry.

Item – Four or five cinemas were going full blast for the troops with first class films – all free.

Item – The American Red Cross was firmly established in the middle of the town, with rest rooms, recreation rooms and information bureaus. It appeared to be extensively staffed by attractive young women and, though this may be a novelty to our ideas of war, I heard no complaints about it and it certainly has points.

Moreover, American girls in the war zone are all dressed in smart, cool and attractive uniforms, which might come straight from Hollywood. Although on dangerous ground, I can’t help wondering why our girl’s kit in various services seem to be designed to demonstrate how large the female bottom can become when its owner is given fresh air, exercise and plenty of rations; and also tends to remind one of mother’s advice to “always wear woollens next the skin.” But we’re a great nation and I’m sure there’s some reason for it. Perhaps, it keeps the thoughts of the soldiery pure.

But I digress – quite inexcusably.

Palermo, I thought, was a good example of organisation and we might well profit by it.

It is only of personal interest to add that Edith Agnes received her stockings – which were the right size – the day before her birthday and I earned good marks. This was perhaps remarkable as I didn’t know the size or when they would arrive, but it made me conscious that the little god who looks after soldiers had put in some overtime for me.

It must not be thought that life during this period was one long, fruit eating, bathing loaf. A soldier at war is like a footballer permanently preparing for a cup tie. He must be always on the top of his form, a master of his weapons and fit as a flea, ready for a very deadly game, which will be played, ossibly without quarter, tomorrow, next week or next month.

Much good, and rather hard boiled training was the order of the day, and the normal Platoon and Section Commanders’ Courses went with a swing.

By mid September, the Brigade, well rested, reorganised and confident, was ready to go anywhere and do anything

This was a good thing as we were shortly to be called upon to do our stuff once more.

During this period, my good friend and Brigade Major – DP (Malcolm Douglas-Pennant) returned to his Regiment – the 60th – on promotion. He had been my chief prop and support for four months of peace and nine months of war; was first class in every way; and the good wishes of the whole Brigade accompanied him on his departure.

The Sicilian people seemed to accept us quite gladly during our sojourn. They appear to be a fairly hardworking quiet race, busy with their own affairs, and not particularly interested in what might happen to Italy or Mussolini or, in fact, the war, now that it was passing them by.

The wine making was in full swing, which perhaps made them appear more industrious than they normally may be. All the girls on the farms were busy from dawn to dusk collecting baskets full of grapes, which were thrown into great cement tanks for pressing. The pressing was done mostly in old world style, men and women – possibly selected for their sizable feet – stamping barefooted on the grapes and the juice running out of holes in the bottom of the tank. It eventually came to rest in wine casks of various sizes, and I understood that small casks would be ready for consumption in about a month to six weeks, but the larger vats would take about three months before the wine was fit for use.

It is, by and large, a hand (or perhaps foot) to mouth production, the people making what they need for consumption: and there is not a great deal of bottling done or vintage years put by. I may be quite wrong about this, but it is the impression I gained in one small part of the island from spirited converse between self speaking English and France and a Sicilian proprietor, who spoke Italian.

Wine is the staple drink of the people, as tea is at home. Notwithstanding its abundance, I never saw a drunk Sicilian. I am uncertain whether this is to the credit of the Sicilian or to the discredit of the wine.

However, our Sicilian peace interlude was almost over. Time was passing by and we were shortly due to take part in our third campaign, the landing in Italy and in the Invasion of Europe.

About 15th September, it became evident that the Division would soon be on the move once more. Kit was overhauled, embarkation tables rechecked and everyone was well set. It was generally felt (by us) that no definite results would be obtained on the mainland until the division got cracking.

The Brigade was in terrific form. Not only were we well rested and full of fruit and confidence, but casualties in the Sicilian Campaign had been made up by a very good draft of 400 young soldiers of the Royal Ulster Rifles. They were rather like a good breath of fresh air and were shortly to prove how fresh they were, and how good they were at Termoli.

After going into embarkation arrangements at Milazzo, which seemed foolproof, as the Brigade simply got aboard a certain number of boats and about 30 hours later, got off them again. I pushed off with my IO to make the trip via the Straits of Messina and thence by road.

It is only of personal interest to mention that during this period, I was threatened with the command of an Italian Corps of three Divisions – this luckily did not fructify – as I can think of no more unsuitable commander. I would have been deficient of all confidence in my command, however numerous. Luckily the Practical Joke Department relented at the last moment and I was left where I wanted to be.”



 

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