In the second part of his narrative, Brigadier Nelson Russell describes the Irish Brigade’s campaign in Sicily during July and August 1943.
“But great events were pending, and towards the end of June, we moved up to Hammamet, a pleasant enough spot and convenient for our future moves towards Sicily. A final polish was given to our training, which was rather hard boiled to prevent future ills.
After a final ten days at Sousse, the brigade set sail for Sicily on July 23rd. No one knew what Sicily would be like, but everyone was glad to leave Sousse. It may be perhaps unfair to blame Sousse too much, as I dare say that July is not its visiting month. A Sirocco, that hot and bloodsome wind from the Sahara, blew all the time; our olive grove was scanty in trees and abundant in dust, and the sea housed an unpleasant type of hard stinging jelly fish.
Although no one got “Le Canard” beloved of PC Wren, it was generally agreed thought that a good war in Sicily would be preferable to peace in Sousse.
The invasion of Sicily was a well planned and boldly executed operation; involving ferrying enough troops miles across Musse’s Mare Nostrum to compete with the three German divisions and 400,000 Italians, who infested the island; and the Italian fleet, which presumably might have some interest in war like operations on the Italian coast. I am not sufficiently highly placed, and events are too recent, to be in the big picture, but I do understand that:
a) The Italians did not think the operation was possible.
b) They thought that we might try somewhere else.
c) If we did try to land on the island, the last spot we would choose to land was the actual one selected. Their troops were disposed on this erroneous appreciation, and they thus commenced rather on the wrong foot.
“The behind scenes” part of this campaign ought to make interesting reading after the war.
All the higher level staff work – Army, Navy and Air Forces – must have been first class.
The British fighting man was able to get ashore practically unopposed, and this, the most difficult, hurdle in the campaign was overcome.
I do not know the detail, or even the broad outline, of the plan for the protection of the initial assault landing, and the subsequent safeguarding of our 300 mile Line of Control. But whatever the arrangements, there could be no doubt about their effectiveness.
The first convoy was an enormous affair consisting of many hundreds of ships of all types; and except for a few casualties to the smaller craft due to the rough nature of the surf on the coast, there were no major mishaps.
I sailed when the ferry was in full swing on the Brighton to Margate principle. Our convoy consisted of about 25 ships, carrying thousands of troops and hundreds of vehicles. The total escort was an armed trawler, which one could see throughout the entire journey.
If ever Mussolini thought that the Mediterranean belonged to Italy and was dominated by the Italian Fleet, he must have felt throughout July that he had thinking wrong, with every type of British ship, hundreds of them, cruising right up to his front door. He knew they were there, and he couldn’t do anything about it.
Our Navy gives one great confidence. It’s so quietly effective with no fuss, and everyone knew their job.
My trip took 36 hours, and they were extremely pleasant hours. The Captain kindly gave me his cabin, and I slept in comfort both there and on a shady part of the top deck. It was like a weekend peace time cruise.
I must say that the Navy has many points in war time. You’re always clean; you get iced water, you sit down to your food, and well cooked food it is; you fight surrounded by some comfort. There is, of course, another side to the picture. But these are certainly points.
We were dive bombed twice in concentration areas by six extremely hurried and terrified FVs. Except for this futile performance, I never saw a Bosche or Italian aeroplane throughout the campaign.
Sicily is an island about 160 miles by 90 miles i.e. about half the size of Ireland.
It consists of high mountainous country intersected by rugged gorges and rivers running between precipitous cliffs. Along parts of the coast are small strips of coastal plain, but except for the Catania Plain, to the east, there is no really flat country on the island. It is a bare stony collection of mountains set in a pleasant sea. And those mountains are real mountains, the chief being Mt Etna, 11,000 feet high. Mountain villages, many of them relics of the good (or bad) old days when each village was a fortress, are perched on the summits of those mountains, and their sites have been originally selected for the requirements for war more than peace. The houses are stone built and strongly made. The mountains sides are designed (6-10 foot terraces) to grove oranges, vines and olives. Villages are connected up by one mountain road or track, which winds its tortuous way along the outside of the least formidable hills.
Thus, each village is a well sited defensive position, with difficult approaches and its one road could be put out of action for many hours by a small demolition. They were designed to be impregnable in the Middle Ages with Middle Age weapons. They were to prove difficult nuts to crack when defended with modern weapons.
The Straits of Messina separate Sicily from the mainland, two and a half miles wide at the narrowest point.
Rough figures: the British 8th Army was to land on the beaches on the east coast of the island, south of Syracuse, capture Syracuse, and so have a port; then drive the enemy from the Catania Plain, thus obtaining aerodromes; and then advance east and west of Etna converging in the neighbourhood of Taormina.
The American 7th Army was to land on the south coast of island near Gela, make tracks for Palermo and Marsala and clear up the western part of the island; then turn about and using the northern coast and converge on Messina.
The landing was made on July 9th/10th and the plans put into operation.
The campaign may perhaps be divided into three phases: “The Good Beginning”; “The Sticky Period”; “The Final Push”.
July 10th to 20th – “The Good Beginning”
The well laid plans went with a swing. On the right, the 8th Army pushed northwards up the coast and when held up at Catania (this was strongly held and did not fall until “The Final Push”) wound round the left towards Ramacca and Catenanouva.
The American 7th Army made great gains; took Palermo and Marsala and cleared up the western half of the island.
The enemy, who anticipated our landing on the western coast, was rather on the wrong foot during this period and, on its conclusion, we held half of Sicily.
July 20th to 31st – “The Sticky Period”
The first impetus of “The Good Beginning” was over. Troops had been fighting for many days in difficult country. The enemy had regrouped and was determined (the German part anyway) to impose the maximum delay to our success in country that was made for that very purpose.
It was necessary to reorganise and rest part of the original troops; to bring reinforcements (our Division, the 78th, was now called forward), and to make a coordinated plan to overcome the more organised enemy resistance.
This does not mean that there was any relaxation of pressure or fighting – but steps were being taken and advances being made with an eye to the future coordinated plan due to start very shortly. In particular, the Americans made good progress in their “about town” progress, eastwards along the coast road.
August 1st to 15th – “The Final Push”
The plans for the final push were roughly as under-
8th Army – Catania to Regalbuto. And to encircle Etna. By the eastern coast road, and the road Aderno, Bronte and Randazzo.
7th American Army – Regalbuto (excluded) to north coast and advance on Messina by two northern routes.
The 78th Division was on the left flank of the 8th Army and thus a connecting link with the Americans.
Their task was extremely difficult – the capture of the mountain fortress of Centuripe and the further advance to Randazzo via Bronte and Maletto, which included forcing the crossing of two rivers – the Salso and Simetto. But it was an important task and successfully accomplished would be another feather in the Division’s well feathered cap. For each step gained was bound to affect the German defences on the whole of the 8th Army front. It was an opportunity for the Division to greatly distinguish itself. The opportunity was taken.
The capture of Centuripe caused the whole German defences to withdraw 5-10 miles.
The crossing of the Salso and Simeto, culminating in the capture of Aderno, cut all the enemy lateral communications west and south of Etna; and caused the fall of Paterno, Santa Maria and Blancavila.
The capture of Maletto and the rapid advance to Randazzo finally started the enemy in his last hurried rush to the sea – and there was no more real fighting after this final success.
It was our first showing with the 8th Army, and the Division, at the end of the campaign had the same reputation here as it had with 1st Army.
A skeleton Brigade staff sailed from Sousse on 23rd July, consisting of myself, Charles O’Farrell of the Faughs, a couple of jeeps, and drivers. We landed safely on 25th July and moved up to the battle area the same day.
At 6 pm, a recce was being carried out by the Divisional Commander, his three Brigade Commanders and CRA from the top of an extremely high mountain called the Castel del Judicia. It gave me a splendid view, but this was preceded by 45 minutes of mountaineering, which was tough going. I grew to dislike this Castel del Judicia, as during the next four days, I climbed it on average twice per day.
The going didn’t improve with acquaintance; and it was a fickle mountain. I will never forget toiling up with my COs at 7pm to get the last couple of hours’ daylight to find a mist closing down and time and effort, in addition to toil, sweat and tears and almost blood, wasted.
However, it was certainly a good view point and showed us Catenanuova and Centuripe, the former covering a river crossing, the latter glistening in the sun at the end of the top of the highest ridge of mountains it has ever been my misfortune to view.
By 28th July, plans were completed and the Division concentrated and ready.
Rough figures, the plans were as follows –
11th Brigade to seize Catenanuova and make good two hills, about 2 miles northwards.
36th Brigade to form up behind these two hills and capture Centuripe by night attack.
Irish Brigade to pass through and force the crossing of the River Salso and, if the going was good, that of the River Simeto a few miles further on.
By August 1st, the 36th Brigade, after heavy fighting and reinforced by two battalions of the 11th Brigade, was still unable to take Centuripe. Furthermore, they were tired out.
The Irish Brigade was ordered to take Centuripe. It was taken.
Centuripe was the Skins battle. The Faughs had some heavy fighting on the east side of the town, principally in the cemetery area and the London Irish made a dangerous flank secure; but the Skins were closely engaged all day and all night and Neville Grazebrook handled his battalion with great determination and skill. Amongst those who distinguished themselves were Hobo Crocker and McClinton, the latter a first rate subaltern, who is continually distinguishing himself in action.
The capture of Centuripe had repercussions on both flanks, as it forced the Bosche to readjust his whole line. It was evident that he did not anticipate its capture at such an early date.
This action cost us some casualties, and the Faughs lost Hanna, one of their best company commanders, in the cemetery area.
The forcing of the two river crossings, the Salso and Simeto, followed immediately.
The Faughs had the harder fighting in both crossings, and required the assistance of a company of Skins at the latter, but the London Irish went in with great dash and performed their part extremely well.
Those two crossings cost us some very good chaps. Charles O’Farrell was an irreplaceable loss, probably the greatest loss incurred by the Faughs since the beginning of the war. He was such a good chap and such a good soldier.
The Skins lost four Company Commanders. Peter Savage, Little, McPhillips and Duddington, the former killed, the others wounded. The London Irish lost two officers, Howells, who had been with the battalion some time and Allen, a first class boy, killed at short range when leading his platoon in the most gallant fashion.
Joseph Fitzgerald of the London Irish distinguished himself greatly during those crossings.
The brigade got a few days rest after this second crossing. It was very welcome, as we’d covered a lot of hilly country and fought very hard for six days.
I had one of life’s outstanding baths in the River Simeto with my behind on a fairly smooth stone and the cool mountain water rushing over a very sweaty, dusty body. I lay there for at least an hour, and afterwards cut all nails with a pansy manicure set borrowed from a tough looking Canadian private, the least likely looking man in the whole fore to carry such tools.
A few days later we were “at it again”, at the Maletto battle and the subsequent advance onto Randazzo.
This was undoubtedly the Faughs’ battle. They maintained the finest tradition of their fine Regiment and Beauchamp Butler must have felt a proud man.
I will remember this battle by reason of its unpleasant lava setting on the slopes of Mt Etna; difficult and well shelled and the only point for recce, where unpleasant moments were spent by most sightseers; and the great abundance of S and Teller mines in the area. It was a fine achievement, well done and now over, but I doubt if anyone wants to do it again.
This operation cost us a number of good chaps, chiefly from the Faughs. Henry Garratt, a first class chap, received fatal wounds, as did Bolton and they had a good many officers wounded. The London Irish lost Joseph Fitzgerald, a great character and a fearless leader. He was, by trade, a west of Ireland barrister, about 36 years old, and thus a volunteer in the very highest class.
Seymour of the London Irish and Fielding of the Faughs both greatly distinguished themselves during these operations. The former, by complete disregard of all danger and by excellent leadership throughout 18 hours hard fighting.
Young Fielding had quite a day. His platoon had just finished mopping up Maletto, and he found himself with an orderly, Fusilier Rowlands, at the far end of the village. Nine Bosche were legging it towards a culvert a couple of hundred yards away, and one Bosche was making tracks for Berlin via the north. Rowlands, his blood well and truly up, pursued the Berliner alternatively firing his revolver and throwing grenades at, I should say, considerable danger, and having run out of all ammunition, finally brought down his man with a well aimed, large stone on the back of his neck.
While this pantomime was going on, nine Bosche got into position behind a culvert and opened fire on Fielding with an MG 34. Fielding found a rifle and, with rapid fire, silenced the MG 34. He then got two bombs and proceeded to stalk the 34 completely on his own. He got behind it, got his two bombs in, and the nine, now reduced to six, bolted under the culvert. Fielding, with no more bombs and no more ammunition then went to the entrance of the culvert, rattling his belt and demanding surrender. He got his six, and Rowlands got his one. He was blown up on an S mine later in the evening, but luckily only sustained a swollen ankle.
The final advance of the Royal Irish Fusiliers to Randazzo finally finished the fighting for the Irish Brigade in Sicily.
Quite a proportion of us have now completed two campaigns, an unusual experience for any British soldier.
The form of the brigade, after the last campaign, is terrific. They are all fairly throwing a chest, and are all convinced that they practically won the Sicilian campaign off their own bat. They certainly played a creditable and notable part, and have every right to be proud of themselves. But they can’t be half as proud of themselves as their Commander is of them.
The following immediate awards for gallantry in the campaign have been announced.
Lt Col TN Glazebrook 6 Innisks;
Lt-Col BH Butler 1 RIrF.
Major GL Crocker 6 Innisks;
Lt JP McClinton 6 Innisks;
Lt EBS Hewitt 6 Innisks;
Major J Fitzgerald 2 LIR;
Lt MOW Clarke 2 LIR;
Lt TD Cammiade 1 RIrF;
Lt JE McNally 1 RIrF;
2/Lt WC Fielding 1 RIrF.
Rfn J Gregory 2 LIR.
L/Cpl R Apling 6 Innisks;
L/Cpl C Shaw 6 Innisks;
L/Sgt H Donaghy 2 LIR;
L/Cpl K Gaffney 2 LIR;
Rfn RW Harrison 2 LIR;
Rfn J Murtagh 2 LIR;
Rfn E O’Reilly 2 LIR;
CSM J Kier 1 RIrF;
Cpl J Cooper 1 RIrF;
L/Cpl H Lamb 1 RIrF;
L/Cpl K Gilvear 1 RIrF;
L/Cpl DG Occomore, Royal Signals…”