Following the end of the Sicilian campaign, the Irish Brigade took the opportunity for some much needed relaxation and by the end of August 1943, all three battalions were based on the north coast near to Patti. Lieutenant Percy Hamilton describes those quiet weeks before the realities of war re-emerged as the 6 Innisks crossed over to Taranto in mainland Italy. At that point, he was transferred to become a platoon commander in D Company, commanded by Major McCaldin.
“After ten days or so at Mortar Corner, it was decided to send half the Bttn at a time to the north coast for a week. The first lot went and returned and my turn came and after we got there, it was decided to keep the whole lot up there so the first party had to come all the way up again. It was about a fifty miles over very bad roads.
When we arrived at the rest area, we found that we lived in tents in amongst shady fig trees with a vineyard on one hand and the sea on the other. There were no parades at all and the men did not even have to get up for their meals if they didn’t want to. We used to pick a large bunch of grapes and take them down to the beach, where we would lie in the sun for hours. The figs were also in season and we ate them, and there were a few lemons too. We were about five miles from the town of Patti and used to go there to get a haircut, but there was hardly any shopping as there was nothing to buy.
After the whole Bttn came up there, the CO made the officers learn Irish dancing. In the light of two or three Jeep headlamps in the evenings in the yard outside the mess, he would have us all at it.
We finished our rest and started training again and the ‘Battle Patrol’ was formed. It was going to have been called the ‘SS Platoon’ but that was not approved. The idea was to collect all the maddest types in each Bttn and make them in a platoon for special jobs. They were given special training and allowed to wear the divisional sign on their chest. They were under Johnny McClinton and went away from the Bttn for training. I was sent to give assistance, having very little to do, but developed a boil on my knee so didn’t get very far with them. I went into the CCS and was kept there a week.
By the time I returned to the Bttn, the CO decided to make as many changes as he could in the ‘dug in’ jobs so I was sent to ‘D’ Coy. They were the furthest company from the Bttn HQ at the time and were living on the slope of a hill among the trees. The mess was in a 160lb tent, where we also slept. Desmond McCaldin was at that time OC, ‘D’ Coy. We had to do some training and take part in a few night schemes.
After the invasion of Italy was well underway, we got orders to prepare to move. I was detailed to go with the advance party under Major Davies, the 2.i.c. We started very early in the morning, and I travelled on a jeep that was so full of baggage that I had to sit on the top. We drove right along the north coast to Messina, but just before reaching there, one of the trucks broke down and I was told to wait until it was fixed and then bring it on. I was supposed to meet the rest of our convoy at the ferry, but by the time I got there, all the rest had crossed, so I followed on.
There were no formalities at all. A fleet of landing craft were plying across the straits and one just backed the truck down the hard to the sea and waited for one to come in from the opposite direction, then simply backed the truck on and was taken across with no questions asked. I found the rest of the column with some difficulty and as they were feeding, I did the same. I also had a wash and shave. It was now about two in the afternoon. At three, we started again. I was still in the truck and it was terribly hot even with the windows open. One of the drivers cooked a tin of stew on the exhaust manifold. We drove right round the toe keeping near the sea except in several places where we had to make long diversions inland to avoid a blown bridge. We camped for the night near a Canadian mob who got excited because we didn’t put our fires out at dusk, but as were about a hundred miles from the Jerry, we didn’t think it was important.
When we got to Crotone, the personnel were taken to Taranto by LSI (Landing Ship Infantry), and the transport went round by road and not with us. The sea was smooth like glass and it was very hot. There was hardly any shade on the boat at all, and we got on the top deck to try and get the breeze.
We got into Taranto in the morning and after considerable delay, during which we had to sit on the quay, we got some orders and transport to move us to the Divisional staging area, where we were to be employed as checking staff. We got ourselves organised first and then took up our duties. There were eight officers including some RA fellows and we had to have two on a checkpoint and the others had to count the number of vehicles in a certain area each evening. I don’t know that anyone gained by it all, but we were kept there, whether we were working or not. That is unless we slipped off unseen. I went into town with Burton in the truck one afternoon without permission and we got caught in a traffic jam. There was a swing bridge which used to open, and we got out to walk round and spotted Major Davies’ car a few behind ours, but he didn’t see us.
There was nothing much to do in Taranto anyway. There were cafes, which sold inferior wine, and a few black market places. They opened an Officers’ Club, but it was not going properly by the time we left.
The whole division passed through our area and we checked them and supplied them with petrol. Our own unit passed through and went on to a lying up area near Barletta, where we joined them again after the job we were doing finished. They were standing by to move when we arrived and we got about five minutes to sort our battle kit and send the rest on with the transport. I asked Desmond McCaldin what was cooking and he said we would have about a week when we arrived at wherever we were going, to restore our kit and get organised. I sent on my binoculars and compass and just kept my pistol.
That night, it rained and we were miserable, only having our groundsheets and gas capes. The CO must have suspected that some of the officers had been going out of camp at night as he paid us a visit quite late for no apparent reason. He didn’t catch anyone in our company anyway. The next day, we moved into a chemical factory in the town, where we were able to get dry. We got the cooks well set up and had a couple of good meals. The officers were sleeping in what must have been a laboratory or else a morgue as there were rows of stone tables. I got some sacks, which made the table a bit softer, even if they did smell of bad yeast. The men were sleeping in sheds, which were a bit draughty, but they had wood floors, so were not too cold. It was still raining but that didn’t matter now.
Next morning we moved.”