The Commandos seaborne assault on Sicily

British troops in a landing craft assault (LCA), 9 July 1943.

British troops in a landing craft assault (LCA), 9 July 1943.

Just after dawn men of the Highland Division are up to their waists in water unloading stores from landing craft tanks. Meanwhile beach roads are being prepared for heavy and light traffic during dawn of the opening day of the invasion of Sicily.

Just after dawn men of the Highland Division are up to their waists in water unloading stores from landing craft tanks. Meanwhile beach roads are being prepared for heavy and light traffic during dawn of the opening day of the invasion of Sicily.

A British Universal Carrier Mk I comes ashore with troops and guns during the invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943.

A British Universal Carrier Mk I comes ashore with troops and guns during the invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943.

An invasion force of around the same size as would assault Normandy less than a year later was now poised to take the Allied offensive into Europe. It was not the second front assault on the heart of Europe that Stalin had hoped for but it was a significant change of theatre. Around 160,000 men were prepared for Operation Husky the amphibious and airborne assault on Sicily.

The British and American armies were both learning fast but had much more to learn. This was a massive step change in the scale of operations they had yet undertaken. Even though disaster was averted there would be many lessons learnt from this attack. There were particular problems with the airborne assault, which had never been attempted on anything like this scale before. Many gliders and paratroopers fell short into the sea or were attacked by ‘friendly fire’.

Finally the Commandos learnt the true identity of the terrain whose maps they had been poring over for the past two weeks. It was the beginning of a very long day for Douglas Grant as he led his Commandos into action for the first time:

I slowly became aware of the vast around our cockle shell, and heard the methodical throb of aircraft flying high overhead below the confusion of unfamiliar stars. They were either bombers, or more probably, air transports which were to drop paratroops in the enemy’s rear immediately before our assault.

Something will happen at any moment now, I thought, and I strained to see land through the dimness, but there was only the rhythmical repetition of the retreating waves against the skyline. I was soon cold and stiff with standing in the bows and crept into the little space that had been saved for me under the gunwales; but the stench of vomit and the retching made it impossible to stay there for long and I preferred to shiver in the spray than to be sick.

I climbed up again into the fresh air and succeeded in dulling my thoughts by watching, until I was almost hypnotized, the fluctuating wakes of the craft ahead. The time insensibly passed until a singular star trembled and fell like a liquid drop from the sky on my right. I was following its quavering descent when another, bright crimson like a prick of blood, suddenly hung above it, poised momentarily, and began to fall after the first.

This was the signal for spurts of light, like fiery morse-code, to lace the darkness and intersect each other’s staccato lines in a geometrical pattern. The paratroops had been dropped. I saw now that we were sailing parallel to a long hump of land and warned the men to stand by.

Before I was fully aware of our position, the craft deployed and the cliff’s dark bulk rose immediately before us. The landing ramp fell forward and shouting, ‘Follow me!’ I clambered down into the water that was disturbed into white spume by the men of the first wave struggling ashore.

I lurched and stumbled forward, up to the waist in water that bellied against me, and furiously strove for the sheltering lee of the cliff to escape from the diabolic racket of machine-gun fire that whipped overhead. The smallest man in my troop fell in a pot-hole beside me and, surfacing with difficulty, unleashed an incantation of curses but still retained a firm grasp on his mortar’s bipod.

I made a last violent effort and found myself freed from the water and at the base of the low cliff. The cliff was not a vertical but a retreating face, up which it was easy to crawl if little weight was put on its crumbling clay jags. I climbed until it flattened out into a slope, and took cover in a sand dune as the machine-gun lashed a foot above my head along the rank of men on the skyline immediately to my front.

My sergeant-major and batman joined me and together we hurriedly ran over the rough ground along the cliff to the right, unravelling as we went the telephone cable that would be connected to the mortars on the strip of beach. Before any troop could need our fire, we had to find a square house that had appeared on the aerial photographs as a solid cube, but in the darkness we could see only a foot ahead, and, when they were against the skyline, running groups of men.

The wire defences were blown with a bangalore torpedo, the explosion shattering the night into a thousand fiery splinters, and we were through the reeking gap on the heels of the first troop. A track of loose stones, sheltered by a low wall and a line of rounded bushes, ran straight ahead from there along the cliff, and, slipping and cursing as the singeing cable cut our hands, we kept on until we reached the house, our objective.

We fixed the telephone and, calling up the mortars, found that they were ready to fire. Lying on our bellies under cover of the house we stared ahead for the two green Very lights to summon our fire. My heart thumped like the open palm of a hand against the ground, and my indrawn breath almost stifled me with its uncontrollable recurrence. A few shots rang out, a grenade exploded with dull percussion, and a stream of tracer fountained up into the sky, but there were otherwise few sounds of battle.

Douglas Grant was with 41st Royal Marine Commando. See Douglas Grant: The fuel of the fire

Combined Operations has much more on the role of the Commandos in Operation Husky

Instructions being signalled to waiting landing craft by semaphore at dawn of the opening day of the invasion of Sicily. One is LCI (L) 124 the other is an unidentified LCT.

Instructions being signalled to waiting landing craft by semaphore at dawn of the opening day of the invasion of Sicily. One is LCI (L) 124 the other is an unidentified LCT.

American soldiers drive a US army scout car from a landing craft onto the beach at Licata while under fire. The American sector attracted the first and severest Axis counter attacks.

American soldiers drive a US army scout car from a landing craft onto the beach at Licata while under fire. The American sector attracted the first and severest Axis counter attacks.

British troops manhandle vehicles and equipment on the beaches as they are unloaded from landing craft.

British troops manhandle vehicles and equipment on the beaches as they are unloaded from landing craft.

The 15 inch guns of HMS WARSPITE hurling shells at enemy troops still holding out at Catania, Sicily as seen from the bridge of the battleship. It was called on by the army to carry out this task and hurled tons of shells at a range between 15,000 and 11,000 yards. At the same time destroyers engaged shore batteries from a still closer range and although our ships were attacked later from the air we suffered no casualties or damage.

The 15 inch guns of HMS WARSPITE hurling shells at enemy troops still holding out at Catania, Sicily as seen from the bridge of the battleship. It was called on by the army to carry out this task and hurled tons of shells at a range between 15,000 and 11,000 yards. At the same time destroyers engaged shore batteries from a still closer range and although our ships were attacked later from the air we suffered no casualties or damage.

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