Friday, October 7, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 8 (1)

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

The Canadian crew of an LCM see downed gliders near Noto beach.
Photo by D.J. Lewis, St. Nazaire to Singapore

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 8 - Operation HUSKY - The Invasion of Sicily, July 1943

My father wrote the following about his month-long duties related to Operation HUSKY in his Navy memoirs:

July 10, 1943. We arrived off Sicily in the middle of the night and stopped about four miles out. Other ships and new LCIs (landing craft infantry), fairly large barges, were landing troops. Soldiers went off each side of the foc’sle, down steps into the water and then ashore, during which time we saw much tracer fire. This was to be our worst invasion yet. Those left aboard had to wait until daylight so we went fishing for an hour or more, but there were no fish.

A signal came through, i.e., “Do not fire on low flying aircraft, they are ours and towing gliders.” What, in the dark? Next morning. as we slowly moved in, we saw gliders everywhere. I saw them sticking out of the water, crashed on land and in the vineyards. In my twenty-seven days there I did not see a glider intact.

We started unloading supplies with our LCMs about a half mile off the beach and then the worst began - German bombers. We were bombed 36 times in the first 72 hours - at dusk, at night, at dawn and all day long, and they said we had complete command of the air.

We fired at everything. I saw P38s, German and Italian fighters and my first dogfights. Stukas blew up working parties on the beach once when I was only about one hundred feet out. Utter death and carnage. Our American gun crews had nothing but coffee for three or four days and stayed close to their guns all the time. I give them credit.

A signalman sends messages to an LCI (left) and LCT in Sicily 
Photo credit - Imperial War Museum (IWM)

Ephus P. Murphy’s pet monkey went mad and we put it in a bag of sand meant to douse incendiary bombs and threw him over the side. The Russian Stoker on our ship, named Katanna, said Dieppe was never like this and hid under a winch. Shrapnel and bombs just rained down.

My oppo (pal, chum), Leading Seaman Herring, was bothered constantly with constipation, but when bombs began to drop close in Sicily, his problem suddenly disappeared, he was so scared. It scared the beep beep right out of him. Hitler’s laxative, so he wasn’t all bad, was he?

Once, with our LCM loaded with high octane gas and a Lorrie (truck), we were heading for the beach when we saw machine gun bullets stitching the water right towards us. Fortunately, an LST (landing ship tank) loaded with bofors (guns) opened up and scared off the planes, or we were gone if the bullets had hit the gas cans. I was hiding behind a truck tire, so was Joe Watson of Simcoe. What good would that have done?

Our beach had machine gun nests carved out of the ever-present limestone, with slots cut in them to cover our beaches. A few hand grenades tossed in during the night silenced them forever.

Slowly we took control and enemy raids were only sporadic, but usually at dawn or dusk when we couldn’t see them and they could see us. At such times we had to get out of our LCMs and lay smoke screens, and travelled the ocean side or beach side depending upon which way the wind was blowing. Even then they could see the masts sticking up. During one raid I was caught on the open deck of the Pio Pico, so I laid down - right on a boiling hot water pipe. I got up quickly.

A stick of Axis bombs lands near LCTs and LCMs near Avola, Sicily. 
Photo credit - St. Nazaire to Singaopore, Volume 1 

We were never hit but six ships were hit in a sneak attack out of the sun by German fighters carrying a bomb apiece. At night they would drop chandelier flares with their engine motors cut off. Everything would be dark and then suddenly it was like daylight. The flares were on parachutes and took forever to come down. After the flares lighted us up in came the bombers. Fortunately our gunners got so expert they could shoot out the flares.

Our LCM was fortunate enough to pick up rum destined for the officers’ mess; but it never arrived there - we stowed it in the engine room. From then on we went six or seven miles up the beach at night, had a swim, slung our hammocks and drank ourselves to sleep, to awake in the morning covered with shrapnel, but never heard a sound.

One morning as we returned to the beach after a heavy bombing we noticed an LST with its bows completely gone and smoldering a bit. We went aboard to examine it and found under the rear canopy a sailor sound asleep in his hammock. After we awakened him he said he hadn’t heard a thing. The rest of the crew was missing.

We used a pail of sand saturated with gasoline to heat our meals on if any food was available. Later we moved into a limestone cave, dank and wet, but safe from bombs. We hung a barrage balloon over it, about 1,000 feet up, and one sailor got drunk and shot it down but we had 50 - 60 feet of limestone over our heads.

I had 27 days at Sicily living on tomatoes and Bully Beef. I swore I would kick the first bull I saw in Canada - right in the posterior - if I got back. Everywhere I looked there were anti-personal hand-sized grenades that needed only to be touched to go off. They were built to maim and not kill because it takes men to look after the wounded, but if you’re dead, you’re dead. We threw tomatoes at a lot and exploded them in that manner.

We had a hospital ship with us named the Alatambra (sic: Talamba) 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.

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 limestone 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!

“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.

As found in "DAD, WELL DONE", Pages 31 - 34

Editor's note: Details follow concerning his landing in Malta and I will share those later.

Many Combined Operations' veterans contributed stories to texts produced in the 1990s (and inspired by Londoner Clayton Marks' book). I provide a few excerpts from my father's submissions:

About the aforementioned officers' rum that went missing: 

One day when we were unloading a ship’s cargo into our landing craft in Sicily, several large wooden crates of navy rum came over the side to my craft. Stencilled on each crate were the following words - “Consigned to the Officers’ Mess.”

Question: Did the rum reach the Officers’ Mess?

P.S. I certainly did not help drink the Officers’ rum and I never will again.

As found in "DAD, WELL DONE", Page 70

My father adds a few more pertinent details about Canadians involved in Operation HUSKY in another submission:

In late spring of 1943 about two hundred officers and ratings of Combined Operations (CO) left Britain from various ports to man LCMs in the invasion of Sicily on July 10th. Some of these men suffered terribly from dysentery while camped in the desert waiting for slower ships to arrive with their boats and many were still in a weakened condition when they hit the beaches south of Syracuse near a town named Avola and in the Pachino-Marzamemi Beaches further south. These Canadian sailors, with no change of clothing, subsisted on what they could scrounge for themselves for over a month at Sicily. Some slept on the beaches and on landing craft and one group found safety from bombs in an abandoned limestone cave near the beach. Very damp and lizardly, it was a welcome haven at night.

“Ephus P. purchased a small fawn-coloured monkey (Jocko)”
Photo credit -

The men under a new commanding officer did yeoman work, although working long hours, under fed and pestered severely by Stukas and JU88s. The stokers kept the landing craft running, if not on two engines, then on one (no down time) and the Canadian Flotillas were highly praised by the British Admiralty and General Montgomery himself. Their monkey mascot went bomb crazy and was buried at sea in a sandbag. It was a sad occasion when it was chucked overboard for our safety.

Late in the Sicilian campaign, because of poor conditions, some of these now-seasoned veterans came down with dysentery and were shipped off to Malta to recuperate.

As found in "DAD, WELL DONE", Pages 74 - 75

More details about Operation Husky to follow.

Unattributed Photos GH

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