Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 10 (1)

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

Troops from 2nd Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment wait to board
landing craft at Catania, Sicily, for the invasion of Italy, 2 September 1943.
Photo Credit - Histomil Historica

Introduction: The following post will be part of a Nov. 2016 presentation regarding my father's WW2 service with the RCNVR and Combined Operations organization.

Part 10 - The Invasion of Italy - September 1943
Operation AVALANCHE and Operation BAYTOWN

As a member of Combined Operations my father was involved in Operation BAYTOWN, the transport of men and materials to Reggio di Calabria, on the toe of the boot of Italy. He writes the following about his experiences during the invasion:

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 Mili Marina, Sicily, and if memory serves me correctly, attacked Italy at Reggio di 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 abode 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 Andy 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 right then, “Okay by me. 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 stolen his chickens. Little did he know at the time he cooked them that they were his own because his wife looked after them.

“Tuck their heads under their wing and rock them for awhile...”

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 depot (AMGOT). (They later changed that name because in Italian it meant shi-!) 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.

From "DAD, WELL DONE" Pages 35 - 36.


D. Harrison added these details to his story about the Sicilian chickens at a later date:

One day at Messina, the late Lt. Andy Wedd asked me if, with my rural background, I knew about poultry. I informed him that the subject was right down my alley. He then told me of the location of six or eight beautiful hens and asked if I would help him divest the owner of the same. When he asked how we could keep the hens quiet, I told him, “With an axe!” Or, we could firmly grasp their necks and tuck their heads under their wing and rock them for awhile. We chose the latter because it actually works. By now, of course, our mouths are watering.

We went in at dark, like another raid, and entered the outside pen with a flashlight, a kit bag and mitts on. Andy slowly cinched each one by the neck, handed them to the master who rocked them to sleep and lowered them quietly into the kit bag. His idea of a beautiful hen sure didn’t match mine! Anyway without a squawk we cleaned the roost and proceeded to the officers’ mess, kit bag between us.

In the morning, the Sicilian cook came in with one hell of a snit. Somebody had stolen his Mama Mia’s chickens. Andy said he was the first Sicilian he had met that was ready to fight and never let it out of the bag about our midnight raid and feast.

From "DAD, WELL DONE" Pages 70 - 71.


The following article appeared in the Norwich Gazette in the early 1990s:


It was no different touching down on the Italian beach at Reggio di Calabria at around midnight, September 3, 1943 than on previous invasions. Naturally we felt our way slowly to our landing place. Everything was strangely quiet and we Canadian sailors were quite tense, expecting to be fired upon, but we touched down safely, discharged our cargo and left as orderly and quietly as possible.

In the morning light on our second trip to Italy across seven miles of the Messina Straits we saw how the Allied artillery barrage across the straits had levelled every conceivable thing; not a thing moved, the devastation was unbelievable and from day one we had no problems; it was easy come, easy go from Sicily to Italy.

Invasion of Italy, Operation Baytown, Sept. 3rd, 1943 
Photo credit - W. S. MacLeod, RAF Beach Units 

We operated our landing craft under these conditions with skeleton crews and we enjoyed time off. Some of us went to Italy, hitched rides on army trucks, went as far as we were allowed to go and had a good look at some of Italy. We lived on the edge, because not far from the shoulder of the asphalt road were high cliffs and we could look down on the Adriatic sea, its beautiful beaches and menacing rocks.

I remember one of the many refugees of war, a barefoot lady dressed in a black sleeveless dress, carrying a huge black trunk on her head. I suppose it contained all her earthly belongings or it was very dear to her, and she walked along the coastal road back toward Reggio, to what, I’ll never know. I couldn’t have carried that load.

Our living quarters was a huge Sicilian home (in Messina) and some nights I slept on my hammock on a beautifully patterned marble floor. However, since that was a hard bunk I sometimes slung my hammock, covered with mosquito netting, between two orange trees in the immense yard. Canned food was quite plentiful now and several young Sicilian boys, quite under-nourished, came begging for handouts, especially chocolota, as they called our chocolate bars.

I took a boy about 11 years old under my wing when off duty. In one corner of the yard was a low, square, cement-walled affair complete with a cement floor, tap and drain hole. It was here I introduced “Peepo” to Ivory soap, Colgate toothpaste and hair tonic for his short, shiny, ringletted black hair. My name was “Do-go” which I am still called today at navy reunions, and this boy really shone when I had finished his toilet. Peepo wasn’t too keen on soap and water and it certainly was obvious, but not for long.

I tried to learn some of his language, and he mine (the Canadian Marina). Although we were from countries thousands of miles apart, the war had brought us together and we got along famously. He and I also wandered about Messina. I went with Peepo to meet his Mamma. I took some canned food, chocolota and compost tea, a complete tea in a can exactly like a sardine can, with a key attached as well. Although the lad’s mother was forty-ish, she appeared older. Over a cup of tea, and with difficulty, Mrs. Guiseppe said she would do some laundry for me, and mending.

In order to heat water and cook a bit, our fellows cut large metal hardtack biscuit tins in half, filled them with sand, poured on gasoline and cooked to their heart’s content. The hardtack biscuits are a story in themselves, hard as a rock even after soaking in compost tea. I think some tins were marked 1917.

Some of the Sicilian homes were but hovels, with dirt floors, complete with goats, donkeys, and chickens in the kitchen. The population drank wine at meals as we would tea. I saw wagons being pulled by oxen. Wine (vino) in wooden barrels was everywhere and our flotilla tapped the odd barrel.

In the navy we just acquired things. A tent was set up on the beach after we acquired some salves, soap and gauze to treat the locals who had rashes and cuts, etc. The word spread about the Canadian Marina Hospital and one morning a few days after we opened, two very pregnant ladies appeared. The work of mercy ended, and very quickly I might add, amidst our embarrassment.

One evening an officer and I went on a short foray and acquired a few chickens. The officer had a cook, and I thought of home as I enjoyed a couple of drumsticks in payment for my part in the acquisition. (Oh! We left some chickens for the owner.)

About half of the Canadian sailors went back to England after the Sicilian campaign. That left about 125 to work about a month across the straits. During that time we received mail and parcels. We worked alongside captured Italian and Sicilian soldiers who were loading our landing craft, egged on by Sweet Caporal cigarettes and some canned food. There were no P.O.W. camps and prisoners wandered freely. The Germans had made good their well-planned escape ahead of the invasion. On occasion during the action along the beaches at Sicily and the quieter time at Italy, we often saw big green turtles swimming about. They didn’t know there was a war on.

Some buddies and I spent my 23rd birthday singing our lungs out in a cottage-style house near the beach, complete with a piano but incomplete with no roof. I had my guitar along and we all had some vino. About midnight with the hilarity in full swing, thunder rolled, the skies opened and the first rain in months came pouring in. Soaked inside and out we headed to where we belonged, singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home” as big as life and twice as natural.

One night shortly after that event I was all snug in my hammock, mosquito netting all tucked in (it took a while). I was ready to drop off to sleep when all hell broke loose on the beach. Machine gun fire, tracer bullets drawing colourful arcs in the dark sky. Someone shook my hammock and asked if I was coming to the beach party - Italy had thrown in the sponge. I said, “No, I’m not coming, and would you please keep it down to a dull roar because I want to log some sleep.”

After about a month Do-go had a tearful goodbye with his friend Peepo. He stood on the beach and I on my landing craft, waving our goodbyes. What a strange war. I have thought of him often.

Our flotilla went back to Malta for a few days and from there we took fast Motor Torpedo boats* to Bougie in North Africa and boarded a Dutch ship, the Queen Emma, whose propellor shaft was bent from a near miss with a bomb. In convoy we made about eight knots up the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, anchored inside the submarine nets for a couple of days, and slowly moved out one night for England.

In true navy fashion, after landing at Gourock, near our Canadian barracks H.M.C.S. Niobe in Greenock, we entrained for a barracks at Lowestoffe (SE England), where on a clear day the church spires of Norwich could be seen. We spent a month there, then went by train to Niobe, received two new uniforms and a ticket aboard the Aquitania, arriving safely at Halifax on December 6th, 1943. I had a wonderful Christmas at home with Mother and family. It was sure nice to walk down Main Street and meet the people.

Chuck ‘Rosie’ Rose, Don ‘Westy’ Westbrook aboard the Aquitania. 
The Aquitania arrived “safely at Halifax on December 6th, 1943”

Please link to Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 9

Unattributed Photos GH

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