Lance-Corporal G. Reginald Brown

 

Unit : No.7 Platoon, "A" Company, 2nd Battalion The South Staffordshire Regiment

Army No. : 4917565

 

INVASION BY AIR

Glider Invasion of Sicily - 9th July 1943

 

A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

G.R. Brown 12th July 1943 (Rewritten January 1946)

 

FOREWORD

 

Two days after being picked up out of the 'Med' by the troop ship 'Dunera,' I scribbled the following recordings of my own personal experiences, thoughts, fears and feelings on to an assortment of scrap paper that I scrounged from the mess of unnecessary kit etc. that the recently-landed Commandoes had left on board. Then, everything I'd been through was still vividly pictured in my mind.

 

Now, safely demobilised, I rewrite it- exactly as I wrote it then. It seems hard to believe that 'tis myself who had written so fully and made such a 'lot' of something that now seems very little out of the ordinary. Arnhem goes down in history as the outstanding epic of the First Airborne Divisions activities of this war. But [and I really am certain that it was due to the fact that I could not (and cannot) swim one single stroke] it was on the Sicily Invasion of the night of July 9th 1943, that I had my most scaring experience of the World War. 'Tis my own personal story - probably less noteworthy of recording than that of dozens of others of my unit (2nd BN. The South Staffordshire Regiment)- had they only had the chance or inclination to have put them in writing.

 

TRAINING

 

Froha - a small village in Algeria (North Africa) June 1943.

 

We were doing night training every night. Always on the same lines. We knew something was coming off. Rumours spread around - as rumours do. I'll not mention them - they were too many and varied.

 

Then - one day - Sunday 27th June 1943 - we went by trucks to Tiersville airfield. Gliders were awaiting us - Yankee 'Wacos' (I hate them). We emplaned and took off for an 'unknown destination.' That proved to be Souse- some 600 miles away in Tunisia. It was a deadly trip - the gliders were thrown all over the sky - especially over the very mountainous parts that are so prominent a feature of the Algerian - Tunisian terrain. I was very pleased when, after some five and a half hours flying, we landed at a landing-strip near Souse. (On this trip, the tail came off one of the gliders in the air. All were killed - including a friend of mine- Cpl. Holmes of Brimington).

 

And so, we found ourselves in a new home - in tents under Olive trees near the typhus ridden village of M'Saken - some sixteen kilometres off Souse.

 

Once we'd settled in - we started again with the obviously special training. Most of it was done in the evenings. In the day, we did administrative work - or - what we enjoyed more, an occasional truck-ride to the beach at Souse, where we bought stacks of grapes, drank numerous lemonades and enjoyed a dip in the sea.

 

Then - on Tuesday morning 6th July - we were all paraded in the briefing-tent (as closely guarded as Buckingham Palace). There, our expectations were confirmed. We were going on an 'op. Yes - a glider operation, and the object was - Sicily. (Our code word for the Island was 'Horrified') and we were going in three days time! Yes - the take-off was to be sometime Friday evening. Those three days were spent in studying aerial photos, more night training - getting weapons and ammunition all fixed up - writing letters - getting drunk etc. etc.

 

A sand-table model was made and we studied until we knew the ground we were to land and fight on, just as well as we knew our own cabbage-patch back home in Blighty.

 

Everybody was outwardly quite happy and cheerful. Crazy as ever - not worried in the least. Remarks to be heard regularly were - "Cheer up - you'll soon be dead" - and - "Write a letter to the Mrs - I'll take it home for you" (implying that the speaker would come out of it alive though there wasn't much chance for the fellow addressed!)

 

One thing that pleased everybody immensely was the fact that we were to fight under 'Monty.' His Eighth Army was making the seaborne landing the morning after we landed and it was good to know that such an experienced bunch had been given the job of fighting their way through to us. Because no matter how hard we fought - no matter how successful we were initially - we were lost eventually, if the seaborne forces didn't reach us. (We carried a compact ration that lasted 48 hours). Yes- that was good news.

 

And when 'Monty' himself spoke to us personally the day prior to our 'take-off he seemed extremely confident - and so - when the great day dawned - the day that was to see the first Glider Invasion ever attempted in British Military History take place, every man was in fine fettle.

 

Personally, I didn't feel too good myself - not until after breakfast at least. I'd had quite a drop of real Scotch Whisky the night before. My head was pretty rotten. But a good feed, a morning spent getting everything ready and an afternoon in bed put everything just right. And so - to that part of the story that matters. All and everything was set for - the 'big job.' (The 'job,' as far as my battalion was concerned, was the seizure of a bridge, some 500 yards long, on the main road leading inland from the coastal town of Syracuse. The object was to stop the enemy blowing up this important bridge and holding up the advance of the Seaborne Forces).

 

THE TAKE-OFF

 

We had tea about 4pm. Quite a good meal. A couple of sandwiches and a very rock-like rock cake were issued to each man to supplement his 48 hour ration. Then, a little later, we dressed, boarded- trucks and left for a take-off strip (made solely for this 'op) on the edge of a Salt Lake near Kairowan. We had a mug of tea issued when we reached there - very welcome - for Africa can still 'turn on the heat!' We were then taken up to our own particular glider - No.128 was ours. We emplaned and were given our seating positions - also practised quick - de-planing. Next thing - we were told that the take-off time had been put back one hour - from 6.50pm to 7.50pm. So, with an hour or more to spare, the lads got busy - going round other members of the Platoon - getting signatures plastered all over 5, 10 or 50 franc notes and the British Military Authority notes we'd had issued to us the previous day. That done, there commenced the maddest half-hour of my life. The things that everybody said and did would have made the Crazy Gang blush. Singing, dancing, impersonating - right up to the time when we emplaned for the last time. It was best that way I guess. It doesn't give you time to think - if you keep doing things and saying things that have no meaning whatsoever.

 

At about 7.40pm - No. 8 Platoon took off. They had a slower tug-plane and would take longer to do the trip. Theirs was a bumpy take-off. In fact, I thought once or twice that they wouldn't make it. It shook me a little. However, they eventually 'made it' and became airborne. Then - through the miniature sand-storm they'd made by their take-off run, I saw something drop from the glider. "God!" I thought, "someone's fallen out." That shook me : again - till I realised that No. 8 Platoon were making a skid-landing. The Pilot had jettisoned his landing-wheels immediately he'd became airborne. That's what I'd seen drop. The lads around me had gone quiet - and nobody spoke when, a few minutes later, we got the order to emplane. It was just as though someone had said "Here goes - this is it." We took up our positions, strapped ourselves in, waved a final "Cheers" to the Cooks etc. and those who weren't coming on the 'op' - the doors were fastened in position, the pilots had a last minute check-up and then we were nearly deafened as the engines of our Halifax tug roared into life. We started to move down the strip - slowly at first. As our speed increased, the old Halifax's four engines roared louder than ever. And what a load we had on! Through the door leading to the pilot's cabin, I could see the Lieutenant Glider Pilot struggling with the controls as we raced along. We bumped and crashed - one moment- a few feet in the air - then crash - back to earth again. After what seemed minutes - we became airborne and started to climb - and away we were - on a trip that was scheduled to take between two and a half and three hours. Away we were on our first airborne operation - a glider night-landing on Sicily.

 

THE FLIGHT

 

We'd been airborne some few minutes only, when Sgt. Williams shouted from the back that the rear-door was blowing in! We passed the message on to the Co-Pilot (a Sergeant). All he said was "It can't blow in - leave it" And I was hoping that it couldn't blow in! Then a few minutes passed - the Pilot Officer handed the controls over to the Sgt. Pilot and came in and told us we were flying nose-heavy. Four of us (including myself) had to move towards the back. All this time the old 'Horsa' (that was the name of our british-made glider) was bumping and rocking like hell and I was wishing I'd never seen the damn things. - But we hadn't finished being moved around yet. Now, we were flying port-wing heavy and I was one of the 'lucky' blokes who had to move over to the starboard. I was getting browned off. The position now was that all bar about a dozen - maybe less, were sitting on the starboard - and behind the main spar. I was sitting very uncomfortably on somebody's knee. It was 'a bit of a bundle.' (Including the pilots - there were 32 men on board).

 

However, that seemed to be the last move - things settled down a bit and we weren't called upon to alter our positions again. We'd been flying some half-hour or so. The glider was still rocking like the devil - quite a few were sick - and most of us were now sweating like hell. Sgt. Colclough, on my right had great beads of perspiration on his forehead. I suppose I was as bad. The atmosphere was tense - it was very uncanny.

 

I watched the coast of N. Africa come and gradually fade behind - way down below. We were over the old, lovable 'Med.' We carried on like this. The lads were quiet. One or two chatted occasionally with their neighbours - but even though gliders are engineless, 'tis not easy to make oneself heard inside. Just for something to take our minds off things - just to pass the time away, Jimmy Alcock, on whose knee I was sitting, and myself, sang "Me and my Gal" continuously for what must have been half-an-hour. That's the reason everybody, at one time or another, either sang or spoke for a while to his neighbour. Not because he'd anything he wanted to say to him - no - but when you're sitting there - minutes seem like hours - it drags, and you've just got to say or do something - even if it's only to hear yourself talk - it all helps.

 

We passed over Malta. At least, I took it to be Malta - on our port side - may have been Pantellaria. I hadn't the foggiest idea how long we'd been flying. '"Twill soon be going dark" I thought. I wondered if the 'half-moon' that the weather prophets had promised would come to our assistance for the landing.

 

I was getting quite fed-up with the trip. I wished with all my heart that we'd hurry up and get on terra-firma again. By now, I was in the mood that I was quite willing to fight the whole Axis Army alone - if only I could get my feet 'on the deck!' Yes, I'm pretty sure that's how everyone felt - up there - in that smelly, bumping glider. Land fighting held no terrors for us - but for God's sake lets hurry up and get there. Time was dragging like hell. I wished there was something to do. There wasn't.

 

Darkness began to fall soon after we left Malta (or Pantellaria) behind. I'd only seen one other glider on the way over. I wondered if they were having such a bumpy trip. I hoped not. I remember looking down at the sea and seeing what I thought was a massive convoy of ships. "The Seaborne Force" I decided. But it was only half-light and I was very undecided. 'Twas probably my imagination playing tricks with me. What time was it? Must have been up a couple of hours. We weren't flying very high - only just clearing the waves. Then - we climbed to our casting-off altitude. After a further lapse of time, we were told to put the black-outs up over the windows - and the pilot then put on the lights. That was a bit better. The kite wasn't bumping so badly at this time. Nearly everybody had been sick - there was a horribly foul smell. I hadn't been sick - I felt it - but couldn't make it. I wished I could. My brow was wet with perspiration. Sgt. Colclough was in a bad state. He'd been sick and had lost his false teeth - he was saturated with sweat all over - just like a dish-cloth. To all intents and purposes, he was sleeping. I shook him - but he showed no signs of life. I. was suddenly scared - I wondered if he'd - I shook him again and yelled at him to put his haversack on his back as we weren't far away. I was relieved when he murmured "I can't" - and carried on sleeping - or dying - I didn't know which. He never moved for minutes. He looked horrible - ghastly. The rest of us - after a struggle, managed to get all our equipment on - then we put 'a round up the spout' of our various weapons - just in case we had a hot reception. An R.E. Sgt. and myself helped Sgt. Colclough to get his kit on - he'd never have done it himself. We knew that Sicily couldn't be far away now. "It must be about 10pm - or even later" I thought. I couldn't see outside. 'Twould be dark - really dark if clouds were covering the moon. I thought of what it would be like 'down there!' I wondered if all would go as per the 'blackboard drill' we'd learnt and all knew so well. Sgt. Colclough then shook himself and asked if I could get him his Sten Gun. 'Crack' - everybody jumped a mile. Only someone fiddling with a Bren Gun - the piston had shot forward with a bang - luckily not hard enough to fire a round. Lucky for someone. That put everybody's nerves on edge. The lights were put out. We were getting close. It was queer and a little hard on the nerves - sitting there in the complete darkness. I found Sgt. Colclough's Sten Gun - after fishing around. And his teeth! Then, all who could - strapped themselves in ready for the landing. There were too many of us on the starboard side for all to make use of the 'harness.' I peeped out through the black-out. Yes - there was Sicily - at least I could see tracer flowing skyward - miles ahead. "Must be the defences having a bash at some of the lads" I thought - Then - 'Bump' - we'd cast-off. - No - we were still in tow. Then - a definite 'crack' - and a decided steadying of the 'Horsa' - there was no doubt about it this time - we were alone - gliding - gliding down into .......

 

CRASH LANDING

 

We sat tight - staring across at each other - unseeingly in the darkness. I linked arms with my companions on either side - ready to 'take the strain' for the landing. We'd no idea where we'd land - ploughed field - top of a tree - through the front door of a house! - we just hoped for the best. Suddenly - I heard a noise up the front. The lights suddenly came on. Someone - Lieut. Barratt - was smashing away at the roof with a hand-axe. Someone else was yelling "Prepare for ditching" (the R.A.F. term 'ditching' is used when a plane is crashing or making a forced-landing in the sea). The lights went out again. I don't know how I felt - I can't remember. I do remember slipping off my equipment in record time and howling to everybody in general "How the hell does this thing open?" ('This' being a panel in the roof that was to be used for escape if ever we did crash into the sea). Thank God Sgt. Colclough came round sufficiently to tell me what to do. Though I'm pretty sure I didn't open it the 'correct' way - even then. I ripped and tore at it - swung on it - and grappled with it, until it eventually came away, leaving a hole some two feet square - maybe less. We were still gliding along. Then - I heard a rather calm voice say "Don't take off your equipment - we might make land yet." I think it was the voice of Major Lane - my Company Commander - who was doing the trip in my glider. I breathed again. I didn't fancy coming down in the sea - I couldn't swim! I could tell we were losing height rapidly and I knew it wasn't far away - the land - or the sea - I didn't know which to expect. Anyway, I started to put on my equipment. Didn't mean to be left behind if we did land in the right place. I could see the stars shining - through the escape hole -just above my head.

 

Suddenly - someone yelled "Hold tight." I flung my equipment off and sat down quickly. I grabbed hold of someone on either side and waited for it - land or sea. "Land - please". I prayed. 'Crash!' - we pulled up with a jolt. I could feel myself being flung forward - I expected getting a 'black-out.' I thought we'd made the land - then I realised that the sea was pouring in. Hell - we've 'had it.' I pulled myself to my feet and made for the hole I'd just made. Everybody seemed to be going for that hole (though I discovered later - four holes had been made altogether). It was a deadly business. Somehow, I got there - and found myself half in and half out. Somebody who was already out grabbed me and heaved me up. I could scarcely realise that I'd made it. I was now standing on one of the wings. Pulling myself together, I started blowing up my rubber life-jacket (which we all wore, deflated, round our chests during the trip, and which, though not guaranteed to keep a man afloat, are a great help to anyone who makes an effort to swim). It was then that I noticed how close we were to the land. "Must be Sicily" I thought. "And only a mile. or two away." Right on the enemy's doorstep.

 

Then I noticed someone floundering in the water. Someone else was attempting to reach him by lying flat on his stomach on the port wing and grabbing for him. Two more of us went to his aid and between us, we managed to pull him to the comparative safety of the wing. It was Sgt.. Smith. - He was in a bad way - must have swallowed half the 'Med.' Four of us took turns at giving him artificial respiration. After we'd 'swilled a few pints' out of him, he seem a little better. The first words he said - some minutes later - were "Why don't they fetch us?" - Just like a murmured prayer.

 

The moon was giving us a little light. I looked around and saw that several of the lads had been dragged out of the sea and were being looked after by the more fortunate ones. Major Lane spoke to me. He asked how I'd got out - and told me he hadn't the foggiest idea how he'd got away with it. He 'just happened to be there' - that's all. (What happened, I think, was that the nose was smashed in completely and several of those sitting up front had been thrown out - including Sgt. Smith). Sgt. Colclough was there - he was o.k.

 

I noticed then, that the wings weren't so far out of the water as they had been. The old wreck was going down. For the tenth time since the take-off, I prayed. All our weapons and equipment were lost. We had to take off our boots - as she was still sinking - and it looked like we'd have to 'get wet.' Oh - if only I could swim - I prayed again. My shorts were ripped - I still had socks, hose-tops, shorts and shirt on. I had my red beret on when I came through the hole - but it had gone. I still had my paybook - with razor-blades, a couple of photos and a 10/= B.M.A. note tucked inside. I'd a handkerchief, a cig. case (containing three soaked Woodbines), a Field Dressing - and, in the big pocket I'd stitched on to my shorts, I'd a Mills Grenade and 15 rounds of 'buckshee' ammunition. I threw the grenade and ammunition into the sea. Someone looked at his watch - Sgt. Williams, it was. It had stopped at 10.32pm. Probably the time we hit the water. So we'd been about two and three quarter hours in the air.

 

Suddenly, a big searchlight on the beach switched on and swung round in a big half circle - as though searching the waves for us. Then - rat-a-tat. Three bursts of machine-gun fire whistled round us. We were spotted! But the light swung round and left us in the dark again. It swung round several times. Each time we lay flat on the wings - lying very still - hoping it would pass by. Each time - I watched the approaching beam - it seemed to linger on us - only to carry on it's sweep. It was a bit of a nerve-racking affair. I expected 'getting it' any minute. But no - I decided that the Iti's were just getting jittery and were having a go at anything. We weren't fired on again. One of the officers decided on a rollcall. There should be 32. Only 30 answered their names. Two must have been drowned. We scanned the sea - shouted - but no reply. Company Sgt. Major Woolhouse and a Sgt. of the Engineers were missing. There was a silence.

 

I saw four or five gliders go sailing overhead - like great silent hawks. One flew very low. I knew he'd hit the hill in front - he did! With a crash. A few minutes later, there was a crash and the whole place was lit up. To my surprise - in the light of the burning glider - I could definitely see a number of figures dash away and disappear into the darkness beyond. They couldn't have hit the deck too badly after all. And they'd evidently set the glider on fire for security reasons.

 

I felt a little better.

 

SWIMMERS

 

Our own 'Horsa' was still going down and the water was washing round our chests. (It was then that I kicked off my boots - having to make several attempts at undoing them - as each time, I had to bend so low, my head was partially submerged. It's hard to judge, even in daylight, how far land is away - but it certainly looked as though I should have to 'swim for it' - or at least, make an attempt).

 

Major Lane, our Company Commander, just then decided that he'd swim for it - taking with him the other good swimmers. Five went - two officers and three privates. As he, the Major pointed out - with a little less weight on - the wreck might possibly hold up better. He said they'd do their best to sneak ashore, grab a boat if possible, and come back for the rest of us. A small hope - but nevertheless - a hope. Personally, I doubted if they'd make the coast. I hoped they would. It may have been miles to even the nearest point. As I say - it's very hard to judge. The only thing that did point to the distance being not over-much, was the fact that I did see figures dash away from the burning glider. But the wind was blowing very strongly - in the wrong direction - blowing us out to sea - farther and farther from terra-firma. However - they bid us cheerio - we wished them luck - and they struck off. It had it's effect. The glider came up slowly - and soon the water was only up to our knees. It was getting cold. We started slapping each other on the back and legs to keep warm. Half-a-dozen or so swam over to the tail to even the weight. The search light on the beach kept swinging round at irregular intervals. I wondered how the swimmers were doing - if they'd made the land - if they'd run into enemy hands. I yearned for a smoke - but all fags and matches were soaked. In any case, we were too near the enemy. A light would have attracted more bullets. I began to wish that someone would pick us up - I didn't care if it was the enemy or our own fellows! Then, I told myself that the seaborne invasion would be made before long - and I hoped that at least some of the landings would be attempted on that particular stretch of beach. I felt better! Then, I realised that, even if there was a seaborne landing there, in the half-light, we might easily be taken for an enemy patrol boat or something - and it was quite possible we'd be shot up by our own troops. Dozens of thoughts of what could happen, crossed my mind. Some increased my hopes - others weren't too good. Somehow I managed to keep my spirits up. The worst thing was - we were helpless - couldn't do anything to help ourselves. It's hard waiting for fate to 'treat' you as it will! Man can fight man - even the weapons of man - but nature takes it's course.

 

The wind was still blowing hard. We all realised that we were getting farther out to sea - quite definitely. I was wishing that the 'Med' did have a tide - we may have been washed ashore then. Although I didn't think much of the idea of falling into enemy hands - what would I have given to be ashore with a fighting chance - one way or the other. Without weapons - our chances ashore would have been small - but anything rather than all this water. It's very unpleasant - especially for a non-swimmer.

 

It must have been about midnight or one o'clock. Three more of our 'crew' decided to have a go at swimming for it. I nearly decided to go with them - before we got too far out. I had a little debate on my own. I might have made it with a little assistance from the others. But then, I decided 'twould not be fair to hamper the others. They weren't sure of making it anyway. (In any case - to be truthful - I was scared). I decided to stay and hoped that the old wreck would not break up too quickly - that it would float until something came along.

 

These three swimmers, Sgt. Williams, L/Cpl. Brearley and Pte. Townsend, would have gone before, with the Major - but Sgt. Smith who'd been all but drowned, and, on whom we'd applied artificial respiration, had ripped his life-jacket and it was quite useless. He, like myself, couldn't swim a stroke - and, I'm pretty sure that 'twas because of this - plus Sgt. Smiths rather weakened condition - that these three had stayed behind to help Sgt. Smith if the wreck did break up and sink. They tried to fathom some way out of taking him along with them - but rightly decided that the risk to all of them was too great. It was no certainty that a good swimmer, with a life-jacket would make it - without the added encumbrance. (The life-jackets used were the thin rubber type - blown up with the mouth - and very similar to the ones on sale in Woolworths in pre-war days. Certainly not guaranteed 'life preservers'). Anyway, mainly to lessen the weight on the wreckage still more, Sgt. Williams and the other two struck off.

 

That left some twenty of us still hoping that the old 'Horsa' would float till dawn at least, when we'd either be picked up by somebody or 'finished off by somebody. We hadn't much say in the matter. And yes - after the three had left - the glider came up out of the water yet farther - and it was now only washing our ankles.

 

We carried on slapping each other for warmth. We 'marked time' gently in the small space allowed. We dare not bounce about too much - a glider is a fragile thing. Nobody spoke very much. I guess everybody was thinking a lot however. I was. I prayed - very frequently. Someone near me prayed too- aloud. I felt that my feet were warmer than the rest of my body - so I lay down on a spare bit of the wing.

 

I felt warmer for a while. I was fascinated by the tremendous amount of phosphorous in the sea - millions of little brilliantly illuminated spots floating over and around me - like so many glow-worms in the water. But I soon became very stiff and numb about the groin, I decided it might be warmer standing up - once my clothes were dry. It was murderously cold at first, but the wind soon dried my shirt and shorts and I felt much better. We carried on gently 'marking-time' to keep the leg muscles in action - by rubbing and slapping each other continuously - we managed to keep fairly comfortable. I kept watching the coast - sometimes trying to tell myself that we were getting nearer - yet knowing in my heart that we were getting farther away. Those on the tail unit were twisting the rudder in an effort to use it for changing the direction - so we'd get nearer land - but no - we still drifted slowly out to sea. The lights on the hillside, where the glider had crashed were much farther away.

 

I suddenly realised I was parched - but we'd no water. "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink." All our water-bottles had gone down - together with our grub. I'd also had a couple of tins of fifty cigarettes in my haversack. Too bad. Some of the lads had their emergency ration (hard chocolate) with them - but we weren't really hungry - tea hadn't been an awful long time ago- though it seemed ages ago to me. So we didn't eat.

 

Occasionally, my thoughts turned to the two missing - I was pretty sure their bodies were somewhere down in the wrecked fuselage. It was a bit eerie. I glanced now and then into the dark blur of the hole that I'd smashed in and through which most of those who had got out, had come, I half expected to see their bodies come floating out. I hoped they wouldn't.

 

How was the time going? I hadn't the least idea. I knew the R.A.F. were going to bomb Syracuse from 2.15 am until 2.45 am. If we'd been on our course when we crashed - we should be somewhere in the vicinity of the town. We could only wait and see.

 

There was a faint light still shining in the Pilots cabin. Presumably a light on the control panel that hadn't been knocked to hell by the crash. There it was - still glowing - somewhere under the surface. Somebody said "If the Padre was here - he'd say 'Lead Kindly Light.'" Yes - that's what our Padre would have said.

 

Little pieces kept breaking off the wreckage - and floating away. I looked and tried to judge whether we were sinking at all or if we still retained our height - or depth - whichever way you look at it. Sometimes I thought the water was lapping rather higher up my legs - and I got a bit of a 'shake-on.'

 

Then I decided not - and I breathed again. That's how it was - good hopes - bad thoughts. Nothing to do but wait.

 

THE BOMBERS

 

Planes could be heard approaching. The Coastal defences opened up. Terrific flashes and explosions over on the coast to our right. The R.A.F! Then it was 2.15 am - and those bombs were dropping on Syracuse - as per the briefing we'd had before take-off. And I knew we were up the bay just to the south of the town. Yes - we were on our course - at least, we had been!

 

For half-an-hour it was a continuous roar of plane engines, bursting bombs and A.A. fire. "The seaborne invaders won't be far away" I thought. I peered out to sea. The moon had gone in - and although Syracuse was blazing merrily - it was quite dark and hard to see far out to sea.

 

Yes, the bombers were giving Syracuse a hell of a time. The defences were putting up a good show too - more tracer bullets than anything else. I wondered if we'd had all this 'flak' slung up at us as we'd started our run over the bay. I don't know. I had peered through the side of the blackout once and seen quite a few 'pretty lights' floating upwards - but nothing nearly so intense as this. The thousands of tracer bullets were making lovely patterns. Fires started all over the town and soon everywhere was lit up. It didn't seem so lonely, now the R.A.F was around. But I wished with all my heart that I was on that island.

 

I wondered why we'd crashed in the sea? What caused it? Was it A.A. fire had something to do with it? Or maybe we'd too much weight on board to glide in from where we'd cast off. The latter was the more probable I decided. I wondered if others had been so unfortunate - if more besides ourselves had finished up 'in the drink.' I wondered all sorts of things. At frequent intervals I looked out to sea - for signs of the seaborne troops. No luck.

 

One of the bombers was hit - and I watched him crash - way over on our right. He came down in a mass of flame. There was a terrific explosion as he hit the deck. Must have been four or five miles away. Meanwhile, relay after relay of bombers were dropping tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the town. The sky was filled with tracer - guns were blazing along the whole length of the beach. It was light as day.

 

About this time, I noticed a series of 'Verey' Light signals go up somewhere immediately in front. I reckoned then that they'd be some of our lads who'd landed on the island. They appeared to be well inland.

 

Watching the bombing took a bit of the monotony away from life - it took our minds off our position too. I couldn't understand why we weren't fired on again. With all the light from fires etc - I felt like I was standing right under a big arc -lamp. But the poor old Iti's must have been too occupied with the planes above to bother about 'the one below.' It was a queer position to be in - floating helplessly within a few miles off the enemy coast - hour after hour.

 

SEABORNE INVASION

 

The bombing ceased as abruptly as it started. "Then it was 2.45 am Saturday 10th July 1943." We'd been in the drink four hours and a quarter. It seemed like four days. When the last plane had gone - defences relaxed once more, there was an eerie silence. Nothing now to occupy our minds - nothing to do but think again. And the feeling I had that there were some pals up there - some Britishers - when the bombing was on - that was gone too.

 

We again started our warming exercises. Time dragged by. Then - once - as I peered out to sea - hopefully - I thought I spotted a ghostly white blur way out - miles away. I told the others and everybody looked. They mostly agreed that "they could see something." I was sure of it! I kept my eyes glued on it. Was it the invasion force arriving - or was it the enemy? Someone had a torch. He asked the Glider Pilot Officer - who, as senior, had taken command - if he could signal an S.O.S. Quite rightly the officer said not. It was probably an enemy patrol boat. Whether enemy or not, it acted as a tonic to the lads - the sight of a ship. Drooping spirits raised and there was a hopeful atmosphere 'on board the old wreck.' And when, some time later, we were able to make out more ghostly shapes - we nearly cheered. We'd ceased our warming exercises the moment we saw the first ship - and I was freezing cold again.

 

Two, three, four, five - up to ten or a dozen vague outlines I counted. A dozen ships! Probably hundreds of them behind! And our ships! My hopes went rocketing sky-high. "This is part of the beach to be invaded then" - I told myself. Thank God.

 

Gradually, as they came closer - I realised that they weren't exactly coming in our direction, but were heading for the coast way over on our left. I began to wish that some of them would come in a little nearer - then they might spot us.

 

The Pilot Officer then decided they were our ships and told Sgt. Colclough to flash an S.O.S. This he did - several times. After what seemed hours (dawn was approaching) - someone said he saw what looked like a string of three or four small landing-craft, stealing slowly - silently towards the beach. They were still way over to our left. I looked - yes - I could see them quite definitely. But they seemed not to have noticed us. And I was a little downhearted again. (That's how it was - at the slightest thought or happening, spirits were up - or down). Sgt. Colclough again flashed a signal from his position on the tail-unit. And - yes -the leading craft turned our way! I nearly fell off my 'bit of wing' with delight! They all turned in our direction - and came stealing slowly up to us. The chances that we might be taken for enemy in the half-light - and maybe 'shot up' - never occurred to me then! I was too pleased with life. I'd been freezing away on a floating wreck of a glider that was slowly breaking up - for five hours or so, within a stones' throw of the enemy coast. Now, here was somebody coming - and it was almost certainly - British Troops! We were .O.K.

 

I knew it!

 

One of our lads yelled as they came nearer. "Help - can you pick us up. We're on a crashed glider." A voice came back saying "Keep bloody quiet- we'll pick you up as we come back." They were British! Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! We guessed that "they'd pick us up as they came back" meant that they were going to land the troops they had aboard (Commandoes probably) - and then the landing craft would call for us on it's way back to the Mother ship.

 

I think that most of us had forgotten about the idea of all this - the invasion of Sicily. We were too much taken up with our own position - and our desire to get off the wreck, to think that by flashing lights and yelling, we might have caused a whole bundle of trouble for the seaborne invaders. (Though - actually, I'm pretty sure that neither lights or voices could have been seen by the enemy on land - though there was always the chance of enemy patrol boats being in nearby waters). Sgt. Colclough was careful to cover the torch well when he flashed his message and the wind was in the wrong direction to carry voices shorewards. We were too far out, anyway. However ..........

 

The small landing-craft swung away - and headed once more for the beach. They soon disappeared from view. Some little time later - firing started from over on our left. Tracer bullets were whipping inland by the score. The leading troops were trying to land on the beaches - Sicily was being invaded in earnest - seaborne troops were attempting to get through to our lads who were already fighting further inland. The bangs and crashes increased. Soon, we could tell that landings were being attempted along the whole stretch of beach. ("They'll soon be back for us" I thought).

 

At a point to our front - a hell of a noise was going on. Tracer bullets were crashing brilliantly into the hillside - just like a firework display. I took that to be the party that had "given us a call." I forgot the cold I thought what a remarkable grandstand view of an invasion we were getting. This part of it was O.K. But I kept my eyes skinned for the return of the assault landing-craft

 

Suddenly, over on our right, I spotted them. It was fairly light by now. I thought they had missed us - but no - they turned and came towards us. I nearly jumped for joy. It's a smashing feeling - it was to me. (The time was - I discovered later - 4.45 am. We'd been drifting there some 6 1/4 hours - and I wouldn't be sorry to leave. And it looked as if we were about to leave - it looked like we were rescued - at last!)

 

RESCUED

 

The boats came closer. Someone in the leading craft yelled across - "Where are you bound for?" - A queer question. He evidently hadn't got us weighed up yet. Once again we replied that we were British glider troops who'd crashed. I then noticed that all three boats were still full of troops! I thought - "It can't be the same boats - they'll have landed their load by now." Again - we got the reply that "we'll pick you up on the way back." What the hell is this? I think we all wondered "what the hell this was." I began to think we wouldn't be picked up - probably looked upon as 'small fry' - compared with the job of invasion. The boats passed by. I watched them. A few hundred yards they went - then - they turned again, and once more came in our direction. This time they came right close. Are we? or aren't we? (More bits of wood parted from the frame of the glider and were washed away. "It's quite time something happened" - somebody said to me).

 

"Have you any weapons?" - somebody on the leading boat shouted. The Glider Pilot replied that we'd "not a thing." "How many of you are there?" was the next question. The officer told him. The leading launch drew alongside the tail - and without needing any order - the half-dozen or so men there grabbed hold somehow and scrambled aboard, helped in by the Commandoes.

 

(During this time, crashes and bangs were to be heard on all parts of the beach. The initial landings seemed to be going O.K. The fire caused by the burning glider on the hillside was out by now. Syracuse was still blazing merrily away).

 

The second boat swung round and after a couple of attempts, managed to draw up alongside the wreckage of the port wing. We all scrambled aboard somehow. I remember tumbling face first into the bottom of the boat. Boy oh boy - it was one of the moments of my life.

 

The three craft then turned towards the beaches again - and I thought of the funny side of it. We'd started off to make an airborne invasion of Sicily - and finished up 'seaborne' with the Commandoes! Combined operation - if you like.

 

The first thing that struck me when I 'fell' into the boat, was the very strong smell of rum! It nearly knocked me back into the 'Med.' (I didn't mind so much when somebody passed me a bottle of it though! Lovely).

 

All the way to the shore, we were plied with questions from the Commandoes. As we neared the beach, we tried to find somewhere to get out of their way, in case we had a hot reception on the beaches - for, remember, we had no weapons to be able to help them out. It was awkward. The boat was packed full. One bloke gave me some cigarettes... "V's" I would have given a lot for a smoke just then - but it was out of the question.

 

We didn't seem to be getting much nearer the shore. It was quite light by the time. I realised how much I had underestimated the distance - it was several miles. I wondered if the swimmers, especially the last three to leave, had made land. I hoped they had - but I doubted it.

 

However, we slowly drew nearer the beaches. There didn't seem to be much resistance about. An occasional badly aimed shot whistled by. The Commandoes 'stood by' ready to disembark. We grounded. Quickly, the front was dropped - and out they got - very coolly, in barrack-square drill fashion - and waded ashore. (I guess all Commandoe landings aren't quite so easy as this. But then, I thought, some of their pals had probably gone in at this point before them). There didn't seem to be any enemy about. A few bodies lay on the beach - that's all. When the last of them had jumped from the boat - we who were decently fit enough helped to unload ammunition etc. Then we bid them 'all the best' - and everything else that one soldier says to another on such occasions as this - and they marched up the beaches. Yes - actually marched away. Sounds queer - but it was just as comfortable and easy as that. There's no doubt however - they'd get their share of bullets in a couple of hours time!

 

Meanwhile, we who were left in the boat had time to look ourselves over. We were a queer looking bunch - believe me. Most of the lads were full of spirits - and the conversation was very witty and idiotic. A good show under the circumstances. Occasionally - a stray bullet from some lone rifleman would come floating by, but we weren't in the mood to worry about anything less that tanks!

 

Personally - I reviewed the happenings of the past few hours. How lucky we were. I thanked God from the bottom of my heart. If silent prayer had helped, then I'd helped a lot during that night. I said as much to the fellows. Every man jack said he'd prayed more on that wreck than ever he'd done in all his past life. Yes - I quite believe them. It is funny how any sort of 'bloke' turns to praying on occasions when he's up against it. Now we were safe - and I thanked God again.

 

The crew of the barge gave us blankets. I had an oilskin coat. They were all welcome. It was still very cold. Crashes and bangs were coming from all over the place - but nobody worried.

 

We remained grounded on the beach for some considerable time. Apparently a rope or something had got round the propeller. A young Combined-Operations Officer stripped off and went 'down-under' to fix it. Eventually, we started back to the Mother-ship. I wondered what would happen to us. I thought of all sorts of things - but I didn't know what to expect. I thought mostly of a good feed - and a spot of warmth. And then - maybe, a drop of sleep. Yes - and a smoke. I think a smoke was the main thing I really wanted. We smoked - 'twas marvellous. Someone had been given a packet of Woodbines (by one of the Commandoes). There's nothing like a Woodbine. He handed them round. Life was complete!

 

I wondered again where the swimmers were. I'd scanned the beaches - but I couldn't see any signs of them. I doubted their chances - after seeing just how far it was. And I was glad I'd 'stayed put' on the wreck.

 

Suddenly, I noticed just how big the invasion fleet was. And it was only part of the invasion fleet. This was only one landing place.

 

Literally thousands of ships - large and small, were dotted about all over the sea- from right close in - to as far as the eye could see. They were all coming in to unload troops to follow up the initial landings - the initial landings made by the Commandoes. What a sight - I'll never forget it.

 

TROOPSHIP 'DUNERA'

 

Over on the hillside were a couple of 'Waco' gliders. They looked pretty intact. I should say that, apart from landing in the wrong place, the occupants had 'got away' with it O.K.

 

I wondered how many more of the lads had failed to land in the correct place. If the comparatively easy landings of the Commandoes had meant anything - then it seemed that sufficient of our lads had got there o.k. to make it that way. Because Sicily was said to be the most strongly fortified spot on earth. (I can now say that our lads who did land on the island - did their job well and made the seaborne invasion much easier for the Commandoes).

 

As we chugged out to sea - a faster craft passed us. I recognised Sgt. Martin and several of the Pioneer Platoon. So someone else had been picked up too. Someone else had landed in the 'drink.' I wondered how many more - and how many of those hadn't been picked up.

 

We drew near to the Mother ship - the ship from which our boat, loaded with it's fighting men, had been lowered. She was heading towards the beaches. We got in her wash and followed. We were given sandwiches and lemonade - and rum again - by the boat's crew. Smashing. Most of the lads were fast asleep in the bottom of the boat. Those who weren't were smoking for all they were worth. A fag's a marvellous thing!

 

I looked towards the beaches and saw a couple of M.E. 109's - zooming and diving and strafing the landing troops and vessels. One of the naval blokes shoved a Lewis Gun at me. "Here you are 'Corp' (I was a Lance-Corporal) - have a bash if they come in range" he said. They didn't, so I never used it. A Corporal out of our signal section was astern. He'd a bandage over one eye - he'd got hurt when we crashed. He also had a Lewis Gun. He fired a burst. "What's that in aid of?" I asked. "Just testing the gun" he said. There were several planes way up high. We kept our eyes on them - 'till we recognised them as 'friendly.' The M.E's stayed close to the beaches.

 

The ship ahead stopped. We drew alongside and saw the party of our fellows who'd been picked up off the tail - just climbing the steel ladder up the side. Naval and Army men stared down at us from the open decks - leaned and stared at us like we were some uncommon sea-animals being taken on board. We tied up and followed the others up the ladder. I guess we looked a queer sight to the Captain, who was standing, helping us up the last few rungs.

 

Then I lost all interest in the invasion - (temporarily of course). We were taken to the Medical Inspection Room. There, the M.O. gave us the once-over. Some were put in the ship's hospital. The rest of us were passed as O.K. but we were all told to watch our step as we were likely to suffer from relapses or something during the next three weeks or so. Then, we were given a real Naval meal. We had another Naval meal half and hour later. Talk about grub - smashing!

 

The ship was a British and Indian Steam Navigation Company trooper "Dunera." She was a sister-ship to the "Ettrick" - the boat on which I sailed from Marseilles to Bombay in January 1940. I soon found my way around.

 

We were then taken down to the Mess Decks. The Commandoes had left her in a terrible state - clothing, mugs, plates - all over place. We each grabbed ourselves a pair of gym shoes, shorts and bush shirts.

 

I went on top a short time after and found we were under way. I looked towards the beach and saw several fighter-planes - whether friendly or not I couldn't say. Ack-ack fire was going up like hell again. I watched two fighters go down in flames - both pilots were floating down by parachute. One of the crew told me he'd just seen four fetched down. He had binoculars - and said they were all enemy planes.

 

I went below and grabbed a hammock, slung it - and was soon fast asleep.

 

When I awoke, I found it was late afternoon. I looked around and saw that more of my battalion had joined us. Pte. Guppy, of Holmewood was one. A couple of officers and some thirty of forty of us altogether.

 

But the big surprise was when I saw the three of my pals - the last three of our glider to swim for it - namely Sgt. Williams, L/Cpl. Brearley and Pte. Townsend. They'd reached land o.k. - right under the nose of a machine-gun post manned by a bunch of Iti's. Not being armed, they'd crawled along the beaches until a naval patrol boat had picked them up. It was good to see them.

 

I went on deck. Sicily was just a vague coastline in the distance. Apart from a few ships around us - there was no signs of life. Everything was calm. As I reviewed the happenings of the past few hours - wondered where we were bound for - wondered what our immediate future would be - thought about home - thanked God that we were still alive - the island disappeared from view. And darkness was falling when I eventually pushed my thoughts aside and went below for a good nights' sleep.

 

Aboard the troop ship "Dunera"

Somewhere in the 'Med.'

July 1943

 

RETURN TO BASE

 

We were on board the 'Dunera' for a week. A week of good food and no work. A week of real leisure in that marvellously warm climate that the 'Med' area is famous for. Apart from Physical Training in the morning and a few odd, self-selected tasks to pass the time away - we did nothing but sleep, eat, read, play cards and gaze over the rails. The first few nights I was a little restless - but I got over that.

 

We disembarked at Port Suez the following Saturday and went into 157 Transit Camp, which is situated very close to the Suez Canal, at the point where it broadens out and forms the Bitter Lakes. We spent one night there, then boarded an Egyptian train and were taken to No. 2. I.T.D. - another camp between Fanara and Genefa - half way up the Suez Canal on the way to Port Said. There we were fitted out with kit etc. We spent some ten days there, during which time Colonel Jones came over by air and told us all about the land operations of the lads who had landed on Sicily. I learned with regret that quite a lot of my friends were killed. I was pleased to hear that all the first bunch of our fellows who'd swum for land with the Major had 'made it' alright and were o.k.

 

Apart from an acute shortage of cash - life in No. 2 I.T.D. was good. I enjoyed a day out in Ismailia.

 

We flew back to our base in Souse, a distance of 1,500 miles, in Douglas Dakotas (C47's). The pilot of my plane brought us all the way down the route of the Eighth Army's advance from Cairo, Alemain - Tobruk etc.. At the end of the first day, we landed at Benghazi. We shared a camp with some Basutoland troops for the night, then next day - flew on again over the Mareth Line and back to base again at Souse.

 

There were lots of faces missing. The camp seemed half deserted. We'd lost a lot of troops. Quite a lot through drowning I learned.

 

We talked hours with the other lads. Compared experiences. And those of us who'd landed in the sea - and those who had landed on the terra-firma known as Sicily, agreed that the first airborne invasion - an all-glider affair - attempted by the British, had been successful - though it had cost a lot of lives. (In my Company alone, we lost fifty-two out of the hundred and fifteen who went on the 'op). We who were still there were very lucky. Fifty one men were drowned - one killed in action.

 

And now we're waiting for 'next time' - for the next "airborne invasion of .... ?" Who knows where it will be. Anyway - who cares? Not me - provided we don't have too much water to cross!

 

 

That's how I wrote it then - Now, I know that the next Airborne Invasion we were to partake in was the Arnhem landing. And practically all the lads who took a soaking with me off Sicily were with me on the Arnhem 'operation ' - plus a few more newcomers. We had some water to cross - but we got across alright this time. Unfortunately, only two got back to Blighty. Pte. Holloway, my Bren Gunner, who was with me on the Sicily job, was one of the lads who was killed at Arnhem. Actually, he was taken prisoner with me, but he'd been hit in the abdomen by a burst of machine-gun fire some few minutes before the Jerries closed in on us. He wasn't a prisoner very long! He was lucky to come through the Sicily job o.k. I'm sorry he didn't have the luck to pull through at Arnhem. He was one of many who survived Sicily but who were left behind in the Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek, Holland - or in some stalag Cemetery in Germany. A lot of them were my personal pals. I shall remember them.

 

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them - nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them."

 

Stretton, Derbys

England

Jan 1946

 

 

Thanks to Bob Hilton for this account.

 

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