- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Bill Cheall
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 May 2005
Bill Cheall with friend and comrade Charlie Lee. The latter fell at Sicily.
The training for our new venture was now complete. We were ready for the off and we didn't have long to wait. In the early hours of 5th July 1943 we embarked on board ships at Suez and we sailed to Port Said. It was early next morning by the time our invasion fleet moved off for our destination.
When the convoy was assembled it was of formidable size, never before had anyone seen so many ships at one time, over three thousand craft of all sizes. We said "where the hell can we be going?". This question to each other was soon answered when we were told over the tannoy, what it was all about. It was Sicily. We had never taken part in an invasion and our minds boggled at the prospect but we were not at all apprehensive about the task which we were to undertake. We were told all we needed to know for the job we had to do including the landing place, what the whole invasion force consisted off and also what was expected of us during the operation which was given the code name 'Operation Husky' - it was to be a combined operation.
The sea was rough and gave us a little concern while we waited around for something to happen. On this occasion the 69th Brigade of which the 6th G.H. was a part, were to be the follow up to the initial assault and it was just after midnight when we dropped anchor about seven miles from the objective. Later, during the early hours, about 4.30am we climbed down the scrambling nets and into our assault craft which were bobbing up and down like corks, it was the first time we had had experience of this sort, the sensation of going to put our foot on something solid and finding it wasn't solid at all, but almost alive. By the time the other assault craft had assembled it would be about six o'clock and seven miles from the beaches. Our beach was called Jig which was near Avola and we were due to land at 8am.
I know everybody was surprised at the lack of opposition, even though we had not been in the first wave and consequently we were soon established on dry land, but with very wet legs. This same day we had to do a march of twenty miles but again without much sign of the enemy, still it was a very tiring day as we had not been able to get much sleep during the previous night. Our objective was to be Syracuse; during our march I vividly remember searching a shed for the enemy and what did I find ? - four naked men lying on tables, the corpses were starting to decompose, they were being eaten by maggots and the bodies also showed evidence of torture. It was beyond my comprehension how anybody could do this kind of thing to another human being - I hope they perished in Hell.
We progressed up the Eastern side of the island to make an attack on Sortino and during this period came under attack by the enemy and lost some of our lads, including Sgt.Harrington, John Ryan, Charlie Lee and Jack Betly.
Sicily is a very mountainous country and we could see Mount Etna from wherever we happened to be, but of course there were cultivated areas also and tomatoes and seedless grapes were growing for hundreds of yards in each direction - oh those seedless grapes - we would just grab a handful as we walked past the bushes were only about three feet high. The climate is ideal for growing citrus fruits and as we walked along the sides of the road the civilians were offering us oranges and lemons. They were very pleased to realise that the Germans were going to be evicted from their beloved Sicily.
We had to walk many miles in Sicily, but of course there were times when we used transport, most of the roads were only dirt roads and huge clouds of dust would rise with the passage of the vehicles, particularly the Bren gun carriers. The roads snaked around the mountains and one could look out from the back of the three tonners down into the valley - the beauty of the countryside however was the last thing on our minds.
Now, for the first time since landing we came to a halt which seemed to be causing the high command some anxiety. At a later date we knew what the problem had been and it is written about in other books but this is my story and at the time of the event we had no idea why we were being held up. It was Primosole bridge, and during the next three days a fierce battle took place ahead of us. Much of the fighting was done by the 151st Brigade of 50th Division. This Brigade consisted of the Durham Light Infantry, those lads gave the German paratroops a very hard time when they were dropped, to try and secure the bridge which crossed the river Simeto. We knew also that British paratroops were being dropped because we saw them. at the time our Battalion were in a position on the hillside overlooking Primosole bridge, though a little distance away we were still in a situation where we were being shelled by the enemy 88mm guns and consequently suffered some casualties. We had had to assault the hills in order to deny the advantageous position to the enemy and in the process we captured thirty five Italian prisoners and several Germans - unfortunately we lost ten of our own men also.
After the Primosole bridge battle came to a conclusion we moved from the area and realised that the encounter with Jerry had been very fierce, bodies were scattered all over the river and on the ground, corpses, parachutes and weapons lay around everywhere.
It was now 25th July and we relieved the Durham Light Infantry in the line of battle and very shortly after taking up our positions our regimental aid post was hit by a shell which killed our medical officer, the Padre and a medical orderly.
After starting to advance once again we were constantly held up by mines which had already killed an officer and his batman and we soon met our next stubborn resistance, it was on the plain in front on Catania airfield and in the distance was Mount Etna.
We had cause to dig deep slit trenches here, about a mile in front of the airfield because the enemy shelling was very severe, they being on the slopes above us. If we had not taken up position during the hours of darkness we could not have reached these positions so near to the enemy. We held onto our defences for two days whilst the powers that be decided what to do, then our 25 pounders opened up with such a tremendous barrage, the sound of the shells screaming overhead was terrific. We now had tanks in support and we attacked with some losses but the enemy were forced to evacuate their positions on the mountainside and many Italian prisoners were taken - it always seemed to be the German element who managed to get away to fight another day!
Soon after the action at Catania we rested overnight in a field and over the other side of the hedge we had the company of a squadron of tanks and during the evening we heard a tremendous bang only yards away from us. apparently one of the crew had been cleaning the gun barrel and was taking a look through, the same as we looked down our rifles to examine them, when somehow or other the gun was fired and the soldiers head had been blown off and there on the ground was a headless and shoulderless body - killed in action ! What a way to die.
We continued to advance up the Eastern side of the island, sometimes travelling in transport and this day going along the narrow road which had been cut out of the mountainside we came to a section of about ten yards which had been blown and was impassable. The mountain towered way above us almost vertically and the sea was to be seen about three hundred feet below, it was really a spectacular view to admire had we not been in this situation. However the Sappers soon put a Bailey Bridge across and we were on our way, those engineers certainly knew their job.
Once again we were on foot and walking through villages which had recently been occupied by the enemy, we were welcomed by the inhabitants. One day we walked along this street making sure that no enemy had been left behind to harass us, when I saw a small boy in the street and he stepped on a mine, he was blown into the air and killed. The things that one witnessed during war were heartbreaking.
It would be about 7th August when we learned that the war in Sicily was over. We were told that although it had been a short fierce campaign, the 50th division had played an important roll.
I remember walking with the other lads of our company and seeing the signpost Letojani, the seaside village was only half a mile away and that is where we were to rest our weary bodies. Battalion H.Q. was billeted at Taormina a beautiful place perched on the hilltop above our village, we were about forty miles from Messina.
It was at Letojani that whilst the other lads of the company were resting and bathing in the sea, which they well deserved, that I was told I would betaking up the Officers mess cooking again, the company being in it's own quarters. We were all billeted in houses now and my room was above the kitchen of a large house which was occupied by air officers.
We had been here a few days when an officer came to me and said that some very important visitors were going to meet at our Battalion headquarters in Taormina in a matter of days. It transpired that all officers mess cooks had to contribute something towards the meal that was being laid on and I was asked if I could prepare hors d'oeuvres for the occasion. Fortunately I had brought my sisters Mrs.Beeton cookery book from England so I had no problems, except for supplies, in preparing such delicacies, I informed the Mess Officer and without more ado and within two hours the Commanding Officers jeep with driver turned up at my cookhouse door, "come on Bill we are going for rations". Well, the drive was unforgettable, about twenty five miles through the foothills of Mount Etna, which was smoking away. The views were magnificent, I had never before seen anything like it. I should really in my later life have gone back, but that is how it goes. On our way to our destination we drove through groves of oranges, lemons, melons and olives. After such a passage of time I have forgotten what I prepared as my part for the delectation of our important visitors but afterwards I was told who they had been - Montgomery and Eisenhower !
Years later when I read about the Sicilian campaign it gave me great pleasure to remember the tiny part I played in it.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.