Chapter 14 (1943)

The Invasion of Italy: Part 1 - Sicily

Our Shipmates
Frank Darwell and I had now settled down in the Flores and were becoming real sailors. The ship was our only home and its crew our only companions. The ship's life was our life; it stood between us and the endless ocean; we depended utterly on its efficiency, comfort (such as it was) and seaworthiness. And we depended on our shipmates to do their jobs well and to keep us out of danger. Fortunately, the Flores was very well built (in Rotterdam) and Dutch sailors second to none; during all my time in her only the enemy ever threatened our safety.

I had made friends with several of the Dutch crew, notably a young Javanese called Erik Haasterd, a quiet Jewish lad called Sam something-or-other and a polished young man called Paul Kerstmann. Erik had been forced to leave his wife behind in Java to the mercy of the Japanese and was convinced by the loss of his wedding ring that he would never see her again. Sam was a rather sad little chap but, like most Jewish people I have met, a warm and loyal friend. Paul spoke much better English than I, having been educated at a public school in Leatherhead. He spoke no Dutch at all but was nevertheless a Dutch national. The bond between us was music: Erik and Sam played the guitar and Paul the accordian. None of us was remotely expert but, as Paul would say, a man with one eye was a king in a land of the blind, and I had better musical training than the others. Small ships - destroyers, frigates, gunboats, landing craft, motor torpedo boats etc - frequently tied up alongside each other in harbour and it was common practice to visit each others' mess-decks. We were often invited to other ships to bring a little light relief to their crews and spent many happy hours swapping yarns and playing our instruments. The Dutch sailors and their ship were a novelty and although I was obviously British my close identification with them made me rather a curiosity too.

ralph kersteman
haastert

Left: Eric van Haastert. Right: Ralph Smith (the author) with Paul Kerstmann

The senior British rating in the Flores was a Leading Signalman named Stan Vanson. He was a pre-war regular sailor and had been wounded at Dunkirk. The British Telegraphist was a rather supercilious young man who had been a librarian in Derby. The only other British sailor apart from Frank and myself was Ginger Woods, a Leading Radio Mechanic who, with Paul Kerstmann, ran the new short- wave gun control radar from a tiny "caboose" on the opposite side of the upper deck from our radio cabin. Frank and Ginger and I would often go ashore together but we did not socialise much with the other two British sailors.


Malta
We were now part of a large convoy crawling along the North African coast, dropping ships off at various ports as we made our way to Malta. Our route took us through the "narrow seas" between Sicily and the Italian-held island of Pantellaria. We expected aircraft attacks here, scene of the most vicious sea and air battles of the war and the graveyard of many ships in the desperate siege of Malta; but we saw nothing.

theatre-of-war

Theatre of War: The tiny island of Malta lies just below Sicily,
which is the large island adjacent to the foot of Italy

On 6th July 1943 we arrived at Malta. As this famed island rose over the horizon we peered at it eagerly. The Maltese people and their language are originally descended from the ancient Phoenicians, but Greeks and Romans also colonised it and there is a strong Moorish inheritance. During the Crusades, European noblemen established themselves and built castles there, calling themselves the "Knights of Malta", an Order which still exists today but has only charitable aims. Fierce battles were fought with invading Saracens for possession of the island. Later, Malta accepted British protection and it became, along with Alexandria on the Nile (after Nelson had destroyed the French Fleet at the Battle of Aboukir), the main base of the Mediterranean Fleet. Within its magnificent Grand Harbour, British battle-fleets lay secure for a hundred and fifty years, commanding the Mediterranean and all who moved upon it.

As the harbour came into view the terrible punishment inflicted by German and Italian bombers became all too clear. Not one building was undamaged. Stan Vanson, our regular-Navy signalman who had known Malta in peacetime and was looking forward to renewing his acquaintance with sundry bars and lady friends, wept openly at the destruction of the beautiful capital, Valetta. Malta had held out, but only just and at irreplaceable cost. Without it, we would have lost the North African campaign and almost certainly the war itself.

I had one brief run ashore, disclosing a land decidedly British in external appearances but with an underlying sense of very ancient traditions and culture whose people were half European, half Middle- Eastern yet with something more than both. They were very friendly towards us in spite of all the pain and destruction they had endured on our behalf. The battered remains of public buildings still showed an elegant magnificence.

Invasion of Sicily
However, we had little time to philosophise and in 48 hours left Grand Harbour in company with HM Ships Aphis, Cockchafer and Scarab. These were "Insect" Class Yangtse River gunboats, built to police the vast estuary of this famous Chinese river and inshore coastal waters in the days when Europeans dominated the Far East. They were small, flat and ugly, with very little upperworks except a large gun. The Dutch called them "flat-irons", which was roughly what they looked like. They must have been unbearable in any sort of heavy seas. We stood outside Malta all that day and most of the next, then set sail late in the afternoon. Soon we met other ships and eventually a convoy of enormous size stretched across the ocean. We were bound for Sicily. The first landing to wrest Europe from the grip of the Nazis had begun.

enroute sicily

Sketch by the author

When darkness fell we ploughed remorselessly on, conscious of thousands of other men moving with us but quite blind to their position. At one point a dark shape came close to us very fast and a blue signal lamp blinked urgently for some seconds, then both were gone. It was an American destroyer, telling us that Mussolini had been deposed and the situation in Italy was most confused. But the message added that we should not on that account expect the Italians to be friendly.

messina

Southern Italy and the island of Sicily

About 2.30am we hove-to and lay wallowing in the darkness. Then the distant sky ahead was split with a firework display of tracer and the flash of explosions, which went on continuously. As dawn broke we saw we were in a wide bay with a beautiful mountainous coastline. Ships of many kinds lay all around us but, more to our amazement, a glider was lying in the water not thirty yards distant, with men clinging all round it. It had been dropped short of its landing area and fourteen paratroopers, all Geordies from Newcastle, found themselves having an unwelcome bath. They had been there for four hours and neither they nor we were aware of our proximity. They were very relieved to see us though one poor fellow with a machine gun strapped to him had sadly gone to the bottom. 

IMG 3716

Sketch of the incident made by the author on a naval message pad
whilst looking out of the wireless room of the Flores.

Later that day the hospital ship Dorsetshire was bombed by German aircraft, causing a number of casualties. We passed some debris in the water, including a large wooden structure clearly marked with a red cross several feet wide.

siciliy



Supporting the Army
Our role in the invasion was to provide bombardment in support of the Army and we were in close radio contact with an Army spotter ashore, called a Forward Observation Officer or FOO. Our FOO was an Army Captain who had sailed to Sicily with us in our ship and had now been landed to perform his very dangerous job as close as he could get to enemy lines. He would send us co-ordinates for our six-inch guns. My task was to relay his messages to the gun-control station which then fired on those co-ordinates. We silenced one enemy battery then there followed a rapid series of positions from him which our guns fired on. Later, on returning to the ship, our FOO told us that at one point he had been chased by a tank which we had happily disposed of - for which he was most grateful!

There were heavy air raids at night, during which all the ships in the bay set up a smoke screen as thick as any London fog. The harbour of Syracuse was captured and we entered it on 15th July. This concentration of shipping invited nightly air raids which were most unpleasant. But our Bofors and Oerlikons,  together with fire from the other ships, were able to put up a strong defence.

Shortly afterwards, we moved to the harbour of Augusta, a few miles up the coast. The harbour here was very wide and the large number of ships anchored there under a brilliant full moon made every night’s air raid a terrifying experience. I believe our camouflage saved us on many occasions because in the moonlight the Flores looked like a larger ship further away, and by the time the enemy pilot realised this he was past us. Other ships were less fortunate and the sight of them burning close to us and bodies in the water is not easily forgotten. One, an ammunition ship, burned all night. We had just left harbour when the most colossal explosion showed that the firefighters had lost the battle to save her. A huge column of smoke rose high into the sky, reminiscent in retrospect of the mushroom cloud which would later become the hallmark of the then unknown atomic bomb.

augusta harbour

Augusta Harbour, just north of Syracuse, is at the foot of this map

augusta moonlight


Shore Bombardment
Each day we left at daybreak and sailed along the coast towards the Straits of Messina, shooting at enemy formations on the shore and in the towering mountains behind it. Each night the Germans retaliated with air raids on the warships in Augusta Harbour. An assortment of ships came with us but we were especially glad of the Monitors. These were fairly large ships whose sole purpose was to provide a platform for two 14- or 15-inch guns which could lay a devastating barrage on shore targets. Their names were Erebus, Roberts and Abercrombie, the first of these being quite old. I went on board her while in harbour and was appalled by the stark lack of comfort everywhere. When one considers that there is no such thing as a comfortable warship, the state of Erebus must have been remarkable to remain so vividly in my mind. She had taken a hit with a shell from the shore and had lost several men. 

There were other casualties among our group: the cruiser HMS Newfoundland was torpedoed and the Roberts mined. We ourselves were repeatedly the target of shellfire from shore and attack from the air, including machine gun strafing. One very near miss sprang several plates below the waterline and ruined all our food stocks as well as allowing foul-smelling bilge water onto the mess-decks. A particularly large German gun, mounted on a railway wagon, would appear from a tunnel-mouth on the coastal railway line and open fire at us. Our sister ship, the Soemba, sailing just ahead of us, was hit by one of these shells, killing her Captain and wounding others. 

One occasion stands out in my memory. A group of ships with two monitors sailed up to the Straits of Messina, separating Sicily from mainland Italy, with the object of harrassing the enemy's supply lines. The sea was bright blue and flat as a mirror, and the ships' bows cut through it as if through soft cheese. The hills on both sides of the Straits lay bathed in sunlight and into this vast and beautiful panorama we steamed majestically like toy boats on a lake. Shortly, the Germans objected to our presence and set up a furious barrage of very heavy shells from both shorelines. They burst around the leading ships sending graceful plumes of water high into the air, whereupon two destroyers leapt forward furiously and described a wide arc between our fleet and the shore, laying a thick black smokescreen under cover of which we all withdrew to a more discreet distance. It was as if we were watching a colossal painting where the foreground objects changed position slowly and deliberately, yet the whole had an unreal and dreamlike air about it.

map-messina

The Strait of Messina

The Man Who Never Was
Eventually after heavy fighting the Germans were pushed out of Sicily and the campaign ended. We returned to Malta for rest and relaxation with relief. We had had enough of it for now.

After the war we heard a strange and scarcely believable tale, though it was quite true. A film was made of it, called "The Man Who Never Was". British Intelligence conceived the idea of allowing a top secret "messenger" to be drowned while carrying plans for an Allied invasion of Greece. The body of a man who had died of natural causes was dressed in Naval Officer's clothes and ditched from a submarine off the coast of Portugal, with a briefcase strapped to him containing the "plans". The Portuguese found him but German Intelligence, as had been expected, managed to look at the plans before the body was returned to the British authorities for burial. A long period of checking by German spies and disinformation by our own counter-intelligence in Britain finally convinced them that the plans were genuine, with the result that large numbers of troops and masses of equipment were moved from Italy to Greece just before the invasion. It had a decisive effect on the success of the invasion, which otherwise might have been much more costly to us.

My father describes the action off the coasts of Sicily and Italy from his view in the wireless room. Another altogether fascinating perspective of the activities of Flores and Soemba was published in a Dutch newspaper in August 1943.
Entitled “The Terrible Twins”, it makes fascinating reading.

Click here to read it


Next page . . . “The Terrible Twins

Or go on to Chapter 15: Invasion of Italy

Or return to Chapter 13: In Convoy"

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