Vincenzo Gangi, who celebrates his 90th birthday in October, told the Irish Brigade website how he saw machine gunners positioned on a rooftop in his home town of Maletto shoot down an allied plane during the build-up to the Irish Brigade assault on the town in the early hours of 12th August 1943.
Then a 14-year-old working in a barber shop on Maletto’s main road, Vincenzo had fled the town before the attack to avoid the fighting and hid in caverns and other sheltered places in the lava fields between Maletto and Mount Etna. Speaking to the Irish Brigade website on 14th September 2019, he said that he had witnessed fusiliers, who were on the steps to Maletto’s Town Hall, come under fire from a machine gun post on top of a building 100 yards to the south. A sniper was then called in and silenced the opposition.
Vincenzo still possesses the 10 lire allied note that he was later paid for shaving a British soldier. It was equivalent to 10 cents in 1943. “I looked so young, they couldn’t believe I was qualified to cut hair,” he said. Vincenzo continued to work as a barber after the war and still cuts hair occasionally.
During the Sicily campaign, Maletto had been the location of the final German attempt to block the advance of the 78th Division towards Randazzo and they had duly carried out fighting defensive engagements on the main road around the west side of Etna.
The campaign had begun on the night of 9th July 1943 with paratroop drops in the southeast of the island and amphibious landings started early the next day. The Irish Brigade, which formed part of the 78th Division, landed on the island on 28th July to support the 8th Army’s drive to the west of Mount Etna to seek to outflank Axis defences south of Catania which were blocking its advance along the coast to Messina.
The brigade had taken the mountain stronghold of Centuripe during the night of 2nd/3rd August before crossing the Salso and Simeto rivers over the following days. This advance prompted the withdrawal of all Axis forces from the Catania line and the start of large-scale evacuations from Sicily across to the Italian mainland. The 78th Division nevertheless faced resolute rearguard forces at Adrano and Bronte on the road around Etna.
The Irish Brigade was ordered to lead a further advance to capture Maletto and the high points south and east of the town which overlooked the road to Randazzo. The operation began with the capture of Monte Macherone by the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and in the early hours of 12th August, the Royal Irish Fusiliers deployed south of the road and advanced uphill to take Monte Capella. It was quickly captured and the battalion descended down its north side into Maletto. Fighting in the town would continue for most of the morning.
Later that same day, the London Irish attacked uphill to the east of Capella and captured Sperina. Opposition was resolute. Meanwhile, the 6th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers advanced to capture a high point named Monte Nave just to the east of the Maletto to Randazzo road. By the early morning of 13th August, the road to Randazzo was completely clear and men from the Irish Fusiliers were able to make contact with American forces advancing from the west.
From that time until the end of August, the Irish Brigade were able to rest near Maletto before moving to the north coast of the island at Patti before they crossed to the Italian mainland at the end of September 1943.