Glimpses of War – Sicily

Company Commander Capt. W Hanna – A Premonition of Death

In early August 1943, during the fighting in Sicily, my Company was commanded by Captain William Hanna, a 22 year old officer who came from Armagh town in Northern Ireland. The Company was getting ready to lead the Battalion attack on a hill town called Centuripe quite close to the foothills of Mount Etna.

I was present at Capt. Hanna’s ‘O’ Group for the attack and was struck by his deathly pallor. His appearance was such that had he been lying down with his eyes closed one would have sent for stretcher-bearers to take the body away.

Hours before the Orders Group, Capt. Hanna had appeared fit and well. We had all come over from Africa some days before very fit and well tanned. I knew that if he had some sudden illness he would not have been allowed to take the Company into that attack. I was not the only one to notice Hanna’s condition.

My platoon led the attack on a very narrow front because of the difficult mountainous terrain. Captain Hanna followed with the rest of the Company, heavy fighting ensued and he was hit almost immediately in the chest by a burst of M.G. fire. The Company Radio Operator sent a message to Bn. H.Q. saying that ‘Sun Ray’ (code for Coy. Commander) had been wounded. The Adjutant (Capt. Clark) had been present at the O Group and witnessed Capt. Hanna’s condition. When he heard the radio message, Clarke guessed that Hanna was probably dead. This was confirmed very soon afterwards.

Did Capt. Hanna have a premonition that he would die in that attack? I believe he did! My memories of him on that ‘O’ Group are still very vivid.

My platoon advanced towards Centuripe town cemetery which was our objective. The cemetery was surrounded by enemy M.G. strongpoints, as it’s flat, open ground afforded the German gunners a good field of fire. Consequently, we were sustaining casualties. I had a burst of five rounds pass through the left leg of my denim trousers – that part of the trouser leg that that was overhanging the top strap of my web anklet. One bullet cut the top strap off, one burned a furrow across the outside of my left ankle which was quite painful, and the other three did no damage. When I examined my trouser leg later, I remember thinking that I could have covered the five holes with an old half-crown coin. I was very lucky not to have lost my left foot.

By midnight, Centuripe was in our hands.

A Patrol of Near Disaster

On the afternoon of 5th August 1943 I was briefed to take a recce patrol across the River Simeto which ran close to the foothills of Mount Etna. I was to cross the river after last light and climb an escarpment on the other side to check if the enemy appeared to be holding the high ground beyond in strength.

At midnight, along with L/Cpl Hall DCM and two fusiliers, we waded across the river (which was quite wide but the water was low due to the time of year) and commenced climbing the escarpment. We had not banked on the fact that it was terraced; each terrace supported by a stone wall 5-6 feet high and each terrace was cultivated for growing olives, grapes and other vegetation and there were at least six terraces to the top.

Because while having to climb the wall of each terrace we had to check that each one was unoccupied by the enemy so our progress was slow. We had also overlooked the fact that it would start getting light at about 03.30hrs. When we reached the last wall, Hall and I climbed at the same time and on reaching the top we both saw just a few yards away an enemy machine gun position. A quick glance on either side of it indicated other positions. At that point I turned my head around and down to whisper the information to one of the patrol at the foot of the wall and became aware of small arms fire and shelling. I heard, as I thought, L/Cpl Hall drop down off the wall and I followed to be told that Hall was dead, he had been shot through the head by a sniper. Had I not turned my head at the time I did, I would probably have joined Hall!

The volume of shelling and small arms fire was increasing and our guns were starting to shell enemy positions above us. I decided that we had to get back to the river at once. A shell exploded quite close and I remember hearing small pieces of shrapnel buzzing through the air like a lot of angry bees. One of these pieces passed right through my left arm between the elbow and wrist (through the radius). I felt a brief sharp pain; there was some blood and a slight numbness in my arm. In spite of this, we got back to the river quite quickly, having to leave Hall’s body where it lay.

There was no way we could cross the river in daylight as the ground on the other side was bare of any cover and in full view of the enemy. We found some thick scrub near the river and concealed ourselves there until last light. By that time we had been on the wrong side of the river for 24 hours and without food or water for 30 hours. We had had the main meal on the previous day at about 6pm. Meanwhile, I had managed to have a field dressing applied to the wound in my arm.

At last light, we re-crossed the river without any trouble and climbed the embankment on our own side. The only memory I had after that was being seen by the Battalion medical sergeant who re-dressed my arm, gave me some tablets and sent me by ambulance to the field hospital. Here a medical officer examined the arm, told me he thought I had a compound fracture of the radius and arranged for me to have a sling.

This injury led directly to my first flight in an aircraft. I was evacuated to a base hospital in Egypt with other walking wounded and we were flown in an air ambulance, a Dakota, which made a refuelling stop in Tripoli. I eventually finished up in the 6th South African Base Hospital in Cairo where my arm was x-rayed and put in plaster. I was there for about six weeks and then 2 weeks in a convalescent camp in Alexandria.

L/Cpl Hall’s body was recovered from where he was killed a day or two later and eventually buried in the British and Commonwealth cemetery at Catania in Sicily.

In late October, I was sent back to my Regiment in Italy by troop ship from Port Said in Egypt to Port Taranto in Southern Italy, eventually rejoining the Battalion in November which was then in forward positions on the River Sangro.

It was not until long after the war (early 1990s) that I was able to find out how Hall got his DCM and came to be with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. At the time of his death Hall was 28 and had been a pre-war soldier serving with the 1st Bn. The Border Regt. (his parent Regt.), which in 1939/40 was serving with the British Forces in France. On 29th May 1940 he was captured by German Forces near Lille and on 24th October he was eventually taken to a POW Camp near Strasbourg. He escaped on 14th December 1940, crossed into Spain and was interned on 27th Feb 1941. He was released on 24th April and handed over to British Forces in Gibraltar. He left there on the 8th May arriving in the U.K. ten days later. After interrogation, Hall was recommended for the DCM for the information he gave and for the hardship he had endured from the day of his escape in December 1940 to his being interned in February 1941.

After further enquiries I discovered that Hall originally came from Blackpool, was married and had a daughter. He and his family attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace in May 1942. In May/June 1943 Hall was back with 1st Bn. Border Regiment and serving in North Africa. He asked for a transfer to another Regiment because his unit was being converted to an Airborne Bn. and he had a fear of flying. His request was granted and he came to the Royal Irish Fusiliers. He was in my platoon during the attack on Centuripe, did well and came through unscathed. That was three days before the fatal patrol for which he had volunteered.

My enquiries about Hall came to an end when I discovered that his medal (DCM) had been handed over to the Regimental Museum of the Border Regiment some years previously.