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Chaos at the Sicily landings, July 1943

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Stewart E Linsell, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Roy Turnbull, Major-General AGC McNaughton
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Background to story: 
Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
31 January 2006

The Sicily Landings

On being called up I enlisted in the Royal Navy and after a period as an Able Seaman, was selected for a commission. After completion of the course at King Alfred I opted for service in Combined Operations, and was involved in the Sicilt landings in July 1943, aged 21.

Our ship, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary 'Derwentdale', an oil tanker converted to carry our LCM landing craft, four along both port and starboard sides, lay at anchor in the River Clyde. It was June 1943, and we were surrounded by many merchant ships and three liners converted to troop carriers. On the 23rd June after weeks of tedious waiting, I and my fellow 109th LCM flotilla officers, under skipper Roy Turnbull, a South African, were told we had just one day to get our final letters written.

Early the following morning, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, came onboard to say goodbye and wish us good luck. Major-General A.G.C. McNaughton, Commander of the Canadian Army, also visited the members of the Princess Patricia Light Infantry whom we had onboard with us. But not a word was said by either of the 'top brass' as to where we were going!

At 11.30 we hoisted anchor and slowly moved down-river joining a very long line of other ships. Passing the Isle of Arran several corvettes passed us and took station at the head of the long line and when off the coast of Northern Ireland, three destroyers joined us.

On the 3rd July, after ten boring days, we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Into the Med, but where to? Unbelievably those ten days of utter boredom saw the Atlantic calm as a mill-pond, and to pass the time the Canadian officers joined us in various card games and exercises and races around the long deck. Every day now we were visited by Sunderland, Catalina and Liberator aircraft.

The following day a large merchantman, the 'Pride of Venice', way off our starboard side was torpedoed and sunk. An hour later the 'St. Esytt' off our port side was torpedoed and sunk. We all had the horrible feeling that it was our oil tanker the U-boat was really after. Or was there more than one? That evening, after two weeks at sea, we were told our destination was Sicily, and our landing beach in the south-east corner near Pachino. Soon after hearing this there was an almighty explosion close to hand and rushing on deck we saw the 'Dervis', the Commodore's ship just ahead of us, had been torpedoed. Four more destroyers had joined our existing four the previous day, along with the old monitor 'Roberts' with its twin massive 16inch guns. After fourteen minutes the 'Dervis' sank.

We later learned that of the three huge convoys heading for Sicily ours was the only one to suffer any losses. D-day was July 10th, and on the previous day we had additional escorts of destroyers, two cruisers and overhead various fighter aircraft. That last evening on the 'Derwentdale', its crew, our flotilla and dozens of the Canadians joined in a huge sing-song. Roy, our skipper, who had a good voice, was persuaded to sing the immortal “Fair Rowena”.

At 0045 we manned our landing craft with their two Bren gun carriers, motorcycles and other equipment. Half an hour later I led my four LCMs the long distance to the shore. No welcoming beach light was seen and Pat, the Army Captain with me, said he was not going
in until the expected lights were visible. By now it was 05.00 and dawn paling the sky. Suddenly lights went on accompanied by flashing 'Gs', the friendly recognition signal. By now shells from shore batteries fell uncomfortably close, as did bombs from a few Stuka aircraft.

Pat said, "Right! Let’s go in". We hit the bottom when about 50 yards from the tide-line. Down went our door and Pat roared out only to disappear into six feet of water. We had hit an unknown sandbar. To port and starboard the same thing happened. I saw Pat glare at me and I could hear his thoughts - "You've brought me all the way here to drown me!”
Fortunately with less weight in the boats they moved over the sandbar and the second Bren gun carriers were safely put on the shore. Later, an Army bulldozer pulled the sunken ones out. I never saw Pat again. How miserable I felt.

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