Stars in the Sicilian campaign: Alec Guinness

Famous as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Oscar-winner Alec Guinness had a starring role in the landings in Sicily on 10 July 1943.

Born to an unmarried mother in April 1914, Guinness left school aged 18 to work in a London advertising agency. Determined to be an actor, Guinness won a scholarship to study at drama school and got his first London theatre part in 1932. Spotted by John Gielgud, he was recruited by The Old Vic two years later.

By the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Guinness was a respected actor and married.  He nevertheless joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as an ordinary seaman.

Guinness was commissioned as First Lieutenant and trainee commander of a tank landing craft in the summer of 1942. His training was interrupted after three months when Guinness was dispatched to the US to take command of a new type of landing craft which could transport 200 men.

Guinness was released in December for eight weeks to make his Broadway debut in Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path. It had been a hit in London’s West End and was remade in 1945 as The Way to the Stars.

The Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa was by then well under way. Guinness was ordered that spring to take his landing craft HMS LCM24 across the Atlantic to Algeria for the invasion of Sicily.

On 9 July, Guinness sailed from Malta where Operation Husky’s landing craft had assembled to rendezvous south of Sicily’s Capo Passaro with the convoy bringing 51 (Highland) Division from Tunisia. Mountainous seas had by then damaged LCM24’s landing ramps and they could not be used. Men of the the Black Watch had to jump into Guinness’s landing craft when it was lifted by the waves.

In the confusion, Guinness said he missed the signal that the invasion had been postponed by an hour. He headed for land to the left of the Cape Passaro lighthouse; eight miles from the Black Watch’s designated landing beach (see map below). He unsuccessfully beckoned other landing craft to follow.

The Black Watch climbed down ropes into the surf and waded ashore. To Guinness’s surprise, there was no enemy fire. To his consternation, the naval barrage timed to mark the start of the invasion that Guinness had anticipated by an hour began to pound targets inland.

LCM24 (shown above beached in Sicily) was wrecked in a storm in Termoli at the end of 1943. It was eventually turned into a concrete jetty. Guinness continued to command vessels supplying Yugoslav partisans. He left the navy at the end of the war and immediately returned to the stage before being cast in his first movie role in 1946 as Herbert Pocket in David Lean’s Great Expectations.

Alec Guinness’s post-war career was stellar. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role The Bridge on the River Kwai, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and a Tony Award. Guinness was knighted in 1959 and made a Companion of Honour in 1994. He died in August 2000 two months before his wife Merula aged 86.

This is one of a series of articles to mark the 80th anniversary of the Sicily campaign


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