Percy Hamilton – From Centuripe To Randazzo

In early August 1943, the Irish Brigade successfully captured Centuripe, which was the fulcrum of the German defensive line to the west of Mt Etna, with 6 Innisks taking the leading role in the frontal assault on the strong point. Lieutenant Percy Hamilton, as battalion Intelligence Officer (IO) describes these key events and the succeeding days as the Irish Brigade crossed both the Salso and Simeto rivers before moving forward to Randazzo where they were able to link up with American forces, who were advancing from the west.

“About an hour before dawn, the CO came back from brigade and called a conference. He told us that news was vague and that we were to push on to the village of Centuripe, which was supposed to be clear.

We started at dawn, and it was cold and everyone was glad to get moving. Everybody marched in the usual infantry formation in single file on either side of the road. We passed a mule running about loose and I caught it and led it along for a bit, but it didn’t seem keen so I gave it to someone else. It might have been useful for carrying things as we were short of mules.

After three or four miles along the road, we turned off a track to the right, or rather we went straight on and the road turned left. The track was narrow and the Battalion got into single file so we had to slow down as they were getting spread out too much. We wound across country and up and down hill then along a valley and on a ledge, which brought us along the left side of a hill, with a considerable drop on the left and fairly good cover on our right where the hill rose above us. A message came back to say that the leading company had come under fire.

Looking to the left across the valley, we could see the village of Centuripe about 500 yards away. It stood on the top of a hill and the side facing us was a cliff covered with cactus. There was a church on the top of the cliff and the houses of the village ran from that in a crescent to the right towards the next ridge.

The two Battalion HQ signallers were with us and the CO got on the set to find out what was going on. That made four of us on the track in full view of the village, except for one tree, with a trunk the size of a telegraph pole, which the signallers were behind. I lay down on the track close to the bank on the right and a couple of yards behind: there was no ditch. It soon became evident that we had been seen as a couple of bullets cracked past, and a couple of rifle grenades exploded below us, but as the CO didn’t move, we couldn’t. He was getting impatient with the person on the other end and told him, “For goodness sake, get a move on. I’m getting shot at here.” When he had got the message, we each grabbed part of the set and made for cover up the hill. Then, I had to go back and bring up the rest of Bttn HQ by a safe route to a position behind the hill.

When I got back, I was told that the CO had gone up to the top of the hill to the forward company, so I followed him up. On the way, I passed a typical scene on a track, which was similar to the one we had been on but on the right of the hill. One fellow had been hit by a piece of Jerry 2” mortar bomb and the stretcher bearers were tying him up. I found the CO with the Company Commander, but he said he wasn’t wanting me at the moment so I got behind a cottage. There was a dead German round the corner lying on a round, and he smelt most unpleasant. When the CO was ready, we went down the way I had come up. Another bomb landed on the path, a few yards behind us on the track we had come down.

It was obvious then that the town was not clear and that we would have to clear it. There was no way to attack the place directly so two companies were sent round the right to try and get on the crescent like feature to the east of the town. They went out about midday and got on well except that they were fired on by a unit of another brigade, but it was getting so hot they were told to wait till the day got cool. Meanwhile, the Battery Commander had got the wireless up and ran a remote control to the front of the hill where there was a good view. Several of us sat with him and watched him chasing a few Jerries about with the 25 pounders, switching the guns on to whatever bit of cover they ran into.

It was surprising that Jerry never fired at us as we were sitting in the open with our legs dangling over a bank. It was a real grandstand view. The CO was resting under a bush under my gas cape, which I threw over it to keep the sun off him.

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. Bttn HQ moved to the cottage on the top of the hill; the roasting German was still smelly and was very nearly cooked! We had to climb in at the window of the cottage because the door faced the town. We were able to watch the fellows climbing up the cliff and getting to the first couple of buildings; someone on our side dropped a smoke bomb near them, probably meant to screen them from a Jerry, who had a machine gun on the right, but actually it attracted more attention than anything else.

After they disappeared among the first buildings, we could only see odd figures crossing gaps and could not tell who they were. A guide was sent back to bring up the remainder of the artillery OP party, but we missed them and they started to follow the fellows up the cliff and got spotted and had some difficulty getting back, and one of them got a piece of shrapnel in the backside.

There was a cemetery on the extreme left of the town and we had a very good view of a barrage brought down on it to assist the RIrF, who were attacking in that direction. The Jerry likes using cemeteries for cover: in Sicily, all the cemeteries are enclosed by a high wall, so it gives him a certain amount of cover from view.  Someone thought it would be a good idea to put a barrage down on the town too, but luckily they did no harm to our chaps. Just before dusk, we saw a big column of smoke go up from the middle of the town and it looked like an explosion, and we learnt afterwards that the Jerry had brewed up a tank he couldn’t get away.

When it got dark, I got a large pitcher and dodged down to the wall in front of the house with one of our fellows and got it filled with water. We found a rope in the house, and then we went in to the kitchen and made a brew of tea, which was very welcome as we hadn’t had anything except hard biscuits since dawn. We had each carried a tin of bully beef and, so as it had been too hot to eat in the heat of the day, we enjoyed it now with some onions from the garden. The CO didn’t like onions.

It would have been very nice to sleep in the cottage but it didn’t seem very clean, so we all got straw and, when we weren’t on stag, slept in the yard. There had been chickens in the yard and, between that and the straw, I chased seven fleas out of one sock the next morning. There were no civvies about the house, as they always kept out of sight, while there was any fighting going on. We took our usual turns on the wireless and nothing much came through till three in the morning when the town was reported clear.

At dawn, therefore, Bttn HQ moved up to the town across the valley and up the hill by a track leading to the left of the cliff and into the town near the church. The people were beginning to come out of the houses and holes in the ground in which they had taken refuge: they were a dirty crowd. The Adjutant sent me to find a suitable house for Bttn HQ, so I went up to the square and found a sort of concert hall for the chaps and a clinic for the command post. I had to break into the latter but that didn’t worry me much – I have learnt a lot about house breaking in the last couple of years.

We got settled down, I went to look for some wine for the command post and found a sort of pub. I couldn’t speak any Italian so I pointed to a large bottle and indicated that I wanted an ordinary sized one. These large bottles that they have were about two feet high and eight inches in diameter and shaped like an ordinary bottle, and must hold about five gallons. The man in the pub misunderstood me and he went and filled this monstrosity up to where I had pointed. I was too tired to argue, so I took the thing in my arms and away up the street with it. It wasn’t very good wine anyway!

At about 1100hrs, we heard that the carriers were on their way up with the rations. This was good news as we were very hungry and most of the men were eating hunks of dry bread that the civvies had give them. I went down to the entrance of the town to get the transport organised as it came up as the CO only wanted the minimum in the square. The trucks had been held up by a blow in the road.

The press report of the taking of the town was typical. The write up we got was deserved, but, as I said, the carriers came up with the rations in the morning, so the picture published of “Bren carriers rushing in to capture Centuripe” is misleading. Another thing – at no time before or after the battle did I ever hear the troops call the place, ‘Cherry Ripe’, the name given to it by some misinformed correspondent.

Of course, one has to excuse these people a little as they only arrived in the afternoon, several hours after their beloved carriers! One of our officers, posed in front of a door as if just bursting into it; another told the fellow if he wanted action photos, he could come and get them when there was some action on.

We settled down for a bit of rest as soon as we had had a meal that was both our breakfast and lunch. This meal was interrupted by a couple of shells that were dropped in the town. They sounded pretty close and, as I didn’t fancy getting hit through the open window at which I had been sitting, I moved to a safer spot in the room. We hoped to get a few days rest but during the afternoon, we were ordered to move two miles in front of the town to a blown bridge, which was as far as we could get any transport, and be ready to follow the RIrF across the river.

A recce party went out in a couple of jeeps and we decided to park the transport in the gully that the blown bridge had spanned, and to spread the rifle companies out on the upper side of the bridge. We had to drive down a very exposed road on the way and the drivers lost no time on that part as he had landed a couple of shells there previously.

At first light, I had to take the wireless truck down followed by the office truck and the RAP truck. We went down the road at a pace far more dangerous than any small arms fire, and when we turned down the rather indistinct track towards the gully, I had to restrain the wireless truck driver as I thought he would have the whole issue in the ditch. I had planned where I was to park the trucks, when I was down the first time, but that didn’t suit the second in command, who decided to change two of them.

We all dug slit trenches and worked out the stags. Officers’ stag consisted of sitting for four hours in the wireless truck listening for messages; there was a signaller on duty, too, so that made someone to talk to. They dropped a couple of shells amongst the men during the night but that did no damage. At dawn, I went up on top of a rock to get a view and they started again. I thought for a moment someone was after me, but of course, that wasn’t true.

Someone found a way round the blown bridge and we moved a couple of miles down the road to a place where we could look over the river. We remained there all afternoon and in the evening, I had to walk down to the river (our own troops were well ahead), to try and find a place, where we could get the trucks across. The bridge was blown, of course, and it was a wide river bed, but there was not much water in it, so by winding about, there was a reasonable way across. This was never used as the REs made a crossing during the night. Also, during the night our vehicles, which were a mile back, were shelled but this didn’t worry us at all.

In the morning, we moved across the river with the other unit still in front of us. The CO left with me with the wireless truck and went forward to a building where there was to be an O Group. Just before he arrived, Jerry dropped a couple of mortar bombs in the yard and wounded several officers and killed a cook. I could see the smoke and we got the remote control fixed on the set so that we could get in the ditch, if necessary.

By midday, Bttn HQ was established near a farmhouse a mile beyond the river on the left of the main road. The companies were dispersed around, all in orange groves, which gave shade and cover from view. The ground was soft, so we were not long getting our slit trenches dug. The first day, we kept away from the house as Jerry was not far away and houses were inclined to draw shells, but after everything had been quiet for a day, we moved in and had the luxury of a couple of wooden tables and some cane seated chairs – there are very few armchairs in the remote parts of Sicily.

The second night in that position, I had not heard anything unusual about wireless stag and it was my turn to be on last, i.e. from 2 till 6 in the morning. About four, I woke up and looked at my watch and seeing what time it was, I got quietly out of my slit and went and sat beside the wireless as telephone lines had been laid by then – and was determined not to say that I had been late on and equally determined to find out why Burton hadn’t called me. At stand to, the Adjutant saw me sitting there and told me that they had decided the night before not to have anyone on stag, except the signaller.

During the morning, I went to a stream about 200 yards in front of Bttn HQ to have a wash and shave. The place was among large trees and the way there was through an orange grove so Jerry could not see me. I hung my shirt and vest on a tree and got a biscuit tin full of water from the stream and started washing. I heard half a dozen mortar bombs being dropped a few hundred yards away, but we were used to that and I didn’t worry, then they dropped a lot round me and covered my back with dirt as I lay on my face in a hollow in the ground.

I decided the place was a bit hot so I gathered up my things and beat it for Bttn HQ. They dropped another lot in the same place, but I was clear by then and didn’t worry. I passed a group of lads in their trench and one of them pointed out that my shirt was on fire; there was fire pouring from the collar, which must have caught a piece of hot shrapnel, when it was hanging on the bush. It was the only one I had, so I wore it with a hole burnt in the collar. I also lost my identity discs in the schemozzle and didn’t get another set for ages. I have never worn any since.

I went bathing with the CO one day there, when we went up to the river in a jeep and bathed near the ruins of the bridge. The water was very cold but that was refreshing, and we lay in the strong stream where it flowed over the ruins and held on to the temporary footbridge. We bathed naked as we didn’t have any bathing clothes and civvies didn’t worry us at all. It was an opportunity for a bath so we brought our soap along.

The RIrF were to cross the river during the afternoon and there was one company of Inniskillings to assist them. I went with the CO to a high cliff overlooking the river and he had a conference with Lt-Col Butler. This cliff was later lined with every type of weapon and OP. There were thick clumps of cactus growing along the edge giving good cover.

I had to go there when the attack was on, and took a wireless set to report back to the Adjutant on, taking cover in one of the clumps of cactus, where I could see the whole battle. There was a machine gun on either side of me so it was impossible to get the Adjutant to hear me, and he couldn’t understand that and we had a hell of a row over the air.

The chaps were getting across the river and we could see the Jerry here and there. The machine guns and mortars on the cliff kept firing at him. There was a group of houses, which our company was attacking and they went towards it like an exercise. They got the Jerry out with couple of PIAT bombs. Then we saw about twenty of them running away up a hill beyond the houses and the MMGs opened up on them, but had to stop as the company in front said the shots were getting too near them. Shots always sound very close when they pass overhead. The stretcher bearers had a hard time getting the casualties back over the broken bridge, and they were working nearly all night.

Next day, the REs made a new bridge and we went forward to recce a place to move the transport up to. There was the Adjutant, the MTO and myself. I was on the bike and we all toured round, but it was impossible to get vehicles off the road in most places because of ditches and walls. The best place was, of course, bagged by Brigade. We found a place further on and the vehicles came across the river.

Next morning, I went with the CO in the jeep about ten miles north to RV with the Buffs on a feature they had taken during the night. The three COs of the Bttn and the Brigadier, met north of Bronte. Passing through Bronte, we had to drive over about eight feet of rubble, which was being cleared by a bulldozer. We left the jeeps and the party climbed to the hill, Mt Rivoglia. The Brigadier went up to the OP with one of the CO’s and we waited a little way down. Lt Col Grazebrook wandered out to have a look at the front of the hill.

It may have been that Jerry saw him or it may have been luck; anyway, a shower of shells came over and we all ducked into a ditch; it wasn’t a deep ditch, really only a fold in the ground, but they didn’t do any damage. When they stopped, I thought, I’d better see if the CO was all right but as I was going to look for him, he came walking in cool as anything.

While we were driving back, just as it was getting dark, we were passing a bend and there was a hell of a crash all around. I thought for a moment that Jerry had landed a packet on the road all around us, and I ducked into the bottom of the back of the jeep; then I realised that it was a troop of our own guns, which were parked near the road and had pooped off just as we were under the spouts.

That evening, I was warned to be ready for a patrol next morning at dawn to try and find a usable track around the north-west slopes of Mt Etna. I was to take a couple of the Intelligence Section and tape the route, if necessary. I was to have a platoon as local protection. I was also to contact the Coy Commander of the Buffs, on whose right, I would be going out. I got off stag that night as I wanted a rest.

Before dawn, the party got a breakfast of sorts and we set off in a truck. We passed through the ruined town again and left the track in a lane.

I took one man and climbed the hill to locate the Buffs’ Coy Commander, who I found having a sleep and was considerably shaken looking. He painted a very gloomy picture and told me a patrol of theirs had been mortared at the spot where I prepared to cross the railway.

I went down the hill again and collected the rest of the party. Ted Griffiths was commanding the platoon that was with me. We crossed the railway a bit further back and went along the other side of the line. We didn’t want to get seen. Gradually, the track became more barren and soon we were in a wilderness, it reminded me of a picture of the moon; there were grotesque spikes of lava sticking up and one could imagine Jerries looking from behind them.

There was not a blade of grass and there was no wind, so altogether it was a gloomy place. The path soon became so bad that it was obviously unfit for a platoon move, especially at night as was proposed. We returned and met the Bttn just behind the town where they had moved up to. I reported in and found, that an hour after I went out, that the plan had been changed and that the recce was useless.

The place Bttn HQ had chosen was on a hill beside a cemetery, and we were high enough to be able to look over the wall. There was a communal grave dug and there were some bodies awaiting burial, and more were arriving on carts, as they were dug out of the rubble. Someone went near the gate of the place and the smell was pretty fierce; it wafted up to us sometimes, but we didn’t stay long there.

In the evening after we had our evening meal, the cooks had caught us up, we searched through the town and about a mile beyond to an area near a road junction. We did not follow the road once clear of the town, but took to the track as the road was liable to be shelled. We had to build sangars when we got to the lying up area because there were very few shovels and anyway the ground was too hard to dig.

There was a dry stone wall round the field and we used the stones. We had mules with us and they were a nuisance because there was only one telegraph pole we could tie them to. We also tried large stones but that wasn’t much good, so they kept wandering around. Jerry shelled the road junction, which didn’t improve matters, and we didn’t get much sleep that night.

At dawn, the Bttn set off, starting on much the same route that I had followed the day before but keeping slightly further to the north so that instead of being in the dead lava, we were in the extremely fertile belt that surrounds Mt Etna. After crossing the railway line, the column got spread out and took a little time to get organised. We were supposed to be heading for a feature to the east of Maletto and which was on the right of the Brigade. The going got more difficult and we had to start knocking down walls to get the mules along.

These walls seem to have been made more with a view to using up the stones that cover the place than with any object usually associated with a wall; some of them were eight feet high and four feet thick, they needed a bit of breaking down. By the afternoon, we were pretty nearly lost and the lava was affecting the wireless so that we were completely cut off from the world. The last orders that came through were that we were to make a Chinese attack on Mt Nave, while the real attack went in on Maletto. We were supposed to see the other battle start and then start ourselves. When it got dark, we pushed on a little way and could see the Nave just before it got dark about two miles away, so the CO said ‘it wasn’t a practical proposition of war’ to get there and that we would stop where we were and make our position safe for the night.

During the night, Dicker managed to find us with the ration mules. Nobody knew how he did it, as he had started and followed us in the dark. There were mules and rations strewn all along the way he had come, as the mules had turned difficult and thrown off their loads. Anyway, we got a half breakfast each, which was a lot more than we expected.

Soon after breakfast, we all moved up to what we called Mortar Corner, and spread out in the area. The other Bttns were pushing on towards Randazzo, and we were still standing by. We managed to get some water and have a wash, which was very pleasant after the very fine lava dust.

In the afternoon, we were told to relax for the moment and it proved that, for us, the fighting in Sicily over. The overall campaign actually lasted another two days but we were not further involved.

The area was near the main road but situated in among the trees. Bttn HQ was in a small wood, which we thought quite pleasant at first, and the companies were also under cover of sorts from the sun, but were very crowded; there were a few small houses in the area, but they were unusable because of flies. The transport was in a field just below Bttn HQ and, after a couple of days, had taken what little grass there was off the soil and left the bare dust. Lava dust, as I mentioned before, is very fine and the slightest wind carries it all over the place as the well as the result of the trucks kicking it up.

The trees gave us some protection, but if one had to walk near the transport area, one’s shoes got covered with it and it was impossible to keep one’s knees clean as we were wearing shorts. We had a 160lb tent put up for a mess but we all slept in the open under mosquito nets, which became quite ordered, now that we were not operational. We had a wireless set in the mess and I used to write down the news every night and have it typed out and sent to companies in the morning. The set was an army one (18 set) and had two pairs of headphones, and there was usually a scramble for the second set. I always bagged one on account of the news sheet. I evolved a kind of short hand using symbols for the words that occurred every night, this aeroplane was -o-, representing a plane head on, a ship was !!, and so on. No one else could read the news as I wrote it down.

In such an area as we were in now, any amusements we had, were produced by ourselves and took the form of a sing song. There were a couple of instrumentalists in the Bttn and they accompanied. We had one ENSA show; it used a truck with the sides let down as a stage and the audience brought their own seats or else sat on the ground. There was a wall along the side and I got a good seat on that, although it was a bit far from the stage.

I went into the town of Randazzo with Burton, who was going to get some wood for the pioneers from the bombed houses. The town was in a bad state and most of the back streets seem to have been flattened. We rooted around the bombed houses for a bit; there were not many civilians there, but we met some who gave us some wine.”

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