A short sharp engagement with a Tiger in Sicily

Infantry attacking along a railway cutting, 25 July 1943.

Infantry attacking along a railway cutting, 25 July 1943.

Posed photograph of infantry storming a railway station, 25 July 1943.

Posed photograph of infantry storming a railway station, 25 July 1943.

The Allied armies were making steady progress across Sicily. Whilst the Italian forces were becoming increasingly ineffectual there was nothing lacking from the German forces. Even if they were beginning to plan for the withdraw from the island, there was no sign of any weakening of resolve on the field of battle.

At the end of the day battles came down to the eventual occupation of territory by the infantry. A preliminary air or artillery bombardment might be available. Tanks might be available to support an assault. But it was boots on the ground that represented a true advance. Even then, especially when facing the Germans, a counter-attack could often be anticipated.

Infantry officer Neil McCallum had led his men to occupy their objective with unexpected ease. Only after they had taken it did matters take a different turn:

Sferro was ours. This was this complete and generous silence as though both armies were taking breath.

Then, somewhere to the right, in what appeared to be an open field, we heard a quick German voice calling a roll. There were gruff and muffled replies. Rifle fire broke out.

We took up positions on the edge of the village. The cracking of rifle fire was almost exhilarating. Without the shaking explosions of shells, there was quite suddenly an ancient charm, even a happiness in the war. The bullets spat and sang merrily around Sferro. Death was a story-teller with a grin on his face.

We now tried to establish ourselves and found that we were cut off from Battalion. Out of five portable wireless sets with which we had set off none had survived in a ‘workable state. My own walkie-talkie was dead. Yet it was necessary to get reinforcements up quickly to consolidate our positions in the village.

Things were livening up on the perimeter of the village. A corporal stood in front of a house and fired round after round into the field where we had heard the voices. He was enjoying himself immensely. Some Germans crept up and flung a few grenades. Somehow it was all good fun, this sporadic shooting by moonlight.

The position now was that the remains of two companies were in the village. We were depleted, but in the darkness it was impossible to know just how many we could muster.

We were cut off from HQ and could not inform them of what had happened. And in the darkness of the fields there were the Germans, obviously very near and very lively.

The rifle fire was now so rapid that one had to move quickly from house to house. The corporal, with his few men, retired to a house after the grenade explosions. He was still firing merrily into the field.

We could hear the rustling and moving of men not very far away, but there remained this sense of suspension in time, of living outside the army, outside the real war, of being in a dream-like village where people fired rifles into fields.

Our only support was a three-inch mortar. It was brought up and from behind one of the houses it lobbed shells into the field. But its range was too great and we could not get the shells to fall close enough. The two-inch mortar was with us and it would have done the job, but the ammunition carriers were lost.

When the three-inch mortar had fired a few rounds the uncanny spell of detachedness was broken. We had introduced high explosive into the battle again. There was a tremendous crack from the field and an 88-millimetre shell broke open the side of a house.

From the sound of tracks and an engine it must have come from a Tiger tank. With only rifles we could not do anything to a Tiger tank. The three-inch mortar was now useless. Every time it fired it drew an immediate response from the Tiger tank.

The house in front of the mortar crumpled. The mortar was on a hard road and could not be dug in. It was ordered to cease fire and we waited in a fresh silence. But the mood had changed. This was no longer a happy, moon-lit village.

One of the houses began to blaze. Half an hour previously I had noticed it on fire when the light inside a room was like the flickering of a candle. Now it was a furnace.

A runner had been sent to HQ for anti-tank guns and more support, but whether he had got through or not we had no means of knowing. The signallers were tinkering with their large portable set but with no results.

After dawn heavy mortaring started on the village and the railway. When it stopped I got out of an old German trench and followed the embankment to the nearest house. There was no one to be seen until I found three men in the entrance of a culvert in the embankment.

Two were holding the third man whom I did not recognise. He was badly wounded in the face and one eye hung down his cheek.

“Who is that?” I asked.

The mutilated man recognised my voice. “It’s me, the sergeant-major”. How well I knew him, this unrecognisable sergeant major.

As an infantry officer Neil Mccallum had travelled all the way across Africa and through the invasion of Sicily without firing his service revolver at the enemy. He had seen his share of the fighting but the role of the infantry officer was about leading his men and occupying ground. Very shortly after this episode he was seriously wounded. This action was to be his last hostile engagement of the war – see Neil McCallum : Journey with Pistol.

A German Tiger tank in Sicily, 1943.

A German Tiger tank in Sicily, 1943.

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