Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Short Story re Malta, "Rest and Repair, August 1943"

Food, Sustenance and Mail Were Found on Malta

By Doug Harrison, RCNVR, Combined Ops

Bighi Ex-Royal Navy Hospital, Valletta, Malta: Link to Photo Credit

Editor's Introduction: My father wrote weekly columns, like the one below, for his hometown newspaper, The Norwich Gazette, in the early 1990s. In them he shared details about his training upon various types of landing craft in Scotland and England, and his service from 1941 - 1945 as a member of very active landing craft flotillas, e.g., the 80th Flotilla of Landing Craft Mechanized (LCMs) during, for example, the invasions of Sicily and Italy. In between those invasions, i.e., in August, 1943, he recovered from dysentery on the very well-remembered - for rest, recovery and repair - island of Malta.

Food, Sustenance and Mail Were Found on Malta

At the end of the Sicilian campaign several Canadian sailors and officers became ill. Fatigue brought on by long hours of work and poor nourishment for over a month had now taken its toll and showed up in various ways. Salt water sores, rashes, sunburn, dysentery, things we hadn’t time to bother with before now began to manifest themselves.

Fear was now gone and the inaction caused many to have letdowns. Many had not relaxed for weeks and now that it was over they had difficulty handling it. Mail from home would have helped at a time like this; most of us hadn’t had mail since April and it was now the middle of August. I would have given my right arm for a cool drink of Norwich water and Sweet Caporal cigarettes from the Women’s War league. Parcels and letters were awaiting us in Malta and we were heading that way by landing craft and ship.

If we had a doctor I don’t recall one, but someone, possibly an officer, doled out quinine for malaria, as mosquitoes were really bad. Under the worst possible conditions we tried to keep clean; the only clothes we owned were on our backs and we weren’t to get more until our return to England sometime in October. Khaki shorts and shirts were our uniforms.

After being free from dysentery, I now felt its ravages. Luckily though, I went the 100 miles or so to Malta aboard a real old veteran ship named the Ulster Monarch. Whenever there was a campaign this old stalwart was there. None of us were basket cases and certainly enjoyed being flaked out in bunks on the Monarch. I remember the ship’s sick bay assistant (Tiffy) handing me a fistful of pills. I counted them and there were 16. I asked him how many doses they were and he answered, “One. What are you going to wash them down with... the deck hose?” We all laughed but I wish I hadn’t.

In a few hours, with my orders from the ship’s doctor to report to Hill 10 Hospital, I climbed the cement steps in Valetta Harbor as best I could. Malta isn’t very large and by asking a few natives I found my way to the hospital, dragged right out. I wandered in and reported my condition to one of the English orderlies. I’ll never forget how cheerful his reply was in that Godforsaken place. “Oh, we’ll soon cure that, Canada.”

“Yeah? How?” I said.

“We’ll starve you for a week.”

(So, what else was new?)

Ill effects of dysentery and malnourishment were felt by many members of Combined
Operations. CPO Hugh Houston of London, Ontario walks (left) in Victoria, B.C., and
(right) stands in Valletta, Malta, after experiencing both in the Italian campaign.
Photo from St. Nazaire to Singapore, Volume 1, page 155

But I was in no condition to argue and for a few days I found out how severe dysentery can be, and hunger was no stranger to me, but after four or five days the staff relented and gave me a little boiled cabbage. Here was FOOD and SUSTENANCE and I suffered very few side affects. I was on my way, even my ribs looked better. After about 10 days I was given a clean bill of health and released to wander freely about Malta and wait for my comrades who were late coming from Sicily in landing craft. I found a vacant array of Air Force tents to sleep in and was fortunate to scrounge some food from the natives. I thought I had it tough - but I couldn’t hold a candle to these folks. I investigated a bit of the catacombs where many slept and lived through the intense bombing raids - no wonder the island was awarded the George Cross.

I can’t remember the name of the service paper I found in the tent, but there before my eyes was a photo of a Norwich air force boy, Bob Alexander. The paper reported that Bob had completed 30 missions and had returned to Canada to become an instructor. It’s a small world. I carried that paper for a long while. When my friends returned from Sicily in their landing craft, I was waiting for them at the bottom of the cement steps. Our commanding officer Lt/Comdr Koyl and a few hands disappeared for awhile and when they returned they were weighted down with kit bags of parcels and mail. The blues disappeared and quietness settled in as every one of us, in a different posture, chewed on an Oh Henry bar and read news from home. The war wasn’t so bad after all. We shared with anyone who hadn’t received a parcel; no one went hungry. We feasted on chocolate bars, cookies, canned goods and the news.

There were still about 250 of us - we hadn’t lost a soul, but one man had a terrible shrapnel wound in his arm. We conserved parcels for a rainy day and were dispersed to ships and tents to live for a few days while our stoker got the engines on each craft ready for the invasion of Italy. Of course, no one knew when that would be, but urgency was the order of the day and repair parts were non-existent. We toured the island of Malta and some sailed over to Gozo, another small island. We mingled with the inhabitants but generally we took the opportunity to get some rest and re-read mail. I saw a movie, and before the show the music consisted of western songs by Canada’s own Wilf Carter.

Although no one ventured a word, we all had Italy in the back of our minds. Before we got too settled in, we were throwing our hammocks aboard our landing craft again and heading for Sicily. Our flotillas beached at the mouth of a now dried up river bed at Mila Marina, then a few days in Catania harbor itself, where we had a good view of German low-level attacks on a British cruiser. At night we watched German planes try to take evasive action as they were caught in the searchlights which circled the harbor. During the day we could see the smoke from Mt. Etna.

Loaded LSTs in Catania harbour, September 1, 1943 

At midnight on September 3, 1943 our Canadian landing craft flotilla, loaded once again with war machinery, left the beaches near Messina, Sicily and crossed the Messina Strait to Reggio Calabria in Italy. The invasion of Italy was underway.

. . . . . .

Related text from Doug Harrison's memoirs, from Chapter Seven 'Sicily and Italy' (already logged on this site) appears below:

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 (centre) of Norwich, a school chum"
1935 - 36, Norwich High School photograph

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.

“From Sicily, via Strait of Messina, to Italy in 1943”

Please link to Short Story re Sicily, "Four Canadian Flotillas, 1943"

Unattributed Photos by GH

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