Sunday, February 4, 2018

Articles: Italy, September 7 - 10, 1943 - Pt 4.

Canadians on Landing Crafts - No More Top Billing.

Photo: Canadians in Combined Ops, safely back in Canada after Sicily and Italy.
L-R Back: Don Westbrook, Chuck (Rosie) Rose, Joe (Spenner) Spencer
L-R Front: Joe Watson, Doug (Do-Go) Harrison, Art Warrick. 1944-45.
Photo - at Givenchy III, Comox BC or HMCS Naden, Esquimalt.


In the last entry I highlighted the fact that several names of Canadians in Combined Operations were listed by a Canadian news reporter (Dick Sanburn), and details about the work they performed on essential landing crafts during the invasion of Italy were duly noted.

For example, "Leading Seaman Donald Westbrook (who) came from Hamilton" was mentioned. His wife and two sons are still alive and well, so I passed the news along because that type of coverage doesn't happen very often.

Jim Malone was also mentioned in Mr. Sanburn's article. In this photo of "Navy
No. 1 ball team" (Canadians in Comb. Ops at Givenchy III on Vancouver Island,
Mr. Malone is 5th from left in back row between D. Harrison and Bill Grycan.
Photo - From my father's collection, dated 1944-45.

I also wrote "the Canadian Navy boys in Combined Ops will soon receive little notice from the press as troops move inland", and that's true as well.

That being said, subsequent news about the invasion of Italy does provide some content concerning the success and relative ease of the initial landings (known as Operation Baytown) at the toe of the boot, Reggio Calabria. A second landing involving Canadians occurred later in September at Anzio, Operation Avalanche.

Most of the material that follows is found in The Winnipeg Tribune (digitized) and readers can find much of value by visiting the website linked to the University of Manitoba.

Doug Harrison (RCNVR, Combined Operations, on LCMs of the 80th Canadian Flotillas during invasion and followup supply work) recalls the following in memoirs:

Although no one ventured a word, we all had Italy in the back of our minds (while repairing landing crafts in Malta, August 1943). Before we got too settled in, we were throwing our hammocks aboard our landing craft again and heading for Sicily.

Our flotillas beached at the mouth of a now dried up river bed at Mili Marina (late August or early September), then a few days in Catania harbour itself, where we had a good view of German low-level attacks on a British cruiser. At night we watched German planes try to take evasive action as they were caught in the searchlights which circled the harbour. During the day we could see the smoke from Mt. Etna.

At midnight on September 3, 1943 our Canadian landing craft flotilla, loaded once again with war machinery, left the beaches near Messina, Sicily and crossed the Messina Strait to Reggio Calabria in Italy. The invasion of Italy was underway.
(Page 113, "DAD, WELL DONE")

At another section of his memoirs, D. Harrison writes about the day of the invasion:

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. (Page 35, "DAD, WELL DONE")

Many details related to the Canadians in Comb. Ops who worked aboard landing craft during September are recalled in the book Combined Operations by Londoner Clayton Marks:

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 (earlier) 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.
 (Page 86)

On Page 115 of D. Harrison's memoirs ("Dad, Well Done") we read how the Navy boys accommodated themselves:

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.

Editor - Dad liked to wash my thick hair when I was Peepo's age and he really scrubbed behind my ears - vigorously - likely like his mum did to him as a kid. Some things don't change.

More from The Winnipeg Tribune:

My father celebrated a birthday on September 6th, shortly before Italy's surrender. He recalls the following re both events:

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.” (Page 116, "Dad, Well Done")

The Canadians in Combined Ops were proud to sail under the White Ensign.

ALC269 returning to Southampton (under the White Ensign) from Newhaven.
C. Sheeler, Joe Spencer aboard, After the Dieppe raid, Aug. 21 1942.
Photo from the collection of Joe Spencer. Used with permission.

More to follow from Italy.

Please link to Articles: Italy, September 4 and 6, 1943 - Pt 3.

Unattributed Photos GH.

No comments:

Post a Comment