Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945
By G. A. Harrison
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
There are many other details related to Canadians in Combined Operations as they leave Malta, for example, and head toward weeks of heavy duty associated with the invasion of Italy, first week of September, 1943. Significant facts and details can be found in C. Mark's Combined Operations, recorded by Marks himself, and by two officers, one an unidentified Engineer Officer connected to the 80th Flotilla, and Jake Koyl, an officer mentioned earlier.
From Clayton Marks:
Just before the departure for northern Sicily in preparation for the jump across the Straits of Messina, it was decided that the 81st Flotilla would not be sent. Its craft were not of as recent a type as those of the 80th and would not be useful in the unfamiliar role of assault landing craft, which was to be the work allotted them. Moreover, a large number of men from the 81st were in hospital with sickness acquired in Sicily. The 80th Flotilla therefore sailed alone from the Great Harbour of Malta on August 27th.
On September 1st, at one of the assembly points near Messina, from which the expedition was to cross, the Officers of the Flotilla were briefed. Thirty-six hours later they began to embark the Canadians of the Royal 22nd Regiment, the West Nova Scotians, and the Carleton and Yorks. Canadian soldiers and Canadian sailors were operating together at last.
In the early morning darkness of September 3rd the loaded craft moved up the Strait, close inshore on the Sicilian side, making for their take-off point. Among many ships crowding the narrow waters, "Warspite" and "Valiant" swept by, looming hugely. The wash from the battleships' passing bounced the landing craft like water bugs and sent huge waves over the sides to soak the men. The big ships of the Royal Navy, at that tense, nerve-fraying moment, came in for a heartfelt cursing.
At dawn the armies for the invasion of Italy moved across the six mile Strait. "Warspite" and "Valiant" were forgiven their trespass by the men in the landing craft as the Navy added to a great barrage put up by artillery firing from Sicily across the Strait. Screaming through the half-light overhead, thousands of shells from the artillery of the Army and the big Naval guns passed above the Flotilla. Plumed explosions rose inland as the ramps of the craft went down and the conquerors of Sicily set foot on the Italian mainland. Great transit searchlights from the Sicilian side were cutting through the dim morning to assist navigation and directing smoke shells were providing some assistance mixed with a good deal of confusion.
For a month after the lightly-opposed Italian landing the 80th Flotilla carried out its familiar routine of ferry work. The end came with the Italian armistice and a great celebration in which the population of the countryside joined, and after that the word "England" was on every man's lip. The men of the 55th and 61st assault Flotillas had long been in the United Kingdom. The 81st was also there. Last of the Combined Operations units to return to Britain, the men of the 80th Flotilla, arrived on October 27th.
A little more than two months remained of 1943. In England the men heard cheering news of conditions in the Atlantic and of the war around the world. Good tidings continued to arrive, right up to the destruction of Scharnhorst in the closing days of December. Already 1944 was being spoken of as the year of "the invasion", and perhaps the year of decision. The Allied world was girded at last and moving forward in the full tide of its strength and confidence.
Yet the bells of the new year ushered in a season of tense foreboding for the men of Canada as for all men of the warring world. Before the armies now in Italy loomed icy hills fanged with the guns of a desperate and determined enemy. The divisions long trained and ready in England had yet to meet their great and costly test. Canadian Airmen knew that the fading Luftwaffe had not yet lost its power to sting. The men of the Atlantic escort forces looked forward to a continuance of a weary, four-year old task, from which the conquest of the U-boats - if it remained a conquest - meant the removal only of the greatest among many perils. For the powerful Tribal destroyers, and the still newer Fleet destroyers which were on the way, there was to be surface combat in the old tradition but with deadlier weapons. And before the men of the landing craft lay other hostile shores.
Combined Operations, pages 86 - 87
ALC is lowered from a troop ship
From an unidentified Engineer Officer:
For the Seaman branch the stay in Malta was a holiday, but not so for the maintenance staffs of each Flotilla. After rather hectic negotiations and the cluttering up of signal services with dozens of sane and insane signals it was finally decided to refit craft in the Malta dockyard. I was enjoying the doubtful luck of a stay in hospital at this time but I heard from day to day of progress in underwater and engine repair. It was a colossal job in as much as spares were as scarce as hens' teeth and the war strategy in the Mediterranean called for super speed.
The boats were placed in drydock in batches and work proceeded from daylight until midnight with one shift! In eleven days over one hundred boats were repaired, and though some of the repairs proved defective later, still it was a tremendous effort. Once again the boys came through with the goods when we were in a pinch. This is an outstanding feature of Combined Ops Ratings, they may grumble and grouse when work is slack, but when there is a job to be done, they can be counted on to a man. I was, I think, justifiably proud of the work our Canadian motor mechanics and stokers did in the Malta dockyard. One man momentarily passed out from the terrific heat in an engine room one morning - he carried on for the remainder of the day and didn't report sick till late at night!
While in Malta several malaria, sand-fly fever and cases of desert sores developed. Some were cured in time to sail with us and those that had to remain were sincerely disappointed for after the fall of Sicily it was quite easy to guess our next move would be into Italy itself and they wanted to be in on the mainland job. However we were fortunate in securing eleven Canadian stokers who had recently come from Canada on LCI's.
I was struck by what might be called a 'lion-and- the-mouse' comparison as we moved out of the harbour on the morning of August 27th. One of the Royal Navy's proudest battleships lay at mooring. Surely if ships of her size and grandeur were necessary how puny and frail our fifty-foot boats looked in comparison! Could they both represent a striking force? It looked absurd, and yet the history of Lord Louis Mountbatten's Combined Operations fleet of tiny craft has proven their soundness, aye and well nigh perfection, in carrying our armies to enemy coasts. Even so, the faces of the Sailors on the 'big ship' seemed to be scoffing at our insignificance. However, it is but a fortune of war that the same battle-wagon received severe blows in the Italian invasion and we - well, I'm getting ahead of my story!
Our trip north was broken the first night at the south eastern tip of Sicily, Cape Passero, for a night's rest. The second stop was the much battered port of Augusta, where we remained for several days. I remember one day here very well. I set out in the morning to obtain a bottle of oxygen and one of acetylene to do some necessary welding. The Base Engineer Officer had used his supply but he thought I could get some from the Army. To do so I would require transport. After going to three transport offices and getting the run around, I finally convinced a Lieutenant Colonel of the urgency of my quest. He supplied a 30 cwt. truck and driver and away we went. On arriving at the place where the supply depot had been we found they had moved about 40 kilometers further on.
Eventually arriving at the depot, I tackled the supply officer. He informed me that another supply Major was the only man who could issue the gas! On the way out to the main road we passed three ten-ton trucks of acetylene and oxygen and I still think the good Lord put them there to encourage me to seek the aforementioned Major! At last he was found about 10 kilos away. Dripping perspiration and with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, it was then 1500, I laid my case. His reply included something about having just supplied a Rear Admiral with forty bottles of each the previous day in Catania, and why couldn't I get mine from said Admiral? I explained that this was already consigned and he reluctantly agreed to my request. But alas, just as I was leaving his tent he told me where to put my empties. It seemed that no full bottles could be issued without return of empties. Now how in hell can a fellow have empties until he has drawn some full ones? The end of the story was that he sticks to his guns and I returned to Augusta at 1800 without any dinner and with a brand new stock of expletives - but one can't operate an acetylene outfit on such gas; even as a wartime measure!
Just before dusk on September 2nd, a large convoy of craft, small and large, stole quietly out of Augusta harbour and headed northward. We steamed all night and beached just before dawn broke, clear and hot. This day was spent in loading the correct serials, numbers given to Army vehicles, in the right craft and sorting out the craft for the various convoys that were to move off that night. Jake spent the afternoon travelling from beach to beach on our motorcycle - acquired legally? in the Sicilian operation - briefing the various crews. By evening, all was in readiness. We had supper on the boats, a culinary feat which I defy any housewife to accomplish better than our boys do it, and spent an hour resting on the sand with some of the Army Officers who were to be our passengers. One Scottish Captain said that he had just heard that someone had made a mistake in the night and we were thus going over twenty four hours ahead of the planned artillery barrage! Humour is the greatest single method of keeping morale up to the skies! (by the way, he was wrong!)
Just after dark that night, September 3rd, we left the beach to join our appointed convoy of LCI's, LCT's and LCA's. This convoy was passing at a certain time close inshore but it was like a game of hide and seek to find them. This done, we proceeded up the coast to Mili Marina, where our particular boat was to pick up a Canadian Brigadier and his HQ staff. The beaches along this part of the coast are paradise for landing craft with about a five to one slope, and were well marked with distinguishing lights.
The time set for the final stage of the trip was 0300. We knew the plan was to lay down a heavy artillery barrage from the island across the Straits of Messina. Just as we turned from the coast to proceed due east to the Italian toe, the barrage opened up. And what a deafening roar! It was magnificent to say the least, and even a quarter of a mile off-shore we could feel the concussion from the guns. By the time we reached mid-channel a fog was settling down and this was turned into a good imitation of London's foggiest weather by the smoke from the exploding shells as we neared the coast. Navigation was difficult, but we managed to keep on the stern of our guiding M.L. With all the racket, plus a general expectation of a heavily opposed landing we expected to hear enemy guns opening up at any minute.
Nothing happened - we crept in closer - still nothing but the pounding of our own guns, then one of the Brigadier's wireless sets began to pick up messages. "Red beach unopposed" and later, "Green beach unopposed"! By this time we were able to dimly see the outlines of the hills through the smoke and fog. Coming closer still, we could see the troops of the initial wave walking along the beach. By this time invasion craft of every description were milling about. What a sight! On the beach, while the troops were unloading, gay banter could be heard from the boats' crews. And so easy was the first permanent invasion of Europe! How true Churchill's words proved, "We shall strike the soft under-belly of Europe!" Nowhere on the toe were the landings opposed by a single shot, nor was a single enemy plane in sight overhead. But there were planes, ah yes, the faithful Spitfires droned reassuringly as dawn broke.
This was but the initial landing in Italy. Our next job was to act as ferry service across the Straits to keep a steady stream of vehicles and supplies to Monty's Men. This was first done from Teressa and later from beaches north of the Messina harbour. In the latter place we were able to billet the Flotilla in houses close to the beaches. The various crews each had their own Italian boys to clean up after meals and tend to their dhobie. Pay for this service consisted of 'biscottis'. The work dragged on till once again the monotony of it got the better of nerves at times. Great was the rejoicing when on October 4th after disposing of our craft to Flotillas going to Naples and Toranto we were drafted to a small Combined Ops carrier for passage to North Africa.
During our month on the scene of this operation, not a single enemy plane was sighted, with the exception of one or two that got through to the landing beaches on the Italian side. Thus the Sicilian operation proved the most difficult of the two, just the reverse of our expectations. But then this war is a war of surprises isn't it!
In this account I have purposely neglected to mention numerous escapades into Italy. On their days off the Ratings - and Officers, I must confess - did go on the scrounge and sight-seeing. The very tip of the toe of Italy is very similar to Sicily in many ways. Vineyards abound and the people were very friendly. There was one expedition I do remember, when our maintenance staff took a reporter from the Montreal Star on a trip. We landed at Scilla, looked over the town, including the local headquarters of the Fascista and came away with a tiny salute gun on the bow of our maintenance duty boat. We found the gun lying dejectedly on the slanting bridge deck of a partially sunken Messina-Reggio ferry boat. It was one of the many boats the Germans had used to escape across the Straits when they were pushed out of Sicily. It will be many a day before that regular ferry service is resumed, the boats are sunk and Messina itself is a shambles of the first order. Not a single building in the city proper is intact. Everywhere one sees the ravages that modern war metes out to any unfortunate city that lies in its path.
And so for the last time (or will it be the last time?) we saw the shores of Sicily recede in the distance, but we weren't looking back, our eyes and thoughts were to the African coast. It was the first step of our voyage back to England. We landed at D'Jid Jelli where we were placed in a camp on the site of an auxiliary landing field. After a few days, much to the joy of everyone, our journey was resumed, to Algiers, thence to Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic.
Combined Operations, pages 98 - 101
LCMs are work horses for Canadians in Combined Operations
From Lt. Jake Koyl:
At Malta the crews expected to have a fourteen day rest and to get enough water for drinking and washing and rations not quite so uninteresting as the "Compo" rations which the Army had given them in Sicily. When they arrived, however, they were told by the Senior Landing Craft Officer that due to the political situation it would be necessary to make a landing on Italian soil in the near future for which all available landing craft would be required. It was therefore essential to put the craft in full working order once again and repair the wear and tear of hundreds of beachings. All the spares of all Flotillas were pooled and the refit of about seventy craft was completed in fourteen or fifteen days, to the amazement of dockyard authorities at Valetta.
The Maltese dockyard maties took advantage of the critical situation to strike for two weeks just when the work of repair was about to begin. However, all Flotilla stoker and maintenance personnel turned to and helped in every variety of work from welding to carpentry. Number four dry dock was allocated for LCMs and first priority was given for all materials which could be supplied. Twenty craft were docked at once for hull repairs and bottom fittings such as propellers, shafts and A-brackets while the remainder of the craft were drawn up on the hards for engine repairs and above water repairs. The Flotillas worked fourteen hours a day and got the job done. After the first twenty dry docked craft had been repaired, another forty-two craft were put in dock while engine and above water repairs on the original twenty were carried out on the hards. Quarters were extremely crowded in Valetta and most of the Flotilla personnel slept in an LST and in tents above the town.
LCM(iii)s vs. LCM(i)s -
The 80th Flotilla - but not the 81st - was used for the invasion of Italy across the Straits of Messina which began on the morning of September 3rd. It was only at the last minute that it was decided not to use the 81st. The decision to use the 80th and not the 81st was made because of the great superiority of the LCM(iii)s of the 80th over the LCM(i)s of the 81st. The LCM(iii) is a diesel-engined craft with an endurance of about 800 miles while the LCM(i) has internal combustion engines of less than half the LCM(iii)s horsepower. Therefore the 80th were able to proceed to Messina directly from Malta under their own power. The 81st would have had to make the passage by stages or else carried by ship, and ships were at a premium.
The LCM(iii)s had the further advantage of being a little faster (nine knots) although noisier, of having more power in reverse for coming off the beach, of being somewhat larger and therefore capable of carrying up to thirty tons of stores, almost twice the capacity of an LCM(i). Even more important was the inroads that sickness had made into the 81st Flotilla. At one time in Malta, only four stokers remained off the sick-list. Seamen could have been used for stokers but the Flotilla was considered too weak. Most of the other Flotillas were shorter of craft than of personnel.
81st to U.K. -
Therefore on the 19th of August the first party of about four Officers and forty-nine Ratings left Malta in H.M.S. "FORMIDABLE", leaving their seven operational craft behind as reserves in Malta. At Gibraltar, they transferred to an old trooper, S.S. "LANCASHIRE" and arrived back in the United Kingdom about the middle of September. The remainder of the Flotilla came from Malta in the Dutch Transport, M.V. "RUYS", sailing on the 26th of September and arriving in the United Kingdom on the 8th of October. The sick evacuated from Sicily to North Africa returned in small groups about the same time.
The 80th had kept all eleven of their original craft in operation through the Sicilian landings but two craft with "Buda" diesel engines which required spares that were not available in Malta, had to be left there and in their place they were given one LCM of another Flotilla. In Buda engines, fresh water, kept cool by a heat exchange system of salt water, is used for cooling. At Sicily the salt water system became blocked due to accumulations of sand from the beaches and oil from sunken ships so that salt water had to be used in place of fresh to keep the engines cool. The consequent crystallization made it impossible to keep the pumps working for very long and damaged parts of the engines so that replacements were necessary. The 80th therefore left for Italy with ten craft while the remaining personnel for one craft stayed in Malta.
The ferrying job across the Messina Straits went on for thirty-two days with much the same sort of discomfort as had been experienced south of Syracuse, but the organization was rather better and Flotillas were usually able to operate as a team instead of as individual craft with better results.
At their camp near Messina the Flotillas were better off than in their cave on "GEORGE" beaches, but supplies of all kinds were still hard to get, and medical services in particular were badly strained. The Flotilla personnel were in worse shape than at any time since the operations commenced and sores developed from the slightest scrape. The Flotilla ran their own Sick Bay under the charge of a Duty Officer and sores were dressed as well as amateurs could do it. Not only the Flotilla had to be attended to but the local Sicilian population. At first only the children presented themselves for treatment but soon the whole family came along. The very poor condition of the population was typical of that of the Italian prisoners who were often ferried by the LCMs on their return trip from the Toe.
The news of Italy's surrender was received with as much joy by the Sicilians as among the Allied Forces. The Canadians heard it from a Sicilian family who had it from the B.B.C. Italian Service Broadcast shortly before the news was broadcast in English. All the landing craft were along the beaches on the Sicilian side for the night and each craft let off a couple of 47-round pans of Lewis Gun ammunition, including tracer - at least fifty guns going strong.
To end this report, the following signal from Flag Officer Sicily to all landing craft concerned in the Messina operation gave everyone well-earned praise.
General Montgomery's praise for the Canadian contribution follows:
"I feel I must write and say how very grateful I am for the great efforts made by the Royal Navy in maintaining such a high volume of traffic over the ferry.
This was one of the major factors which enabled us to advance so rapidly and resulted in the linking up of the Fifth and Eighth Armies. 1 shall be most grateful if you will pass on my thanks to your staff, the crews of the landing craft and others concerned. Ends."
Combined Operations, pages 182 - 185
Landing craft at work, ferrying troops from Sicily to Italy
And here follows facts and details about Operation AVALANCHE, the invasion of italy at Salerno, a close run, little-known affair in which Canadians in Combined Operations participated with British and American troops going into Italy:
SALERNO - OPERATION AVALANCHE, September 9, 1943
On September 11th the British landed unopposed in the harbour at Taranto but Salerno was a far tougher nut. Apart from Dieppe, which was a special case, it was the first seriously opposed landing that we had ventured on, and there was a period when it was near to failing altogether.
The date selected for Avalanche was the 9th of September. The Italian request for an armistice was made public on the evening of the 8th, which led some of the more ill-advised among the troops, despite warnings, to expect something like a walkover. Top level arguments, and the consequent lower level adjustments, were still continuing when the first and slowest elements of the invasion force crept out from their bases and set their course for Salerno.
Sixteen separate convoys sailed from five separate ports on six different dates, according to their speed and port of origin. There were several air attacks on passage, but the total damage was negligible; it amounted to only one LCT sunk, one Hunt Class destroyer damaged by a near miss, and one LST damaged by a bomb which passed clean through her without exploding. The last two reached their objectives, and the destroyer played a notable part in the bombardment of the beaches before being ordered back to Malta for repairs on the second day of the landings. It was a poor score for the Luftwaffe against 700 ships and landing craft.
Rendezvous and landfalls were made faultlessly, and the assault began more or less on time. The northern or British half of the front comprised of sectors, each of two beaches. On the northernmost beach the leading battalion got ashore successfully, and Brigade Headquarters followed it soon afterwards, but the right battalion on the next beach was less fortunate. By bad luck the LCT(R)s discharged their rockets too far south, and the Commanding Officer of the leading wave had to make up his mind quickly whether to land on his allotted beach, where the defenders had escaped attack, or to switch to where the rockets had struck, so as to exploit their effect. He chose the latter course, and it proved to be a wrong decision. Trying to fight his way north to the area in which he should have landed his men came under heavy fire. His supporting weapons, following in the next wave, did not know of the change of direction, and landed on the original beach, where, with no bridgehead to protect them, they were wiped out. This battalion and the reserve battalion following in its wake, each suffered 50 percent casualties.
Once again the use of smoke, as in the crossing of the Messina Straits, proved to be a mistake. The enemy gunners had ranged on the beaches, and their aim was not affected by their inability to see their targets; whereas the attackers could not see what was going on, and coxswains found difficulty in recognizing the silhouettes which they had so carefully memorized. During an air raid on the first evening, two cruisers, Delhi and Uganda, were actually in collision in a smoke screen.
Destroyers were steaming close inshore to engage shore targets, cutting across the bows of landing craft as they steered their painstaking way. The exits from the beaches were bad, and there was not room in the beachhead to deploy all the artillery that careful planning had got ashore in the early stages. The deficiency in fire support was made by units of the Royal and United States Navies. Every round fired from the sea during those fourteen hectic days in September of 1943 was a horrid warning to professors of tactics not to be dogmatic. A strong case could be made out in support of a claim that Naval bombardment saved Salerno. The lessons deriving from this experience were to be applied with devastating effect in Normandy nine months later.
On the extreme left of the British front, the American Rangers and British Commandos, were having a rough time. The LCAs which were to have landed the Commando stores apparently found the fire too heavy for their liking, and withdrew without unloading. Objectives changed hands more than once, but were finally captured and handed over to the left flank British division. Out of a total strength of 738, more than half ware casualties. As the landing craft came ashore, all supplies were unloaded and stored, and the beach area was kept clear for incoming craft by the Indian Gurkhas and Italian prisoners.
In the American areas, south of the Sele River, the battle remained critical for several days. For some reason fewer close support craft were allotted to this part of the front, and all landings were made under heavy machine gun fire. Here again, the exits from the beaches were defective and the build-up caused many delays. American reports on Salerno are sternly self-critical. The scales of equipment taken ashore were far too generous; no labour was provided to unload the LCTs and the DUKWs. DUKWs were misappropriated and used as trucks instead of returning to the ships for more stores.
Many ships had been improperly loaded, with a lot of irrelevant and unauthorised items on top of the urgently required tactical ones, and at one stage there was a mass of unsorted material - petrol, ammunition, food, equipment - lying so thick on the beaches that landing craft could find nowhere to touch down. Eventually a thousand sailors were landed from the ships to clear the waterfront, and pontoons were rushed in to the sector to make piers. But for some time all landing of stores had to be suspended.
Combined Operations, pages 102 - 103
Please link to Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 10 (1)
Unattributed Photos GH