At the end of July 1943, the whole 78th Infantry, including the Irish Brigade. was brought out of reserve and travelled to Sicily to support 8th Army’s forward push to the west of Mt Etna. Lieutenant Percy Hamilton, as 6 Inniskillings’ Intelligence Officer (IO), continued to work very closely with Lt-Col Grazebrook in recce-ing forward positions as the battalion moved to Catenanuova at the end of the month.
“We came in sight of land early in the morning and sailed along the coast to port. The sea was flat calm and the sun was shining, and about midday, we came to an improvised port, but had to wait a little way out while some other ships unloaded. After lunch, we pulled in to the jetty, which ran out from a sandy beach far enough for the LST to come right up to it.
There was room for two ships at a time, as coming in bow first, they only need their own width. The beach was covered with Summerfelt track, an improvised road made out of coconut matting and wire netting, so we were able to drive the transport right up to the road without any trouble. There, we stopped to get organised, and the drivers started to remove the waterproofing from their vehicles; this was not supposed to be done, but it didn’t matter as we didn’t need it.
We found out we were a few miles south of Syracuse and the country was not inviting. As we drove to the place where we met the advance party, we passed orange groves, all fenced and the roads bordered with dry stone walls. All the ground was dusty and the vehicles made a cloud, when they moved.
When we found the advance party, the CO only stopped long enough for a drink of tea and then he and I and his driver and batman set off to our new area between Ramacca and Radusa. It was a long drive over bad roads, which twisted and turned on account of the hilly nature of the country. The villages we passed were mostly balanced on the tops of hills and seemed to overflow down the sides, down almost sheer cliffs, and they looked as if they might easily slide down the hill.
Looked at from above, they appeared to consist entirely of roof, there seemed to be no space for streets; this was because all the streets were only a couple of yards wide. We stopped for a brew up in the main street of one village, as there was a water spout running. We caused quite a stir and a certain amount of dislocation to the traffic.
We had still not arrived at our destination at dusk and were getting away from the good roads. We got mixed up in a convoy on a narrow track and that delayed us more, and about midnight the same thing happened. We did not know that our destination was only just in front of the jams, but when the traffic was sorted out, we soon arrived.
The area contained one large farmhouse, and, of course, Bttn HQ went in there. The men, when they arrived about dawn, having been in trucks all night, were spread out in a gully beyond the farm. The enemy was a good distance away so nobody was very worried. Nobody seemed to know exactly where Jerry was and the civilians were going on with their farming as if there was no war on at all.
As soon as all the Coy Commanders had arrived, the ‘O’ group set off in jeeps to Porto Caesare, which was on top of a high feature and commanded an excellent view northwards. We studied the country and were able to pick out features a long distance away.
At dusk, the Bttn marched off up what was called ‘Moon’ track (all tracks are given names to facilitate traffic control) to a place called Misterbianco – not to be confused with the place of that name near Catania – where we lay up in a gully. On the way up, we passed a haystack still burning, which had been hit by a shell and in the morning, we saw the remains of several tracks in our area, which had been dive bombed the day before.
We were getting quite close to the war!
We lay up here for two days and the midday heat was bad. We made shelters of ground sheets and blankets and lay under them panting; there was no wind as the place was in the fold of the hills. A water bottle had to last a day.
Late one afternoon, we got orders to move, and the Bttn set off marching towards a range of hills, running East-West, to the south of Catananuova. The CO and I set off in the jeep and drove along the reverse slope of the mountain for a couple of miles. We were supposed to contact another unit but when we got to the end of the track which was the RV and checked our position carefully, we could find no one.
We had passed a couple of carriers of the other unit bogged, heading the other way. We left the jeep beside a farmhouse, and taking the driver for safety, we crossed a small valley and climbed the hill in front, and there found we could get a good view of Catenanuova and the plain round it. A main road ran across below us and turned over a bridge into the town.
Returning to the farm, we waited a couple of hours for the men to arrive. The CO wanted to get the supporting arms up, but it was impossible over the track we had come up and there was no other. He disposed the companies out on various features and we got some rest. I slept under a cactus hedge, which kept a little wind off. In such circumstances, I used to use my haversack as a pillow; it is not too hard if it has a towel down the back; I wore my cardigan, which was inside the haversack during the day, and then got right inside my gas cape with the top right over my head and my legs curled up to get as much as possible inside. If possible, I used to dig a slit trench about six inches deep and put a bit of straw in the bottom; this kept the wind away and provided there was a space for the knees. It was very comfortable.
The next morning, there was a flap about water because the water truck had not been able to get up. We had a look round and found a fountain which looked all right. Then, I had to go and see if the vehicles could get to the minor road directly without going all the way back and round. Some of the carriers and the cook wagon had managed to get up. Jerry was a long way away and busy with someone else, so I took a fellow along and went down the front of the hill. There was a track part way down and then it was washed away; I reckoned we could dig our way, but the Pioneer Sergeant reckoned the trucks would slide on the grass so we called it off rather than risk losing anything.
Next, we had to move to the north of Catenanuova, which had just been taken. I moved with the transport back the way we had come and then along the bottom of the hill on the main road. This part was exposed, and it was uncomfortable driving along it, as we were still within shelling range. We got across the bridge all right and through the village, which was very battered. We drove on a couple of miles with the ‘O’ Group to where we could get a view north.
There was a unit there, which had only just consolidated and the dead were still lying around. We got a great view of a place called Centuripe, which another brigade was supposed to be attacking, and walked to a farm on top of the hill as if there wasn’t a Jerry for miles.They didn’t send any shells or anything to disturb us. When we returned to the RV, there was no sign of grub so we ate some grapes, which were beginning to ripen.
The Jerry had cleared out in a great hurry and left a lot of stuff, but it was getting too dark to investigate it. Anyway, supper arrived just after dark so we had that to deal with. The CO went to spend the night at brigade so as to get orders and we expected to pass through as soon as Centuripe was reported clear.
There was a mule at the corner of the road, which had been dead loo long and smelt a bit.”