Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Articles: Italy, Oct. 2-6, 1943 - Pt 11.

Final Days for Canadian Sailors in Italy

Charlie Sellick (left) and Jim Ivison with revolvers, likely from
an AMGOT store in Italy, Sept. 1943. More details below.
Photo - From Collection of Joe Spencer (Comb. Ops.)


While Allied vs Axis forces planned new offensive and defensive measures in Italy in early October 1943, the Canadians in Combined Operations - operating landing crafts and transporting all materials of war between, e.g., Messina, Sicily and Reggio di Calabria, Italy - were likely wondering if their job was coming to an end and orders to return to England were in the offing.

Not many details about their final days in the Mediterranean are available - but there are some and are provided amongst the news clippings from The Winnipeg Tribune below.

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A very optimistic forecast re the Allied occupation of Rome was provided in early October, 1943. Allied forces did occupy Rome eventually, but the official date was but one day earlier than D-Day Normandy, 9 months in the future! Please link to Rome's occupation.

Bath Day For Pats: Relax now, boys. You'll be slugging it out in Italy for another 9 months:

Details about Canadian Navy boys (members of RCNVR and Combined Operations) who transported troops and their supplies - from early September to early October, 1943 - are provided by Lloyd Evans, formerly of Markham, Ontario:

Most days in Malta were bright and sunny and one particular day in early September of 1943 was no exception. I, and a crew of 4, found ourselves back in our landing craft on a northerly tack.

We had several escort vessels and after a few hours under way all hell broke loose when about 60 enemy bombers dropped their loads all over the place. They were flying low enough for us to clearly see their bomb doors opening and their bombs being released. Fortunately they didn’t hit anything and soon departed the scene when heavy A.A. fire threatened their safety... or perhaps they didn’t think a bunch of empty landing craft was worth the risk of being shot down. It soon became clear that we were heading back to Sicily for the invasion of Italy. By this time Sicily was firmly in Allied hands.

We spent a couple of days in the harbours of Augusta and Catania and then to Messina for the attack on Italy itself. We went in at Reggio with our load of Canadian troops under a very heavy allied artillery barrage from the hills of Messina. There appeared to be little or no opposition. We later found out that Italy had already agreed to surrender but hadn’t announced it to wrong foot the Germans. The deception worked since the Germans did not reinforce the positions vacated by the Italians. I can still see the Sicilians running around cheering 'Benito et finito' [Benito (Musellini: sic) is finished]. To celebrate one of the locals dug up a bottle of great wine he had buried to keep it safe from the Germans.

Allied forces advanced quite rapidly so another unplanned landing further up the coast was set in motion. The object this time was to land supplies for the advancing Allied forces and our flotilla was one of several selected for the job. While we waited on a safe beach for the signal to leave a few large warships, including a battleship, went past at high speed. Their mission was to shell the new landing beach before we moved in during the night. The waves they created started to wash the landing craft off the beach so I winched the door up a little prior to ramming the craft back onto the beach. 

Unfortunately I left the safety catch off the winch handle and the next wave lifted the boat and I took the full force of the spinning winch handle on my left leg before I could remove it. One of the other boys made a similar mistake but this time with the kedge anchor winch. It hit him on the head to his severe injury. An Italian surgeon inserted a steel plate in his skull to repair the damage. Since this landing was not part of the original plan there was little reliable intelligence as to enemy defences. An LCI was sent in to investigate but luck was against them as the beach was defended by some top German artillery units and the craft was destroyed. The landing was called off.

Three of us decided to do a little sightseeing when the other crew were on duty on our craft. We visited Reggia di Calabria and called in on a police station with a letter requisitioning any guns we wanted. Under the occupation rules and regulations locals had to turn in any weapons they held. To make the letter look authentic we stamped it with an official looking mark...the stamp having been made out of a potato.

As we suspected the local police couldn’t read English and they fell for it. Most of the weapons looked like antiques from the Boer war but I managed to get a lovely little Baretta ladies gun that I later sold to an American sailor in Gibraltar.

Lloyd Evans' memoirs can be found at Combined Operations Command.

Combined Operations Command is a detailed, informative website established and maintained by Geoff Slee of Scotland. Visit his website combinedops.com often for details related to "all things Combined Ops!"

The story related to the sinking of H.M.C.S. St. Croix and one other vessel is linked to the Canadians who served in Combined Operations because of the "one sole survivor, Stoker W.A. Fisher of Alberta." 

W.A. Fisher is not only mentioned below, but also in the previous post related to news articles from The Winnipeg Tribune (link to "146 Canadian Tars Lost").

More details about Stoker W.A. Fisher appeared many years later when my father wrote his Navy memoirs. He recalled meeting W.A. Fisher on Vancouver Island while serving at a Combined Operations training centre at Comox, in 1944 - 45.

My father writes:

Wm. Fischer (sic), a stoker (not of Combined Ops but of R.C.N.V.R.), was stationed there (i.e., Givenchy III, Comox).

He had, I believe, an unequalled experience. He was on an Atlantic convoy run, on H.M.C.S. St. Croix, and one night in rough seas the St. Croix was sunk and he was the lone survivor. His life jacket had lights on and later he was picked up by the English ship H.M.S. Itchen. It in turn was torpedoed and Fischer was one of three survivors.

They took him and his wife on saving bond tours, etc., but when he was asked to go to sea again, he said he would go to cells first. With an experience like that I would have too. He was lucky to be alive. (Page 41, "DAD, WELL DONE")

While Allied and Axis formations dealt with offence and defence in Italy, crews manning landing crafts enjoyed days off. Doug Harrison (RCNVR, Combined Ops.) writes:

We had some days off and we travelled, did some sight seeing, e.g., visiting German graves. We met Sicilian prisoners walking home disconsolately, stopped them, and took sidearms from any officer. We saw oxen still being used as draft animals when we were there. Sometimes we went to Italy and to Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory depot (AMGOT). They later changed that name because in Italian it meant shi-!

While a couple of ratings kept the man in charge of all the revolvers busy, we picked out a lot of dandies. If he caught us we were ready. We had chits made out, i.e., “Please supply this rating with sidearms,” signed Captain P.T. Gear or Captain B.M. Lever, after the Breech Mechanism Lever on a large gun. (Page 36, "DAD, WELL DONE")

Mr. Harrison continues with some details about leaving Italy, bound for England, early October, 1943:

After our work from Sicily to Italy was done and our armies were advancing we returned to Malta. We stayed but a few days, then took MT boats to Bougie in Algiers, and were soon after loaded onto a Dutch ship, the Queen Emma. The ship had been bombed and strafed, her propellor shaft was bent and we could only make eight knots an hour under very rough conditions. Her super structure was easily half inch steel, and in various places where shrapnel had struck I could see holes that looked like a hole punched in butter with a hot poker, like it had just melted.

We arrived at H.M.C.S. Niobe barracks in Scotland and in true navy style were put on a train and sent to Lowestoft in England, not too far from Norwich, England (my hometown’s namesake or visa versa) on or near the east coast.

I heard mess deck buzz. We were getting a lot of money and going on leave. The stipulated time for ratings is twenty-four months overseas and we were closing in. No more raids. Thanks God, for pulling me through. The mess deck buzz proved to be correct, they gave us all a pile of money (pound notes), and I thought it was too many for me because I made a big allotment to my mother. How they ever kept track of our pay I’ll never know, and to my dying day I will believe they gypped me right up to here.

....Away I went on leave, never bothering to answer a ton of mail. I also received eight hundred cigarettes.

We were due for a do and we did it up brown. You couldn’t possibly lose me in London, England even when I was three sheets to the wind. No way. (Pages 36 - 37, "DAD, WELL DONE")

Later in his memoirs, D. Harrison adds the following:

After a few weeks of ferrying supplies from near Messina to Reggio, we returned to Africa and again to England in October; some were well-laden with side arms picked up at AMGOT stores (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory). This group returned to Canada, landing at Halifax on December 6, 1943 after two years of overseas service. (Page 75, "DAD, WELL DONE")

The following news column comes from the collection of my father Doug Harrison:


It was no different touching down on the Italian beach at Reggio di Calabria at around midnight, September 3, 1943 than on previous invasions. Naturally we felt our way slowly to our landing place. Everything was strangely quiet and we Canadian sailors were quite tense, expecting to be fired upon, but we touched down safely, discharged our cargo and left as orderly and quietly as possible.

In the morning light on our second trip to Italy across seven miles of the Messina Straits we saw how the Allied artillery barrage across the straits had levelled every conceivable thing; not a thing moved, the devastation was unbelievable and from day one we had no problems; it was easy come, easy go from Sicily to Italy.

Invasion of Italy, Operation Baytown, September 3rd, 1943
Photo credit - Link - W. S. MacLeod, RAF Beach Units

We operated our landing craft under these conditions with skeleton crews and we enjoyed time off. Some of us went to Italy, hitched rides on army trucks, went as far as we were allowed to go and had a good look at some of Italy. We lived on the edge, because not far from the shoulder of the asphalt road were high cliffs and we could look down on the Adriatic sea, its beautiful beaches and menacing rocks.

I remember one of the many refugees of war, a barefoot lady dressed in a black sleeveless dress, carrying a huge black trunk on her head. I suppose it contained all her earthly belongings or it was very dear to her, and she walked along the coastal road back toward Reggio, to what, I’ll never know. I couldn’t have carried that load.

Our living quarters was a huge Sicilian home (in Messina) and some nights I slept on my hammock on a beautifully patterned marble floor. How-ever, 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.

Some of the Sicilian homes were but hovels, with dirt floors, complete with goats, donkeys, and chickens in the kitchen. The population drank wine at meals as we would tea. I saw wagons being pulled by oxen. Wine (vino) in wooden barrels was everywhere and our flotilla tapped the odd barrel.

In the navy we just acquired things. A tent was set up on the beach after we acquired some salves, soap and gauze to treat the locals who had rashes and cuts, etc. The word spread about the Canadian Marina Hospital and one morning a few days after we opened, two very pregnant ladies appeared. The work of mercy ended, and very quickly I might add, amidst our embarrassment.

One evening an officer and I went on a short foray and acquired a few chickens. The officer had a cook, and I thought of home as I enjoyed a couple of drumsticks in payment for my part in the acquisition. (Oh! We left some chickens for the owner.)

About half of the Canadian sailors went back to England after the Sicilian campaign. That left about 125 to work about a month across the straits. During that time we received mail and parcels. We worked alongside captured Italian and Sicilian soldiers who were loading our landing craft, egged on by Sweet Caporal cigarettes and some canned food. There were no P.O.W. camps and prisoners wandered freely. The Germans had made good their well-planned escape ahead of the invasion. On occasion during the action along the beaches at Sicily and the quieter time at Italy, we often saw big green turtles swimming about. They didn’t know there was a war on.

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.”

After about a month Do-go had a tearful goodbye with his friend Peepo. He stood on the beach and I on my landing craft, waving our goodbyes. What a strange war. I have thought of him often.

Our flotilla went back to Malta for a few days and from there we took fast Motor Torpedo boats to Bougie in North Africa and boarded a Dutch ship, the Queen Emma, whose propellor shaft was bent from a near miss with a bomb. In convoy we made about eight knots up the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, anchored inside the submarine nets for a couple of days, and slowly moved out one night for England.

In true navy fashion, after landing at Gourock, near our Canadian barracks H.M.C.S. Niobe in Greenock, we entrained for a barracks at Lowestoffe, where on a clear day the church spires of Norwich could be seen. We spent a month there, then went by train to Niobe, received two new uniforms and a ticket aboard the Aquitania, arriving safely at Halifax on December 6th, 1943. I had a wonderful Christmas at home with Mother and family. It was sure nice to walk down Main Street and meet the people. (Pages 114 - 117, "DAD, WELL DONE")

Chuck ‘Rosie’ Rose, Don ‘Westy’ Westbrook aboard the Aquitania
The Aquitania arrived “safely at Halifax on December 6th, 1943”

Attention! Attention!

High praise ahead for Canadians on landing crafts! (Many are soon to be heading back to Canada).

Please link to Articles: Italy, Sept. 28 - Oct.1, 1943 - Pt 10.

Unattributed Photos GH.

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