Monday, November 20, 2017

Articles: Sicily, August 12 - 14, 1943 - Pt 15.

Gearing Down in Sicily. Gearing Up for Italy.

German troops exit Sicily to retrench in Italy; Canadians in Combined Operations
repair in Malta before their return to Sicily, to prep for the invasion of Italy.


As the battle front in Sicily moved slowly toward Messina, a city but a few miles away from the toe of the boot of Italy, Canadians in Combined Operations and their landing craft underwent necessary recuperation and repairs on the small but significant island of Malta.

Focus of Canadian news was upon the work of Canadian troops as they worked their way to Messina. One article by Dick Sanburn of The Winnipeg Tribune appears below.

Now in Malta, members of Combined Ops, likely unaware that their 80th Flotilla of landing crafts would be motoring back to the NE coast of Sicily within a few weeks (for a four-week stint of moving troops and war supplies to, e.g., Reggio Calabria), are mentioned chiefly in memoirs.

My father Doug Harrison wrote the following article for The Norwich Gazette in the early 1990s:


At the end of the Sicilian campaign several Canadian sailors and officers became ill. Fatigue brought on by long hours of work and poor nourishment for over a month had now taken its toll and showed up in various ways. Salt water sores, rashes, sunburn, dysentery, things we hadn’t time to bother with before now began to manifest themselves.

Fear was now gone and the inaction caused many to have letdowns. Many had not relaxed for weeks and now that it was over they had difficulty handling it. Mail from home would have helped at a time like this; most of us hadn’t had mail since April and it was now the middle of August. I would have given my right arm for a cool drink of Norwich water and Sweet Caporal cigarettes from the Women’s War league. Parcels and letters were awaiting us in Malta and we were heading that way by landing craft and ship.

If we had a doctor I don’t recall one, but someone, possibly an officer, doled out quinine for malaria, as mosquitoes were really bad. Under the worst possible conditions we tried to keep clean; the only clothes we owned were on our backs and we weren’t to get more until our return to England sometime in October. Khaki shorts and shirts were our uniforms.

After being free from dysentery, I now felt its ravages. Luckily though, I went the 100 miles or so to Malta aboard a real old veteran ship named the Ulster Monarch. Whenever there was a campaign this old stalwart was there. None of us were basket cases and certainly enjoyed being flaked out in bunks on the Monarch. I remember the ship’s sick bay assistant (Tiffy) handing me a fistful of pills. I counted them and there were 16. I asked him how many doses they were and he answered, “One. What are you going to wash them down with... the deck hose?” We all laughed but I wish I hadn’t.

In a few hours, with my orders from the ship’s doctor to report to Hill 10 Hospital, I climbed the cement steps in Valletta Harbour as best I could. Malta isn’t very large and by asking a few natives I found my way to the hospital, dragged right out.

I wandered in and reported my condition to one of the English orderlies. I’ll never forget how cheerful his reply was in that God-forsaken place. “Oh, we’ll soon cure that, Canada.”

“Yeah? How?” I said.
“We’ll starve you for a week.” (So, what else was new?)

But I was in no condition to argue and for a few days I found out how severe dysentery can be, and hunger was no stranger to me, but after four or five days the staff relented and gave me a little boiled cabbage. Here was FOOD and SUSTENANCE and I suffered very few side affects. I was on my way, even my ribs looked better. After about 10 days I was given a clean bill of health and released to wander freely about Malta and wait for my comrades who were late coming from Sicily in landing craft.

(To be continued below).

At about the same time, British PM Winston Churchill was visiting Canada:

News, cartoons, ads from August 12 - 14, 1943 issues of The Winnipeg Tribune provide some context of those war days:

Doug Harrison continues:

I found a vacant array of Air Force tents to sleep in and was fortunate to scrounge some food from the natives. I thought I had it tough - but I couldn’t hold a candle to these folks. I investigated a bit of the catacombs where many slept and lived through the intense bombing raids - no wonder the island was awarded the George Cross.
I can’t remember the name of the service paper I found in the tent, but there before my eyes was a photo of a Norwich air force boy, Bob Alexander. The paper reported that Bob had completed 30 missions and had returned to Canada to become an instructor. It’s a small world. I carried that paper for a long while.

When my friends returned from Sicily in their landing craft, I was waiting for them at the bottom of the cement steps. Our commanding officer Lt/Comdr Koyl and a few hands disappeared for awhile and when they returned they were weighted down with kit bags of parcels and mail. The blues disappeared and quietness settled in as every one of us, in a different posture, chewed on an Oh Henry bar and read news from home. The war wasn’t so bad after all. We shared with anyone who hadn’t received a parcel; no one went hungry. We feasted on chocolate bars, cookies, canned goods and the news.

There were still about 250 of us - we hadn’t lost a soul, but one man* had a terrible shrapnel wound in his arm.

(*Editor: The injured man was most likely Al Adlington, London, Ontario).

We conserved parcels for a rainy day and were dispersed to ships and tents to live for a few days while our stoker got the engines on each craft ready for the invasion of Italy. Of course, no one knew when that would be, but urgency was the order of the day and repair parts were non-existent. We toured the island of Malta and some sailed over to Gozo, another small island. We mingled with the inhabitants but generally we took the opportunity to get some rest and re-read mail. I saw a movie, and before the show the music consisted of western songs by Canada’s own Wilf Carter.

Although no one ventured a word, we all had Italy in the back of our minds.
(The Norwich Gazette)

More news, cartoons, ads from August 12 - 14, 1943 issues of The Winnipeg Tribune:

An article about Kiska, 'ripe for invasion', mentions unique challenges faced by landing craft crews in Sicily:

Clayton Marks of London contributes the following about the Canadians in Malta, as found in his book entitled Combined Operations:

On August 5th operations ceased on the Sicilian beaches, and the two Flotillas (80th and 81st) returned to Malta. After a month of hard work under exceedingly difficult conditions the men were looking forward to a fourteen-day leave which had been promised them, always subject to "exigencies of the service". The news which greeted them on arrival in Malta was, first, that civilian dockworkers were on strike, and secondly, that their craft must be put in condition at once for a landing on the Italian mainland.

Twenty-four cranky LCMs, which had been overworked consistently for a month to land 40,959 men, 8,937 vehicles and 40,181 tons of stores, must at once be retuned to concert pitch by the equally over-worked men who had operated them. Complaints were loud, eloquent, sustained and unavailing, but once this routine gesture was over with, the Canadians manifested, as always, a peculiar zest for anything mechanical. At the end of two weeks, during which all the fit men of both Flotillas worked day and night, they announced to amazed dockyard authorities at Malta that their craft were ready to sail again.

The Canadian Army units received well-deserved praise for their work in Sicily. Lt. Jake Koyl, a Canadian officer in charge of the flotillas of landing craft, also made mention of his Navy boys in positive terms, and gives a few more details about their time in Malta in August 1943:

At the end of the 28 days, eighty LCM's in the two squadrons of three Flotillas each which had been working "GEORGE" and "HOW" sectors, remained in operation. The record of the Canadians was particularly good since only two of their craft out of twenty-two were non-operational.

In another Flotilla working the same sector, the 83rd LCM Flotilla, only three craft out of fourteen remained operational. The eighty operational LCM's proceeded under their own power down the east coast of Sicily, anchored under the shelter of Cape Passero, and made Malta the next afternoon, the 7th of August.
Refits -

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 LCM's 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.
(Pages 182 - 183, Combined Operations by C. Marks)

Please link to Articles: Sicily, August 3 - 11, 1943 - Pt 14.

More articles to follow.

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