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15 October 2014
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Dungannon Boy goes to War - Chapter 4

by nolanjohnston

Contributed by 
People in story: 
George Nolan Johnston
Location of story: 
Syracuse, Cerizuola and Athens
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 October 2005

The road was strewn with burnt out Italian vehicles, there were a few Italian corpses in the ditches and as we neared Syracuse a long column of Italian prisoners, mostly carrying mandolins and accordions were being escorted along by a cocky little British infantryman. The Italian prisoners attempted to scrounge cigarettes from us.

Bob and I drove into Syracuse in our water-truck. Bob was driving and I was working the clutch with my right foot. Our instructions were to rendezvous at the Piazza Archimedes. Apart from the odd persons from our battery aboard the transport, I had not seen any of our troops or any detachment for some six weeks. No one had heard of the Piazza in our instructions and we didn’t speak Italian but there seemed to be an obvious centre of British activity, and here we parked our water truck, washed and shaved from the tank at the rear of the truck, and outside a large building we proceeded to cook our soya-bean sausages on our invasion kit burner. We were comforted by the fact that a tank drew up and an agile figure leapt from the platform above the tracks, it was General Montgomery himself.

He had just disappeared into headquarters when two annoying wasps whizzing past our ears disturbed us. In astonishment we realised we were under sniper fire. The infantry dashed off to cope with it. We ate our sausages and hard biscuits behind the truck. Several hours later a truck drew up outside the headquarters and a pipsqueak of a captain leapt out shouting that the “sixty sixth have arrived”. Bob and I approached the ‘twit’ and the best I could raise in Ulster dialect was “where the hell have you lot been, we’ve been fighting since yesterday?”

In stages they all turned up, all believing they were the first to capture Sicily until eventually I met my troop commander, Captain Mallinson, a well balanced schoolmaster who about half understood the casual unflappable temperament of “us” Ulstermen. He enjoyed our troop very much. He directed me, on the pillion of a motorbike, to the south of Syracuse where to my great delight I met my detachment headed by Bombardier Herbie Rowan, complete with Bofus and tractor. B.A.3 Timmy Crawford and his crew backed them. We made for our sites south of Syracuse. In our consternation we discovered that having reached a rocky coast we had driven into a minefield. The logical step was to come out the way we had come in and thus I did leading the reversing outfit out by walking along the tracks we had previously made until we reached the lane. We settled down for the night, both guns on a small peninsula overlooking the entrance to the bay.

The ground was too hard to dig in so, rather foolishly, we built low walls of stone around the guns to give us some protection. We had a rough night being steadily taunted until dawn, mostly by would-be bombers being driven south off the harbour by the greatest core of guns we had yet seen. Wave after wave of bombs was dropped on us, fortunately we were on a small promontory and everything disappeared over the edge. We had been ordered not to fire except at a clear target, because we did not want to be pin-pointing the southern edge of the port. A despatch rider who had heard the message “suspected fifty plus German paratroops in the area” did not improve our nerves. The festivities were completed by a British Beaufighter flying a steady east-west course in the dark, drawing a certain amount of ‘friendly’ fire from the shore end of his run but shooting down at least three enemy planes as they came out from their run over Syracuse.

Just as dawn broke we got our first clear shot at a low flying Jerry and scared the daylights out of Herbie Rowan, who had managed to get to sleep fully clothed under a groundsheet right under the barrel of the gun, as we fired. I had to give him two aspirins and a drink of water. As daylight broke we discovered we had also shot the top of the chimney of a neighbouring cottage. It was clear to us then that we were firmly established in Syracuse. The port was full of ships flying the ‘Red Duster’ and the Navy had slung a boom across the narrow mouth of the port to prevent the entry of submarines, torpedos and the like. Into this arena suddenly arrived an Italian submarine, colours flying and crew cheering on deck because they had probably been at sea for up to 7 weeks. The Navy obligingly opened the boom and in the boys came. Half way across the harbour they must have realised their mistake, can you imagine the conference on the bridge, and again turned for the open sea. As they neared the boom the Coastal Battery, not to be outdone, fired a wooden practice shell across their bow and down came their flag. Redcaps arriving in a motorboat arrested them.

The southern side of Syracuse was a poor agricultural patch, were we found the people courteous and kind, although obviously frightened of us. They warned us for instance that the tomato fields were full of Italian ‘Red Devil’ hand grenades hung among the tomatoes.

There were nine of us and we had about two days in this area, apparently the only British troops in the area and then we received orders to move into Syracuse. We were installed near the sea in a large yard with low castle type walls and turrets. A fleet of ‘tins on wheels’ testified to the fact that it was the local refuse dump. With assistance from two other gun-crews we built a road leading to the top of the wall and we then had a commanding position over that part of the bay. Two hundred yards away my friend Harry Murphy had his gun on the promenade outside the gaol. The rest of the troop with six guns, were sited around the area. We settled down quickly but were forbidden from putting up any kind of shelter or cookhouse. We slept in the open on top of our wall. We tried to get some cover to sleep during the day but were interrupted by frequent daylight raids, mainly by Italian fighters. This was the King of Sports and on one hot afternoon we got four out of five assailants. At night we were attacked continuously, firing a core barrage from last light until dawn. It would have made a great photo, two lay asleep in their seats on the Bofus, the firer still awake sitting on the platform ready to go with the gun pit and its surrounds full of empty shell-cases that had been kicked out of the way in the dark. A good life, even the most lethargic gunner was happy, as one lad said, “We’re fine as long as were doing the job we trained for”.

My good friend Harry Murphy was nearly court martialled for having an excellent piano, stolen from a stockbroker’s house in the vicinity, in the front room of his gaol, which got carried out onto the promenade at night. He somehow escaped incarceration, which was better than the Governor, who got 20 years for stealing the prisoner’s rations.

We had a few local friends in Syracuse, Leo the road-sweeper, who learnt to speak English in New York. Vincenzo, a nice young lad who would run messages for us. And there was an unnamed one-eyed guy who appeared to be some sort of shop steward for the fishermen. These fishermen were not the stalwarts who trail their nets in turbulent waters but they were a set of row-boat men who fished at night using acetylene lamps over the side or by day using gelignite puddings wrapped in pages from the Syracuse Times and hurled over the side to stun the fish. The stunning was followed by a dive over the side by the young crew who bit the fish’s heads off and threw them into the boat. Having got their fish, the next step was to get ashore without being captured by the local police who often ran up and down the shore. Our one-eyed friend had permission to sit on our wall and watch for fish through a pair of binoculars. He disappeared shortly after a boat blew up with two teenagers aboard.

The people of Syracuse really had a tough time. There was a mafia-like background to their everyday affairs and if they said, “boo” they could be hurled into gaol. Apart from being in gaol for an indeterminate period one would then be dependant upon the daily visits of relatives with food. The prisoners seemed to have one official meal per day, mainly beans, so they depended on outside help for the rest.

After coming down with malaria and jaundice, I spent a mostly enjoyable spell in Syracuse hospital. The nurses staffing the hospital were reasonable and had complete control over us. They examined us and asked us had our bowels moved without a qualm, which is typical of nurses. None of us ever felt like making a pass at them.

After arriving back from hospital to my gun-site in Syracuse I received a letter from Peggy. In the letter she revealed the fact that she was expecting a baby around November, she had not told me sooner for fear I would have been worried. I was astounded. In letters that followed we had a discourse on what name the baby would have. Peggy was very fond of Lindsay, for both male and female, she also thought Caroline for a girl was nice except that her mother thought that this was “too grown-up for a baby”.

In mid-November I received an airmail letter from my mother telling me that Peggy had had a little boy, 11lb 8ozs. Being ignorant of what weight babies should be, I asked one of my Scottish soldiers who was married with children, was this a respectable weight for a baby. “Respectable weight, Paddy, Christ he’s a monster”. My first son was born in the Johnston house in Belfast on 8 November 1943. With a weight of 8lbs 11ozs. I did not see him until he was 2 years old and talking 16 to the dozen.

From Syracuse we moved northwards up the east coast of Sicily. On the “leapfrog principle” we had been left behind. Having withstood the initial invasion in Sicily we eventually should have been somewhere in north Italy. Fortunately, by that time, the Jerries were moving rapidly north and gunfire was no longer necessary in that area. We moved up through Foramina over the Straits of Messina, up the west coast of Italy with bridges and corners blown up by the retreating Jerries, and eventually Fozzia. This was one of the hungriest times we had experienced. It was cold and frosty, and for some unknown reason our rations were really very short. We travelled in freezing trucks and tractors from morning until night and got two slices of bread, a ‘drop’ of stew and a cup of tea before bed. This we discovered was due to the cookhouse staff ‘knocking off’ our rations. We found them one night with a party in progress. The air was full of the smoke from cooking rations and their hut full of women. There was a story amongst our lot that one Scottish regiment had hanged their cook at Dunkirk. This we were inclined to believe.

On this journey we really had a most uncomfortable but memorable night. We were overtaken by darkness somewhere on the west coast of Italy and we dossed down for the night in a disused monastery with stone floors and no windows. We lit a fire in a large fireplace and settled down on the stone floor with our two blankets and one groundsheet each. The fire gradually died down, it was nearly impossible to sleep even with our full clothing on and our inadequate blankets, the building creaked and moaned. Amongst our mob was one Freddie Williamson, who played fullback for the Irish XV on one occasion. At every creak of the building, Freddie’s rich southern Irish voice rolled out, “It’s Father Tom, he’s come for you”. Rarely have I slept so little, felt so cold and laughed so much.

We eventually reached Fozzia Main, and if one reads, in the various histories of the war, particularly those relating to Alexander, Montgomery and Patton one will realise that this was the area on the east coast of Italy, north of the ‘heel’ which was valuable for the conquest of the Fozzia area. We, our troop of 176 Battery, eventually arrived at what was known as Fozzia Main, the main arena of the area. Flat, hard, an uninteresting, it was inhabited by an unbelievable variety of planes. We had Wellingtons flying their mighty bombing raids, Spitfires, Thunderbolts and many others. It was also a reception area for anything that arrived in the area. Our lives revolved around watching from our hole in the ground for anything that came in or out. There was an occasion when a Spitfire pilot found that he could not get his wheels down, he flew around for about half-an-hour and ended up landing on his belly. The pilot jumped from the wreckage unharmed and ran. As for Jerry, he was nowhere to be seen. We cleaned our guns and equipment, kept our tent area tidy and played the odd game of bridge. It was better than being shot at. I slept in a small bivouac dug into the ground, when we got a day off we stayed put. Sometimes the boys brought us a couple of packets of figs from town.

Here the boredom of war really began to hone its effect. We were rapidly reaching the point where we had nothing to talk about. We had neither newspapers or wireless and only about once in two weeks came mail from home. A Wellington blew up, with a crew of five aboard and a 4,000 pounder, after it failed to become airborne before the end of the runway. This event was almost a peak in our existence.

Shortly afterwards my troop was moved to Cerizuola, a lovely place among the stubble of corn. Here we set up our tents near the runway, where American planes practised take-offs and landings for an invasion of the south of France. Our days and nights were tormented by the arrival and departure of Boeing Fortress’s practising. As well as this, we had Fortress’s taking off daily for raids on northern Italy. We got to know and sympathise with some of these lads. They knew how to fly planes, how to navigate reasonably well, to defend, doubtful. Their gunners were the worst trained specimens I ever encountered. They had sophisticated equipment, far above the British, but didn’t appear to have a clue how to use it. Asked the wingspan of a particular type of plane and they hadn’t a clue, this information is a necessary factor in their settings. We were not surprised when, on the notice board of their canteen we spied the Group Commanders congratulations on shooting down their 100th Mustang, even our younger AA gunners were horrified.

From Cerizuola we had a complete day off once in ten when all but one sentry cleared off for the day in the troop 3 tourer or gun tractor heading to the sea at Barletta. It was here that, having left our tractor parked safely, so we thought, in an Army car park by the beach that it was nicked by the Redcaps who took it too their headquarters nearby, leaving it parked outside, minus the rotor arm. A collection among the drivers at the beach managed to raise a spare rotor arm and while I was having “my particulars taken” by a cocky corporal in their office one of the lads stole back the vehicle. Having been told I would be on a charge and handed back our rotor arm I had the pleasure of going back into their office to report that the vehicle appeared to have been stolen again from outside their office. I demanded to know why they had left in unguarded. A search in a redcap jeep found it parked outside the beach car park, with no rotor arm. We heard no more about it.

It was obvious gunfire in southern Italy was over and one day out of the blue we were told to clean our guns ready to hand over, we were going out of business as AA.
In our travels in Italy most detachments had acquired a dog. Ours had joined us in Syracuse, a mongrel, red setter type bitch who had been christened ‘Musso’ short for Mussolini; she would hide under the gun when it was firing. On leaving Italy for Greece, orders were issued to shoot all dogs. This was really too much for Harry Murphy and myself, but at the last minute we walked, with the two dogs trotting beside us, down to a minor road. We sat down on a bank in some despair. While we sat there a convoy appeared in the distance, we stopped the first truck, which had an officer aboard, leading a South African regiment. We explained about the two dogs. “Stop the last truck”, he said “and tell the cooks I said it would be okay". This we did and off went the two dogs in the arms of two cooks.

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