Friday, February 24, 2006

Sicily, then on to Italy

Photo shows: Ron on day leave in Bari

The history books remind us that the Allied Army invaded Sicily on the 10th of July. The British 8th Army under the command of General Bernard Montgomery, the American 7th Army under General Patton.

On the 24th of July (see below) my unit, the 49th Light Ack Ack Regiment, disembarked North of Avola, Sicily as part of the 78th British Infantry Div. We arrived 14 days after the initial beach landings. This was my first taste of 'real war', as I had arrived in North Africa when virtually all the fighting was over and had seen the spoils of war without having actually to fight for them.

Sicily was different in more senses than one, my most vivid impression was the constant blinding dust that our vehicles threw up as we made our way northward towards Messina, the springboard for landing in Italy.

My schoolboy French, which I had an opportunity to practice in Algiers and Tunis, helped me learn Italian, and as I have always had a flair for languages, I was soon acting as unofficial interpreter in the bargaining that took place whenever we entered a village. The most common swap was our bully beef for their eggs, although it was not unknown for a fair amount of black marketing to take place with lira changing hands for cigarettes or clothes.

One of the towns we passed through was called Adrano and the impression it made on me was sufficient to inspire the only poem I have ever written or am likely to write. Apart from a slight alteration to the last few lines it remains as I wrote it some sixty years ago and I print it here without comment.

"Darkness was falling as we entered the town, but t'was light enough still to see
The shattered ruins of what had been, a town, in Sicily.
It wasn't much to call a town, compared with those of greater size.
It wasn't built for modern war and now a stinking heap it lies,
Rotting beneath the azure skies, of Sicily.

It seemed as if an angry God had run amok with gory hands,
Then dropped a veil, a canopy, of dirty, blinding, choking sands
And as to wreak his vengeance more
Had propped a body in each door

We drove on by with sober thought,
Of those poor b******s who'd been caught,
We grimaced at the sick, sweet, smell, of this small piece of man made hell
This could be you, the bodies said, this could be you, soon gone, soon dead
We hurried by, enough to be, alive that day, in Sicily"

The campaign in Sicily lasted only a month and at the closing stages when we were moving up towards Messina I had my first serious flirtation with death. As I have already mentioned, I was part of a crew of three wireless ops, and for my sins I had been made the official driver.

In theory the driving was supposed to be split three ways but in practice the other two lads were happy to drive during daylight but disappeared into the back of the truck when night fell.

On this particular occasion I was driving without lights along a mountain road between Patti and Messina, with the sea on my left. I had been without sleep for several days and the strain of following a tiny light on the differential of the truck in front finally mesmerised me to such an extent that I literally fell asleep on the road.

The first thing I knew was this G-d Almighty crash and I automatically stamped on the foot brake and applied the hand brake. I then attempted to take stock of the situation and found the following:

1. I had run off the road towards the sea but had been halted by a telegraph pole.
2. The impact had been such that I had literally run UP the pole and my bonnet was pointing skyward.
3. It was impossible to tell at that stage what was going to happen if and when I released the hand brake.
4. Peter and Danny, my crew-mates at the back had woken and were demanding to know what the hell was going on.

Fortunately the fates smiled on me that night and when we had unloaded the back of the truck of its occupants and moveable gear I was able to release the brake, the truck slid down the pole, while Peter and Dave hung on to the tail to ensure that it did not slip seaward. We waited until the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) sergeant caught up with us and then with only light repairs were able to drive on.

On the 3rd of September (see below) our guns supported Operation Baytown, the invasion of Italy.

On the 20th of September we landed in Italy, via the short crossing over the Messina Straits. The actual transport over the water was a tank landing craft just big enough for two vehicles. I drove the truck onto the tank landing craft without any problem and was therefore surprised when on reaching the Italian beachhead it failed to start up. The Beach Commander gave me half a minute to try again and then to my acute embarrassment and the annoyance of the Major M*****d, whose vehicle shared the TLC, we were ignominiously pulled off the craft by a recovery tank.

Once on dry land it was soon established that it was only a battery lead that had jumped off on impact as I had dropped on to the TLC's deck, and we were quickly on our way.

Note: Dates in this article have now been amended after checking with Regimental Diaries as per this article.

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