- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Thomas Arthur Russell, Lieutenant Commander Jenks, Sub-lieutenant Geoffrey Gillott, Sam Leyland, Major Young, Malta
- Location of story:
- Reggio Di Calabria, Italy, Cape Spartivento, Gulf of Squillace
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 December 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Thomas Arthur Russell, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Approach of the storm - Chapter 31
Thomas Arthur Russell
We learned that the Italian police had fought the Germans because they had looted the city of Reggio and had commandeered all the motor vehicles. Everywhere, the population showed more interest in getting hold of food. Our war correspondent said that the Italian soldiers had not been able to draw rations for three months and had lived on any vegetables and fruit that they could find. The towns were practically devoid of food and any fresh fruit now ripening was preventing a famine. It looked as if the Italians had had enough. Hundreds of Italian soldiers, some of them crack troops, were voluntarily surrendering. The forts were found still to be stocked with ammunition and food, enough to hold out for a month.
While we were occupied in patrolling the crest of Reggio Di Calabria, Marauders of the 8th U.S.A.F. swept over Belgium, bombing the great railway marshalling yards at Ghent. R.A.F. Bostons attacked airfields in Holland at Woensdrecht. Spitfires were covering bomber formations, Typhoon bombers with Typhoon fighter escort raided an airfield at Moerdijk and enemy aircraft were few and far between.
New heartening news came of great Russian victories on sectors of their front in advances of up to 9 miles. The Red Army was on the offensive on a front of nearly 600 miles from Dorogobush, east north east of Smolensk to the shores of the Sea of Azov. The war seemed to be going well, although no one aboard believed the Germans were licked. September, and we had a new experience. We had been ordered to patrol the coast, north east of Cape Spartivento to see what would happen. It was still behind the battle lines. We went right up to the entrance of the Gulf of Squillace, seeing smashed trains and unroofed buildings.
The coast was mountainous and beautiful, no signs of movement, just an occasional parked tank, but occasionally we heard heavy explosions inland. On the way back from a sweep, and about half a mile offshore near the mouth of a dried up river bed, the skipper noticed what appeared to be someone waving from a farmhouse. Closer observation and the waving took a coherent pattern. The skipper ordered the “Yeoman of Signals” to try to establish contact by semaphore with the unknown flag waver and drew an immediate response. “Five of us have cleared this place. Two hundred disarmed Italians are in a railway tunnel and want to surrender. Can you send a boat?” “I can’t take 200 ‘Ities,’” said the commander. Then signalled back, “Do you want a boat?” The unknown man replied that they had been there over a week and wished to report. Lieutenant Commander Jenks looked at his watch “3.30pm. Let’s bring them off for a cup of tea, its nearly tea time and they are probably British Commandoes.”
I have a newspaper cutting of the incident, and I remember very well a commando by the name of Sam Leyland was one of them. The ship came to a stop, gently rolling off the enemy shore. A boat was swiftly lowered with eleven men, armed with pistols and a Lewis gun. All wore steel helmets and were fully aware of the possibility of an ambush. The beach landing party was under the command of Sub-lieutenant Geoffrey Gillott of Hertfordshire. As the boat arrived at the beach, a party of helmeted Italian Soldiers, still carrying weapons and packs, rushed down to the water’s edge. The Lewis gun was trained on them — you do not trust enemy troops still carrying rifles to a large degree, one shot and the Lewis gun would have wrecked carnage among them and the ship’s armament might have been used. The landing party was relieved to see five weary figures in khaki battledress wearing green commando berets, walk down from the bushed fringing the beach. Two herded the Italians into line, while two knelt behind the dunes covering the road nearby with automatic rifles. The fifth man was an officer in charge, Major Young.
The boat returned with a few Italians and an Italian nurse who was quite pretty but looked ready for a good bath and a tidy up. She was wearing a stained khaki drill shirt and trousers and to men who had been denied female company for a long while, she was more than just something of idle curiosity.
The Italians, I was told were of Sicilian origin, so we would discharge them back at our base in Sicily. One, with a long moustache, said that he had a large family, a wife and eight kids. He looked a mild sort of man of about forty years of age and to me he looked out of place in the Italian Army uniform. We heard of the Army pressing on, our Italians had been quickly taken back. The mess deck had come to the general hope that all the Italian parties were like the nurse and were anticipating already, shore leave in Italy with its wine and women. The allied armies were now pushing north as fast as the build up of supplies would allow. We carried on patrols up both sides of the Italian coast in company with Queenboro, Quality and Quentin, but there seemed a scarcity of enemy shipping. We returned to Malta and I remember the Italian Battle Fleet steaming there to anchor.
So the clock had come full circle for me. I’d been in the first fleet action off Cape Spartivento and now I had seen their fleet surrender. They had lost one battleship, sunk by a bomb when they had been attacked in the Strait between Corsica and Sardinia. The ship was the “Roma” an oldish battleship, a direct hit split her in two but heavy and accurate A.A fire drove the Stukas and torpedo bombers off. The Italian ships picked up some survivors.
It was 11th September. A buzz was going round the ship regarding a new and deadly weapon, it was said that the Germans had produced a small pilot less plane which could be radio controlled and it was carried by a “Mother” plane. When over the target area it could be detached and guided to its target by another plane, which carried the controlling radio equipment. Soon we were to have dramatic evidence of its effects. Some said one had hit the Roma. The flotilla was ordered to sail and our objective was to meet and escort HMS Warspite which had been damaged by one of these remote controlled planes on the 28th September. She had been using her 15in support in support of the army advance.
I, at this time, was ammunition supply and my job was to pass the 4.7 shell, after it was passed up the skid rails from below to the member of the gun crew who had then passed it to the fuse setter. He sat on a little seat and adjusted it with a circular shaped key on the nose-end. Only being a stoker, I couldn’t remember all the little details. I knew he had a luminous dial about plate size in front of him, which showed, up plain at night. I nearly envied him perched there in action as he rode round in the gun shield as it trained around. I relished the action station, for I could see much of what was happening. I felt more involved to be handling the shell that was aimed at the enemy.
Now I had gone to my action station, it was dark. The tin hat on my head felt heavy, its strap under my chin chaffed against the anti flash hood and seemed to intensify its itchiness. I wore my cleanest boiler suit and over the sleeves, I’d pulled the long gloves of my anti-flash gear. We were due to meet the Warspite later that night. The other ships stood out as dark shapes in the gloom, with an occasional flurry of white from the foam of their wakes. Everything seemed eerie. Muffled voices drifted from the bridge and the steady swish of a moderate sea, with the faint whirr of the searching radar as it circled. The lookouts on the bridge wings were straining their eyes in short spells for the possibility of ‘E’ boats or submarines, looking for the same objective as us, so everyone was on full alert.
I had a feeling that the alarm rattlers would go any time, but everything remained quiet for a while, then suddenly a muffled voice from the gloom, “There she is, sir,” and there, away on the port bow was a larger dark bulk, it was the Warspite, she loomed larger, a sudden flicker of blue Aldis signals flickering across the waters and her escorts ploughing past in the darkness, sinister dark shapes low in the water. Suddenly, something happened, one of the inexplicable things that do occur at war. A short burst of tracer curved towards us and appeared to come from the Warspite. On ‘B’ deck, we looked overhead. Curses of, “What the f****** hell do they think we are?” An immediate flicker of fresh signalling and then an apology. “ We thought you were enemy aircraft.” No damage or causalities but how a two thousand ton destroyer could look like enemy aircraft, I don’t know! It was probably a nervous gunner.
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