Operation Husky, the Invasion of Sicily - July 1943

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Joe Kelley
Joe Kelley

Joe Kelley, a Durham Light Infantryman was very much involved in the Invasion of Sicily. His memoir describes the fight to take the Primosole Bridge.

We sailed up the Suez Canal to Port Said to join the armada of ships already assembled there. We were on our way, the 5th July. What a sight, I had never seen so many ships in one place. Escorts consisted of Battleships, Aircraft Carriers, Destroyers and Gun Ships for anti-aircraft etc., and then the troop ships to convey our 50th Division and also the 5th Army Division. We were then told of our destination, Sicily, at the foot of Italy. During the voyage we had to attend lectures and look at pictures of the part we would be attacking. The day before the invasion, on the 9th of July a gale-force wind churned up the sea. Lots of men were sea sick. It seemed to calm down before the dawn of 10th July. We were told to get as much rest as possible and I must admit I dozed off. I had a rude awakening about 03.00am, we were about to embark and there was a great swell caused by the gales. We had the experience of having to jump into space when the L.C.I. craft came up to the side of the ships. 2 naval ratings caught us as we landed on the deck, they then guided us to the manhole that took us to our deck.

With 200 men in these boats it took a long time to fill them. The Navy wasted no time; when we were full we had 9 or 10 miles to cover before the beach landing. It was a relief when we finally landed. 7 ft of water, all our equipment wet through, but we had a Mae West to support us. There was a beach master shouting, "Come on the Durhams, get clear of the beach." We were about 2000 yards from our landing stage. We cleared the beach and went into some orchards. The first thing that I and many others did was to empty the sea water from our packs. That made things a bit lighter, our clothes just dried in the sun, which was very warm even at 08.00am. Our Platoon Officer Lt Holloway got us organised and we set off following the remainder of the battalion. Our objective was the hills beyond "Avola". We were given instruction to climb the hill, what a job we had.

We did not get much rest. Some Italian Commandos were on the move so we had to stand by. The 6th Battalion had laid an ambush for them, from where we were we could see what was happening, we were told to wait just in case they needed a hand. The ambush had been well prepared, anti tank guns were used against the transport vehicles. The fight lasted about 2 hours, eventually the Italians gave themselves up. The 6th Battalion captured an Italian General and all of his staff, including lots of papers that revealed valuable information. The next morning the 51st Highland Division took over our position.

The 151 Brigade, 6th, 8th and 9th Durhams were ordered to advance towards Primosole Bridge. The order was for the 9th Battalion to lead the way to the Simeto River on which the Primosole Bridge stood. The order came through in the afternoon (of the 12 July) the temperature in the shade was 35 degrees C, we had full kit on, along with ammunition and grenades.

The bridge was about 400 feet in length, it's depth I would guess about 10 -12 ft and width of 3 - 4 yards, all made of steel girders. The Airborne troops were supposed to hold the bridge till we arrived. During our 25 mile forced march, with all equipment, we were strafed by 2 German fighter planes. We wondered where our transport was, it was said that the ship carrying all of the 50th Division transport had been sunk. That explained why we had so much marching to do. Then came the biggest surprise of them all. When we left Lentine we were bombed by American bombers, not a very pleasant experience - we suffered a few casualties. I won't repeat what we said about them.

We advanced towards the bridge. I think the time was around 12.00 on the 15th July, we were grateful for the rest. We all stretched out exhausted and slept as best we could. We were told that the 9th Battalion would be attacking the bridge at around 07.30am and we were to advance and take over their position. From the high ground where we watched the 9th Battalion make their frontal assault, the sight was shocking. The River Simeto did, literally, run red with the blood of the 9th Battalion. It was all over by 09.30am, no bridgehead but they had succeeded in preventing the Germans from blowing up the bridge.

It was decided that our attack would go in at 02.00am on the 16 July. (We were shown) a shallow crossing about 300 yards from the bridge. This took the Germans by surprise and they retreated about 100 yards. The end of the bridge, which we had to approach from a frontal assault, had lots of bodies of Germans and British Paratroopers, mostly dead but some wounded who were being treated by the stretcher bearers.

Our Company advance was held up due to lack of communications. Just as first light appeared, up came Col. Lidwall and ordered us over the bridge to assist A Company. The bridge had been cleared of mines by the Royal Engineers (who had) piled them on the side of the bridge. One of our Bren gun carriers had been hit by a shell, it was not a pretty sight. We advanced onto the bridge and when we got to the far end it started. We suffered a few casualties because of the German Spandau machine guns which were firing on fixed lines 6 or 7 inches above ground. Capt. Lewis, our Company Commander, ordered us to lay low and went to find out the number of casualties, we never saw him again.

The Sgt told us to watch out for the German Paratroopers, they were well camouflaged and wore green netting over their faces, making it difficult to see them. Also, that snipers were in abundance. Then came the first counter attack. They were that well camouflaged that we could not see them crawling among the vines until they were 30 yards away. I cannot remember a lot of the action but being a Bren gunner I had used up 3 magazines before the cease fire order came. The moaning and screaming by the wounded was very unpleasant. We could not tend to the wounded because of the snipers. They had already shot some stretcher bearers even though they wore Red Cross armbands.

Ammunition was running low, so the Company runner was told to go back and tell the carriers that we needed some ammo. Before it arrived, the German Paratroopers attacked again. I knew that between us we only had 3 ½ magazines left. At one point the Major shouted "Every man for himself!" At this stage my mind went blank, I don't remember much of the action but when it was all over, another pile of bodies were piled one on top of the other. The distance between us and the Germans was 25 to 30 yards. The bridgehead we made was reduced to 300 yards, so there we were, facing each other. We ran short of ammunition for the third time and the Bren gun carriers did a fine job keeping us well supplied and helped us repel counter attacks. Some carrier lads said they had named our area 'stink alley' because of the dead. We had forced the enemy back once again.

I now found myself with only 1 magazine left. The enemy did not retreat very far so we used hand grenades and 2 inch mortars, this held them back and they began to tire and retreat back to their own lines, leaving the wounded and the dead. With all the bodies the stench was terrible, Lewis and I found a small embankment and buried a German Officer, 2 German soldiers and 2 British Paratroopers. The mound gave us something to sit on, we didn't bother about the smell.

We hoped the oncoming evening would bring some respite, but no such luck, they came again. I let loose with my last remaining magazine, then I got hold of a rifle and continued to fire. Finally the enemy gave up and we rested, able to eat some of our rations. An officer came round and said "Well Done" and that the 6th and 9th Battalions were coming through us to widen the bridgehead. The next morning was clear and sunny. Lewis and myself had a good breakfast, biscuits and ham washed down with warm but soothing water from our bottles.

Joe was injured later in the campaign and was taken to Syracuse and evacuated to Tripoli on a hospital ship.

Jim Williams was a physiotherapist and masseur with RAMC and arrived in Augusta for the planned invasion. His memoir and photographs give a fascinating insight into caring for the casualties of the campaign and life in Sicily directly after the invasion.

For a major D-Day landing casualties were light and the expected rush of patients didn't materialise.

Within a few days we were called on parade and told that we were to join the invasion forces... As we were crossing to Sicily by LCT (Landing Craft tank) it was decided to split the hospital up into units of 100 beds. Each unit would be able to function independently as a 100 bedded hospital in case it was separated from the others. Before striking the tents each bed was made up with clean linen. Everything including the mattress was rolled up and stitched into sacking. Once we set up hospital again, the beds would be unfolded, a bundle placed on each, opened up, and within minutes a whole ward would be equipped with ready made up beds.

Our destination was an Italian psychiatric hospital, just outside Syracuse. All the Italian patients had been moved out and we were able to start putting our hospital together as soon as we arrived... Initially everybody took part in the hard, manual labour required to build and equip the hospital. Gradually as patients began to be admitted, men were withdrawn to work on the wards, the theatres and wherever they were required. As we were acting as a Casualty Clearing Station no physiotherapy was needed and I went to work in the reception tent, admitting patients as they arrived.

Our barrack room on the hospital site.
Our barrack room on the hospital site.
Me, Jimmy and Paddy outside the department in Syracuse.
Me, Jimmy and Paddy outside the department in Syracuse.
Surgical block staff with Italian POW in the foreground.
Surgical block staff with Italian POW in the foreground.

There were air-raids at night, fortunately not too intense, and we had casualties from these as well as from the front. Many (patients) were Italian POW's who were housed in makeshift camps not far from the hospital, with no cover or protection at all. Most of them had been wounded by ack-ack shrapnel as it fell to earth. There was no question of our men being given priority over other nationalities be they German or Italian. The most urgent cases were treated first.

There were not many German prisoners but thousands of Italians. I was allocated two every day to act as stretcher bearers, carrying patients around the hospital compound. They were always quiet, well-behaved men who apparently had never been Fascists, never wanted to fight and just wanted to go home.

Patients continued to pour in. More tented wards had to be erected and in a very short time we had 3,000 beds, more than half of which were stretchers, permanently full. Not all the patients were wounded. We had the usual cases of dysentery but what surprised us most was the number of cases of malaria we had to cope with. Special units of the Royal Engineers were brought in to combat the mosquitoes. All areas of stagnant water were sprayed with oil. Within a few months the number of malaria cases fell rapidly and we were able to discard our nets.

All the time we had been abroad we had only seen an occasional case of venereal disease. Sicily was to open our eyes. We had so many patients admitted with VD that we had to send for a special unit to cope with them. One night I admitted 156 men with these conditions. They had been collected from all over Sicily - Canadians, Americans, British, Indians, almost every nationality and were sent to us for treatment. When a soldier from a locally based unit was admitted with VD we tried to find the source of his infection. If we were successful, a military policeman and a carabinere would visit the lady and bring her to the hospital (for treatment)

Glider Beach
Glider Beach

As hostilities ceased for a while the flow of patients slowed down and we were able to relax a little and have some time off. Trips by lorry were organised now and then for us to go bathing on the sandy beaches at Avola, south of Syracuse. This was the area where the first British landings had been made and the sea and shore were still littered with the remains of the unfortunate gliders that had fallen short of their target.

 

Walking down to Syracuse one day we found a small draper's shop in a side street. Looking for presents or souvenirs to send home we went inside and found it staffed by three sisters and their mother. They had very little to sell, but offered to make us embroidered handkerchiefs. We accepted their offer and they made them with motifs of the 8th Army and Sicily in each corner. They were very friendly and we would always call in and see them as we passed that way, taking them items of food for it was still in short supply.

There was little to do but to see the sites. A few cafes and bars began to open but they had little to offer. The local people were very friendly and we would occasionally spend hours in these bars, fraternising with our ex-enemies and found the majority of them ordinary people like ourselves. I didn't like the wines very much but I did like the people.'

Embroidered handkerchief.
Embroidered handkerchief.
Embroidered handkerchief.
Embroidered handkerchief.