No. 4 Commando in assault on Flushing

He reached the right-hand end of his swing and was starting the return, when one man on the left, whom he had missed at the start, got in a quick shot. It took him straight through the throat, killing him at once. McVeigh, who was beside him with a rifle, made no mistake with his return shot, then doubled back through the now empty garage, through the gap in the wall, and out to us in the alleyway.

The Battle for Walcheren Island: Men of the 4th Special Service Brigade wade ashore from landing craft near Flushing to complete the occupation of Walcheren.
The Battle for Walcheren Island: Men of the 4th Special Service Brigade wade ashore from landing craft near Flushing to complete the occupation of Walcheren.
British assault troops landed on Walcheren at dawn on 1 November 1944 and most of Flushing was included in the first bridgehead. The landings were supported by fire from British warships. The object of the assault is to silence the enemy guns menacing the Scheldt passage to the port of Antwerp. This image shows troops advancing along the waterfront near Flushing with shells bursting ahead.
British assault troops landed on Walcheren at dawn on 1 November 1944 and most of Flushing was included in the first bridgehead. The landings were supported by fire from British warships. The object of the assault is to silence the enemy guns menacing the Scheldt passage to the port of Antwerp. This image shows troops advancing along the waterfront near Flushing with shells bursting ahead.

Although the Allies had captured Antwerp, a major port capable of supplying the armies now entering Germany, the Scheldt river estuary remained in German hands. Lying to the north of the approach to the Scheldt lies Walcheren island, which had been heavily fortified, denying the Allies the use of the port. Another amphibious assault was now required with much less time to plan and prepare than had been the case with Normandy.

No. 4 Commando were veterans of amphibious assault, including the Lofoten Islands and Dieppe before Normandy. Murdoch C. McDougall was now a well experienced young officer leading his men in the attack, accompanied by the equally seasoned Sergeant McVeigh:

Out in the river, we lay in our craft and saw the light winking towards us from the darkness below the glare of the burning town. We stopped our circling and made for the shore.

When we were still about three hundred yards offshore, some 20-millimetre cannon opened up somewhere on the left. The red streaks of tracer swooshed and cracked a few feet over the craft. We felt like Aunt Sally at the fair, with our heads sticking up above the sides of the L.C.A. as we peered at the outline of the landing-ground drawing nearer. Machine-guns joined in with the cannon-fire from the left, but they too were firing high.

An L.C.A. is more or less invisible from the shore at night, the only sign of its presence being the white of the water where the blunt bows thrust their way forward. The gunners on shore were doubt- less aiming about normal deck level, hoping to cause casualties among the naval personnel handling the craft, but as we were low in the water, the streams of fire were passing for the most part overhead.

In the last stages of the run-in the fire was fairly heavy, those on shore having by now realized that our barrage had indeed lifted, and that we were on our way in. They finally succeeded in sinking two L.C.A.s a few yards from the shore and causing some casualties amongst the crew.

Scrambling ashore on to the slimy stonework of the mole along with McVeigh, who was always glad to get out of any sort of boat, we saw the tape, followed it through the stakes and heard the cheerful voice of Lieutenant Harry Har- greaves, the Navy signaller and demolition king, calling out as we all swarmed up the dyke towards him: “Mind the light, chaps, mind the light. You can’t beat the old firm, can you?” Harry had been with No.4 before at Lofoten and Dieppe.

The time was now 06.30 hours and the beachhead was established. Speed was now essential, as the initiative lay with us. We met no opposition as we hurried along in the half-light, although it was eerie to see dim figures flitting across the streets and not to know whether they were Dutch civilians taking refuge, or Germans.

As we ran on, threading our way through the dim streets, every man was probably going over in his mind the details of the route as we had all memorized it from the aerial photographs.

[W]e were heading for our barracks on the sea-front, with McVeigh like a bristling terrier in the lead. We dashed down an alleyway, at the foot of which we found a row of little houses. Beyond these was the back of what appeared to be a garage, which was very close to the barracks. There was a hole in the back wall of this garage, which McVeigh quickly enlarged.

One by one the leading group swung into the darkness of the building itself. The other walls were wooden and flimsy, as was the door which hung ajar. The leading man reached the door and almost ran into a body of German soldiers beside the blank wall of a bunker. The Germans immediately opened fire into and through the walls of the garage. I was just coming through the hole at the back, saw the disadvantage and roared: “Back out this way.”

Then it was that old Donkin, who at forty-one was the oldest member of the Commando, ex-miner, old soldier, the father of nine children, with a tenth on the way, jumped into the doorway and stood there framed, with both feet planted firm, stocky body balanced on slightly bandy legs, and methodically started to Tommy-gun from left to right among the fifteen or so Germans visible to him by the concrete bunker.

He reached the right-hand end of his swing and was starting the return, when one man on the left, whom he had missed at the start, got in a quick shot. It took him straight through the throat, killing him at once. McVeigh, who was beside him with a rifle, made no mistake with his return shot, then doubled back through the now empty garage, through the gap in the wall, and out to us in the alleyway.

The tempo now became even quicker. The enemy knew exactly where we were, and if organized could bring fire down on us from the various vantage points amongst the buildings around us. We could not afford to lose the initiative.

See Murdoch C. McDougall: Swiftly They Struck: The Story of No. 4 Commando

British assault troops landed on Walcheren at dawn on 1 November 1944 and most of Flushing was included in the first bridgehead. The landings were supported by fire from British warships. The object of the assault is to silence the enemy guns menacing the Scheldt passage to the port of Antwerp. This image shows British assault troops advancing through the streets at Flushing where there was sharp fighting.
British assault troops landed on Walcheren at dawn on 1 November 1944 and most of Flushing was included in the first bridgehead. The landings were supported by fire from British warships. The object of the assault is to silence the enemy guns menacing the Scheldt passage to the port of Antwerp. This image shows British assault troops advancing through the streets at Flushing where there was sharp fighting.
British assault troops landed on Walcheren at dawn on 1 November 1944 and most of Flushing was included in the first bridgehead. The landings were supported by fire from British warships. The object of the assault is to silence the enemy guns menacing the Scheldt passage to the port of Antwerp. This image shows the wounded being attended to by a British medical officer.
British assault troops landed on Walcheren at dawn on 1 November 1944 and most of Flushing was included in the first bridgehead. The landings were supported by fire from British warships. The object of the assault is to silence the enemy guns menacing the Scheldt passage to the port of Antwerp. This image shows the wounded being attended to by a British medical officer.

Preparing for the second Chindit raid deep into Burma


4 March 1944: Preparing for the second Chindit raid deep into Burma

And now — how, actually, do you get three large Missouri mules into a C-47, at night, to a tight schedule? How do you keep them there, so that they do not injure themselves and cannot kick their handlers or the sides of the plane? What do you do if one breaks loose in the air? Shoot him? The bullet will go on through the sides of the plane. From what angles is it safe to engage in gun-play inside a loaded aircraft?

A Chindit column crossing a river in Burma, 1943.
A Chindit column crossing a river in Burma, 1943.

The British had mounted an innovative deep penetration raid into Burma in 1943. Now they were preparing to launch the Chindits on a second larger operation. Once again they were led by the unconventional Major General Orde Wingate. There were plenty in the senior ranks who doubted the value of such operations – but they appealed to the imagination of Churchill and the scheme got support from on high.

The eccentric Major General  Wingate.
The eccentric Major General Wingate.

This time they would not march all the way in but be flown in and then be resupplied by air. This was another innovation and there was not much experience to base plans upon. There were many difficulties to be overcome and even then supplies would be tight.

John Masters, later to become a noted novelist, was one of the officers planning the operation, now almost ready to go:

One detail we were spared: we didn’t have to weigh anything or anybody. That had been done, down to ounces. Apart from heavy weapons, reserve ammunition and radio sets, we were going to carry everything on our backs. For seven months we had been waging a furious but indecisive battle in an attempt to give the soldier the means to fight and eat, and at the same time allow him to walk and run.

The results were appalling to look at in cold blood, but represented the best compromise we could reach. The No. 1 of a Bren-gun team, when carrying the gun, and just after a supply drop had put five days’ K rations in his pack, toted a load of 86 pounds. For a Gurkha with a total body weight of about 130 pounds, who was expected to run up and down mountains, this was a lot. The weights ranged down until the Brigadier and a few technicians carried about 42 pounds.

And now — how, actually, do you get three large Missouri mules into a C-47, at night, to a tight schedule? How do you keep them there, so that they do not injure themselves and cannot kick their handlers or the sides of the plane? What do you do if one breaks loose in the air? Shoot him? The bullet will go on through the sides of the plane. From what angles is it safe to engage in gun-play inside a loaded aircraft?

We were going to land, from the air, in the centre of North Burma. But where, exactly? The gliders would go first. They needed a strip of reasonably smooth ground, at least 100 yards wide by 400 yards long, not on or near any routes actively used by the japanese. The strip had to be capable of expansion and improvement, quickly and with such equipment as the gliders could take, into an airfield 800 yards long, for use by C-47s. It had to be fairly close to the assigned area of operations.

….

[Later he went out on aerial reconnaissance]

It was tremendous country, not tall in the Himalayan sense, but big, the dark jungle rolling away beyond the horizons, seemingly without a break – then the sun caught a flash of water and I saw a silver river among the trees. I stared down with all my mind concentrated. We were not flying very high, but it was quite impossible to see under the trees.

Whole divisions might be encamped down there — actually, they were – but unless they made heavy smoke fires, I would see nothing. So – nor would the Zeros see us when, soon, we began to march and live under that dense roof.

We would have to be careful crossing fields, and rivers – the sandbanks showed up like neon signs — but otherwise, with our own air force so much in the ascendant over Burma, we could ignore the risk of being discovered from the air when on the move. This was good news, and vitally important news, too.

See John Masters: The Road Past Mandalay .

Chindits at rest in their jungle bivouac.
Chindits at rest in their jungle bivouac.

Even as the Chindits prepared to fly out there was a whole Japanese division marching through the jungle in the opposite direction, carrying all their equipment and supplies, intent upon invading India itself.

Operation Shingle: the US Rangers land at Anzio


22 January 1944: Operation Shingle: the US Rangers land at Anzio

were flashes on the horizon, and the deep rumble of distant bombing came to our ears. The sea was calm and the big assault ship almost motionless. ‘ The night was cold. We shivered while we waited for touch-down. Against the skyline, heavily top coated figures of Rangers exchanged parting remarks with jersied figures of British naval ratings.

 Soldiers of the 3d Ranger Battalion board LCIs that will take them to Anzio. Two weeks later, nearly all would be killed or captured at Cisterna (U.S. Army Photograph)
Soldiers of the 3d Ranger Battalion board LCIs that will take them to Anzio. Two weeks later, nearly all would be killed or captured at Cisterna (U.S. Army Photograph)
New landings by 5th Army! Yanks wade ashore from L.C.I.’s [two LCI’s and an LSM] as 5th Army establishes a new beach-head near Anzio,
New landings by 5th Army! Yanks wade ashore from L.C.I.’s [two LCI’s and an LSM] as 5th Army establishes a new beach-head near Anzio,

As the Allies found themselves increasingly confounded by successive defensive lines across the centre of Italy, they looked for a way of sidestepping around the Germans. The result was an amphibious operation that would hopefully shorten the route to Rome and to the more open country beyond.

Operation Shingle had been produced following Churchill’s urgings for a more imaginative way forward on Christmas Day. There had been little time to prepare.

It was planned that, while the Germans were distracted by new assaults at Monte Cassino, they would not have the resources to divert to contain an amphibious landing. Once the assaults had broken through at Cassino they could surge forward and join up with the amphibious force on the beach at Anzio.

Even as the landings began, the horrible reality of the Rapido River disaster was being absorbed. The Cassino forces were not going to break through – would the landings be in sufficient strength to hold the bridgehead by themselves? At first everything went well.

Lambton Burn was a Royal Navy officer on one of the ships carrying the U.S. Rangers, before they transferred to the Landing Craft that would take them to the beaches:

An assault-landing craft swung slowly from its davits, and from it floated the voice of a sergeant giving final advice to Rangers hidden below the armoured catwalks.

“Don’t fire until I tell you… But when you do fire, some of you guys new to this company jest remember those heinies aren’t your friends… Don’t go diggin’ your bayonets into their chests or they’ll stick… Get their stomachs or throats, or their backsides … And all of you beware of heinies coming out of houses waving white flags …”

There were flashes on the horizon, and the deep rumble of distant bombing came to our ears. The sea was calm and the big assault ship almost motionless. The night was cold. We shivered while we waited for touch-down. Against the skyline, heavily top coated figures of Rangers exchanged parting remarks with jersied figures of British naval ratings.

“Yeah … But I guess the old man’ll corner all the champagne.”

“ Stand off, Jake, before you get into the boat.”

The signal light from a pilot Motor Launch seemed to annoy the sailors. “ Bloody light’s gone out at last !” “Here it’s come on again !” “… Can’t find the blasted way”

“ S—-sh !” Angry hisses silenced them for a while. But the Sergeant’s voice droned steadily on like a nursemaid priming her charges for Sunday school. “ You men who are new … Don’t hesitate … Remember now, it’s your life or theirs … Don’t be afraid to shoot … Cross the first street, cut right . . . then it’s the fourth turning on the right… Building with a tall tower…”

From the loudspeaker came the order : “ Stand-by to lower . . .” “ Good luck !” from the naval lowering parties. The assault-craft glided down rapidly and quietly.

There were splashes of foam and phosphorescence. The lowering parties leaned over to watch for an instant, then sprang into action as they pulled the falls inboard again. The dark body of the sea seemed covered by darker oblong shapes of L.C.A.s streaming away from the ship, each trailing a spreading wake.

They were guided by a purplish light which gloomed from the stern of the pilot boat. Columns of assault-craft and amphibious ducks from other ships shadowed their way past as they too headed for the beaches.

At 0150 a close-inshore bombardment by rocket- ships heralded zero hour. Fiery lanes were opened through the sky as though by flaming zip fasteners as the Navy’s “sticklebacks” fired eight hundred five-inch rockets in salvoes of seventy at a time.

I had first seen these rocket-ships, converted “A”-lighters, used at Sicily. By now they had established themselves as the most important of the last-minute devices for softening-up beach defences. Exact range and moment of firing were vital to their success, otherwise they would wipe out our own troops, or overshoot.

Now the first waves were landing. Two A.M. came and went and we grew anxious as the minutes mounted. Admiral Troubridge’s men to the north-west reported their beach heavily mined. The U.S. 3rd Division to the south-east reported trouble with shelving beaches, but their first flights had reached the shore.

At 0215 a star-shell floated up from Yellow beach. Then the Army liaison officer appeared with a slip of paper and informed us excitedly : “All O.K. Rangers safely ashore !”

See Lambton Burn: Down Ramps!

New landings by 5th Army!  Landing craft at Anzio, Italy.
New landings by 5th Army!
Landing craft at Anzio, Italy.
Hands stand by their twin 4 inch gun turrets to repel any lurking enemy aircraft as HMS MAURITIUS fires a broadside at German positions in the Anzio beachhead.
Hands stand by their twin 4 inch gun turrets to repel any lurking enemy aircraft as HMS MAURITIUS fires a broadside at German positions in the Anzio beachhead.
A Sherman tank of 23rd Armoured Brigade coming ashore from a landing craft at Anzio, Italy, 22 January 1944.
A Sherman tank of 23rd Armoured Brigade coming ashore from a landing craft at Anzio, Italy, 22 January 1944.
German prisoners watch Allied troops disembark from British landing craft during the landings on the beaches at Anzio, Italy, on 22 January 1944.
German prisoners watch Allied troops disembark from British landing craft during the landings on the beaches at Anzio, Italy, on 22 January 1944.
Sherman tanks of 23rd Armoured Brigade and a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun on the beach at Anzio, 22 January 1944. The tank is fitted with deep wading equipment.
Sherman tanks of 23rd Armoured Brigade and a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun on the beach at Anzio, 22 January 1944. The tank is fitted with deep wading equipment.
Universal carriers and a Sherman tank on the beach at Anzio, 22 January 1944.
Universal carriers and a Sherman tank on the beach at Anzio, 22 January 1944.

Commandos killed in Operation Hard Tack 7


27th December 1943: Commandos killed in Operation Hard Tack 7

In view of the fact that my force had sustained such casualties. I decided to leave the two bodies, retrace my steps and return to the boat. No sooner had we started to move, however than more mines went up all around us. I cannot say how many there were but at the time we had the impression of being under fire from a heavy calibre machine gun. We continued our withdrawal to the dory.

Commandos use fighting knives during close-quarter combat practice in Scotland, 9 January 1943.
Commandos use fighting knives during close-quarter combat practice in Scotland, 9 January 1943.
French commando troops undergoing training at Achnacarry House in Scotland: Lieutenant Colonel Charles Vaughan, Commandant, Commando Depot, inspecting French troops during a parade and march past as part of Bastille Day celebrations.
French commando troops undergoing training at Achnacarry House in Scotland: Lieutenant Colonel Charles Vaughan, Commandant, Commando Depot, inspecting French troops during a parade and march past as part of Bastille Day celebrations.

During December the reconnaissance operations for Operation Overlord were stepped up. Although an enormous amount of intelligence had been gathered from aerial photographs and from the French Resistance, it was often necessary to put men ashore to discover the physical characteristics of the intended landing beaches. Sometimes the operations were conducted covertly, in complete secrecy, with the aim of avoiding detection. On other occasions the Commandos were employed in small raiding parties with the aim of taking one or two prisoners as well as discovering the lie of the land.

During December 1943 a series of these raids were conducted as part of Operation Hard Tack. The operation could not be confined to the intended landing beaches alone – that would have been too obvious – but extended along the French coast and included the Channel Islands. On the 26t/27th December Lt. McGonigal, from No 10 Inter-Alled Commando led a raiding part to the island of Sark. This was his report on the patrol:

The force landed at point 599021 and, after climbing a 200-foot sheer rock face met a further very steep slope about 100 feet in height with a shingle, slate, and stone surface. The force followed the eastern edge of this slope and encountered a wire fence consisting of three strands of very thick copper wire and two thinner strands or ordinary wire. This wire was cut and the force proceeded along the top of the Hogs Back, continually searching for mines as it progressed. Plentiful cover was afforded by rock and gorse.

At point 599024, a path approximately six feet wide was encountered, on either side of which the ground, which was thickly covered with gorse, fell away very steeply. We found that it was impossible to walk through this gorse without making considerable noise and we therefore continued along the path.

I was leading the patrol and had gone forward some fifteen yards, feeling for mines as I did so, when two mines went off behind the patrol, wounding Corporal Bellamy and Private Dignac. Corporal Bellamy died about two minutes later and Private Dignac received very severe wounds in the body.

Corporal Robert Bellamy, died aged 21 after being hit by mines.
Corporal Robert Bellamy, died, aged 21, after being hit by mines.
Andre Dignac , French member of No 10 Inter-allied commando, also killed on this operation.
Andre Dignac , French member of No 10 Inter-allied commando, also killed on this operation.

The first mine had exploded about two feet behind Corporal Bellamy, the last member of the patrol, and the second mine about five feet to the left of it. (The empty container was taken from the first hole and brought back with the force.)

The force then started to carry Corporal Bellamy and Private Dignac out of the minefield. I took the lead, still feeling for fresh mines, and had taken only a few steps when two more mines went up in quick succession in front and to the side of me. (Lieutenant McGonigal himself was injured as a result.) After these explosions. Sergeant Boccador was the only member of the force who remained unwounded. Private Dignat was wounded still further by these explosions and Sergeant Boccador told me that he was dead.

In view of the fact that my force had sustained such casualties. I decided to leave the two bodies, retrace my steps and return to the boat. No sooner had we started to move, however than more mines went up all around us. I cannot say how many there were but at the time we had the impression of being under fire from a heavy calibre machine gun. We continued our withdrawal to the dory.

On our way up we had hidden a wireless set No. 536 under a rock but we were unable to find it on our return journey and so were obliged to abandon it. It was also impossible for us to get down the last sheer twenty feet of rock and to bring the rope with us. Repeated attempts were made to pull it down after we had got to the bottom but it had stuck firmly, and so, cutting it as high as we could, we left it and returned to the MGB

Sergeant Boccador and myself were feeling our way very carefully, we felt no contact points nor other signs of mines.

All the injuries caused by the exploding mines were sustained by those members of the force who were either standing or kneeling. A person lying flat seemed to be immune from them.

Despite these explosions, no signs of Germans were seen or heard.

For more on Operation Hard Tack see Commando Veterans. Shortly after this the Commando operations were discontinued in order avoid alerting the Germans to the Allied interest in the area.

Commandos cross a river on a 'toggle bridge' under simulated artillery fire, at the Commando training depot at Achnacarry, Inverness-shire, Scotland, January 1943.
Commandos cross a river on a ‘toggle bridge’ under simulated artillery fire, at the Commando training depot at Achnacarry, Inverness-shire, Scotland, January 1943.

Italian peasants shelter SAS raiding party


30th October 1943: Italian peasants shelter SAS raiding party

Staggering forward against the wind and the rain, we retraced our path to the village by following our own footsteps in the mud. I found a tiny one-roomed cottage and knocked on the door. An old peasant gave me a chair by the table while he went out into the rain to find the others. Pointing to the soaked rag of a map, I told him that we wanted a guide and he brought forward his son, who knew the countryside well. We brewed up some tea and dosed McPhail with quinine for he was now seriously ill.

Members of 2 SAS on parade for an inspection by General Montgomery, following their successful participation in the capture, behind enemy lines, of the port of Termoli in Italy. On the left is Major E Scratchley DSO, MC, commanding the SAS detachment. On the right is Roy Farran.
Members of 2 SAS on parade for an inspection by General Montgomery, following their successful participation in the capture, behind enemy lines, of the port of Termoli in Italy. On the left is Major E Scratchley DSO, MC, commanding the SAS detachment. On the right is Roy Farran.

On the 8th August 1943 Churchill had sent a memo in which he made clear his feelings about operational code names:

Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be decided by code-words that imply a boastful and over-confident sentiment, such as ‘Triumphant,’ or conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency, such as ‘Woebetide’ and ‘Flimsy.’ They ought not to be names of a frivolous character, such as ‘Bunnyhug’ and ‘Ballyhoo.’

They should not be ordinary words often used in other connections, such as ‘Flood,’ ‘Sudden,’ and ‘Supreme.’ Names of living people, ministers or commanders, should be avoided. Intelligent thought will already supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names that do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug’ or ‘Ballyhoo.’ Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British and American war heroes, could be used, provided they fall within the rules above.

It seems that this outlook had not yet been brought to the attention of Britain’s SAS, because on 27th October, after a short break following the attack at Termoli, they had launched Operations Candytuft and Saxifrage. These were classic SAS infiltration attacks in which men were dropped behind the German lines on the coast of Italy near Ancona and made their way on foot to sabotage the inland railway line.

Both operations were successful, although judging by the account given by Roy Farran, who led one of the SAS units, they were miserable affairs because of the appalling weather. They had been given shelter by Italian peasants but had to get back to the coast for their rendezvous with boat picking them up. They were all wet and exhausted, and one of the men was becoming ill from Malaria:

At eleven o’clock we said good-bye to the girls and thanked the old man warmly, promising to come back one day. It was pouring with rain again and I hated having to go out into the storm, but time was getting short if we were to catch the boat.

We marched down a secondary road to a small hamlet and turned left into the fields. Our training had advised us not to march in step but to walk in pairs like civilians. We were too tired to do anything except tramp along in single file, one behind the other, only the regular crunch of our feet keeping our legs going automatically forward in step.

The path soon petered away in heavy plough. I knew the general direction and decided to cut across country until we hit a better track. Great clods of mud stuck to our boots, making them heavy to lift, and often the weight of our packs carried us forward on our faces into the furrows. After a few hundred yards, we were completely worn out; the night was very dark; and the rain blew mercilessly into our faces.

I took a pace forward and found myself sliding down a steep precipice, but I managed to ‘dig in my heels and the others pulled me back. We sat down in the mud in the rain. McPhail and Corporal Clarke said that they could not go on, but they would have to go on! We began to discard the least essential items from our packs – mess-tins, spare ammunition, and even sleeping bags. They were buried beneath the plough so that it would be long before they were discovered.

Staggering forward against the wind and the rain, we retraced our path to the village by following our own footsteps in the mud. I found a tiny one-roomed cottage and knocked on the door. An old peasant gave me a chair by the table while he went out into the rain to find the others. Pointing to the soaked rag of a map, I told him that we wanted a guide and he brought forward his son, who knew the countryside well. We brewed up some tea and dosed McPhail with quinine for he was now seriously ill.

Soon we were battling against the elements again with the youthful guide carrying McPhail’s pack. We wound round the edge of the ravine to where the path degenerated into a goat track on the hillside. We crossed a stream by some stepping stones and Corporal Clarke fell into the water. I say we crossed a stream, although after a time the path itself becameia minor river.

Our boots were hopeless. They had been designed for silent padding along metalled roads, but up these muddy slopes they slipped so much that it was like trying to skate on glass. Over a main road, we inquired at the house of the boy’s aunt, but she refused to put us up for the night on the grounds that it was so near the highway that the Germans often came in for eggs.

We followed a line of trees down a muddy lane to three farms. At the last one we discovered the shelter we were looking for. It is impossible to explain what risks these poor people took for Allied soldiers. If the Germans had discovered our presence, they would have had no scruples about burning down the farms, and their farms were their lives. If the house and the oxen went there was nothing.

It was the same in Greece and France. Always the poor, the very poor, would share their last crumb. It was not that they were concerned with politics or war, but just that they pitied someone in an even worse state than themselves. This farm housed three families who had fled from the bombing at Bologna. Some of their people had been killed in Allied air-raids but there was no resentment.

They made room for us in front of the fire and filled us up with salami sausage and bread. There were children everywhere, boys and girls scampering all over the building. At first they fought each other for sweets, until they discovered that the first piece of chocolate always went to the shy one at the back. These kids had not tasted chocolate in their whole lives.

There was no room for us in the house so we bedded down in the stable amongst the oxen. In the morning we sat in front of the fire again, occasionally jumping up to look at German trucks through the window.

See Roy Farran: Winged Dagger: Adventures on Special Service. By continuing their journey by daylight they just made it to the coast in time to be picked up.

SAS volunteers jumping from steel gantries while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.
SAS volunteers jumping from steel gantries while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.

The Germans counter attack at Termoli


5th October 1943: The Germans counter attack at Termoli

We had not yet been able to locate the German artillery observer who had crept into the town. Movement of troops and vehicles, even a party of two or three men, was always a challenge to him and a danger to us. We cursed him, but could not find him. I sent a party out to search for him at noon. Finally, at five, they pinpointed his location to a church tower. They crawled up the tower. “Come down — surrender!” my men called.

A little girl holding an umbrella watches a despatch rider attempt to clear the carbuerettor of his motorcycle in torrential rain, 4 October 1943.
A little girl holding an umbrella watches a despatch rider attempt to clear the carbuerettor of his motorcycle in torrential rain, 4 October 1943.
German parachute troops fighting as infantry, Italy 1943.
German parachute troops fighting as infantry, Italy 1943.

The Commandos who had successfully taken Termoli in a surprise attack on the 3rd October now found themselves in a rather different position. The main British force moving up from the south had successfully linked up with them and they were preparing to hand over their positions. Then heavy rains fell on the 4th and the temporary bridge built over the Biferno river had been swept away. Suddenly all the disadvantages of using Special Forces to seize advanced positions emerged – they were a relatively weak force in an isolated position.

For Colonel Durnford-Slater, commanding 3 Commando, there was only one option, they would have to fight it out:

Confusion filled that day. With the pontoon bridge swept away, we were completely cut off from reinforcements. Things looked bad. Jerry had a complete Panzer division and supporting troops and tanks against, on our side, one infantry brigade and our Commando Brigade which was far from being at full strength. We were outnumbered three to two by the enemy. His supply lines were intact. Ours were non-existent.

The Royal Engineers rebuilding the bridge performed an epic feat. The Germans realised the significance of its reconstruction and showered shells on the sappers, who were hard at work over the roaring river. They completed the bridge by nightfall. Then our tanks crossed in strength and the tide of the battle began to swing in our favour. The weather also changed, and we were able to get heavy air support. I now knew that we were sure to win, but that it might take a little time.

We had not yet been able to locate the German artillery observer who had crept into the town. Movement of troops and vehicles, even a party of two or three men, was always a challenge to him and a danger to us. We cursed him, but could not find him. I sent a party out to search for him at noon. Finally, at five, they pinpointed his location to a church tower. They crawled up the tower. “Come down — surrender!” my men called.

The German answered with a shot from his revolver and scurried up on to the roof. Now we sprayed the roof with Bren gun fire, and, crawling up a minute or two later found him there, sprawled dead beside his radio set. He was a tough and brave man and, while he lived, a great threat to us in Termoli.

The fighting raged. No. 3 Commando, still out in front, were giving, during this German counter-attack, what was probably their finest performance of the war.

Hammered by tanks, pounded by guns, attacked by infantry, and left exposed and bleeding on their left flank by the retreat of another unit, they did not budge from their positions. I sent them a message that I would get them out of Termoli that night. Roy Farran was acting as Liaison Officer for the Special Raiding Squadron. He was quiet and efficient, having every quality needed by a young officer. The Special Raiding Squadron and No. 40 Commando had also held on to every yard of their positions.

George Herbert who had come into my headquarters as Liaison Officer, spent that night with us. About 4. a.m. he lay down on the floor for a sleep and nestled close to an animal which he took to be a dog, cuddling it for warmth. In the cold light of dawn the dog turned out to be a pig.

This damn,bloody ***** *****!” George roared, un-printably furious. I think, however, the pig was very pleased. He had had a warm and comfy night.

There was never any excitement, shouting or confusion in Commando Brigade Headquarters. I think that during the Termoli battle, all our Headquarters staff, whether sweeping the floor, controlling the battle, or dying, did their job well.

Before we left Termoli, Monty came to pay us a visit. I told him that my men had deserved a rest.

“Take them away to Bari for a good holiday,” the General said brightly. “There’s plenty of everything down there.”

This was the man who was supposed to be so austere, to disapprove of all frivolity. Monty was delighted that we had secured and held Termoli for him. The Commando Brigade’s action had helped the Eighth Army forward, and had saved him from having to fight for the line of the Biferno River. It had also secured a useful harbour next to the front line where men and supplies could be landed. It had been a very near thing.

The flotilla of landing craft had been lying off Termoli throughout the battle, where they had been continually dive- bombed and shelled. Their Commander had thought, not without reason, that he might have to evacuate us. The troops left in the landing craft for Bari and Molfetta, where they were all able to have a good rest.

See John Durnford-Slater: Commando: Memoirs of a Fighting Commando in World War Two

Termoli was finally secured at around noon on the 6th. Durnford-Slater rather underplays the closeness of the action, for another account see BBC Peoples War.

Members of 2 SAS on parade for an inspection by General Montgomery, following their successful participation in the capture, behind enemy lines, of the port of Termoli in Italy. On the left is Major E Scratchley DSO, MC, commanding the SAS detachment.
Members of 2 SAS on parade for an inspection by General Montgomery, following their successful participation in the capture, behind enemy lines, of the port of Termoli in Italy. On the left is Major E Scratchley DSO, MC, commanding the SAS detachment.
A Sherman tank being recovered from the river Biferno near Campo-Marino, Italy, October 1943.
A Sherman tank being recovered from the river Biferno near Campo-Marino, Italy, October 1943.

SAS and Commandos surprise Germans at Termoli


3rd October 1943: SAS and Commandos surprise Germans at Termoli

Some of them seemed eager to fight until they died. I observed one lying in an olive grove partly behind a tree, about eight hundred yards in front of our position. Although obviously wounded – his actions were stiff and unnatural — he continued to fire at us regularly and accurately. We were unable to move anyone forward to take him prisoner. Instead, we returned his fire. He died where he fought, in the olive grove.

Portrait of a soldier from No. 3 Commando holding his fighting knife between his teeth, at Largs in Scotland, 2 May 1942.
Portrait of a soldier from No. 3 Commando holding his fighting knife between his teeth, at Largs in Scotland, 2 May 1942.
Communicating with other craft by means of flag signals as naval beach parties and commandos train at HMS SAUNDERS, Kabrit, Bitter Lakes near the Mediterranean. Note the Bren gunner in the front of the landing craft assault, June 1943
Communicating with other craft by means of flag signals as naval beach parties and commandos train at HMS SAUNDERS, Kabrit, Bitter Lakes near the Mediterranean. Note the Bren gunner in the front of the landing craft assault, June 1943

The advance through Italy was to be impeded by a succession of rivers running across the path north. It was natural to consider leapfrogging ahead with amphibious operations to seize the bridges and outflank the German defenders. Subsequent operations in Italy would demonstrate how fraught such manoeuvres could become.

On 3rd October 1943 the British, on the Adriatic coast, launched Operation Devon. This was an amphibious assault on the port of Termoli mounted by special forces from the SAS and Commandos. They achieved complete surprise.

Colonel Durnford-Slater, Commanding 3 Commando, arrived at 2am in the morning by landing craft:

Thus far, No. 3 Commando had landed and secured our bridgehead without the knowledge of the enemy. The large landing craft in which 40 Commando and the Special Raiding Squadron were to come ashore had struck on a sandbank which, again, had not been marked on our chart. I turned to a naval lieutenant who had come ashore with us, and pointed out the grounded craft. “ Can you get your small craft going to give them a reasonably dry landing?” “Yes, Colonel: I’ll get cracking.”

Soon these troops were passing through us on their way to work, and then the peace became an uproar. Spandaus, Brens, rifles chattered and cracked. Very soon our headquarters, on a sand dune half a mile from the town, was remote from the shifting battle.

There was fighting in the streets now, a lot of shooting, plenty of small stuff sounding crisp and harsh and deadly. “Let’s get on the move,” I said to Brian. In a few minutes we heard an engine making starting noises and, hurrying, found it facing in our direction. Brian and I performed an encircling movement. He jumped into the cab, pistol in hand. “Hands up!” he said in German to the driver.

The Jerry did as he was requested. His train never did make its scheduled trip northward. The coaches behind the engine were loaded with German troops, fast asleep. We woke them up and made prisoners of them. They took a lot of rousing and could scarcely believe what was happening. They thought they were thirty safe miles behind the front lines.

I had my headquarters set up in the back yard of a house near the station. The radio was just then on the move so we released a couple of pigeons with news of our progress. They merely circled and landed again. “Those damn Itie birds,” said Brian Franks in a tone of complete disgust, “they’re no better than their troops!”

There was a certain amount of desultory firing from the Germans in the area of the station now but nothing concerted. No. 40 Commando had cleared up most of the opposition here in the first rush. It was six in the morning. Meanwhile, 40 Commando and the Special Raiding Squadron had moved on. Our opponents were the German parachutists we had encountered before, in the Battle of the Commando Bridge.

Some of them seemed eager to fight until they died. I observed one lying in an olive grove partly behind a tree, about eight hundred yards in front of our position. Although obviously wounded – his actions were stiff and unnatural — he continued to fire at us regularly and accurately. We were unable to move anyone forward to take him prisoner. Instead, we returned his fire. He died where he fought, in the olive grove.

During the fighting General Heydrich, the German Parachute Divisional Commander, slipped out of the town on foot. He kindly left his car behind, a I939 Horsch, long, low, black and very fast. No. 3 Commando found it, cleaned it up, and presented it to me.

It has always struck me as extraordinary how the news of a battle sometimes fails to spread. Throughout the morning, German supply lorries kept coming in from the north. No. 40 Commando ambushed twelve of these at a northern cross-road, greeting each vehicle with long Bren bursts until it ran off the road and overturned, often in flames.

See John Durnford-Slater: Commando: Memoirs of a Fighting Commando in World War Two

Commandos use fighting knives during close-quarter combat practice in Scotland, 9 January 1943.
Commandos use fighting knives during close-quarter combat practice in Scotland, 9 January 1943.
A soldier from No. 1 Commando, armed with a 'Tommy gun', climbs up a steep rock face during training at Glencoe in Scotland, 19 November 1941.
A soldier from No. 1 Commando, armed with a ‘Tommy gun’, climbs up a steep rock face during training at Glencoe in Scotland, 19 November 1941.

Operation Jaywick attacks Japanese ships in Singapore


26th September 1943: Operation Jaywick attacks Japanese ships in Singapore

Then it was Davidson, playboy as he is, tried to sneak onboard undetected. He was a bit lucky he didn’t get a burst from a Bren gun. The blokes were pretty trigger-happy. Davo slipped over the stern and closely followed by Falls. Naturally we were more than delighted to see them. But boy, they were really beat cos they’d paddled 60 miles from Subar down to Pompong. It was pretty stressy stuff. They were pretty beat.

The Krait, the vessel which carried the men of Z Special Unit on Operation Jaywick, the successful raid on Singapore Harbour on the night of 1943-09-26.
The Krait, the vessel which carried the men of Z Special Unit on Operation Jaywick, the successful raid on Singapore Harbour on the night of 1943-09-26.
A group on board MV Krait en route to the Singapore Area During Operation Jaywick. Left To Right: Front Row A. B. Huston, A. B. Marsh, Cpl. Crilly; Back Row, Unidentified, Leading Seaman Cain, Major Lyon, Lieutenant Carse, Leading Stoker Mcdowell.
A group on board MV Krait en route to the Singapore Area During Operation Jaywick. Left To Right: Front Row A. B. Huston, A. B. Marsh, Cpl. Crilly; Back Row, Unidentified, Leading Seaman Cain, Major Lyon, Lieutenant Carse, Leading Stoker Mcdowell.

In Britain the Commando attack on shipping at Bordeaux that was Operation Frankton is relatively well known, largely because of the film ‘Cockleshell Heroes’. A very similar attack by Australian special forces on Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour took place on the night of 26th September.

In both Operations canoes were used to gain covert access to the harbour and then place limpet mines on the target ships. The men in Operation Jaywick were brought relatively close to the attack site by a captured Japanese fishing vessel, the Krait. Even the passage by the Krait through Japanese dominated waters was not without peril, with most of the men dying their skin brown so that they would not appear to be European from a distance. They still faced a long and hazardous canoe journey for the final stage into Singapore.

Horace Young was the radio operator on the Krait and stayed on board when the canoeists left for the attack. In an interview in 2004 he described how they picked the canoeists up, days later:

We were a little bit late getting to the rendezvous on Pompong, because we’d run into a bad Sumatra on the way. That had put us back about 4 or 5 hours I think from our rendezvous time, which was supposed to be round about the midnight time.

When we weren’t too sure what the hell we were going into, we had to sneak past this blessed Japanese observation post and fortunately there was no moon, so we were pretty right. Carse went in and dropped the anchor and everybody’s waiting there with the fingers on the Owen gun triggers and the Brens and things like that, cos they weren’t too sure what the hell was gonna happen.

Then it was Davidson, playboy as he is, tried to sneak onboard undetected. He was a bit lucky he didn’t get a burst from a Bren gun. The blokes were pretty trigger-happy. Davo slipped over the stern and closely followed by Falls. Naturally we were more than delighted to see them. But boy, they were really beat cos they’d paddled 60 miles from Subar down to Pompong. It was pretty stressy stuff. They were pretty beat. We had a little bit of a chat about what had happened. We got the gist of what had happened. We were worried about the other two canoeists, cos they weren’t there. So we hung around till dawn. By that time Davidson had turned in. He was pretty tired. He and Falls had turned in.

Carse said, “We’re not gonna hang around here in daylight with those patrol vessels coming up and down”. So he ordered them to weigh anchor and come back in a couple of days’ time.

He mentioned that 7 ships were reported to be destroyed.

I won’t say they were sunk because I think they floated some of them. They’d probably be sitting with their bottom blown out something like that. Just a description. Davidson and Falls went right in underneath the wharves right alongside Singapore proper. The Japanese guards were walking up and down the wharves whilst they were underneath the wharves under their feet.

They followed a tug through the boom defence to go inside. The whole place was lit up like Luna Park. There was no blackout or anything like that. The Town Hall was chiming the chimes. There were a few ships in there, but nothing big enough to waste limpets on, so they went back through the boom the same way as they came in.

Q: What physical shape were they in?

A: Pretty knocked about. Particularly with hands blistered, blisters on the seat and all that sort of thing. Because you’ve only gotta get a bit of sand or something in those things and it turns it into sandpaper really.

Q: Describe the morale.

A: Pretty high. Very high. They were all elated that everyone had been picked up and the operation had been a success. We suffered no casualties, the morale was really very high.

Q: What had the canoe men heard or seen of the ships being damaged?

A: They were in the harbour when they started going off at 5 in the morning, some of them. They were paddling furiously of course to get out. They heard the explosions. Lyon had a telescope rigged up on one of the islands they went to to make some observations from and there was a very thick pool of smoke over the whole of the Singapore Harbour. There was plenty of evidence of damage there. They were rushing up and down madly, patrol boats rushing up and down. It was a vastly different situation from when they went in.

The whole interview transcript used to available at: http://www.australiansatwarfilmarchive.gov.au/aawfa/interviews/318.aspx. Try:australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/printpdf/1019 .

JAPANESE SHIP SINKOKU MARU. this ship was damaged and set on fire at Singapore by Major Lyon and A.B. Huston of the operative party of OPERATION JAYWICK.
JAPANESE SHIP SINKOKU MARU. this ship was damaged and set on fire at Singapore by Major Lyon and A.B. Huston of the operative party of OPERATION JAYWICK.

The Commandos seaborne assault on Sicily


10th July 1943: The Commando’s seaborne assault on Sicily

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.

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.

A great invasion armada prepares for battle


4th July 1943: A great invasion armada prepares for battle

That evening, after two weeks at sea, we were told our destination was Sicily, and our landing beach in the south-east corner near Pachino. Soon after hearing this there was an almighty explosion close to hand and rushing on deck we saw the ‘Dervis’, the Commodore’s ship just ahead of us, had been torpedoed. Four more destroyers had joined our existing four the previous day, along with the old monitor ‘Roberts’ with its twin massive 16inch guns. After fourteen minutes the ‘Dervis’ sank.

Allied assault troops board American invasion craft in North Africa while, in the background, fully loaded landing craft set sail for Sicily.
Allied assault troops board American invasion craft in North Africa while, in the background, fully loaded landing craft set sail for Sicily.
Troops queue for a mug of tea at an Egyptian port while waiting to embark on ships bound for Sicily.
Troops queue for a mug of tea at an Egyptian port while waiting to embark on ships bound for Sicily.

The largest amphibious invasion force in history was now assembling at sea. Convoys from the UK would be joining ships from the North African naval bases. This was a far larger operation than Torch and the prospect of a hostile reception was much greater. Yet levels of secrecy remained high and many men did not know where they were headed until the last few days.

In North Africa Lieutenant Derek Whitehorn RNVR, was beach master for the Commando forces:

Doing his rounds in a jeep General Montgomery pulled up and asked me, ‘Who are the sailors and where do they come from?’ He made a few remarks directly to us, emphasising our importance and how we must not let down the folks at home.

Later I was ordered to attend an oration by Monty to all the officers involved in the initial thirty- minute phase of the forthcoming assault. This was most inspiring and for the very first time gave me tremendous confidence in what we were about to undertake.

See Beachhead Assault: The Story of the Royal Navy Commandos of World War II.

Troops embarking into landing craft at Tripoli for the invasion of Sicily, 3 July 1943.
Troops embarking into landing craft at Tripoli for the invasion of Sicily, 3 July 1943.
A British soldier reads up on Sicily, the target for the next Allied invasion, July 1943.
A British soldier reads up on Sicily, the target for the next Allied invasion, July 1943.

Stewart Linsell was an officer with Combined Operations on a ship travelling from Britain:

On the 3rd July, after ten boring days, we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Into the Med, but where to? Unbelievably those ten days of utter boredom saw the Atlantic calm as a mill-pond, and to pass the time the Canadian officers joined us in various card games and exercises and races around the long deck. Every day now we were visited by Sunderland, Catalina and Liberator aircraft.

The following day a large merchantman, the ‘Pride of Venice’, way off our starboard side was torpedoed and sunk. An hour later the ‘St. Esytt’ off our port side was torpedoed and sunk. We all had the horrible feeling that it was our oil tanker the U-boat was really after. Or was there more than one?

That evening, after two weeks at sea, we were told our destination was Sicily, and our landing beach in the south-east corner near Pachino. Soon after hearing this there was an almighty explosion close to hand and rushing on deck we saw the ‘Dervis’, the Commodore’s ship just ahead of us, had been torpedoed. Four more destroyers had joined our existing four the previous day, along with the old monitor ‘Roberts’ with its twin massive 16inch guns. After fourteen minutes the ‘Dervis’ sank.

We later learned that of the three huge convoys heading for Sicily ours was the only one to suffer any losses.

See BBC People’s War. U-boat net has more precise details.

HMS Roberts had 15 inch guns and was primarily designed for naval gunfire support.
HMS Roberts had 15 inch guns and was primarily designed for naval gunfire support.
Men of 2nd Seaforth Highlanders embarking onto landing craft at Sousse en route for Sicily, 5 July 1943.
Men of 2nd Seaforth Highlanders embarking onto landing craft at Sousse en route for Sicily, 5 July 1943.