The Skins in Sicily

Arriving in Sicily.

On 25th June, the battalion moved to Hammamet, a two day journey through beautiful scenery and in the later stages through the recently won battlefields.

Hammamet was situated on the coast, 40 miles south of Tunis. General Montgomery inspected us and have us the war cry “Kill the Wops”. 1st Army was already in a state of decomposition and it was then obvious that would part of the reconstituted 8th Army.

We left Hammamet for the concentration area on the day that Sicily was invaded so there was no doubt where we were going. The concentration area can be summed up in a few words – sand, melons, and jelly fish, hardening exercises, more endurance tests and oppressive heat.

During these two months, we had wasted no time and now felt we had everything and were ready for anything the Bosche might try out. We had made up to establishment and were pleased to welcome amongst others, Major Savage (RUR) who took over command of C Company, Captain McPhillips and last but not least Major Crocker, who arrived just in time, quite out of the blue, while we were in the concentration area to take over command of A Company.

So on the nights of 25th and 26th July 1943, the battalion sailed for Sicily. The rifles companies in LCIs went first and had a smooth crossing. Battalion HQ, the transport and S Company in LSTs the day after and were unfortunate as they had a rough time.

By the time the battalion landed in Sicily, a third of the island was in Allied hands. We landed south of Syracuse, where the Brigade Groups had everything under control. It wasn’t long before we all married up after a night drive to Albospino. It wasn’t long, either, before we found we were to be mule borne and were to take to the hills, higher hills that we had encountered in North Africa, but somehow more gentlemanly and not so precipitous or stony; tracks existed and sometimes these were even on the map.

A night march over the hills on the 30th and another night march over more hills on the 31st brought us onto the hills overlooking Catenanuova, which were being taken by another brigade in the division.  A and B Companies took up a defensive position on the right flank of the division and C and D Companies under the command of 1 RIrF were in brigade reserve on the left. So, at least, we had caught up with battle and many men that night heard and saw shots in anger for the first time and saw the battle area ablaze with enemy transport and dumps, which had been set alight by our artillery.

An afternoon march on 1st August took us through minefields, over blown bridges, through Catenanuova to a late enemy HQ north of the town, which must have been extremely hastily evacuated as much equipment, transport, dead Bosche and marked maps were found. The Pioneer Platoon had gone on ahead and had buried most of the dead Bosche by the time the main body arrived so the stench wasn’t too bad, but the hum of a dead mule wasn’t too pleasant.

Anyway, we were only a mile away from the forward troops, and we expected to be pushed through the brigade in front next day. And so it proved to be. A message was received about midnight that breakfast was to be ready at 0330hrs, but the troops were not to be woken before orders were received. The CO spent the night at 36 Brigade HQ so that he could hear the progress at Centuripe, which was being attacked during the night by that brigade.

Assault on Centuripe

At 0400hrs on 2nd August, a message was received from the Commanding Officer by D/R that the battalion was to move. The Commanding Officer arrived back almost at the same time.

The Irish Brigade was to advance to Centuripe, which was believed to have been captured during the night, and to make a bridgehead across the road to the north of it. Centuripe is a fair sized town, perched right at the top of a steep hill 2000 feet high. A veritable fortress of a place, the hill shaped like an E tumbled over with the prongs towards us. The only road to the west of Etna zig zagged its way up through the town and it was therefore vital to future operations to capture the place as soon as possible

Soon after first light, the battalion less S Company started to advance by tracks to Centuripe, an advance of 3000 yards, with a climb of 2000 feet. The tracks were too bad even for mules so there was nothing for it but to hump everything we could carry – 22 wireless set, spare batteries, ammunition and all platoon weapons… like supporting weapons, tools to dig in with and water had to be left behind. Each man carried a tin of bully and a packet of biscuits rolled up in his gas cape. Small packs were not taken owing to the heat.

The Faughs were advancing parallel to us, up the main road on our left. The battalion wound its way in single file, 5 yards between each man, round the tracks with C Company leading followed by Battalion HQ, then the other rifle companies with the Company Commanders at Battalion HQ.

At about 0845hrs, C Company commanded by Major Savage came under mortar and rifle fire from the left flank and took up a position on Point 640, where they were also fired at from the ridge on the south east of the town. Point 640 was the last crests before Centuripe itself, about 500 yards away.

So it was painfully clear that the night attack on Centuripe had failed. No detailed brigade plan had been laid on for this eventuality, but we had been warned that it was a possibility. But there we were and there was nothing to do but to get on with the job.

Battalion HQ was established immediately behind C Company and the remaining companies and the RAP closed up under cover, while recces were carried out. Immediately in front of C Company was Point 708, which dominated our position and the following plan was adopted. D Company commanded by Captain Duddington followed by B Company commanded by Major Bayley moved to the ridge on our right flank, about 1200 yards away to seize the position at the top of the ridge called Point 664. This ground was vital to the enemy defence. Opposition from here proved to be very strong and included a flak weapon; consequently our progress was held up at a distance of about 400 yards from the objective.

The heat had now become intense and on account of this and the shortage of water, and the steepness of the mountain, it was decided to postpone any further attack until the relative cool of the afternoon.

About 1600hrs, D Company was fired at by a unit of another brigade, who were attacking a feature to their right rear. Contact was eventually established but they were again fired on later in the day, and this naturally retarded their proposed attack.

Meanwhile, fire on C Company died down on both flanks and the spur in front of them showed no sign of occupation. It was a desperate looking venture in view of the ground and the obvious intention of the enemy to hold the town.  But a plan was concocted to get into Centuripe by the front door, so to speak, since both the side doors (the spur that B and D Companies were on the right, and the spur that the Faughs were on to the left) were firmly barred.

Consequently at about 1630hrs, Battalion HQ moved up to Point 640, and C Company with artillery support moved forward, scaled a 100 foot cliff to Point 718 and succeeded in gaining a foothold in the town. A Company followed but owing to an unfortunate mishap, they were without artillery support and were fired on from both flanks. Major Crocker, however, reorganised his company and they passed through C Company into the town. Here, they soon encountered strong enemy resistance including a Mark III tank. House to house fighting at close quarters ensued, during which Major Crocker and Lieutenant Morrow were wounded from which the latter died. Major Crocker continued to lead his company and later established it in the main square. C Company was then ordered to move to the right and occupy Pont 709, which controlled the ridge to the east of the town. This was done but the enemy somehow got between A and C Companies and the situation became confused.

At 1730hrs, meanwhile, D Company supported by B Company, started their attack on the farm at Point 664. Over frightful country consisting of stone faced terraces, and in the face of heavy fire, Lieut McClinton’s platoon succeeded in gaining the objective, but was driven off almost immediately by a well organised counter attack. The ground was really impassable by day covered by accurate fire at short range and it was decided to wait until dark.

A further attack was launched by B Company after dark, but it was found the enemy had withdrawn.

Lieutenant Ferris of D Company and Lieutenant Harper of B Company were wounded during this attack.

While our attack was going on, the Faughs and 2 LIR with heavy artillery support were clearing the ridge on our left flank and joined up with us in the town in the morning.

Battalion HQ spent a most unpleasant night on Point 708 where a smouldering Bosche gave off most noxious fumes.

The town was reported clear of the enemy at 0330hrs. D Company, who had been ordered to work along the ridge after the occupation of Point 664, found it clear of the enemy and made contact with C Company on Point 709.

At 0630hrs on 3rdAugust, the Battalion HQ moved into the town and B Company also came in from the east. It had not been a pleasant Bank Holiday.

The road being open, rations and S Company were brought up.  The battalion had a breakfast they had earned with plenty of vino gratefully supplied by the civilians who, although their houses had been reduced to rubble, greeted us with open arms.

The casualties for this hazardous achievement were remarkably light – 8 ORs killed, 4 officers and 36 ORs wounded, Lieutenant Colonel Grazebrook was awarded the DSO for his leading of the battalion that day. Major Crocker and Lieutenant Hewitt of A Company and Lieutenant McClinton of D Company were awarded the MC, and L/Cpl Apling of D Company was awarded the MM for the parts they played.

When the Army Commander, General Montgomery was shown what the battalion had accomplished, he was reputed to have said “Impossible. No one else in the Army would have done it. The Divisional Commander personally congratulated the battalion on its excellent performance and went so far as that 6 Innisks had done better than any battalion in 78 Division.

Crossing the Salso and Simeto rivers

After spending the day in the town, the brigade moved forward down the north side of the hill and there spent a quiet night. But at first light on 4thAugust, the dust caused by vehicles moving along a hastily bull dozed by pass round a blown bridge, brought down shellfire, and a few casualties were caused include Lieutenant Richardson, who was wounded.

When the Commanding Officer came back from bridge, it was learned that the brigade had to push on and form a bridge head over the two rivers, which separate Centuripe from Aderno, which was on the lower slopes of Etna.

6 Innisks was to follow up 1 RIrF, The first river, the Salso, was impassable until the REs, who worked all night, bulldozed a break across the river bed, the bridge having been blown. On the morning of the 5th, preparations were made for the crossing of the second river. Enemy shelling during the day made things very unpleasant and one shell, which burst near a Battalion Orders Group, wounded Major Little, Captain Duddington and Captain McPhillips, also killing one fusilier and wounding one other.

For the second river crossing, we were still in reserve. After the crossing was successful, C Company was put under command of 1 RIrF and given the task of clearing the village of Carcaci, which blocked the road north of the river and it was vital to hold it. This they did with outstanding success and in perfect style as laid down in the battle drill training, and established themselves at the fork roads beyond.  They took about thirty prisoners and the enemy were seen running away up the hills towards Aderno. They were engaged with MMGs and mortars from the Support Company.

C Company won the highest praise from 1 RIrF for their part in the attack.

D Company crossed the river to the village behind C Company and relieved the companies of the Faughs in that area. Our MO Ken Brown and Padre Radice worked hard all night with the wounded that were brought back to the river and praise must be given to the stretcher bearers too, who worked unceasingly all night carrying back the wounded across the rock strewn river, especially L/Cpl Shaw, who was awarded the MM.

During the night, Major Savage, who had led C Company so well was most unfortunately shot dead accidentally by a fusilier of the 1 RIrF, who mistook his identity. This constituted a very great loss to the battalion, which was now short of four company commanders

A Echelon, who were established on a ridge behind the first river spent a most uncomfortable night from heavy enemy shelling, but only one OR was wounded, beside Jimmy McPhillips, who was hit for the second time in one day. A Company’s 3 tonner and motor cycle were destroyed and the office truck too received superficial damage, and now looks very worn.

Lieut Clarke took out a patrol and located enemy and returned with one PoW.

Traffic was pouring up all day and it was difficult to see how much more could be pushed into the small space between the two rivers.

Active preparations were going on for another brigade to go through us that night to attack Aderno. This was actually taken without resistance and they pushed on to Bronte some 7 to 8 miles on up the only road round the west side of Etna. This road was full of hairpin bends and culverts had been systematically cratered by the enemy so progress was slow.

The Irish Brigade was in reserve and watched, with interest, the Canadian Division gradually coming up over the hills to our left. They were then eventually taken out of the operation and went into Army reserve. There was only one road and no room for two Divisions.

After the fall of Bronte, the Irish Brigade was called forward again on the morning of 11 August and moved to an assembly area south of Bronte.

The Irish Brigade, it was learnt, was to go through the 11th Brigade to continue the chase against the Bosche, who were still showing stubborn resistance during his withdrawal by cratering the road, mines, mortars and well sited MMGs.

Final Advance to Maletto

The brigade objective was Maletto situated behind two bumps, which were known as Sperina on the right and Capello on the left. The plan was for RIrF to capture Capello and 6 Innisks to capture Sperina. Lieut Hamilton and some of the ‘I’ section went forward and did a recce with a view to the battalion doing a flanking movement along the foothills of Etna and attack from the right flank. This was reported impossible and as after a short distance no tracks existed and the ground became more or less impassable owing to lava, no place, in fact, to form up in the dark for a night attack.

Actually, the plan was changed before the recce party returned and the 6 Innisks came into reserve and moved during the night through moonlight through shattered Bronte to an assembly area to the north of the town. During the night, the brigade attack went on very successfully on the left but rather stickily on the right. For us, apart from a brief but very sharp spell of shelling, the night was uneventful. In the morning, it was decided to send us on a wide flanking movement to the right to clean up some suspected MMG and mortar positions on a hill called La Nave. It involved a move over the roughest country imaginable consisting of broken lava deposit, which had been enclosed with innumerable walls, anything up to 4 feet in thickness.

At 1200hrs on the 12th August, the battalion moved off along the foothills of Etna on its hazardous journey with 25 mules carrying MMGs and mortars along almost non-existent tracks. Many walls had to be breached to allow the mules through, and the map reading too was difficult as tracks on the map, often did not exist and the proximity of Etna affected the magnetic compasses. Wireless communications to the outside world also broke down, and the best method of describing our position was that of wandering through the wilderness. The heat, as usual, was terrific.

By 2200hrs, the battalion had reached Baggiorazzo about 4 miles from La Nave. It was getting dark and it became obvious that we could not reach our objective in daylight, and it was impossible country for a night advance.

By this time, all wireless communications had broken down and it was most unlikely that a Brigade Liaison Officer would be able to find us. From a previous intercept, it was thought that the Faughs were also intending to attack La Nave. But since we had no indication of time or method, it was decided to concentrate the battalion around Baggiorazzo and try to create the impression to the enemy that he was being surrounded. Fortunately, some good well water was found in the vicinity for men and mules, and in some incredible way, a few muleteers with mules got to us at about 0400hrs. Actually, the enemy pulled out during the night and the Faughs pushed onto Randazzo and reached it in the early morning of Friday the 13th August, an hour before Americans, who were approaching the town from further north.

This was to the last of the fighting for our division in Sicily. There was only one road on from Randazzo and this was allotted to the Americans; consequently the division was pulled into reserve.

The battalion was lucky to find itself in a shady areas and it was not until the 28thAugust that we finally left it. At the same time, it was a pretty foul spot, miles from nowhere and covered with a very fine lava dust, which got through into everything.

During that time, however, each man had three days complete rest by the sea, where there was an excellent battalion rest camp.

The Brigadier actually moved to this area on 28thAugust and the battalion is now residing near the seashore and indulging in all the luxurious fruits of the late Sicilian summer – training and equipping and generally preparing for more Bosche chasing – this time, we hope, into the very heart of Berlin.

This account wouldn’t be complete without a word of praise to Lieut Dicker (officer in charge of mules) and his train of muleteers drawn mostly from S Company. It is certainly a change from riding in a carrier or portee to find yourself in charge of two unruly mules (one mule is said to have shipped its load 15 times in one night). Lieut Wilton, mortar officer, was kicked on the jaw, whilst supervising the loading of his weapons, and it is feared that his jaw is broken.  Throughout the campaign, Support Company certainly lived up to its name, but not always with the weapons as laid down by Army Council. It is a good thing that the British soldier is versatile.

The Sicilian Campaign – Officers who came with the battalion to Sicily from North Africa.

L/Col TN Grazebrook.

Major WD Davies.

Major PR Savage – Killed in action, 6th August.

Major GL Crocker – Wounded 2nd August, rejoined 10th August.

Major DL Little – Wounded, 5th August.

Major RM Bayley.

Captain J Norman.

Captain SJ Bunch.

Captain JJ McPhillips – Wounded, 5th August.

Captain APB Duddington – Wounded, 5th August.

Captain EW Kendal.

Captain HG Halpin.

Captain DK McCaldin MC.

Captain J Kerr.

Captain JBA Miller.

Captain MH Hodgson.

Captain WS Pollard.

Lieut HE Mathew – Appointed Captain, wef 8th August.

Lieut A Ferriss – Wounded, 2nd August.

Lieut LJ Burton.

Lieut S Morrow – Died of wounded, 5thAugust.

Lieut EJ Griffiths.

Lieut EBS Hewitt.

Lieut GVF Stephens.

Lieut C Clarke MC – Appointed Captain, wef 5thAugust.

Lieut W McVie.