Sgt Raymond Phillips at Centuripe


It’s been nearly 80 years since the Irish Brigade’s remarkable assault on the hill-top town of Centuripe in August 1943.

Led by the 6th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (the Skins), the brigade fought their way into the town after prolonged assaults on the evening of 2nd/3rd August 1943 and, following its capture and the crossing of the Simeto river a few days later, the 78th Division were able to cut the German Army’s lateral link-road from Catania around Etna and this led to their final retreat northwards to Messina.

All in all, it was a remarkable achievement by all concerned and we have recently been sent a first hand account of the Skins’ attack from the family of Sergeant Raymond Phillips MM, who led his platoon during the assaults on Centuripe.

It is a fantastically evocative visceral account and we are privileged to be able to share it below.


6th Battalion Skins leading the attack – No 10 Platoon of A Company, the leading platoon.

“We were sitting quietly on a terraced feature south of this rather ‘Sky Town’. The distance away from the town was approximately 2 kilometres. Shell and Mortar “Nebels” were being hurled at us every moment and, as a Battalion, we suffered quite a lot of casualties. My Company, though, fortunately suffered very lightly – 2 dead and 11 injured.

Major Hobo Crocker

Lieutenant Colonel Grazebrook was in command of the Battalion and Major Hobo Crocker was OC of A Company.

Briefed for attack at 3pm. Zero 430pm.

My job was to lead the attack and, therefore, must climb up the face of ‘Suicide Gully’, which was covered by cross MG 42 fire. Lots of Jerry paratroopers were around and the situation looks very hopeless.

Received my orders: a very big hindrance was that we had to carry our food and men were beginning to moan. Still, I shook them up by saying that the damned jobs have got to be done, so let’s do it. I told them that I thought this was the end for us as we should have a rest afterwards – they were pleased.

Away we go.

Just before we moved off, I had a new platoon commander, Lt Morrow, a grand chap, and got into the picture straight away. As soon as we started, Jerry must have seen us. The air was thick with flying shrapnel and bullets like a thunderstorm. Still, as we went on the first few yards, Morrow was wounded in the head and died afterwards. I again took command. We were nearing the side of ‘Suicide Gully’.

These shot up sheer for 100 feet or more and the town lay on top. God, what a job – it seemed impossible with all our arms, ammo and weight of food etc but we still bashed on. It was child’s play for Jerry to pick us off as we were climbing but he was a hell of a poor shot and only got four of my boys, the bastards. I got up to the top and, eventually, the whole platoon was up. As he was nearing the top, one of my best chaps lost his foothold and fell back down. He landed on a mine and was blown sky-high. We were fortunate, thank god, not to have stepped on the minefield.

On the top was a small shack, our first bound and we cracked into it. No Jerries there, bad luck. We got our wind back and I went out to have a look at the town. ‘Jesus’, there were hundreds of old houses, literally shacks and, in front of these, two further rows of shacks and a large church loomed. Couldn’t see any way further than the church so I made this my first objective.

Hobo Crocker had, by this time, joined me. I asked about the position of the remainder of the company and he said that he’d lost touch and his wireless was dead. I had only 24 men left by now, a gallant little band of Welshmen every one. My NCOs were superb: Corporals Bowen, Stone and Evans, all excellent men especially Bowen, a fearless type. I had lost my mortar men, also the PIAT men, but couldn’t afford to wait. This had to be done and, therefore, we must have a go. Made a quick appreciation and decided what to do.

Got my section commanders together and told them my plan – all ok, we’ll crack them in five minutes. A long stretch of 200 yards of open ground to run to and attack the church with Jerry raking the whole area with small arms. Still, we had to go. I led the first section, Bowen’s crowd, and we went helter-skelter across the open to the church. Jerry mowed down four of my men, leaving three in the section but closely followed by the remaining sections. To put Battle Drill into operation here was rubbish. But it had to be done in one swoop.

We reached the church and started going in through the side doors on the run. No Jerries inside, thank god.

The remainder of the platoon were inside and around the church. A quick Roll Call, we had lost another 7 men, only 13 left and myself. Fortunately, the NCOs were not knocked out yet. A brief pause, time we heard from Jerry now and we did, by God – approximately a Company was coming towards the church. They had seen us and were attacking right away.

We gave them Hell, fired everything that we had into the swines, killed a hell of a lot – good show. I then took a grave risk but the only thing to do, I’m afraid. I got my men together and rushed towards the remainder of the Jerries and they turned tail and ran down the shattered street. We were full of life at this so continued the chase, firing Brens from the hip and using Tommys etc. We killed nearly all, but we couldn’t stop now and had to go on to get right through the town and onto our objective (Point 709). We thought we would make it but, unfortunately, at the second square in the town, we were surrounded. Oh hell!

I ordered a defensive fight and placed everyone that was left in position. They were knocking hell out of us now. I got my first wound in the left arm, didn’t know I had it. Corporal Bowen strapped it up. Ok again for a spell. Situation very hopeless. We had about 10 left. Nothing to do but go down fighting. Hemmed in from all sides. I decided to try and get back for help, so I put Bowen in charge and off I went. Succeeded in making visual contact but nothing more. Swarms of bloody Jerries all around me. Still, I got back to my men and told everyone the shape of things and said there is nothing to do but to give them hell for as long as we last. We were in a tight corner but Jerry had to come out and get us and he didn’t care for that. As soon as one poked his head out, he had it.

(NA 5389) A German Mk III tank knocked out during the fierce street fighting in Centuripe.

Going great guns until it started to get dark. I had planned that if we could keep them off till dark we were to beat it back to the company. By now, we were only eight left. Here, Dackin and Beer got it, my best Bren Gunners. Still, that was the drawback. A bloody Itie tank appeared north of me, 150 yards away, no PIAT. Couldn’t afford to let that swine come into the battle so let him come on until he was 100 yards or less away and then opened up with Brens. 13 magazines he had and, by Christ, he was afraid and turned round and beetled off. Thank God. We were smiling at that.

Darkness descended on us. My plans, I told my men, still held. Get back to the company as best you can. I asked for a small party to come with me. I had two volunteers, Corporals Evans and Raynor. Ok, off we go. I wanted to try and find out how many Bosche were there before going back. Unfortunately, when on the move, hundreds of the swines popped up around us but did not see us. Too risky to make a break for it so decided to hide in an old coal cellar until they had gone.

They were hunting for us everywhere, even stopped outside our hiding place but we were left alone – a miracle. Stayed there for about 2 ½ hours. I ventured to look outside when things seemed fairly clear. Ok, let’s go. Off we went. By this time, the remainder of the battalion were attacking from the left flank, thank god, but there were no Jerries when they came in. A Company did it once more and, what’s more, A Company in that show was my platoon and all Welshmen !

 

Hobo was badly wounded. I ordered him to the Regimental Aid Post. Finally, he went back under escort, grand man. At daylight, I went around town looking for my dead – found three…. Had a roll call, four men left…too bad, but we had won the day. The Battalion commander was very pleased with our show.

Hot tea and breakfast.

A clean-up and sleep all day.

Excellent.

Goodbye Centuripe, you Ghost Town of the Heavens.”


Postscript:

After being wounded at Centuripe,  Raymond Phillips, who hailed from the Rhondda in south Wales., was commissioned and returned to the Skins in eastern Italy during November 1943. Lieutenant Philips would be wounded again while leading his platoon during the Skins’ advance in the Liri valley south of Cassino on 15th May 1944.

Lieutenant Raymond Phillips after being commissioned.

Nec Aspera Terrent.

Faugh a Ballagh !



 

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