- Contributed by
- Jean Bruce
- People in story:
- Leonard Francis Cuthbert Knight
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 May 2005
A view of Sicily
This story was written by my father, Mr L.F.C. Knight (1912 — 1991) as part of our Family History, which includes stories of life as family members knew it, photos, family trees and other relevant information. While serving at Malta in 1945 after VE Day my father had the opportunity to visit Sicily.
Towards the end of November 1945 the opportunity came to take a period of leave in Sicily, which is situated around 90 miles north west of Malta. We were taken from Valetta to Catania on an Italian destroyer then under the command of the Royal Navy. It was a ship that could be described as a greyhound of the seas, constructed for speed with perforated deck plating only about ¼ inch thick. It was a sight to see the ship cutting through the water at speed throwing back great columns of water on each side of the knife-edge prow. Our party eight of us managed to get a good vantage place well up on one of the gun turrets.
A “rest” hostel had been established just outside Catania. It was one of several large villas in a guest street where in peace time the well to do resided. The rear backed on to the rocks of the seashore where its owners in former days had built a natural swimming pool. Although called a “rest” hostel it was far from that. All amenities were laid on for us visitors. It was in charge of an officer and a corporal, both carrying arms and also with an armed Italian soldier always to be found patrolling the street. Hostilities had left the area for many months past and on the whole the Italians gladly accepted the new authority. The street soldier, quite against rules, became the medium for the extensive barter which financially formed an important part of our leave.
Before starting our leave we had stocked our kit bags full of goods for disposal in exchange for lira. Cigarettes, boots, blanket, underclothes in fact any sort of article then unobtainable and in great demand at that time. The street soldier found for us our beneath the surface customer. Discipline was almost non-existent. The corporal who looked after the hostel had become an alcoholic. He would succumb to attacks of D.T. and become insane from its effects, climb around the outside of the building looking for intruders and waving his pistol about. Very frightening indeed although in reality he was good natured and harmless, an unsung casualty of war time conditions.
During the day and evenings up to midnight very few of the visitors were around in the hostel. Facilities for meals were provided but no one bothered when the alternatives in the big town its sights, sounds and smells were at hand, things so long denied to many of them. There was so much to attract attention in Catania, with its wide streets, big stores, hotels, shops, commercial buildings and manufactories with its inhabitants truly Latin excitable types. We also had the advantage to partake in outings which in peace time would be labelled first class tourist attractions.
Mount Etna and Taormina were not very far away. With the help of an Italian driver and a large lorry we were taken to these places. Italian driving is something to be experienced. Fast, excitable and seemingly careless, an advantage in itself.
We arrived at Taormina all in one piece. This is a small town perched on top of a hill, gloriously situated overlooking the sea and with a view landwards of Mount Etna gently puffing out is wisps of steaming clouds. It reminded me of a giant power station with its cooling towers. Taorimina was maybe 200 or more years ago still there. The Greeks had found it just as delectable a spot and it became for them a very desirable and sophisticated place with its Greek temples, theatres, villas and so on. Truly a place high up in priority for its attractiveness in leisure and pleasure. We explored the small town but generally could not afford the high prices for silks and satins very much in evidence in the shops. There were a few of us who made purchases for their loved ones at home, inspite of uncertainties of sizes and fits. Mostly we played safe our mementoes being mostly the secret boxes made of beech wood and quite artistic and cleverly made. The road along the coast took us through plantations of various sorts including groves of oranges and lemons. It was harvest time for the oranges and large stacks of them were seen at various points, Donkey carts were much in evidence.
Another excursion took us on a visit to Mount Etna, as far up its slopes as the road went. We crossed the level plain of Catalania which was highly cultivated. Then on rising ground where vines were grown. Further up we crossed lava fields with wisps of smoke here and there from the cracks in the ground. It was interesting to see where streams of molten lava had flowed down and the abrupt termination in an end to the stream 8 to 15 ft in height. We were within reasonable distance of the summit where we easily and plainly saw the monster quietly puffing away with his pipe. A sulphurous smell pervaded the air. Eruptions in the past ages were so immense that the lava flows had even reached the coastline round about Catania. Even now minor eruptions will cause much damage to surrounding plantations and even villages on the nearby slopes. All in all this days’ excursion proved of great interest.
Another excursion much more sobering was that to nearby fields of battle. Our route followed that taken by the advance of the 51st Highland Division along the coast. It gave cause for thought to see the rows of small whites crosses in war cemeteries particularly those near to where severe casualties has occurred in conflict for the control of important river crossings. We do not deny present day holiday makers their pleasure in foreign holidays but thought should ever be present of these happenings only 40 or so years ago which made their present enjoyment possible.
In the evenings entertainment was sought in Catania itself. Before leaving Malta, others who had enjoyed leave in Sicily gave us an address where if we called the family would give us a homely welcome, in contrast to the sordid welcome of the loose women in the bars of the town. We called. It was a middle aged man and his wife and two daughters and true enough we were welcomed and made to feel at home. They had entertained numerous members of the Forces in this way and being of the Roman Catholic faith had given a small cross and pendant to each one. I still have mine a small pendant of St. Christopher patron saint of travellers, which is fastened to my watch chain worn every day. Others preferred to roam the town and its bars falling by the wayside into temptation and paying later for their sins.
It was an experience to walk back to the hostel in pitch darkness just two of us. Dangerous too as it had been enemy territory not so long before. All in all leave in Sicily was quite a change from the small world of Malta where many had been in isolation in some cases for many years.
More stories and pictures including Leonard Knight’s Diary Extracts of Malta can be found on our Family Memories website:
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