Friday, March 27, 2015

Memoirs re Combined Operations

"DAD, WELL DONE" Navy Memoirs (9)
by L/S Coxswain Doug Harrison

"Instructions being signalled to waiting landing craft by semaphore
at dawn of the opening day of the invasion of Sicily."* July 1943


We had a hospital ship with us named the Alatambra (sic)** with many nurses and doctors aboard. She came in to about three miles in daytime and went out to seven miles and lighted up like a city at night. No one was to bomb a hospital ship and for days on end we took the wounded out to her, many being glider pilots with purple berets. Never a sound out of them, no matter how badly they were hurt. Mostly Scotch soldiers.

One night we saw what appeared to be a tremendous bonfire in the east, offshore a long way out. In the morning, the Alatambra was gone, nursing sisters, doctors, wounded and all. Seven hundred and ninety were killed or drowned. The Germans had either bombed or torpedoed her that night. So goes war.

Aboard Hospital Ship Talamba, April, 1943: From collection of
QA Lieut. Marion Dann. Photo Credit to Hospital Ships

Just another little sidelight. We had acquired a portable record player in a green round box with an ample supply of records by Artie Shaw, Glen Miller, Vaughn Munroe and Tommy Dorsey. We had to wind it by crank and we cranked it so much we broke the handle. Then we had to spin the record with our index finger. It was quite a chore to get the correct speed but with time we achieved it. How I wish I had that record player and records today.

One morning in Sicily I woke up in my hammock in our cave (the hammock was slung between two lime-stone piers and above the lizards) and I saw Hurricane planes taking off just a short distance away. We now began working eight hours on and eight hours off. When we were pretty well unloaded I decided, on my eight hours off, to investigate the air strip and, behold, they were Canadians with Hurricane fighters. I arrived about supper time and explained who I was and was invited for a supper of tomatoes and bully beef... Not that again!

Canadian Hurricane fighters in flight, date unknown:
Photo credit - WW2 database 

“I have no mess fanny or spoon,” I said, and the cook told me there were some fellows washing theirs up and to ask one of them for the loan of their mess fanny and spoon. So I walked over, tapped a man’s shoulder and asked if I could borrow his equipment. The man straightened up and said “sure” and it turned out to be Bill Donnelly from my own hometown of Norwich, Ontario. I got my oppo, A/B Buryl McIntyre from the cave and did the vino ever run that night. Small world. So when we had had enough Bill crawled into his hole in the ground, covered himself with mosquito netting, and we headed back to the cave. Overhead, Beaufort night fighters were giving jerry fighters and bombers hell. We felt the courage given us by the vino and slept quite soundly in our dank old cave ‘til morning rolled around again.

After approximately 27 days I came down with severe chills and then got dysentery. I was shipped to Malta on the Ulster Monarch and an intern came around and handed me 26 pills. I inquired how many doses was that? “Just one,” he replied. At Malta I was let loose on my own to find Hill 10 Hospital. I did after a while and they asked me my trouble. I said, “Dysentery.” “Oh, we’ll soon cure that,” they said. How? “We won’t give you anything to eat.” So for four days all I got was water and pills and soon I was cured, though weak. I thought of those poor devils in the desert.

When I felt better they sent me to a tent where I got regular meals. I saw an air force newspaper and on the front was a picture of Bob Alexander of Norwich, a school chum. But Bob returned to the fray and was lost on one of his bombing missions. How sorry I was to hear that news. He had already done so much.

“Bob Alexander of Norwich, a school chum":
Centre, 1935 - 36 High School photograph

Doug Harrison, stripped sweater, 1935 - 36 

Soon all the boys returned to Malta and we prepared for Italy, though all our barges stayed in Sicily. We took a Landing Ship Tank (LST) back to Mila Marina, Sicily and, if memory serves me correctly, attacked Italy at Reggio Calabria across Messina Straits on my birthday, September 6, 1943.

There was no resistance. The air force had done a complete job and there wasn’t a whole building standing and the railroad yards were ripped to shreds. How long we worked across the straits I cannot really recall, but perhaps into October. One of our stokers set up a medical tent for the civilians at Messina and treated them for sores and rashes. We fed them too but when pregnant women came we had to close up shop.

After a time we were sleeping in casas or houses and I had a helper, a little Sicilian boy named Pietro. First of all I scrubbed him, gave him toothpaste, soap and food. He was cute, about 13 or 14 years of age, but very small because of malnutrition. His mother did my washing and mending for a can of peas or whatever I could scrounge. I was all set up. When Italy caved in there was a big celebration on the beach, but I had changed my adobe and was sleeping with my hammock, covered with mosquito netting, slung between two orange trees. I didn’t join in the celebration because I’d had enough vino, and you not only fought Germans and Italians under its influence, you fought your best friend.

We weren’t too busy and the officers (who ate separately but had the same food as us) were growing tired of the diet, the same as we were, even though they had a Sicilian cook and we didn’t. An officer by the name of Wedd asked me if I knew where there were some chickens or something. I said, “Chickens, yes.”

When he said, “how be we put on some sneakers and gaffle them” I said, “Okay by me. Right then, tonight at dark we’ll go, but I get a portion for my part of the deal.” He agreed and later we got every chicken in the coop, rung their necks, and then took them to the house and had the Sicilian cook prepare them. I got a couple of drum sticks out the window. Next morning, the Sicilian cook came in as mad as hell. Someone had stole his chickens. Little did he know at the time he cooked them that they were his own because his wife looked after them.

We had some days off and we travelled, did some sight seeing, e.g., visiting German graves. We met Sicilian prisoners walking home disconsolately, stopped them, and took sidearms from any officer. We saw oxen still being used as draft animals when we were there. Sometimes we went to Italy and to Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory (AMGOT). (They later changed that name because in Italian it meant sh--!) While a couple of ratings kept the man in charge of all the revolvers busy, we picked out a lot of dandies. If he caught us we were ready. We had chits made out, i.e., “Please supply this rating with sidearms,” signed Captain P.T. Gear or Captain B.M. Lever, after the Breech Mechanism Lever on a large gun.

I learned quite a bit of the Sicilian language under Pietro’s tutelage. He did all my errands and I would have sure liked to have brought him home. It broke my heart to leave him.

Chapter EIGHT to follow.

Please link to Memoirs re CO "DAD, WELL DONE" Navy Memoirs (8) 

*Photo credit - World War II Today
**HMT Talamba

Unattributed Photos by GH

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