Excerpt From Operation Husky

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Operation Husky, Mark Zuehlke

Chapter 7: Call This a Fight?
From Bark West, 1st Canadian Infantry Division’s inland advance in the early morning hours of July 10 proceeded rapidly. On the division’s right flank, Royal Canadian Regiment captain Slim Liddell’s ‘A’ Company made a beeline across country towards Maucini. Although it showed on the maps as a village, the place consisted only of a large house with a few nearby outbuildings. Captain Strome Galloway’s ‘B’ Company was a little slower getting off the mark but was soon headed for the coastal gun battery positioned a little way from Maucini. The advance had gone only about fifty yards when a bullet zipped over Corporal Anson Moore’s head. Moore, a section leader in one of Galloway’s platoons, thought the fire came from a small farmhouse. He had the section’s Bren gunner fire a burst through the open door. Immediately a Sicilian farmer danced out waving a white sheet. Galloway ordered his men to keep moving.

A few minutes later, an “old and gnarled Sicilian accompanied by a youth” ran towards them. “The old man threw his arms about me, and thrust his stubbled cheek against mine, kissed my vigorously.” Galloway pushed the old man gently aside while his men stood around laughing. Ahead, Galloway could see Liddell’s company gaining distance and decided he’d better catch up. Ploughing into a drought-stricken and stunted vineyard, the captain “tripped over some barbed wire and fell flat on my face, gashing my left thigh and bleeding like a stuck pig.” This was not the kind of glorious dash into the face of the enemy that Galloway had been reckoning on.

By the time ‘B’ Company emerged from the vineyard, Liddell’s men had closed on Maucini. “It turned out to be a huge building alright, a lot dirtier than the air photos indicated and garrisoned by a toothless old woman (very dirty) and three small kids (also dirty),” Liddell wrote. “The odd rifle and set of pouches indicated the hurried departure of Italian troops.” ‘A’ Company then “stood grimly by waiting to shed their life’s blood trying to blow a way through the wire if ‘B’ Company should find their job a bit too large and call for help.”

As Galloway’s lead platoon approached the coastal battery, a machine gun ripped off a burst and then fell silent. Seconds later, several 15-inch rounds from Roberts crashed down around the battery. No way was Galloway sending his men forward with the monitor targeting his objective, so he ordered them to ground while a runner dashed back to battalion headquarters. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Crowe and his headquarters outfit were just starting to move off the beach when the runner arrived with a request that the attached naval gunner officer call off the monitor. Back on the transport, Galloway and every man in the company had studied the plan for taking the battery. He could see now that everyone had remembered his job. Lieutenant Allan “Abe” Pettem and his platoon crawled over a stone wall to a spot of cover from which they would mount the frontal assault. Lieutenant Harry Keene swung out on one flank, so his platoon could cut off any attempt by the Italians to withdraw. The third platoon would provide Pettem’s men with covering fire.

Some of Pettem’s men were packing bangalores to blast a hole in what they expected to be a wire tangle several feet high. The real thing was just eighteen inches tall and consisted of a few strands. The men ditched the heavy explosives and, with Pettem leading the charge, hurdle-jumped the wire. Inside the perimeter, the four guns had been abandoned. There was not an Italian to be found. A lance corporal ducked into a house beside the gun lines and reported it empty. There was food on the table and some bedding was still warm.

Sergeant Jean Bougard, meanwhile, had spotted a nearby dugout and gone to investigate it. Staring into the darkness, he heard faint talking. Shouldering his Lee-Enfield, Bougard fired a shot into the dugout and out poured a herd of Italians babbling, “Buono Italiano,” over and over. One of them had his lower lip torn away and blood was pouring out of the gaping wound. The sergeant had bagged one captain, two lieutenants, and thirty-five artillerymen—the entire battery’s garrison. Near the dugout an abandoned machine-gun emplacement had a pool of blood on its concrete floor. Galloway looked at the blood, then the mouth wound, and decided it was probable that shrapnel from a shell off Roberts had caused it rather than Bougard’s bullet.

A few minutes later, Lieutenant G.N.C. “Geoff” Campbell walked into the battery position with his platoon of pioneers in tow. The men stuffed explosives into the breeches of the four howitzers and blew them. While the pioneers were spiking the guns, Galloway’s men relieved the prisoners of “pistols, other souvenirs, and stacks of Italian bank notes. Italian money, we figured, was going to come in handy.” Sending the prisoners to the beach under the guard of a couple of men, Galloway led the rest of the company towards Pachino airfield.

The advance by ‘C’ Company, which was to lead the airfield attack, “was not carried out in any prescribed military fashion” that its commander, Captain Ian Hodson, recognized. When one lieutenant spotted suspicious movement a thousand yards away from the line of advance, he wandered off alone into the vineyards and olive groves to investigate without bothering to inform Hodson or his platoon sergeant. Once it dawned on the sergeant, whom Hodson considered “not the brightest,” that he was now in charge of the platoon, the man had no idea what to do and stopped moving. Hodson stomped over and used “some strong language to straighten him out.” When the wayward lieutenant reappeared from his solo sortie, Hodson dressed him down as well.

By the time he got this platoon ready to move, the rest of the company had gathered “like flies” around the corpse of an Italian soldier. Some men were “cutting off buttons, epaulettes, belt buckle.” Hodson bellowed at his platoon commanders “to get busy and command their platoons” and, in some semblance of formation, ‘C’ Company finally headed for its objective.

Hodson was hanging back, keeping a watchful eye on the wandering lieutenant and his men. Consequently, he arrived at the airfield a few minutes behind the point platoon. He was “horrified” to see them “sitting in a circle in the middle of the landing strip, having a rest and a cigarette.” Shouting and waving his arms, Hodson got them heading east across the airfield towards the water tower.

***

Lieutenant Colonel Crowe was watching ‘C’ Company’s advance from a low rise about two hundred yards south of the airfield, after establishing his battalion headquarters, at about 1030 hours, inside a small gravel pit tucked into the south slope.. The Italians, it appeared, had ploughed up the landing strip to render it useless and then withdrawn. Standing next to Crowe, Major Billy Pope, “who had ‘overlooked’ the fact that he was technically LOB,” agreed. Pope had just driven up aboard one of the battalion’s Bren carriers, the first RCR vehicle put ashore. The two men watched ‘C’ Company progress across the airfield while ‘A’ Company moved towards a cluster of barracks buildings in the northwest corner. Suddenly, artillery shells started exploding around the two companies, the telltale flashes of guns betraying the location of a coastal battery a thousand yards north of the airfield.

Hodson’s ‘C’ Company ignored the fire and kept moving east of the airfield. ‘A’ Company, meanwhile, had established contact with ‘D’ Company of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment immediately west of its position. Its commander, Major A. A. “Bert” Kennedy, hurried over and told Liddell “to stop shooting at his lads whenever they moved forward.” Kennedy, the scion of an Owen Sound ship-propeller manufacturing firm, had commandeered the tiller of his LCA and confidently guided it ashore, with the other LCAs carrying his company and the battalion headquarters following behind. Accordingly, ‘D’ Company and Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Sutcliffe’s headquarters unit had been the only Hasty P’s to land in the right spot. This had given Kennedy’s men a head start inland, so it was now operating independently—although the Hasty P’s ‘A’ Company was not far behind on the left flank. When Liddell pointed out that none of his men were shooting at anything, the two officers realized “the local enemy must be getting active.” ‘A’ Company was still being stalked by the coastal battery, the rounds falling around it being mistaken by Liddell for mortar bombs because they exploded with a “very loud bang” and “a lot of black smoke” but did no noticeable damage.

Kennedy pointed to a hill in front of his company, which had suddenly come alive with Italian troops firing from a concealed fortification, and said he was going to assault it. Liddell got his men throwing out supporting fire from the flank, while the Hasty P’s went right at the hill. The fortified hill was quickly overrun, and Kennedy’s men captured three medium machine guns and two 75-millimetre field guns. A few minutes later there was a sharp rattle of gunfire from left of the hill, and then some men from the Hasty P’s ‘A’ Company appeared with seven prisoners. Word passed over the wireless that they had captured an Italian field gun and the tractor that had been towing it off.

While Liddell had been helping the Hasty P’s take the hill, Crowe kept pestering him over the wireless to “get cracking” and finish clearing up the airfield. A little after 1100 hours, Liddell led his men down the slope towards the barracks and into the face of fire coming from several machine guns and rifles. Suddenly, what had seemed a stroll under a hot sun turned deadly. Between ‘A’ Company and the Italian positions was a serious wire obstacle. It “was necessary to crawl under it looking for mines, holding up the wire so it wouldn’t catch on equipment…and hope that whoever was doing the shooting wouldn’t suddenly improve and get a hit.” Once they broke through the wire and gained the open airfield, ‘A’ Company shook out into a perfectly extended line and quick-marched forward, shooting several snipers along the way to the barracks while the machine-gun fire continued to fly harmlessly overhead. The barracks proved abandoned, all clean and tidy, with neatly made beds. Enemy machine-gun fire kept coming at the company, but Liddell was unable to spot its source. What he still thought were mortars also kept firing on the company, their rounds exploding noisily and releasing black smoke clouds. To the northeast on the other side of a vineyard, Liddell spotted a well-camouflaged house and decided it was probably concealing the machine guns. As ‘A’ Company crawled into the intervening vineyard it came up against more thick tangles of wire. A standoff ensued, with both Italians and Canadians pouring out fire.

The impasse was broken when a section composed of five privates managed to force their way over the wire and close on the two concrete machine-gun emplacements protecting the house. Thirty-one-year-old Private James Milford Butler of Chatam, Ontario was killed in the attack. But Joe Grigas and Jack Gardner flanked one of the positions and killed its crew. This prompted the commanding Italian officer to order his men to lay down their arms, despite the fact that the fortification remained formidable. For their bravery, Grigas received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Gardner a Military Medal.

Everywhere ‘A’ Company looked Italians started coming out of holes, as the entire garrison surrendered. Nobody could manage an accurate count of how many prisoners were sent back to the beach. The battalion war diarist estimated 130. Liddell was sure he counted 253.

The fighting wound down at about 1300 hours. Lieutenant Colonel Crowe arrived a few minutes later and expressed his pleasure at the discovery that the fortification had housed four 6-inch coastal guns that were now silenced. There was also a truck standing in the yard filled with Italian light machine guns. Crowe told Liddell that ‘D’ Company was coming up on his left flank and would be moving to the north of it.

‘C’ Company, meanwhile, was well northeast of the airfield, with the town of Pachino to its right. Neither Hodson nor his men were feeling alert. The after-effects of seasickness were setting in and the heat of the day was proving insufferable, with the temperature hovering between ninety and ninety-five Fahrenheit. When word came over the wireless for the company to hold up, Hodson stopped his men in the shade of a long row of ten-foot-high cactus plants. “The troops were tired and there was dead silence. Suddenly, from nowhere, appeared an Italian soldier leading a mule on which was a very large wireless set. The Italian had not seen us and plodded along parallel to our line of recumbent soldiers, about 50 feet in front of us. No shots were fired, no sentries were calling out to their superiors to point out this soldier. Finally I got to my feet and shouted ‘Platoon commanders, for God’s sake, somebody, do something.’ There were a few shouts, followed by some sporadic rifle fire. The Italian kept plodding along. Finally a soldier ran after him, knelt down and shot him. Not a very auspicious occasion.”

In the distance Hodson spotted tanks moving and felt a shiver of fear. He rummaged around in his tired memory to recall the enemy armour silhouette cards studied in training. Nothing looked right. Finally, as they rumbled closer, the tanks materialized into Shermans and behind them plodded some veteran Desert Rats of the 51 st Highland Division. They looked more like prospectors than soldiers, picks and shovels over their shoulders and wearing thick flannel shirts instead of the rather well- turned-out bush shirts that the Canadians had been issued. Some of Hodson’s men sniggered at the British soldiers’ appearance. In time, however, they would realize that the flannel absorbed sweat during the day and provided some warmth during cold nights. They would also learn that picks and shovels beat “fingernails and the edge of a steel helmet [for] digging weapon pits.”

Left of ‘C’ Company, Liddell’s ‘A’ Company became involved in another exchange of fire. While the gun battle with unseen opponents raged, an officer from the 51 st Highland’s Devonshire Regiment ducked out of Pachino to brief Liddell on a plan to squeeze a suspected Italian battle group between the British troops and the RCR from both flanks. As the two officers discussed how to go about this, they realized their men were firing on each other and the Italian force was non-existent. Nobody on either side had been hit during the twenty-minute exchange.

The RCR by now was on all its assigned objectives and, despite the delayed landing, was several hours ahead of schedule. ‘D’ Company had the battalion’s last scrap of the day at about 1400 hours, running into a “gauntlet of some of the fiercest M.G. fire that the Italians had thrown at us,” as the war diarist put it. Lieutenant Walter Roy’s platoon had been well ahead of the rest of the company when the Italians opened up. Without waiting for the other platoons, Roy led his platoon into an attack only to be severely shot in the shoulder. Several other men were wounded before the company managed to overrun the enemy position and take forty prisoners.

By 1700 hours, the battalion was digging in for the night and also “into their 48-hour rations, and seldom was a mess tin of tea more enjoyed.” The RCR, the war diarist proudly noted, “was the first to capture an enemy airfield in Sicily, they have done a good day’s work and they know it.”

Hodson thought they had been mercifully lucky. They had “gained some experience (some of it admittedly not very good) but we were intact and ready for the next operation. Men had learned for themselves that in this heat we could not carry all the equipment issued to us. Without instructions or authority, on that very first day and during the next few days, we stripped down to the very basic necessities to become mobile and to conserve energy. We all recognized that we had a great deal to learn, but we had taken a first step toward becoming good soldiers.”