Saturday, October 8, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 8 (2)

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

D. Harrison, with 80th & 81st Canadian Flotillas, manned Landing Crafts,
Mechanized (LCMs) in Operation Husky, near Avola (lower right), July ‘43
Map of Sicily found in Combined Operations by C. Marks, London

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

In the 1990s my father wrote two more articles for the Norwich Gazette that concerned his WW2 experiences with Combined Operations during D-Day Sicily, July, 1943. They follow below:


At midnight July 10, 1943 a vast number of merchant ships carrying the machinery of war were strung out as far as the eye could see, close inshore off the southeast coast of Sicily. Aboard a number of them were about 250 Canadian sailors with their landing crafts, whose job it would be to deliver this machinery ashore for the Army and Air Force. Every article required was there in the correct spot, and in the early morning light we went over the side and the invasion of Sicily was on in earnest.

The surprise wore off before noon and bombs began to fall. Some ships were hit and many Canadian sailors suffered from shrapnel cuts and burns. The worst attacks from German bombers came in very early morning and late dusk when a ship’s masts and super structure could be clearly seen but the planes weren’t visible. Attacks out of the sun were so fast there wasn’t enough time to be scared or unlimber a gun.

One day, about day three, a large net full of wooden cases landed on my landing craft. Stencilled on the side of each case were the words NAVY RUM; destination Officers’ Mess. I decided that the Officers’ Mess was in the engine room of our LCM. I never worked so hard and enjoyed it so much in my life.

Late that same night, we were resting aboard ship, trying to round up some food and comforting a chap with a terrible toothache, when suddenly the sky all along the beach lit up like a ball diamond at night. A German plane - with its engine cut - had coasted overhead and dropped chandelier flares. Amidst the racket of ack-ack fire we all abandoned ship, toothache and all, and headed our landing craft out of the convoy. We knew the bombers would swiftly take advantage of the lighted sky.

A few miles up the beach we anchored our craft, took out our saltwater soap and went for a swim while all Hell broke loose down the beach. The word got around somehow that I had rum and before long I had more friends than you could shake a stick at. A fool and his rum are soon parted, but for a few nights we slept in the lap of the gods. In the wartime Navy, a sailor is rated as either G or T (Grog or Temperance). If Temperance, the sailor gets extra pay of six cents a day. Suddenly, every darn one is G, but as I said, we all slept well and although my head was splitting, I took it in good part. We needed each other. In the early morning it was back to the firing line.

After about a week of being continually harassed by bombers, ack-ack fire and dog fights in the sky (we Canadians shot down a wing tank and almost single-handedly drove the Americans from the skies) one of our fellows on a short reconnoitre ashore found an abandoned limestone cave. This cave, a huge hump in the beach landscape, was to become our shelter at night for nearly three weeks. About 60 of us slept there, including another Norwich boy, the late Buryl McIntyre. The remaining Canadian boys slept in holes dug along the beach, covered over by whatever they could scrape up.

The cave itself had been used at some time to house cattle to protect them from us. It was large enough to sleep many more. The roof was 70 or 80 feet thick and supported by huge limestone pillars inside. We soon obtained a barrage balloon (the same way I got the rum) which we anchored on top of the cave. Unless a bomb dropped in front of the door, we were as safe as a church. There wasn’t a bomb as yet that could pierce that roof.

The limestone underfoot was almost like wet cement, but we happily trudged through this, put our hammocks down doubled up, laid our mattresses on them, curled up in our blankets, clothes and all, and slept like logs. We even recessed navy lamps into the walls. The ceiling was about 20 feet high. It was cool, damp and safe and we shared our good fortune with several little green lizards who had cool feet.

Early each morning we paraded out and slung our sleeping gear over bushes or on the lower limbs of olive trees and they would be quite dry by night. We decided to free one sailor from duty and he was to take over as a cook, something we just didn’t have. The cook’s duties were to find food and cook it in a huge metal cauldron, which we had procured in the same way as the rum and barrage balloon.

The cauldron was raised on stones and heated by pouring gasoline on the limestone underneath. This worked out quite well. The cook scrounged tomatoes (pomadori) which were plentiful and we managed some bully beef (the same way as rum, barrage balloon and cauldron). This was all stirred up together and one night we had tomatoes and bully beef, and the next night we had bully beef and tomatoes. Once in a while we threw in a sea boot to add a little flavour. Although we were like a bunch of orphans, spirits always remained high. There were hundreds of cleverly contrived anti-personnel bombs about, but we and the cook were well-schooled on these.

Field Marshall Montgomery spoke highly of the Canadian flotillas through the British Admiralty and said he was glad to have us along. After about 38 days, the Army and Air Force had won the day and Sicily was freed. Our work was done. Our commanding officer, Lt./Cdr. Koyl gave us the news and said we could now return to Malta and prepare for Italy. In our glee someone shot down the barrage balloon and we said goodbye to the cave, which we had nicknamed The Savoy.

Since we remained on good terms with our officers and never heard anything about the rum, I concluded they didn’t know where it went and I didn’t enlighten them. On the next invasion, I was hopeful they would send food. 

The Canadian Flotillas of LCMs approach Malta for rest
and repair in early August, 1943 after the invasion of Sicily
Photo, used with permission, from the collection of Joe Spencer



Not many days slip by but that I think of my comrades in the navy. One I served with on landing craft during World War Two came to mind recently. This branch of the service was called Combined Operations because some of us navy men joined with the army and air force to invade foreign soil.

This time of year, close to Remembrance Day, memories of the war and my comrades come to mind more strongly. I have found that bonds formed in war are unbreakable. Although my comrades are scattered like leaves upon the ground, I have a mailing list of over 200 comrades and a memorial list of about equal number.

In the navy nicknames abounded. Depending on the time of day and the situation at hand, my nicknames changed. Usually in the evening aboard ship I was called Cactus because I carried a battered old guitar and it was time for a few navy ditties. At other times I was called Do-go, which when translat-ed into navy language by my comrades meant, “Get out of our sight, move it.”

This time of year as always I thought of my comrades and one in particular came to mind because he and his pet monkey added a very strange twist to the war during the invasion of Sicily. I have thought many times of the strange scene that transpired about July 14, 1943. I don’t believe I ever knew Murphy’s correct first name but he was hung with the nickname Ephus P. He was called Prairie Dog too because he hailed from one of the prairie provinces.

Ephus P. was a devil-may-care type of sailor, with a smile a mile wide and a very tender heart. I suppose he missed the animals of the prairies and in a weaker moment at Cape Town, South Africa, Ephus P. purchased a small fawn-coloured monkey for his pet and to be our ship’s mascot.

The monkey and Ephus P. soon became inseparable; wherever the sailor went the monkey travelled on his shoulder, smiling in his own way, like his master. Since bananas were a thing of the past the monkey usually chewed on a mango, or hardtack biscuit, on which he munched away, the chips flying. The biscuit container was dated 1917. Ephus P. and the monkey became a familiar sight aboard ship and although we disapproved of the monkey at the mess-table at meal times, the two of them just smiled at us and we accepted its presence before too long, provided of course that the monkey remained on his shoulder.

The early morning darkness of July 10, 1943 found the Canadian sailors and their landing craft shuttling war materials ashore, but as daylight came the surprise was over - the news had travelled fast and the German air force appeared in numbers with bombs and some strafing. The vast gathering of ships of all types offshore answered every attack with tremendous gunfire.

The ship that I was on, along with Ephus P. and his monkey and several other Canadian sailors and officers, was an American Liberty ship named the Pio Pico, and many of the trucks in the hold were already loaded. They contained artillery shells, land mines, high octane gasoline for aircraft and, although I’m sorry I didn’t find out sooner, several cases of high octane rum.

After about four days of incessant German bombing and the terrible din of exploding anti-aircraft shells, the poor monkey, in this crazy bizarre world of man’s inhumanity to man, went berserk and no longer clung to Murphy’s shoulder but climbed screaming to the farthest parts of the ship. It had gone completely mad and out of control. As I recall, a well-placed bomb would have blown us all sky high, so orders came down that we must destroy Ephus P.’s monkey before it bit or scratched us or a member of the American crew. How ironic. We Canadian sailors, realizing Murphy’s fondness for his pet, stalled for awhile hoping the monkey would improve, but such was not the case and the officer’s order was emphatic. We had no choice and explained this as best we could to Murphy.

With heavy gloves on their hands, the sailors placed the monkey in a bag of sand and lowered it over the side into the water. It was a very sad moment indeed, but the war had to go on, and we tried to comfort Ephus P. as his tanned face glistened with tears.

Whoever coined the phrase ‘war is hell’ would have received no argument from Murphy and his comrades that very hot day off the Sicilian coast.

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

Articles are now found in the book "DAD, WELL DONE", pages 104 - 110.

Londoner Clayton Marks records several pages of historical notes concerning the adventures of Canadian Flotillas of landing craft in Sicily, July 1943. In Combined Operations we read the following:

SICILY - Operation HUSKY - July 10, 1943

The armies for the invasion were gathering in England. Many of their divisions were already hardened, trained and ready. Weapons, stores and supplies were accumulating in enormous volume, in incredible variety.

Great fleets of Allied bombers were now battering at German industries, cities and strategic centres; at the country's brain, nerve centres and heart. The war seemed to be moving toward its climax, as indeed it was. Yet the grand diversion, the round-about closing in from the south which had begun with Operation Torch on November 8, 1942, was still in progress; had still to reach the point where it could mesh and move forward as an integral part of the final assault. It had advanced through several phases during the mid-months of 1943, and in some of those phases the Landing Craft Flotillas of the Canadian Navy had again played a part.

About the middle of March, 1943, several large convoys left British ports for Suez. The end of the North African campaign was coming in sight, and the next step would be the forcing of a passage to the Italian mainland. Sicily lay between North Africa and Italy, separated from the toe of the boot only by the narrow Straits of Messina; and Sicily was chosen by Allied planners as the next step toward Rome.

The convoys, which were to round Africa and come up through the Red Sea to Suez and Port Said at the eastern entrance to the Mediterranean, carried the Combined Operations Flotillas and a portion of the troops for the landings on Sicily; and among them were the 55th and 61st Canadian Flotillas of LCAs (assault landing craft). Later convoys were to carry the 80th and 81st Canadian Flotillas of larger landing craft (LCMs) for the ferrying of vehicles and heavier stores. Together, the Canadian personnel manning these Flotillas totalled about 400 men, while another 250 Canadians served in British Landing Craft Flotillas or in the support ships. They were a microscopic proportion of a force which consisted in all of 2755 transports, escorts and landing craft of many kinds; yet they were to be an important part of the ferrying forces at the beaches where they were used, and their performance was to be of a high order.

Far from Sicily, as the battle for Tunisia swept on to its conclusion, the men of the Landing Craft Flotillas trained under the broiling sun of Suez. Large-scale amphibious exercises, as tough and realistic as possible, ironed out difficulties remembered from the Torch landings, tested the men and the craft to their limits, gave rise to excited speculation as to what actual coast resembled the "dummy" beaches against which the exercises were directed.

On July 4th all Combined Operations Officers were called together for final instructions, and on July 5th the assault convoys sailed from Port Said for a rendezvous position south of Malta. On the 9th the rendezvous was reached, and to the men of the 55th and 61st assault Landing Craft Flotillas, watching from the decks of the Landing Ships Strathnaver and Otranto, it seemed that every horizon was crowded with arriving convoys. At sea in the western Mediterranean and gathering at the rendezvous, were sixteen escorted convoys and two large Naval covering forces of battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers and destroyers.

At the rendezvous position the convoys assembling from the eastern and western Mediterranean divided into two great forces which passed up on either side of Malta. The Western Task Force carried the American Seventh Army which was to land along the southwest coast on a front extending southward from Licata. The Eastern Task Force carried the British Eighth Army, which included the First Canadian Division and the First Canadian Army Tank Brigade. It was to land along a two-corps front extending from the western side of the Pachino Peninsula around northeastward as far as Syracuse. Canadian soldiers and sailors, for this operation, were not to have the satisfaction of working together. The Canadian Division was to drive in on the western side of the Pachino Peninsula, carried in British Landing Craft. The Canadian Landing Craft Flotillas were a part of the subdivision of the Eastern Task Force which was to land British troops on the eastern side of the Peninsula, a little to the north of Pachino itself.

Toward evening on the 9th of July, the Eastern Task Force approached the shores of Sicily, and the summit of Mount Etna loomed through the haze.

Two things went wrong in the early stages. The odds against bad weather in those waters at that time of year were long, but a gale blew up. D-minus one started as a hot day without a ripple on the water. By noon there was a seasonable breeze from the northwest. By 1500 it was blowing force 4 and three hours later it was more like force 7. Almost all the troops in the landing craft were sick. As the British came under the lee of the land, conditions for them improved, but the Canadians and the Americans had no such shelter, and had to disembark soaked to the skin and in full misery of seasickness. Yet the bad weather had one good effect; the enemy, certain that we could not make a landing, tucked up and went to sleep.

For a time it was thought that the whole operation would have to be postponed, but after darkness it was decided to continue in the hope of better weather at dawn.

The second misfortune concerned the airborne troops. Two operations were planned for the night before D-Day - a British glider borne landing and an American parachute drop. In both, the aircraft became badly scattered, owing to the high winds already mentioned; and only a fraction of the troops - though actually enough to do the job - reached their objective. Unfortunately in the British sector about a dozen out of 134 gliders were released too soon, and were lost in the sea, with many casualties. Air routes had been carefully planned to ensure that the airborne troops did not have to fly over the convoys; but something went wrong with the promulgation of these orders, and in a reinforcing operation three nights later, there were several cases of our own transport aircraft being shot down by our own ships. Failure in aircraft recognition was one of the causes.

Midnight brought the steady thunder of transport planes, passing over to land parachute troops inland. Half an hour later the assault convoy which included Otranto and Strathnaver arrived at its position seven miles off the coast above Pachino. Rolling in the heavy swell, the landing ships stopped their engines. Troops loaded down with battle equipment came up from the holds and began to climb into the landing craft hanging at the davits, a full platoon to each craft.

"the landing craft hanging at the davits, a full platoon to each craft"
Photo credit - RCN Photographer Lieut. Gilbert Milne

One by one, as the platoons settled into their places, the swaying assault craft were lowered forty feet to the water below. Motors began sputtering; the craft moved away from the ships and formed up for the run to shore. It had been planned to have Fairmile motor launches lead each Flotilla separately to the assault point; but as only one Fairmile arrived it was necessary for the 55th Flotilla to take station on the 51st which followed directly behind the launch.

At fifteen minutes past one the wavering columns of flat-bottomed craft set off for the beach seven miles away. The night was black and the sea was very rough. It was windy, wet and cold. The soldiers huddling against the gunwales became sea sick; buckets came freely into use.

Even some of the Naval stokers, working throttles amid the fumes of their torrid little engine rooms, began to feel the effects. Seas washing over the side called for constant bailing. Coxswains and Officers, peering ahead through the darkness, found it difficult to pick out the landmarks which had been shown to them on the charts before the operation began. Navigation of the craft, always difficult, became trebly so in the rough weather, with the southerly set of the water off the coast increased by the force of the wind. A searchlight knifed out from land, swung toward the craft, and illuminated every man's face in a white glare. Then it swept on, apparently having revealed nothing to the watchers ashore.

Canadians in Combined Ops: Photo - Combined Operations, Page 89

As the flights came nearer in they were unable to locate their beaches. Estimating that they had drifted a bit too far to the south, they turned and ran northward, paralleling the coast. A red flare, apparently dropped by a plane, blazed up; and in its light the exact landing place for the first wave of the Flotilla was revealed.

Abreast of each other the craft moved in. As they felt the scrape of sand along their bottoms, the ramps at the front went down and the troops stepped ashore, wet and miserable, crouching in anticipation of a blaze of fire. Only silence greeted them and they fanned out and made for their objectives. The empty landing craft began to withdraw, and it was not until they were again moving seaward that a single machine gun opened up to spatter the water about them.

The second wave of landing craft found their sector of beach protected by a breakwater which they had to skirt under light fire. As they rounded the breakwater and turned in to shore the fire grew a little heavier, but they grounded without casualties on the rocky beach. The ramps went down, the bark of orders began amid the whistle and spatter of machine gun bullets, and wet, whey-faced, seasick soldiers, bending under their heavy battle gear, stumbling along decks slimy with sea water, fuel oil and their own vomit, set off unheroically on a historic campaign. Sailors, equally wet, half as miserable, and certainly not envying their "pongo" brothers, made haste to get their craft back to the older element.

Canadians in CO, including Clayton Marks
Photo - Combined Operations, Page 89

Another wave of assault landing craft was standing off shore with parties of engineers whose work would be to clear mines when the beaches were secured. Some fire from machine guns and howitzers was falling unpleasantly near, but the main sounds of battle were retreating inland. It seemed clear that the beaches had been gained with little resistance, and the engineers and the landing craft men began to watch impatiently for the Verey light signals from shore which would call them in. The defenders were making things difficult by setting off their own flares of every colour, but at last the authentic signal came and the craft raced in to beach. Fire from shore grew sharper and was unpleasantly accurate, but once again no casualties resulted. By four-thirty in the morning, all the assault landings had been made. The beaches were securely held; mine clearing was in progress. It remained only to ferry the reinforcement troops ashore and empty the transports so that they could move away from the beaches before enemy aircraft arrived.

Sunrise came at three minutes before six, and promptly at six a JU88 put in an appearance. A little later two Messerschmitts swept down to strafe the ships with cannon fire.

They were ineffectual, however, and too late. Reinforcements were streaming shoreward in uninterrupted processions of landing craft, and by two o'clock in the afternoon the assault Flotillas had done their work. They were hoisted back aboard the landing ships, and the convoy, much relieved to be out of the area, sailed for Malta. In less than twelve hours the two Canadian Flotillas had landed two-thirds of a brigade of British troops with their essential supplies and gear. They had suffered no casualties.

Following the assault convoys and moving into station off the beaches even before the first arrivals withdrew, came ships with the heavier mechanized equipment and supplies for depots to be established inland. Vessels carrying the larger landing craft came with them, and two of these carried the 80th and 81st Canadian LCM Flotillas which were to land near Avola. The LCMs began their work four hours after the LCAs but instead of finishing in twelve hours, they were to be occupied for some ten weeks, first on Sicily and then on the Italian mainland.

The first of the LCMs were lowered from their parent ships at about five-thirty on the morning of the assault, a few minutes before sunrise. Loaded with vehicles and stores, they steered in toward beaches now securely held, deposited their freight, and turned back for more. For the first few hours there was no interruption to the ordered chaos of the build-up. Transports stood off the coast, each with its identification number placarded on its side. Landing craft ran in under their high sides, loaded with feverish haste and put off to unload at the same tempo ashore, satisfying the most urgent of the hand-to-mouth requirements.

At one point gasoline would be required to get vehicles moving inland; at another troops would be running short of ammunition. Headquarters units would require more signalling equipment; troops held up by resistance on the forward fringes might need a howitzer to break through. The landing craft was diverted from ship to ship and from point to point along the beaches to meet each need as it developed. This was the preliminary phase of the work, preceding the stage when shore depots would be established and stored; and it had to be got over with in a hurry before enemy aircraft arrived.

The comparative quiet was broken at nine o'clock in the morning. An enemy bomber came in very fast and dropped a stick of bombs along a stretch of shoreline occupied by two British vessels and by the Canadian landing craft carrying the Senior Officer of the 80th Flotilla. The smaller British vessel, a tank landing craft, was squarely hit and blown to pieces. The other British ship was heavily damaged, and every man on her bridge was killed. The Canadian craft, well up on the beach with some of her men ashore nearby, had a miraculous escape. The force of the explosions knocked down the men on the beach, and the Flotilla Officer was blown back into the well deck of his ship, but no one was injured. Considerably dazed, but marvelling at their luck, the men recovered and went to the assistance of the British merchantman, helping to take off her wounded and transfer them to a hospital ship.

Two hours later a series of heavier raids began. Throughout the night and for the next forty-eight hours the attempted blitz rose to a total of twenty-three separate raids, costing the invasion forces five merchantmen and a hospital ship. The decline of the Luftwaffe's efforts was rapid, however. Air cover from Malta began to show its murderous effectiveness, and by the third day planes flying from captured Sicilian bases were adding their strength to the Allied umbrella.

During the four weeks that followed, the work of landing stores and reinforcements settled down into a routine for the craft of the 80th and 81st Flotillas. It was a grinding routine, and it was never free from danger. Every type of cargo had to come.ashore in their craft; sixteen-ton tanks, heavy trucks, tiers of cans of high-octane gasoline, ammunition, army rations, small arms and mortars. Heavy seas often made both the run-ins and the work of loading and unloading very difficult. The huge requirements of the armies put heavy pressure on the ferry system and for the first forty-eight hours of the operation every man remained on the job without rest. Even after that, the best arrangement that could be worked out was a routine of forty-eight hours on for twenty-four hours off.

The Canadian Flotillas formed, of course, only a small part of all the Flotillas engaged, but wherever they operated the warmly admiring comments of British Officers seemed to indicate that they were pace-setters. The mechanical aptitude and the loving care which their maintenance parties lavished on the craft gave particular cause to marvel. During eighteen days of continuous work not one craft of the Flotilla was out of operation.

The demands of the armies proved higher and the demolitions in Sicilian harbours more inconvenient than had been expected, and landing craft had therefore to be kept longer on the ferry service. This meant a great deal of discomfort for the Canadians, as for all the landing craft Flotillas. The beaches of semi-tropical Sicily in late July and early August were far from being health resorts. Almost every man suffered at one time or another from a variety of disorders which included dysentery, septic scratches, jaundice, sandfly and malarial fever.

The small, amphibious craft were not equipped for life on the beaches. Moreover, their men were now everybody's children and no one's. Their parent landing ships had long since departed. They ferried cargo ashore from every ship that came, but their home was the hot beach, and there their companies had to make what living arrangements they could.

Some found accommodation of a sort in an old, disused Army camp and many more had to take shelter in a very dirty and uncomfortable cattle cave. Their food consisted of rations acquired from the Army, occasional largesse scrounged from the better-hearted merchant ships, and what they could acquire from an impoverished countryside. The cave-dwelling members of the Flotilla had improvised a stove of petrol tins in order to apply some heat to their unsavoury victuals; and one evening the stove blew up. Flames licked back into the cave, igniting another can of petrol and consuming most of the kit bags, hammocks and clothing of the men. About half the personnel of the 80th Flotilla had to get along for the next three months on borrowed gear.

On August 5th operations ceased on the Sicilian beaches, and the two Flotillas returned to Malta.

Combined Operations, pages 79 - 85

Unattributed Photos GH

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