Monday, December 14, 2015

Short Story re Sicily, "An Officer's Reminiscences" Part 2


Reminiscences of a Canadian LCM Flotilla Engineer Officer

"Dieppe veterans on Combined Ops maneuvers in the Mediterranean,
1943" Back row, left, is Lt. Cdr. Jacob Koyl. Author of "Reminiscences"
is likely present also. Photo Credit - The Memory Project

The following excerpt is found in COMBINED OPERATIONS by Londoner Clayton Marks. The name of the Engineer Officer is not attached to the story:

Part 2 - The Invasion of Sicily

The next noon we sailed for the invasion of Sicily. This bold and naked statement only requires a little space to write, but what an unbelievable amount of effort was required in preparation by all concerned; what a perfectly co-ordinated effort from the various branches of the three services and what a SUCCESS! But between the sailing day and 'H' hour, 0230 on the morning of July 10th, many and varied were the speculations as to the place, time, force and bloodiness of the job. It is a very disturbing feeling to be in the midst of a huge convoy headed for an amphibious invasion, knowing only one fact, that an invasion it really is this time and not just another 'exercise'. Experiencing it for the first time I felt keyed up, excited and most of all, just plain scared stiff.

It is interesting to see the different ways that this anxiousness expresses itself in various individuals. Some will remain quiet and talk but very little and then only of things far removed from the scene of the moment, others try to bluff their feelings to their fellows by openly and repeatedly saying how frightened they are of the consequences of the operation, while still others show no outward signs of inward apprehensions. These latter are probably the most scared of the three types, and very frequently the second type succumbs least readily to 'bomb-happiness'. Anyone who has experienced bombing, knows how useless this nervous condition renders one. It is not a pleasant malady to witness.

And so came the time for the briefing of the various Army and Combined Ops units on board. This was preceded by a general outline by the O.C. Troops of the place, extent and more important features of the invasion. Then each unit was very carefully drilled in their individual jobs, with maps, pictures and talks. Excitement runs high at such a time, petty squabbles are forgotten and the men are welded into a force which has one purpose, the execution of the task with the greatest possible speed, thoroughness and efficiency. This purpose held firm until after the big job was done and work slackened off, only then did the Officers and men return in their thoughts and actions to the individuals of 'in-between' days. By this I do not mean that the individual, while in action doesn't retain all-important ability to act quickly and clearly as an individual. It is this fact that so thoroughly distinguishes the Anglo-Saxon combatant from his enemy. Both Italian and German soldiers are not able, or at least do not exhibit the ability, to act individually when their plans "gang aft agley".

'Tis 0215 on July 10th. The ships are on the last zig of a course, which, though full of many zigs and zags, is leading them straight for the southern part of the island of Sicily. The troop carriers have passed the slower merchant ships and are to proceed to within a half a mile from shore and discharge at 0230. A few hours before, the roar of dozens upon dozens of planes had been heard. Our ships' gunners had been warned to hold their fire, for these planes were part of the great scheme and were to carry air-borne troops in gliders. We held our fire, but a combination of heavy weather and enemy interception resulted in the gliders being released, in too many cases, hopelessly far from shore. Though many perished, the first wave of the invasion craft picked many of them up and of the whole glider force, only a small percentage reached their objectives. However, those that did so put up the finest fight in the campaign and have been given credit for capturing and holding several important bridges and other key points.

"Operation Husky: The Sicily Landings 9 - 10 July 1943: An Airborne Division
Horsa glider, after landing off course nose down in a field near Syracuse. Although
unsuccessful in achieving their primary objectives, the Airborne forces did cause
considerable disruption behind the lines." Photo Credit - Histomil

Great was the surprise when almost no opposition was encountered on the beaches themselves. Until late in the afternoon of the first day it was so quiet in fact that one caught oneself doubting if it was the 'real thing', or just an exercise on a huge scale. A swoosh, a whistle and a deafening blast altered this mental indecision instantly and permanently! It was the first visit from the enemy bombers on our section of the beach. It was the first of thirty-three separate and energetic air-raids that were meted out to us in the first four days of our existence on the Island. No one will deny the fact that if the Italian civilians didn't give us a warm welcome, most certainly their air-force, and that of their brother-rogue Germany, did their best to make it a 'warm reception'. Most of the bombing was quite inaccurate, for our anti-aircraft barrage kept the enemy pilots more than occupied. In the twenty-eight days we spent there I only saw three ships sunk. This figure excludes a hospital ship which was deliberately lit up by flares and dive-bombed until it sunk with considerable loss of life.

It was in the second air attack on 'D' day that our Flotilla Officer and his crew narrowly escaped annihilation. Jake* had just beached his boat and was engaged in off-loading the vehicle it carried when a dive-bomber attacked the beach. An LCT was unloading a few yards to port and an LST only a few yards to starboard. The bombs dropped so close to Jake's LCM that the blast carried right over their heads, but completely wiped the bridge of the LST and killed the entire personnel on the LCT, with the exception of one Officer, who was very badly shrapnelled and burned. In a shorter time than it takes to tell, Jake and his boys had their craft off the beach and rushed to pick up injured from the two unfortunate large craft. This occupied them for the remainder of the afternoon and it was to the hospital ship I have already referred to that the wounded were taken. That night she was sunk and the next morning Jake had the gruesome business of taking what few survivors that were still alive from the two instances to another hospital ship. My one and only hope is the crews of the enemy planes that sank the hospital ship stink in the hubs of hell forever and ever! Or should I rather bring my curses onto the heads of those who are responsible for the training of human robots to do such damn brutal and down right cowardly deeds! But all the cursing (it will likely be censored) in the world won't bring back those lads who were twice battered in battle, nor the Sisters, nurses and doctors who lost their lives from such treachery. If we, the Allies, have been guilty of equally deliberate sinkings of German and Italian and Japanese Mercy Ships then on the day of our final victory in this war it will be a hollow, shallow victory indeed.

The next days followed on each others deafening wake with a methodicalness akin to boredom. Yes, in fact each morning for a week or more we were wakened by the scream of bombs and the 'whoomf', 'whoomf' of our own guns. No 'wakie', 'wakie' was required, and each new raid during the day brought our nerves closer to the yielding point. The work of carrying the vehicles and stores and ammunition ashore went on none the less, and when darkness fell on a weary day the total discharge oft o'er shadowed any previous daily record.

During the greater part of our stay in Sicily our Flotilla used an old rock quarry for living quarters for men and Officers. The cave was very large and though it easily satisfied our requirements for space, it was mighty damp and dark. Also it was peopled by a wide variety of 'cave dwellers'. These ranged all the way from rats and mice to lizards, flies, mosquitoes (malaria carrying) and other quadrupeds and insects native to that section of the Island. The first night of our sojourn in the cave I was just in that state between a deep doze and sleep when I felt something tear through my aforementioned beard. I let out a war whoop and jumped at least a hundred feet straight up (well six inches anyway). It was either a rat or a good size lizard! Thenceforth I usually slept with one eye open. My chum, Meade, the engineer from another Flotilla came to visit me one day. I was out, likely 'rabbit' hunting, at the time but our duty hands in the cave, just to show how warm a welcome they could extend to a visiting Officer, produced a first-class gasoline fire. It started from one of the gasoline cookers and spread to containers and in a few moments covered the entire mouth of the cave. In its path it burnt about twenty-five kit bags. One Leading Seaman only salvaged a tie from the charred remains. Until we obtained replacement gear for him he insisted that he would go down to London on leave with the tie as his 'rig'. Others fared not so well and the cave atmosphere fared even worse, for it smelled burned up for days.

Washing both bodies and clothes was a major problem. An adjacent cave contained some fair wash water, but later even this was condemned due to malaria larvae. Soap was very difficult to get and in fact, still is. Sometimes I wonder what has happened to all the soap factories. And if the shortage is due to cargoes lost at sea why isn't the sea water soapy enough to wash in? Oh well, someone will tell us the answer to that one along with, what happens to our mail, who smokes all our gift cigarettes, when will the war be over, what makes women back home so fickle, what beer tastes like, and a few hundred more questions that are earnestly discussed by Officers and Ratings alike whether they be in Combined Ops or the 'dressy' Navy.

An account of this period of our existence (on hard-tack and bully-beef) wouldn't be complete without some mention of the escapades of the lads to near-by villages before they were put out of bounds and sometimes after. We had sufficient hands that after the big rush of the first week or so, we were able to put them into two watches and allow each watch every other twenty-four hours off. Curiosity is a dominant characteristic in C.O. Ratings and it is made even more vigorous by the chance of souvenirs or 'rabbits'. If one returns from a village without something to show for the trip, (no that isn't what I was thinking about!) one's prestige takes a great flop. I will admit that Vino was amongst the articles most highly prized at first and often we were drugged to sleep to the tunes of 'Vino vorblings'.

Vino, the native wine, wasn't the only local product available to us in Sicily. We arrived just in time to cash in on ripe grapes, almonds and lemons in abundance. The grapes were delicious and of a size unequaled even in our fair Niagara Peninsula. So we were one up on the people at home, for once. And in connection with the purchase of such things arose one of the most hotly contested arguments of the trip. Some thought that it would be highly ridiculous that the Sicilians, a conquered people, should have both the nerve and the privilege of asking us, their conquerors, to pay cash for articles we needed. The argument went further, that since the Germans would have taken and taken aplenty at the point of a revolver, why shouldn't we do the same? The counter-argument established the relative innocence of the people concerned and the fact that we at that time, needed to show our superiority to the German troops by playing the game fair and square! I heard this argument in various forms dozens of times and to no definite conclusion, yet I am glad to say that local products were almost always either bought with cash or barter from 'compo' rations.

And in this connection I must say that we found the rural people quite anxious to help us out with fresh vegetables and fruits and eggs when they had them. Did they think it was the wisest course to save their own skins? Probably.

By the first week in August we had daily reports that the beaches would soon be closed and our job finished. However a few ships kept coming in for the port of Catania hadn't fallen 'according to plan' and so we had to unload these vehicles and supplies over the beaches instead. On the ninth Jake received a signal announcing our departure the following day under our own power for Malta. Again speculation was rife as to our further disposal. But the main thing as far as the boys were concerned was that we were to be on the move again and none of us were sorry to relinquish our cave dwelling for the prospects of barracks in Malta. As we sailed away from the beaches where death and destruction had reigned upon us in the early days of the invasion there were sincere sighs of relief to be rid of the place. Little did we dream that in three short weeks we would be coming in sight of the same hills again on our way to Italy!

The voyage to the George Cross Island (Malta) was uneventful and was completed in less time than expected considering the fact that the craft were just about ready to fall apart after a grueling four weeks work. At 1430 on August 10th we slid into Slema Creek to tie up for a well earned rest. Some Naval Officers who saw us approaching the Island told us in the Union Club that evening that the 'armada' of craft as it approached on the horizon was a peculiar sight. Until the mass dissolved into distinguishable boats they thought that it was some new type of ship. And so ended our part of the invasion of Sicily.

Part 3 to follow.

*Jake would be Lt. Cdr. Jacob Koyl, as in the first photo on this page. I assume the writer of this three-part story is one of the bearded officers in the same photo.

Please link to Short Story re Sicily, "An Officer's Reminiscences" Part 1

Unattributed Photos by GH

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