The celebrated attacks by 78th Infantry Division, which included the Irish Brigade, on the Sicilian mountain top town of Centuripe on 2nd August 1943, was recently remembered by Salvatore Biondi, an eight year old at the time and who had a clear view of what happened that day.
“My family was sheltering in caves in the cliffs to the south of the town to escape the bombing,” Salvatore told the Irish Brigade website in an interview in Centuripe on 25th July. “They came along in single file. There was a single German machine gun and it killed many of them.”
The assault on Centuripe was the Irish Brigade’s first engagement during the Allied invasion of Sicily, which had started in early July 1943 and had involved the largest amphibious assault in history with more men and ships than during Operation Overlord in June 1944.
The brigade landed just to the south of Syracuse on 27th and 28th July after a sea journey of more than 30 hours from Sousse in Tunisia. They were transported north by truck and troop carrier and spent the evening of its first day at Palazollo, a picturesque but poor town, more than 2000 feet above sea-level, on the route to the front line. Another day on the road followed, taking the brigade north of Mineo, and after a further two days, the brigade moved down to the village of Catenanuova, which lies on the main road from Catania to Palermo.
From there, its first major objective – the hill town of Centuripe – could be clearly seen.
The view southwards from Centuripe.
At this point, the brigade left its transport behind and most men now moved forward on foot supported by troop carrier vehicles. Much of its equipment and stores had to be transferred from trucks onto mules.
During the early morning of 2nd August, the Irish Brigade’s commander Nelson Russell issued outline plans for Centuripe to be attacked as it still appeared to be in German hands despite previous attempts by other Divisional units to capture the town
Just after dawn, 6 Innsks left the road to Centuripe, following a track along a ridge running north to the town. The 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers (1 RIrF) advanced along the main road to Centuripe and the objectives for the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles (2 LIR) were hills to the west of the town. The main brigade attack was timed for 6pm after 2 LIR had led off on the left rear flank of the town.
All three battalions anticipated strong opposition, but 6 Innisks had the most difficult challenge. As they peered over the peak of the last hill in front of Centuripe, the Skins had realised that they would have to scale a hill rising to Point 709 (over 2000 feet) that was in places almost vertical.
In his memoirs, Lieutenant Percy Hamilton, who was Battalion Intelligence Officer of 6 Innisks at the time, recalled the powerful effect the sight had on him “…we could see the village of Centuripe about 500 yards away,” he wrote. “It stood on the top of a hill and the side facing us was a cliff covered with cactus.”
The Skins’ attack developed in two parts. At about midday, two of their companies advanced, supported by 25-pounder artillery fire, to Point 664 on the right of the Centuripe ridge where the slope was more gentle. There were numerous hidden machine gun positions held by the German 3rd Parachute Regiment but, when this resistance began to weaken, the Skins’ commanding officer gave orders to press home the frontal attack.
“Late in the afternoon, the CO gave orders to the right hand companies to advance and the remaining two were to make straight for the town across the valley and up the cliff through the cactus,” Percy Hamilton wrote.
In fact, the Skins had started their attack prematurely at 430pm before 2 LIR had completed their manoeuvres as the latter battalion had been held up on the third of their hilltop objectives. The Skins’ leading companies scaled hundred foot high cliffs and after encountering tough resistance, including a Mark III tank, were eventually able to establish themselves in the centre of the town, before consolidating their positions on all the strongpoints.
As this was happening, artillery fire was falling on German positions in the centre of the town to support 1 RIrF, who were attacking to the left and aiming for the cemetery area.
As darkness began to fall, the Faughs encountered dogged resistance from the concealed German positions and suffered a number of casualties but after a second attack, they reached their objectives. Following these final assaults, the German resistance in Centuripe now largely came to an end and, by 330am on 3rd August, the town was reported clear.
The capture of Centuripe by the Irish Brigade has gone down into the history books as one of the most remarkable military feats of the Second World War. It was mentioned in Parliament and did much to confirm the brigade’s reputation, and that of the 78th Infantry Division, as one of the most effective formations in the British Army.
Some revisionist historians argue that Centuripe was lightly held. The comparatively small number of casualties suffered by the brigade compared to what was to come a few days later in the attacks on the rivers Salso and Simetto in the valley north of Centuripe suggests a more tempered approach to describing the battle for Centuripe might be in order, but as Salvatore Biondi’s eyewitness account confirms, Centuripe was no push over.
Climbing to Point 709 in high summer would defeat most in peacetime. That is why visitors ever since have invariably concurred with 8th Army commander General Bernard Montgomery who, when shown the cliffs of the town after its capture, had said “Impossible!”
One of the Skins’ objectives on a high point in Centuripe