A DESERT RAT'S STORY
THE SICILY INVASION
After a few weeks we loaded our gear and drove to the docks
at Alexandria and on the 3rd July 1943 we joined the convoy and set sail for
Sicily. The ships edged their way along the coastline, gathering a huge armada
on the eastern side of the island. There we awaited darkness, ready to sail
North to attack the fortress of Europe.
Our journey took ten days in all and the heat on the metal decks was awful. As there was very little areas with shade, we were packed in with no escape from the sun. The temperature soared and on the third day out came the welcome news that each man would be issued one bottle of beer. The bottle was made with clear glass and contained about a pint. Most of the lads downed the drink as soon as they got it and said that it was very warm. I decided to wait until it cooled, but after an hour it was still the same warm bottle. I saw a spot on a ledge which was in the shade cast from a gun turret and started to climb up to it. This involved crawling along hot metal plates and pulling myself higher and higher towards the ledge. I was within an arm’s length and stretched out towards it but my feet lost their hold and I started to fall. I grabbed with both hands to save myself and the bottle crashed on the deck below.
The next few hours were spent in wondering why I had not done the same as the others and got some liquid down, and then another few hours imagining how it would have been if I had dangled it over the side, until it was icy cold from the fast moving wash created by the ship. The pain of it all didn’t leave me until we hit shore. Fifty- five years have gone by now and I can remember every single detail from that hot afternoon and my agony in losing that bottle of liquid treasure.
In darkness we edged towards land. We were not the first ashore and overhead we were continuously bombed. Out of the six ships in our group, three were hit and sunk. Parachutists had gone ahead and some had been dropped too soon by their aircraft. Several of the unfortunate ones who were killed floated by us - all that preparation and given no chance at all of engaging the enemy. Our task when we landed was to get ashore as quickly as possible, head up on the Eastern side and put Catania, the capital of Sicily, in the bag. We all felt great excitement on getting in combat again. American troops were to take care of the West side of the island. The Yanks fought well but had enormous casualties. Fighting was very fierce and we found all sorts of danger driving through dense vineyards and along small tracks suitable only for farm animals. It was a different kind of warfare from the desert where we could see our enemies through binoculars rather than so close up.
As we approached a small town on the way to Catania, I led the troop up a narrow road. I heard not a sound, it was uncanny. Dismounting, I walked along the road and saw something propped up in the centre of the road. On examining it I saw it was an Italian regimental emblem and thought it was either a signal or a warning sign. Turning around, I shouted back to withdraw and at the same time started running toward my car. At this moment dozens of screaming voices came from behind. Not turning around to see, I crashed through the bushes on my left and tore my way through. The noise got louder. After a few minutes I could run no more. Gasping for breath and fearful of those behind me, I saw small white cottage ahead and put my back to it. I took my revolver from its holster, ready to take a few with me before they got me. As I was running, the scene I imagined was that those who were charging behind me had bayonets because in the early days in Shorncliffe, we were told how to scream when charging with a bayonet.
I thought I would die but strangely enough felt no fear. It
was all so normal and predictable that it could have been at any time during
the desert days or on the actual invasion, when hundreds were killed without
seeing any enemy. Now I waited to meet my fate.
The crowd broke through the bushes and came at me. I aimed my revolver at them and saw men and women running towards me with smiles on their faces. My walk up the road had been observed and they had waited only to ascertain whether I was English or German. The shouts were of joy at their liberation! A pretty young girl came from the cottage and gave me a glass of red wine with a raw egg floating on the top. I downed it with a gulp and felt fresh again. Rejoining the troop, I had to tell them to take not much notice of the so-called welcome as we were still at war and they happily lived alongside German troops since Italy entered the war. It was best not to trust them one inch as among them could be informers planted to let the Germans know of our next movements.
Cruising along the side of a small river we suddenly came under fire from tanks on the other side. As they were getting our range, I heard over the radio Major Hamilton Russell’s voice asking what was going on. I gave the message back, but his reply was that he could only hear me half strength. On a scale of ten that was not strong enough so I sent a car back to put him in the picture. He withdrew us all and shortly our planes came over and blasted the tanks away. Soon afterwards he called me in and said he was making me up to the rank of a full Sergeant on the spot, which was most unusual. I felt proud.
We entered Catania, a beautiful city with wonderful buildings, not all that far away from Mount Etna. The inhabitants were welcoming and soon the conquest of the island was complete. The fighting was hard and we had a few casualties, but now could look forward to a rest and give the guns an overhaul. Then came the news that shattered us all - Major Hamilton Russell was killed when his jeep overturned. A brilliant leader and a wonderful man taken at the moment of his triumphant leadership of A Squadron in taking Catania. His younger brother, Desmond, had been killed during the desert wars in full view of his brother. I thought at the time that the Hamilton family would never get over the loss. I was wrong many times over, as another Hamilton-Russell became the Colonel of the Blues and Royal and his twin sons are serving now, one a Captain in the Life Guards, the other in the Royals, and yet another Hamilton-Russell was the wartime Colonel of the 17th/21st Lancers, who fought alongside our regiment in many battles. A truly noble family of fine soldiers.
Major Bowlby was flown over from Africa to take over, as Captain Makins was injured at the same time Major Hamilton Russell was killed.
The campaign was all over in a few weeks. The whole island was encircled, most of the Italian troops surrendered, and a few German troops made it over the short distance to the toe of Italy. Our entire regiment withdrew to the coast just outside Catania, where we settled down to give the cars a good overhaul and ourselves a good rest. As we were fairly close to Mount Etna, many of us decided to try to ascend to the top. No one made it, not even half way. We saw grapevines and other produce along the houses and farms on the way up, all of which was for sale to us. This made our Army rations surplus as we got tucked into fresh vegetables, quite a big change from desert grub!
Our days were spent visiting Catania town enjoying some wine
and good cakes. The people there showed no animosity at all. In fact our reception
was friendly, probably due to the fact that the beautiful town buildings remained
undamaged. Swimming many hours a day was a dream after the nightmare of those
years up the blue. On my last day of swimming in a small cove I struck out
with both feet to propel myself away from the rocks to give myself a forceful
start, but as I did so a searing pain came from the ball of both feet. I got
out of the water and found black spikes embedded in my flesh which had come
from a spike-backed creature, rather like a porcupine, clinging to the sides
of rocks. The pain started to get intense and I could not pull even one spike
out as they had reached the bone.
During the night the throbbing was awful. At one time I thought even a bullet through the foot would be better, at least giving a different type of pain. Soaking in water did no good at all. Finally I made it to the medical centre in town and waited outside with a hundred others to see the doctor on duty. When I made it to him and he saw the size and colour of the foot he said I should have gone to the head of the queue, no chance of that anywhere among Desert Rats. With a quick slice from a scalpel the pus poured out, bringing many of the spikes with it. As the scalpel went in the relief was sheer ecstasy. A quick bandage up and I was away and right as rain a few days later. I was told that the creature that did the damage was called a sea urchin.
On the 3rd September 1943 we invaded Reggio Calabria in mainland Italy. This was just a short distance to the toe and there was not a great deal of resistance. We were expected and most of the German troops had moved up further to tackle us on a wider front. An American/British force had arrived further up on the West side of Italy where the Commander General Kesselring was based. Some Italian sailors were wandering around Reggio Calabria. I noticed that most of them had very long, wavy hair bunched out of their hats and they stunk with scent, looking like a load of poofs. None of them could possibly have seen any active service. No wonder the Germans were tired of them. We certainly would not have wanted them as allies, or prisoners come to that.