Saturday, October 15, 2016

Presentation: All Background Notes - Dad's Navy Days

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

Introduction: I have assembled a good deal of background information from various sources (e.g., books, memoirs and photographs related to Canada's role in the Combined Operations organization during WW2) for an upcoming, hour-long presentation.  It is fair to say I have leaned most heavily on my father's memoirs, newspaper articles and submissions to Combined Ops books. I will attempt to not only inform listeners about one man's journey but encourage them to learn more about the 100s of Canadians who manned landing craft during Allied raids and invasions (e.g., at Dieppe, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy).

Parts 1 - 11 contain far more information than can be shared in a single hour so will serve as home base or background notes for an edited, trimmed-down version (soon to be underway). A Resource List for listeners will also be added when complete.

Use the links below to view individual sections of background notes:

Part 1 - Signing Up for the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve

Part 3 (3) - Halifax Training is Tough, Combined Operations Even Tougher

Part 4 (1) Combined Operations Training in the UK

Part 4 (2) - Initial Combined Ops Training in Southern England

Part 4 (3) Initial Combined Ops Training in Scotland. A) H.M.S. Quebec

Part 4 (4) Initial Combined Ops Training in Scotland. B) Camp Auchengate (Navy)

Part 5 (1) - Concerning the Dieppe Raid - Operation Rutter, July 1942

Part 5 (2) - Concerning the Dieppe Raid - Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942

Part 5 (3) - Concerning the Dieppe Raid - Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942

Part 5 (4) Concerning the Dieppe Raid - Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942

Part 6 (1) Operation TORCH - Invasion of North Africa, November 8, 1942

Part 6 (2) Operation TORCH - Invasion of North Africa, November 8, 1942

Part 7 - On Leave: Gracie Purvis, Christmas Pudding and Lively Pubs 

Part 8 (1) Operation HUSKY - The Invasion of Sicily, July 1943

Part 8 (2) - Operation HUSKY - The Invasion of Sicily, July 1943

Part 9 - Rest, Recuperation and Repair in Malta - August 1943

Part 10 (1) Invasion of Italy, Sept. 1943 - Operations AVALANCHE, BAYTOWN

Part 10 (2) Invasion of Italy, Sept. 1943 - Operations AVALANCHE, BAYTOWN

Part 11 - Late 1943. Return to UK, Then Canada. Comb. Ops in Comox, B.C. 

The following sentences are found very near the end of my father's Navy memoirs:

     "It would cost a small fortune today to retrace the places I had been to and seen under the White Ensign. At D-Day I was at H.M.S. Givenchy III but many of our boys took part in that too."

I will continue to travel to the places where my father trained and performed wartime service, i.e., 'Hostilities Only'. Though he did not participate in D-Day Normandy, I will try to collect more information about the Canadians in Combined Ops who did.

G. Harrison

Unattributed Photo GH

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 11

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

More Combined Ops service in Canada, 1944 - 45

Introduction: The following post will be part of a Nov. 2016 presentation regarding my father's WW2 service with the RCNVR and Combined Operations organization.

Part 11 - Late 1943. Return to UK, Then Home to Canada
Next Service with Combined Operations - Comox, B.C.

Once the Canadians in Combined Ops were finished their duties re Operation BAYTOWN in Italy, they made their way back to England. More opportunities for service with Comb. Ops followed, and - to my surprise - my father ended up on the West Coast of canada within a month or two.

He writes these few words at the conclusion of a news article about in the invasions of Sicily and Italy:

Our flotilla went back to Malta for a few days and from there we took fast Motor Torpedo boats to Bougie in North Africa and boarded a Dutch ship, the Queen Emma, whose propellor shaft was bent from a near miss with a bomb. In convoy we made about eight knots up the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, anchored inside the submarine nets for a couple of days, and slowly moved out one night for England.

In true navy fashion, after landing at Gourock, near our Canadian barracks H.M.C.S. Niobe in Greenock, we entrained for a barracks at Lowestoffe, where on a clear day the church spires of Norwich could be seen. We spent a month there, then went by train to Niobe, received two new uniforms and a ticket aboard the Aquitania, arriving safely at Halifax on December 6th, 1943.

Joe Watson (far left)  and Anthony Bouchard (far right) aboard Aquitania

I had a wonderful Christmas at home with Mother and family. It was sure nice to walk down Main Street and meet the people.

"DAD, WELL DONE", page 117


My father mentions more about that time, late 1943, in his memoirs:

After our work from Sicily to Italy was done and our armies were advancing we returned to Malta. We stayed but a few days, then took MT boats to Bougie in Algiers, and were soon after loaded onto a Dutch ship, the Queen Emma. The ship had been bombed and strafed, her propellor shaft was bent and we could only make eight knots an hour under very rough conditions. Her super structure was easily half inch steel, and in various places where shrapnel had struck I could see holes that looked like a hole punched in butter with a hot poker, like it had just melted.

We arrived at Niobe barracks in Scotland and in true navy style were put on a train and sent to Lowestoft in England, not too far from Norwich, England (my hometown’s namesake or visa versa) on or near the east coast.

Backing up a bit. While on the Queen Emma we had an attack of boils break out and we were taking exams to become Acting Leading Seamen. It was my fortune to not get boils at first, and I teased everyone aboard. But my turn came. I got three beauts close together on my neck. I went to sick bay, and what did they put me on? You guessed it - mercurochrome. I said, I won’t be back, same as when I broke my toe, and I didn’t. I passed my exam, got my book and carried the boils clear to Lowestoft.

I heard mess deck buzz. We were getting a lot of money and going on leave. The stipulated time for ratings is twenty-four months overseas and we were closing in. No more raids. Thanks God, for pulling me through. The mess deck buzz proved to be correct, they gave us all a pile of money (pound notes), and I thought it was too many for me because I made a big allotment to my mother. How they ever kept track of our pay I’ll never know, and to my dying day I will believe they gypped me right up to here.

Before going on leave I went to Stoker Katanna and I said, pinch out these boils. “I’ll lean on the top bunk and no matter how it hurts, pinch them out.” I never felt a thing because they were as ripe as cherries. I slopped on a big bandaid and away I went on leave, never bothering to answer a ton of mail. I also received eight hundred cigarettes.

We were due for a do and we did it up brown. You couldn’t possibly lose me in London, England even when I was three sheets to the wind. No way.

About leave. When I was in southern England I put in for Glasgow and received two extra days for travelling time. But I never really saw Glasgow. I went, paid off a grudge, and immediately put in for the return trip to London.

Do I have a reason for such odd behaviour? Yes. One day at Roseneath camp in Scotland, we ratings were all fallen in ranks, when out comes black garters and he says, “Any one of you guys a fast runner?” I stepped one pace forward. “Okay, run over there,” says black garters, “get a wheel barrow, shovel, fork, hoe, and go with this man and clean up that big estate garden.” What a hell of a shock and what a hell of a job. It had been left for years. I made up my mind then that I would get back at black garters, and I connived to do it while on a leave, and I damn well did.

About Roseneath camp. It was where many chaps came down with impetigo and they were put on Gentian violet, the colour of an elderberry stain. O/S Art Bradfield, of Bradfield Monuments in Simcoe, went to Dieppe in pajamas - under his uniform - the only man to go to Dieppe in pajamas, and he got out of bed in Roseneath to do it.

After my leave I went back to Lowestoft, then to Greenock, then was loaded on a ship back to Canada and 52 days leave. Mum waited at Brantford Station for every train for days and I never came. And when I did arrive she wasn’t there. But she sure made a big fuss when she saw me and we cried an ocean full of tears. It was nice to be home again, Mum. It was coming up to Christmas and quite a few times I thought we would never see another one. I thank God for his protection.

Back to Lowestoft*. Before leaving Lowestoft, oppo Frank Herring and I visited the Top Hat Pub. When we entered two WAAF girls were there, one blonde and one brunette. After three or four drinks we moved to their table and asked if we could join and they said, “Yes, of course.”

So we had a few more drinks - the girls paid a fair share - and all the while I had my eye on the blonde. It was getting close to “Gentlemen Please” time and the girls suggested we go down to a games room where there were pinball machines, so we all agreed and I grabbed the blonde and Frank the brunette. There was a terrible closing rush in the ‘black-out doors’ area, and when we arrived at the pinball machine area I had the brunette and Frank the blonde. Such is life.

But all is well that ends well. We saw them other times and being cooks they brought us wonderful cookies and goodies from a bakery. I maintained a correspondence with Grace Purvis, the brunette, and spent a wonderful weekend with her at a Blackpool resort, enjoying circus rides and long walks on the pier. I respected her very much as her boyfriend was in the Eighth Army and she remained very true to him. Where are you today, Gracie? I sure hope you and he are happily married.

What can I say about fifty-two days leave at home? Draw it out... or say it was mostly wine, women and song?

I guess that covers it without revealing too much. 

"It was mostly wine, women and song?" Wedding day, Spring 1944 

*Editor’s note - Doug’s meeting with WAAF Gracie Purvis likely occurred in Southend-on-Sea one year earlier. A more detailed story appears in a contribution to St. Nazaire to Singapore, Volume 1.

Doug and a woman in uniform (likely a CWAC) enjoy soda pops 

From "DAD, WELL DONE", Pages 37 - 39

My father wrote a bit about his duties and adventures in Comox, BC in his memoirs:


Then I went to Givenchy III, known as Cowards Cove, at Comox on Vancouver Island. It was absolute heaven there. Just normal routine; I trained a few zombies on cutters, and played ball five or six times a week under a good coach.

I also looked after Captain Windyer’s sailboat and prepared it when he wished to go for a sail. One day quite a wind was blowing and I was called by the captain to prepare the boat for sailing. First thing I did was drop the drop keel and it sheered its bolt stoppers and plummeted into twenty feet of ocean. Diving would not raise it because we could not dive low enough, but by means of a wire we hooked a hole and retrieved it and soon the sailboat was ready to sail.

“Isn’t it a bit windy today, sir, for sailing such a small craft?” I said. “I’ll be the judge of that,” he remarked. He hadn’t gone a hundred fathoms when the sailboat tipped over and he was bottoms up. We rescued him with an LCM barge, and when he came ashore - hair flattened and really soaked - he never even glanced my way. I wouldn’t have either.

At Givenchy III I passed professionally for my Leading Seaman rating and Acting Coxswain, classed very good.

We used to go to the Riverside Hotel in Courtenay and rent room number 14 because it had a window that opened into an alley just about hip high. Then we proceeded to drink Riverside dry, go to a dance and return to the room and find another dozen sailors who had come in the alley window. The room was crammed, and when we left on Sunday morning the manager’s head turned to and fro, like someone watching a ping pong game. He was utterly astounded but never called a halt because we were such nice guys.

Unfortunately, the Riverside Hotel was destroyed by fire, 1960s

I had a fight with a Police Constable named Carson. I was drunk and he asked me for my I.D. card. I took a punch at him, missed him by a pole length and he assisted me to the cruiser, he was very kind. He had a hammer lock on me so didn’t open the door, he just put me through the open back window. You know, that shoulder is still sore. He took me to jail, but the cell was already packed with sailors and cleaning equipment, i.e., mops, brooms, etc. They lit the equipment on fire and smoke forced us all out. He didn’t like me because our team used to beat his team at ball. Big sissy. Poor loser.

At Givenchy L/Sea Rose and I took a job washing dishes, but we gave everyone to understand that we had to be at the beach at 1300 hours (1:00 p.m.). There were 150 ratings to start but many were shipped out. If we were going to be late we grabbed dishes half full and said, “you’re done”, because we couldn’t keep the girls waiting.

Wm. Fischer, a stoker (not of Combined Ops but of R.C.N.V.R.), was stationed there. He had, I believe, an unequalled experience. He was on an Atlantic convoy run, on H.M.C.S. St. Croix, and one night in rough seas the St. Croix was sunk and he was the lone survivor. His life jacket had lights on and later he was picked up by the English ship H.M.S. Itchen. It in turn was torpedoed and Fischer was one of three survivors. They took him and his wife on saving bond tours, etc., but when he was asked to go to sea again, he said he would go to cells first. With an experience like that I would have too. He was lucky to be alive.

Doug trained “Zombies on cutters” while on Vancouver Island, 1944 - 45 
Photo by G. Bell, as found in Land of Plenty: History of Comox District 

Gordon Bell, a YMCA director, came to ‘the spit’ as it was called nearly everyday and provided piano music, sewed on crests and buttons, repaired uniforms and showed movies. One night my oppo, Frank Herring, slightly drunk, was laughing his booming laugh at a hilarious movie when he took a sudden urge and jumped right out the window, frame and all, and he didn’t even get out.

There was a government oyster breeding ground at Givenchy and at low tide we would get bags full of the largest ones and put them in the water near the barracks, so, when the tide came in no one saw them and when tide went out we had a feast. We cooked a lot, but some of the large ones we ate raw. They were hard to swallow, i.e., the large ones, and we often needed a slap on the back to be able to move it down our throat. 

It was beautiful to see the snow-capped mountains and the contours - which had various names.

Then one day, the day we had been waiting for came -- V.E. day -- and what a celebration. They poured beer in my hair, there was no routine, but nothing untoward happened. The fellows were just so glad, that it gave us time to think back and count our blessings. No, I cannot recall anything unusual happening to write about. It had a sobering effect on most of us who had been in Combined Operations under the White Ensign.

Of course, I said we were very very happy, but we were also very very lucky and knew it. Soon we went to H.M.C.S. Naden, with none of us volunteering for the Japanese theatre of war, although we were all asked by a recruiting officer.

Back row: Donald Westbrook, Charlie Rose, Joe Spencer 
Front row: Joe Watson, Doug Harrison, Arthur Warrick 

A naval photographer took a picture of six of us: L/S Watson, L/S Warrick, L/S Rose, L/S Westbrook, L/S Spencer and myself, L/S Harrison, because we all joined the same day, went through twenty-three months overseas together and were going to be discharged all on the same day too.

"DAD, WELL DONE", Pages 40 - 43


My father finished his Navy memoirs with the following lines:

After being shipped from Givenchy III (Combined Ops training base, Comox, Vancouver Island) to H.M.C.S. Naden in Esquimalt, B.C., I entrained for the new H.M.C.S. Star built in my absence in Hamilton, Ontario.

I wasn’t home a day before they were after me to go to the Co-op and work again, they were short of men.

I said, “No sir. I have leave coming to me and I’m taking it.”

In fact, my records weren’t in after the first thirty days so I got another thirty days of leave. But the third time I went back I got my discharge having signed up for Hostilities Only. I was discharged one day before my twenty-fifth birthday, September 5, 1945.

I resumed work at the Norwich Co-op, worked my way up from truck driver to production manager and was pensioned off in October, 1975 after being there nearly forty years counting my time in the Royal Canadian Volunteer Reserve Navy. I had fulfilled my ambition to be a sailor like my Dad and Lord Admiral Nelson and I am very proud.

It would cost a small fortune today to retrace the places I had been to and seen under the White Ensign. At D-Day I was at H.M.S. Givenchy III but many of our boys took part in that too.

Roll along, Wavy Navy, roll along
Roll along, Wavy Navy, roll along
If they ask you who you are
We’re the R.C.N.V.R.
Royal along, Canadian Navy, roll along

From "DAD, WELL DONE" Page 47


The following article by Doug Harrison appears as found in The Norwich Gazette. I recall reading it in 2010 as if for the first time - after a busy summer; I'd buried my father at sea a few months earlier and had just returned from a second visit to Ottawa and The War Museum. The article propelled me onward, to learn more about Dad's Navy Days:


In 1944 I was stationed in barracks on a piece of land called “The Spit” at Comox on Vancouver Island, B.C. About a half mile of water separated the spit from Comox and to get ashore we had to be inspected and travel to Comox on a real Liberty boat.

Fishing for salmon was great there. I myself never fished; I ended up on the business end of a pair of oars in the Captain’s dinghy while someone else sat in the stern and trawled, using filleted herring as bait which acted as a shiny spinner. Some Fridays we were able to supply the noon meal with freshly caught salmon. We didn’t have meat because of the R.C.s.

In order to catch herring for bait we used an old Indian custom. We acquired a thin piece of wood, similar to house trim, about six feet long. At one end we pounded in about 18 inches of finishing nails about an inch apart. The heads were snipped off the nails and it looked like a long comb. When we saw the sea gulls diving for fish near the jetty we rushed down with our long comb and when a school of herring swam past we just poled them up onto the jetty. What we didn’t require we threw back in. The natives had a rule; if the gulls are in, the herring are in, and if the herring are in, the salmon are too, and away we went fishing. A few miles west of Comox was the small town of Courtenay, and I stood amazed on the bridge over the river in spawning season and watched the salmon. Bank to bank salmon - it didn’t seem possible.

At Comox, right close to our barracks was a government breeding ground for oysters. I never knew of such a thing and didn’t care particularly as all I had eyes for were those monstrous oysters which showed up when the tide went out. I wasn’t alone, believe me.

As the tide ebbed at night we once again borrowed the Captain’s dinghy and a few burlap bags and rowed out to the oyster bed. We climbed out of the dinghy into the horrible muck, filled our burlap bags and paddled away before the tide left us aground. These choice oysters were dumped into the sea out of sight behind the barracks, thereby assuring us of our own private oyster supply. We ate most of them raw; salt water and a bit of sand didn’t matter too much and a good slap on the back was required most times to help swallow them. Wonderful!

I acted as Coxswain on large navy cutters as soldiers worked the oars. The cutters were 27 feet long and wide enough (except at the bows) to seat four men, two men to an oar. This was fun, getting the proper stroke amongst 18 green oarsmen. If the rhythm was wrong and an oar caught a crab (got stuck in the water), the effect was that nearly every thwart was cleared of oarsmen and bedlam prevailed. “Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” I hollered, bursting from laughter. The oars are about 12 feet long and are they ever heavy. To give the soldiers a well-earned rest I would give the order “Rest oars.” Then the oars would be pulled in, rested on each side of the cutter, and the soldiers could rest their weary arms on the looms for awhile.

“I enjoyed giving the order to toss oars” at The Spit, Comox BC
Photo credit - Sailor Remember by W. H. Pugsley

I enjoyed giving the order to ‘toss oars’. With this the huge oars were brought from the water and as quickly as possible tossed up in the air, and of course the water came pouring down from the blades in a regular storm for a minute and everyone got soaked to the hide, including me, but on a hot day it was refreshing. I was longing for a swim anyway. There were several cutters with soldiers and with experience we began to have races. The competition was a good thing and a real esprit de corp developed within the teams. The races were close, the blisters were soon forgotten and the training became enjoyable as some fun was injected into it.

I was on the navy softball and hardball teams* and we played as many as six games a week. For a diversion when we had liberty on weekends a bunch of us sailors would go into Courtenay for a show, beer or dancing at the Sons of Freedom Hall. One man went in advance if possible and booked Room 14 at the Riverside Hotel. There was a good reason for doing so. Room 14 had a low window which faced onto an alley and late Saturday night and early Sunday morning after a long night on the town, many sailors retreated through the window to sleep wherever space was available, piled like cordwood, as many as 12 in a room for two. In the morning, when we had to sign out of the room, it would have made some sense if a few had again retreated out the window, but oh no! Everyone had to file out past the desk clerk whose head moved back and forth like someone watching a tennis match. The management of the Riverside remained nice to us however, and in due time we quit taking advantage of their good nature - that was enough of a good thing.

One thing clings to my memory most about the dance band as well - the drummer’s heavy foot. The beat of the drum could be heard for blocks. It reminded me a bit of Jake Searles, drummer for the Salvation Army band down at McWhirter’s corner on Main and Stover streets (in Norwich) years ago. It didn’t matter to Jake, the tempo of the music, he marched to his own drum - thump, thump, thump - meanwhile saying hello to most everyone who passed by. Every Saturday night Jake was a part of Norwich which many will long remember. Got away from the subject of the navy, didn’t I?

*Navy #1 Team: Front: (L-R) V. Mauro, C. Rose, D. Harrison, B. Kidd, J. Spencer
Back: J. Ivison, J. Malone, W. Grycan, G. Hobson, D. Arney, D. Zink

From "DAD, WELL DONE", Pages 125 - 127

From the photo gallery in above book:

Canadians in Combined Operations, January 1944, stop in Hornepayne,
Northern Ontario, on their way to Comox, on Vancouver Island

(L - R) Don Linder, Chuck Rose, Buryl McIntyre (back),
Joe Watson, Don Westbrook. Photo - Doug Harrison

The Spit (narrow piece of land), offshore from Comox, Vancouver Is.,
was home to Combined Operations training during WW II 
Photo, 1930s - Comox Library and Archives

Courtenay is 2 - 3 miles from Comox and is beyond the bottom of the picture.

“For a diversion when we had liberty on weekends a bunch of us sailors would
go into Courtenay for a show, beer or dancing at the Sons of Freedom Hall.”
Photo of Native Sons Hall, Courtenay by G. Harrison


I follow faint footsteps when looking for more information about my father and other Canadians who served in the RCNVR and Combined Operations. Most WW2 veterans with important stories are dead. Significant places no longer exist as they did in the 1940s. Artifacts lay in dust.

That being said, we are fortunate to have good stories, photographs and more - already in hand - to inform us now and provide clues to find more historic treasures in the future. So, the search is on and more stories will be shared when possible.

Unattributed Photos GH

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 10 (2)

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

Troops landing at Salerno, Italy - Sept. 1943

Introduction: The following post will be part of a Nov. 2016 presentation regarding my father's WW2 service with the RCNVR and Combined Operations organization.

Part 10 - The Invasion of Italy - September 1943
Operation AVALANCHE and Operation BAYTOWN

There are many other details related to Canadians in Combined Operations as they leave Malta, for example, and head toward weeks of heavy duty associated with the invasion of Italy, first week of September, 1943. Significant facts and details can be found in C. Mark's Combined Operations, recorded by Marks himself, and by two officers, one an unidentified Engineer Officer connected to the 80th Flotilla, and Jake Koyl, an officer mentioned earlier. 

From Clayton Marks:

Just before the departure for northern Sicily in preparation for the jump across the Straits of Messina, it was decided that the 81st Flotilla would not be sent. Its craft were not of as recent a type as those of the 80th and would not be useful in the unfamiliar role of assault landing craft, which was to be the work allotted them. Moreover, a large number of men from the 81st were in hospital with sickness acquired in Sicily. The 80th Flotilla therefore sailed alone from the Great Harbour of Malta on August 27th.

On September 1st, at one of the assembly points near Messina, from which the expedition was to cross, the Officers of the Flotilla were briefed. Thirty-six hours later they began to embark the Canadians of the Royal 22nd Regiment, the West Nova Scotians, and the Carleton and Yorks. Canadian soldiers and Canadian sailors were operating together at last.

In the early morning darkness of September 3rd the loaded craft moved up the Strait, close inshore on the Sicilian side, making for their take-off point. Among many ships crowding the narrow waters, "Warspite" and "Valiant" swept by, looming hugely. The wash from the battleships' passing bounced the landing craft like water bugs and sent huge waves over the sides to soak the men. The big ships of the Royal Navy, at that tense, nerve-fraying moment, came in for a heartfelt cursing.

At dawn the armies for the invasion of Italy moved across the six mile Strait. "Warspite" and "Valiant" were forgiven their trespass by the men in the landing craft as the Navy added to a great barrage put up by artillery firing from Sicily across the Strait. Screaming through the half-light overhead, thousands of shells from the artillery of the Army and the big Naval guns passed above the Flotilla. Plumed explosions rose inland as the ramps of the craft went down and the conquerors of Sicily set foot on the Italian mainland. Great transit searchlights from the Sicilian side were cutting through the dim morning to assist navigation and directing smoke shells were providing some assistance mixed with a good deal of confusion.

For a month after the lightly-opposed Italian landing the 80th Flotilla carried out its familiar routine of ferry work. The end came with the Italian armistice and a great celebration in which the population of the countryside joined, and after that the word "England" was on every man's lip. The men of the 55th and 61st assault Flotillas had long been in the United Kingdom. The 81st was also there. Last of the Combined Operations units to return to Britain, the men of the 80th Flotilla, arrived on October 27th.

A little more than two months remained of 1943. In England the men heard cheering news of conditions in the Atlantic and of the war around the world. Good tidings continued to arrive, right up to the destruction of Scharnhorst in the closing days of December. Already 1944 was being spoken of as the year of "the invasion", and perhaps the year of decision. The Allied world was girded at last and moving forward in the full tide of its strength and confidence.

Yet the bells of the new year ushered in a season of tense foreboding for the men of Canada as for all men of the warring world. Before the armies now in Italy loomed icy hills fanged with the guns of a desperate and determined enemy. The divisions long trained and ready in England had yet to meet their great and costly test. Canadian Airmen knew that the fading Luftwaffe had not yet lost its power to sting. The men of the Atlantic escort forces looked forward to a continuance of a weary, four-year old task, from which the conquest of the U-boats - if it remained a conquest - meant the removal only of the greatest among many perils. For the powerful Tribal destroyers, and the still newer Fleet destroyers which were on the way, there was to be surface combat in the old tradition but with deadlier weapons. And before the men of the landing craft lay other hostile shores.

Combined Operations, pages 86 - 87

ALC is lowered from a troop ship

From an unidentified Engineer Officer:

For the Seaman branch the stay in Malta was a holiday, but not so for the maintenance staffs of each Flotilla. After rather hectic negotiations and the cluttering up of signal services with dozens of sane and insane signals it was finally decided to refit craft in the Malta dockyard. I was enjoying the doubtful luck of a stay in hospital at this time but I heard from day to day of progress in underwater and engine repair. It was a colossal job in as much as spares were as scarce as hens' teeth and the war strategy in the Mediterranean called for super speed.

The boats were placed in drydock in batches and work proceeded from daylight until midnight with one shift! In eleven days over one hundred boats were repaired, and though some of the repairs proved defective later, still it was a tremendous effort. Once again the boys came through with the goods when we were in a pinch. This is an outstanding feature of Combined Ops Ratings, they may grumble and grouse when work is slack, but when there is a job to be done, they can be counted on to a man. I was, I think, justifiably proud of the work our Canadian motor mechanics and stokers did in the Malta dockyard. One man momentarily passed out from the terrific heat in an engine room one morning - he carried on for the remainder of the day and didn't report sick till late at night!

While in Malta several malaria, sand-fly fever and cases of desert sores developed. Some were cured in time to sail with us and those that had to remain were sincerely disappointed for after the fall of Sicily it was quite easy to guess our next move would be into Italy itself and they wanted to be in on the mainland job. However we were fortunate in securing eleven Canadian stokers who had recently come from Canada on LCI's.

I was struck by what might be called a 'lion-and- the-mouse' comparison as we moved out of the harbour on the morning of August 27th. One of the Royal Navy's proudest battleships lay at mooring. Surely if ships of her size and grandeur were necessary how puny and frail our fifty-foot boats looked in comparison! Could they both represent a striking force? It looked absurd, and yet the history of Lord Louis Mountbatten's Combined Operations fleet of tiny craft has proven their soundness, aye and well nigh perfection, in carrying our armies to enemy coasts. Even so, the faces of the Sailors on the 'big ship' seemed to be scoffing at our insignificance. However, it is but a fortune of war that the same battle-wagon received severe blows in the Italian invasion and we - well, I'm getting ahead of my story!

Our trip north was broken the first night at the south eastern tip of Sicily, Cape Passero, for a night's rest. The second stop was the much battered port of Augusta, where we remained for several days. I remember one day here very well. I set out in the morning to obtain a bottle of oxygen and one of acetylene to do some necessary welding. The Base Engineer Officer had used his supply but he thought I could get some from the Army. To do so I would require transport. After going to three transport offices and getting the run around, I finally convinced a Lieutenant Colonel of the urgency of my quest. He supplied a 30 cwt. truck and driver and away we went. On arriving at the place where the supply depot had been we found they had moved about 40 kilometers further on.

Eventually arriving at the depot, I tackled the supply officer. He informed me that another supply Major was the only man who could issue the gas! On the way out to the main road we passed three ten-ton trucks of acetylene and oxygen and I still think the good Lord put them there to encourage me to seek the aforementioned Major! At last he was found about 10 kilos away. Dripping perspiration and with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, it was then 1500, I laid my case. His reply included something about having just supplied a Rear Admiral with forty bottles of each the previous day in Catania, and why couldn't I get mine from said Admiral? I explained that this was already consigned and he reluctantly agreed to my request. But alas, just as I was leaving his tent he told me where to put my empties. It seemed that no full bottles could be issued without return of empties. Now how in hell can a fellow have empties until he has drawn some full ones? The end of the story was that he sticks to his guns and I returned to Augusta at 1800 without any dinner and with a brand new stock of expletives - but one can't operate an acetylene outfit on such gas; even as a wartime measure!

Just before dusk on September 2nd, a large convoy of craft, small and large, stole quietly out of Augusta harbour and headed northward. We steamed all night and beached just before dawn broke, clear and hot. This day was spent in loading the correct serials, numbers given to Army vehicles, in the right craft and sorting out the craft for the various convoys that were to move off that night. Jake spent the afternoon travelling from beach to beach on our motorcycle - acquired legally? in the Sicilian operation - briefing the various crews. By evening, all was in readiness. We had supper on the boats, a culinary feat which I defy any housewife to accomplish better than our boys do it, and spent an hour resting on the sand with some of the Army Officers who were to be our passengers. One Scottish Captain said that he had just heard that someone had made a mistake in the night and we were thus going over twenty four hours ahead of the planned artillery barrage! Humour is the greatest single method of keeping morale up to the skies! (by the way, he was wrong!)

Just after dark that night, September 3rd, we left the beach to join our appointed convoy of LCI's, LCT's and LCA's. This convoy was passing at a certain time close inshore but it was like a game of hide and seek to find them. This done, we proceeded up the coast to Mili Marina, where our particular boat was to pick up a Canadian Brigadier and his HQ staff. The beaches along this part of the coast are paradise for landing craft with about a five to one slope, and were well marked with distinguishing lights.

The time set for the final stage of the trip was 0300. We knew the plan was to lay down a heavy artillery barrage from the island across the Straits of Messina. Just as we turned from the coast to proceed due east to the Italian toe, the barrage opened up. And what a deafening roar! It was magnificent to say the least, and even a quarter of a mile off-shore we could feel the concussion from the guns. By the time we reached mid-channel a fog was settling down and this was turned into a good imitation of London's foggiest weather by the smoke from the exploding shells as we neared the coast. Navigation was difficult, but we managed to keep on the stern of our guiding M.L. With all the racket, plus a general expectation of a heavily opposed landing we expected to hear enemy guns opening up at any minute.

Nothing happened - we crept in closer - still nothing but the pounding of our own guns, then one of the Brigadier's wireless sets began to pick up messages. "Red beach unopposed" and later, "Green beach unopposed"! By this time we were able to dimly see the outlines of the hills through the smoke and fog. Coming closer still, we could see the troops of the initial wave walking along the beach. By this time invasion craft of every description were milling about. What a sight! On the beach, while the troops were unloading, gay banter could be heard from the boats' crews. And so easy was the first permanent invasion of Europe! How true Churchill's words proved, "We shall strike the soft under-belly of Europe!" Nowhere on the toe were the landings opposed by a single shot, nor was a single enemy plane in sight overhead. But there were planes, ah yes, the faithful Spitfires droned reassuringly as dawn broke.

This was but the initial landing in Italy. Our next job was to act as ferry service across the Straits to keep a steady stream of vehicles and supplies to Monty's Men. This was first done from Teressa and later from beaches north of the Messina harbour. In the latter place we were able to billet the Flotilla in houses close to the beaches. The various crews each had their own Italian boys to clean up after meals and tend to their dhobie. Pay for this service consisted of 'biscottis'. The work dragged on till once again the monotony of it got the better of nerves at times. Great was the rejoicing when on October 4th after disposing of our craft to Flotillas going to Naples and Toranto we were drafted to a small Combined Ops carrier for passage to North Africa.

During our month on the scene of this operation, not a single enemy plane was sighted, with the exception of one or two that got through to the landing beaches on the Italian side. Thus the Sicilian operation proved the most difficult of the two, just the reverse of our expectations. But then this war is a war of surprises isn't it!

In this account I have purposely neglected to mention numerous escapades into Italy. On their days off the Ratings - and Officers, I must confess - did go on the scrounge and sight-seeing. The very tip of the toe of Italy is very similar to Sicily in many ways. Vineyards abound and the people were very friendly. There was one expedition I do remember, when our maintenance staff took a reporter from the Montreal Star on a trip. We landed at Scilla, looked over the town, including the local headquarters of the Fascista and came away with a tiny salute gun on the bow of our maintenance duty boat. We found the gun lying dejectedly on the slanting bridge deck of a partially sunken Messina-Reggio ferry boat. It was one of the many boats the Germans had used to escape across the Straits when they were pushed out of Sicily. It will be many a day before that regular ferry service is resumed, the boats are sunk and Messina itself is a shambles of the first order. Not a single building in the city proper is intact. Everywhere one sees the ravages that modern war metes out to any unfortunate city that lies in its path.

And so for the last time (or will it be the last time?) we saw the shores of Sicily recede in the distance, but we weren't looking back, our eyes and thoughts were to the African coast. It was the first step of our voyage back to England. We landed at D'Jid Jelli where we were placed in a camp on the site of an auxiliary landing field. After a few days, much to the joy of everyone, our journey was resumed, to Algiers, thence to Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic.

Combined Operations, pages 98 - 101

LCMs are work horses for Canadians in Combined Operations

From Lt. Jake Koyl:

Refits -

At Malta the crews expected to have a fourteen day rest and to get enough water for drinking and washing and rations not quite so uninteresting as the "Compo" rations which the Army had given them in Sicily. When they arrived, however, they were told by the Senior Landing Craft Officer that due to the political situation it would be necessary to make a landing on Italian soil in the near future for which all available landing craft would be required. It was therefore essential to put the craft in full working order once again and repair the wear and tear of hundreds of beachings. All the spares of all Flotillas were pooled and the refit of about seventy craft was completed in fourteen or fifteen days, to the amazement of dockyard authorities at Valetta.

The Maltese dockyard maties took advantage of the critical situation to strike for two weeks just when the work of repair was about to begin. However, all Flotilla stoker and maintenance personnel turned to and helped in every variety of work from welding to carpentry. Number four dry dock was allocated for LCMs and first priority was given for all materials which could be supplied. Twenty craft were docked at once for hull repairs and bottom fittings such as propellers, shafts and A-brackets while the remainder of the craft were drawn up on the hards for engine repairs and above water repairs. The Flotillas worked fourteen hours a day and got the job done. After the first twenty dry docked craft had been repaired, another forty-two craft were put in dock while engine and above water repairs on the original twenty were carried out on the hards. Quarters were extremely crowded in Valetta and most of the Flotilla personnel slept in an LST and in tents above the town.

LCM(iii)s vs. LCM(i)s -

The 80th Flotilla - but not the 81st - was used for the invasion of Italy across the Straits of Messina which began on the morning of September 3rd. It was only at the last minute that it was decided not to use the 81st. The decision to use the 80th and not the 81st was made because of the great superiority of the LCM(iii)s of the 80th over the LCM(i)s of the 81st. The LCM(iii) is a diesel-engined craft with an endurance of about 800 miles while the LCM(i) has internal combustion engines of less than half the LCM(iii)s horsepower. Therefore the 80th were able to proceed to Messina directly from Malta under their own power. The 81st would have had to make the passage by stages or else carried by ship, and ships were at a premium.

The LCM(iii)s had the further advantage of being a little faster (nine knots) although noisier, of having more power in reverse for coming off the beach, of being somewhat larger and therefore capable of carrying up to thirty tons of stores, almost twice the capacity of an LCM(i). Even more important was the inroads that sickness had made into the 81st Flotilla. At one time in Malta, only four stokers remained off the sick-list. Seamen could have been used for stokers but the Flotilla was considered too weak. Most of the other Flotillas were shorter of craft than of personnel.

81st to U.K. -

Therefore on the 19th of August the first party of about four Officers and forty-nine Ratings left Malta in H.M.S. "FORMIDABLE", leaving their seven operational craft behind as reserves in Malta. At Gibraltar, they transferred to an old trooper, S.S. "LANCASHIRE" and arrived back in the United Kingdom about the middle of September. The remainder of the Flotilla came from Malta in the Dutch Transport, M.V. "RUYS", sailing on the 26th of September and arriving in the United Kingdom on the 8th of October. The sick evacuated from Sicily to North Africa returned in small groups about the same time.

The 80th had kept all eleven of their original craft in operation through the Sicilian landings but two craft with "Buda" diesel engines which required spares that were not available in Malta, had to be left there and in their place they were given one LCM of another Flotilla. In Buda engines, fresh water, kept cool by a heat exchange system of salt water, is used for cooling. At Sicily the salt water system became blocked due to accumulations of sand from the beaches and oil from sunken ships so that salt water had to be used in place of fresh to keep the engines cool. The consequent crystallization made it impossible to keep the pumps working for very long and damaged parts of the engines so that replacements were necessary. The 80th therefore left for Italy with ten craft while the remaining personnel for one craft stayed in Malta.

The ferrying job across the Messina Straits went on for thirty-two days with much the same sort of discomfort as had been experienced south of Syracuse, but the organization was rather better and Flotillas were usually able to operate as a team instead of as individual craft with better results.

At their camp near Messina the Flotillas were better off than in their cave on "GEORGE" beaches, but supplies of all kinds were still hard to get, and medical services in particular were badly strained. The Flotilla personnel were in worse shape than at any time since the operations commenced and sores developed from the slightest scrape. The Flotilla ran their own Sick Bay under the charge of a Duty Officer and sores were dressed as well as amateurs could do it. Not only the Flotilla had to be attended to but the local Sicilian population. At first only the children presented themselves for treatment but soon the whole family came along. The very poor condition of the population was typical of that of the Italian prisoners who were often ferried by the LCMs on their return trip from the Toe.

The news of Italy's surrender was received with as much joy by the Sicilians as among the Allied Forces. The Canadians heard it from a Sicilian family who had it from the B.B.C. Italian Service Broadcast shortly before the news was broadcast in English. All the landing craft were along the beaches on the Sicilian side for the night and each craft let off a couple of 47-round pans of Lewis Gun ammunition, including tracer - at least fifty guns going strong.

To end this report, the following signal from Flag Officer Sicily to all landing craft concerned in the Messina operation gave everyone well-earned praise.

General Montgomery's praise for the Canadian contribution follows:

"I feel I must write and say how very grateful I am for the great efforts made by the Royal Navy in maintaining such a high volume of traffic over the ferry.

This was one of the major factors which enabled us to advance so rapidly and resulted in the linking up of the Fifth and Eighth Armies. 1 shall be most grateful if you will pass on my thanks to your staff, the crews of the landing craft and others concerned. Ends."

Combined Operations, pages 182 - 185

Landing craft at work, ferrying troops from Sicily to Italy

And here follows facts and details about Operation AVALANCHE, the invasion of italy at Salerno, a close run, little-known affair in which Canadians in Combined Operations participated with British and American troops going into Italy:

Short excerpt:


On September 11th the British landed unopposed in the harbour at Taranto but Salerno was a far tougher nut. Apart from Dieppe, which was a special case, it was the first seriously opposed landing that we had ventured on, and there was a period when it was near to failing altogether.

The date selected for Avalanche was the 9th of September. The Italian request for an armistice was made public on the evening of the 8th, which led some of the more ill-advised among the troops, despite warnings, to expect something like a walkover. Top level arguments, and the consequent lower level adjustments, were still continuing when the first and slowest elements of the invasion force crept out from their bases and set their course for Salerno.

Sixteen separate convoys sailed from five separate ports on six different dates, according to their speed and port of origin. There were several air attacks on passage, but the total damage was negligible; it amounted to only one LCT sunk, one Hunt Class destroyer damaged by a near miss, and one LST damaged by a bomb which passed clean through her without exploding. The last two reached their objectives, and the destroyer played a notable part in the bombardment of the beaches before being ordered back to Malta for repairs on the second day of the landings. It was a poor score for the Luftwaffe against 700 ships and landing craft.

Rendezvous and landfalls were made faultlessly, and the assault began more or less on time. The northern or British half of the front comprised of sectors, each of two beaches. On the northernmost beach the leading battalion got ashore successfully, and Brigade Headquarters followed it soon afterwards, but the right battalion on the next beach was less fortunate. By bad luck the LCT(R)s discharged their rockets too far south, and the Commanding Officer of the leading wave had to make up his mind quickly whether to land on his allotted beach, where the defenders had escaped attack, or to switch to where the rockets had struck, so as to exploit their effect. He chose the latter course, and it proved to be a wrong decision. Trying to fight his way north to the area in which he should have landed his men came under heavy fire. His supporting weapons, following in the next wave, did not know of the change of direction, and landed on the original beach, where, with no bridgehead to protect them, they were wiped out. This battalion and the reserve battalion following in its wake, each suffered 50 percent casualties.

Once again the use of smoke, as in the crossing of the Messina Straits, proved to be a mistake. The enemy gunners had ranged on the beaches, and their aim was not affected by their inability to see their targets; whereas the attackers could not see what was going on, and coxswains found difficulty in recognizing the silhouettes which they had so carefully memorized. During an air raid on the first evening, two cruisers, Delhi and Uganda, were actually in collision in a smoke screen.

Destroyers were steaming close inshore to engage shore targets, cutting across the bows of landing craft as they steered their painstaking way. The exits from the beaches were bad, and there was not room in the beachhead to deploy all the artillery that careful planning had got ashore in the early stages. The deficiency in fire support was made by units of the Royal and United States Navies. Every round fired from the sea during those fourteen hectic days in September of 1943 was a horrid warning to professors of tactics not to be dogmatic. A strong case could be made out in support of a claim that Naval bombardment saved Salerno. The lessons deriving from this experience were to be applied with devastating effect in Normandy nine months later.

On the extreme left of the British front, the American Rangers and British Commandos, were having a rough time. The LCAs which were to have landed the Commando stores apparently found the fire too heavy for their liking, and withdrew without unloading. Objectives changed hands more than once, but were finally captured and handed over to the left flank British division. Out of a total strength of 738, more than half ware casualties. As the landing craft came ashore, all supplies were unloaded and stored, and the beach area was kept clear for incoming craft by the Indian Gurkhas and Italian prisoners.

In the American areas, south of the Sele River, the battle remained critical for several days. For some reason fewer close support craft were allotted to this part of the front, and all landings were made under heavy machine gun fire. Here again, the exits from the beaches were defective and the build-up caused many delays. American reports on Salerno are sternly self-critical. The scales of equipment taken ashore were far too generous; no labour was provided to unload the LCTs and the DUKWs. DUKWs were misappropriated and used as trucks instead of returning to the ships for more stores.

Many ships had been improperly loaded, with a lot of irrelevant and unauthorised items on top of the urgently required tactical ones, and at one stage there was a mass of unsorted material - petrol, ammunition, food, equipment - lying so thick on the beaches that landing craft could find nowhere to touch down. Eventually a thousand sailors were landed from the ships to clear the waterfront, and pontoons were rushed in to the sector to make piers. But for some time all landing of stores had to be suspended.

Combined Operations, pages 102 - 103

Please link to Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 10 (1)

Unattributed Photos GH

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 10 (1)

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

Troops from 2nd Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment wait to board
landing craft at Catania, Sicily, for the invasion of Italy, 2 September 1943.
Photo Credit - Histomil Historica

Introduction: The following post will be part of a Nov. 2016 presentation regarding my father's WW2 service with the RCNVR and Combined Operations organization.

Part 10 - The Invasion of Italy - September 1943
Operation AVALANCHE and Operation BAYTOWN

As a member of Combined Operations my father was involved in Operation BAYTOWN, the transport of men and materials to Reggio di Calabria, on the toe of the boot of Italy. He writes the following about his experiences during the invasion:

Soon all the boys returned to Malta and we prepared for Italy, though all our barges stayed in Sicily. We took a Landing Ship Tank (LST) back to Mili Marina, Sicily, and if memory serves me correctly, attacked Italy at Reggio di Calabria across Messina Straits on my birthday, September 6, 1943.

There was no resistance. The air force had done a complete job and there wasn’t a whole building standing and the railroad yards were ripped to shreds. How long we worked across the straits I cannot really recall, but perhaps into October. One of our stokers set up a medical tent for the civilians at Messina and treated them for sores and rashes. We fed them too but when pregnant women came we had to close up shop.

After a time we were sleeping in casas or houses and I had a helper, a little Sicilian boy named Pietro. First of all I scrubbed him, gave him toothpaste, soap and food. He was cute, about 13 or 14 years of age, but very small because of malnutrition. His mother did my washing and mending for a can of peas or whatever I could scrounge. I was all set up. When Italy caved in there was a big celebration on the beach, but I had changed my abode and was sleeping with my hammock, covered with mosquito netting, slung between two orange trees. I didn’t join in the celebration because I’d had enough vino, and you not only fought Germans and Italians under its influence, you fought your best friend.

We weren’t too busy and the officers (who ate separately but had the same food as us) were growing tired of the diet, the same as we were, even though they had a Sicilian cook and we didn’t. An officer by the name of Andy Wedd asked me if I knew where there were some chickens or something. I said, “Chickens, yes.”

When he said, “How be we put on some sneakers and gaffle them,” I said right then, “Okay by me. Tonight at dark we’ll go, but I get a portion for my part of the deal.” He agreed and later we got every chicken in the coop, rung their necks, and then took them to the house and had the Sicilian cook prepare them. I got a couple of drum sticks out the window. Next morning, the Sicilian cook came in as mad as hell. Someone had stolen his chickens. Little did he know at the time he cooked them that they were his own because his wife looked after them.

“Tuck their heads under their wing and rock them for awhile...”

We had some days off and we travelled, did some sight seeing, e.g., visiting German graves. We met Sicilian prisoners walking home disconsolately, stopped them, and took sidearms from any officer. We saw oxen still being used as draft animals when we were there. Sometimes we went to Italy and to Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory depot (AMGOT). (They later changed that name because in Italian it meant shi-!) While a couple of ratings kept the man in charge of all the revolvers busy, we picked out a lot of dandies. If he caught us we were ready. We had chits made out, i.e., “Please supply this rating with sidearms,” signed Captain P.T. Gear or Captain B.M. Lever, after the Breech Mechanism Lever on a large gun.

I learned quite a bit of the Sicilian language under Pietro’s tutelage. He did all my errands and I would have sure liked to have brought him home. It broke my heart to leave him.

From "DAD, WELL DONE" Pages 35 - 36.


D. Harrison added these details to his story about the Sicilian chickens at a later date:

One day at Messina, the late Lt. Andy Wedd asked me if, with my rural background, I knew about poultry. I informed him that the subject was right down my alley. He then told me of the location of six or eight beautiful hens and asked if I would help him divest the owner of the same. When he asked how we could keep the hens quiet, I told him, “With an axe!” Or, we could firmly grasp their necks and tuck their heads under their wing and rock them for awhile. We chose the latter because it actually works. By now, of course, our mouths are watering.

We went in at dark, like another raid, and entered the outside pen with a flashlight, a kit bag and mitts on. Andy slowly cinched each one by the neck, handed them to the master who rocked them to sleep and lowered them quietly into the kit bag. His idea of a beautiful hen sure didn’t match mine! Anyway without a squawk we cleaned the roost and proceeded to the officers’ mess, kit bag between us.

In the morning, the Sicilian cook came in with one hell of a snit. Somebody had stolen his Mama Mia’s chickens. Andy said he was the first Sicilian he had met that was ready to fight and never let it out of the bag about our midnight raid and feast.

From "DAD, WELL DONE" Pages 70 - 71.


The following article appeared in the Norwich Gazette in the early 1990s:


It was no different touching down on the Italian beach at Reggio di Calabria at around midnight, September 3, 1943 than on previous invasions. Naturally we felt our way slowly to our landing place. Everything was strangely quiet and we Canadian sailors were quite tense, expecting to be fired upon, but we touched down safely, discharged our cargo and left as orderly and quietly as possible.

In the morning light on our second trip to Italy across seven miles of the Messina Straits we saw how the Allied artillery barrage across the straits had levelled every conceivable thing; not a thing moved, the devastation was unbelievable and from day one we had no problems; it was easy come, easy go from Sicily to Italy.

Invasion of Italy, Operation Baytown, Sept. 3rd, 1943 
Photo credit - W. S. MacLeod, RAF Beach Units 

We operated our landing craft under these conditions with skeleton crews and we enjoyed time off. Some of us went to Italy, hitched rides on army trucks, went as far as we were allowed to go and had a good look at some of Italy. We lived on the edge, because not far from the shoulder of the asphalt road were high cliffs and we could look down on the Adriatic sea, its beautiful beaches and menacing rocks.

I remember one of the many refugees of war, a barefoot lady dressed in a black sleeveless dress, carrying a huge black trunk on her head. I suppose it contained all her earthly belongings or it was very dear to her, and she walked along the coastal road back toward Reggio, to what, I’ll never know. I couldn’t have carried that load.

Our living quarters was a huge Sicilian home (in Messina) and some nights I slept on my hammock on a beautifully patterned marble floor. However, since that was a hard bunk I sometimes slung my hammock, covered with mosquito netting, between two orange trees in the immense yard. Canned food was quite plentiful now and several young Sicilian boys, quite under-nourished, came begging for handouts, especially chocolota, as they called our chocolate bars.

I took a boy about 11 years old under my wing when off duty. In one corner of the yard was a low, square, cement-walled affair complete with a cement floor, tap and drain hole. It was here I introduced “Peepo” to Ivory soap, Colgate toothpaste and hair tonic for his short, shiny, ringletted black hair. My name was “Do-go” which I am still called today at navy reunions, and this boy really shone when I had finished his toilet. Peepo wasn’t too keen on soap and water and it certainly was obvious, but not for long.

I tried to learn some of his language, and he mine (the Canadian Marina). Although we were from countries thousands of miles apart, the war had brought us together and we got along famously. He and I also wandered about Messina. I went with Peepo to meet his Mamma. I took some canned food, chocolota and compost tea, a complete tea in a can exactly like a sardine can, with a key attached as well. Although the lad’s mother was forty-ish, she appeared older. Over a cup of tea, and with difficulty, Mrs. Guiseppe said she would do some laundry for me, and mending.

In order to heat water and cook a bit, our fellows cut large metal hardtack biscuit tins in half, filled them with sand, poured on gasoline and cooked to their heart’s content. The hardtack biscuits are a story in themselves, hard as a rock even after soaking in compost tea. I think some tins were marked 1917.

Some of the Sicilian homes were but hovels, with dirt floors, complete with goats, donkeys, and chickens in the kitchen. The population drank wine at meals as we would tea. I saw wagons being pulled by oxen. Wine (vino) in wooden barrels was everywhere and our flotilla tapped the odd barrel.

In the navy we just acquired things. A tent was set up on the beach after we acquired some salves, soap and gauze to treat the locals who had rashes and cuts, etc. The word spread about the Canadian Marina Hospital and one morning a few days after we opened, two very pregnant ladies appeared. The work of mercy ended, and very quickly I might add, amidst our embarrassment.

One evening an officer and I went on a short foray and acquired a few chickens. The officer had a cook, and I thought of home as I enjoyed a couple of drumsticks in payment for my part in the acquisition. (Oh! We left some chickens for the owner.)

About half of the Canadian sailors went back to England after the Sicilian campaign. That left about 125 to work about a month across the straits. During that time we received mail and parcels. We worked alongside captured Italian and Sicilian soldiers who were loading our landing craft, egged on by Sweet Caporal cigarettes and some canned food. There were no P.O.W. camps and prisoners wandered freely. The Germans had made good their well-planned escape ahead of the invasion. On occasion during the action along the beaches at Sicily and the quieter time at Italy, we often saw big green turtles swimming about. They didn’t know there was a war on.

Some buddies and I spent my 23rd birthday singing our lungs out in a cottage-style house near the beach, complete with a piano but incomplete with no roof. I had my guitar along and we all had some vino. About midnight with the hilarity in full swing, thunder rolled, the skies opened and the first rain in months came pouring in. Soaked inside and out we headed to where we belonged, singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home” as big as life and twice as natural.

One night shortly after that event I was all snug in my hammock, mosquito netting all tucked in (it took a while). I was ready to drop off to sleep when all hell broke loose on the beach. Machine gun fire, tracer bullets drawing colourful arcs in the dark sky. Someone shook my hammock and asked if I was coming to the beach party - Italy had thrown in the sponge. I said, “No, I’m not coming, and would you please keep it down to a dull roar because I want to log some sleep.”

After about a month Do-go had a tearful goodbye with his friend Peepo. He stood on the beach and I on my landing craft, waving our goodbyes. What a strange war. I have thought of him often.

Our flotilla went back to Malta for a few days and from there we took fast Motor Torpedo boats* to Bougie in North Africa and boarded a Dutch ship, the Queen Emma, whose propellor shaft was bent from a near miss with a bomb. In convoy we made about eight knots up the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, anchored inside the submarine nets for a couple of days, and slowly moved out one night for England.

In true navy fashion, after landing at Gourock, near our Canadian barracks H.M.C.S. Niobe in Greenock, we entrained for a barracks at Lowestoffe (SE England), where on a clear day the church spires of Norwich could be seen. We spent a month there, then went by train to Niobe, received two new uniforms and a ticket aboard the Aquitania, arriving safely at Halifax on December 6th, 1943. I had a wonderful Christmas at home with Mother and family. It was sure nice to walk down Main Street and meet the people.

Chuck ‘Rosie’ Rose, Don ‘Westy’ Westbrook aboard the Aquitania. 
The Aquitania arrived “safely at Halifax on December 6th, 1943”

Please link to Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 9

Unattributed Photos GH

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 9

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

Landing craft in Grand Harbour, Valletta, Malta
Photo credit - Times of Malta

Introduction: The following post will be part of a Nov. 2016 presentation regarding my father's WW2 service with the RCNVR and Combined Operations organization.

Part 9 - Rest, Recuperation and Repair in Malta - August 1943

My father shares some of his memories about his time in Valletta, on the island of Malta, in his memoirs and Norwich Gazette articles. Details follow:

After approximately 27 days (in Sicily) I came down with severe chills and then got dysentery. I was shipped to Malta on the Ulster Monarch and an intern came around and handed me 26 pills. I inquired how many doses was that? “Just one,” he replied.

At Malta I was let loose on my own to find Hill 10 Hospital. I did after a while and they asked me my trouble. I said, “Dysentery.” “Oh, we’ll soon cure that,” they said. "How?" I asked. “We won’t give you anything to eat.” So for four days all I got was water and pills and soon I was cured, though weak. I thought of those poor devils in the desert.

When I felt better they sent me to a tent where I got regular meals. I saw an Air Force newspaper and on the front was a picture of Bob Alexander* of Norwich, a school chum. But Bob returned to the fray and was lost on one of his bombing missions. How sorry I was to hear that news. He had already done so much.

Soon all the boys returned to Malta and we prepared for Italy, though all our barges stayed in Sicily. We took a Landing Ship Tank (LST) back to Mili Marina, Sicily, and if memory serves me correctly, attacked Italy at Reggio di Calabria across Messina Straits on my birthday, September 6, 1943.

A signalman sends messages to an LCI (left) and LCT in Sicily
Photo credit - Imperial War Museum (IWM)

*Editor's note - More details about Bob Alexander are mentioned in a later Gazette article, below.  



At the end of the Sicilian campaign several Canadian sailors and officers became ill. Fatigue brought on by long hours of work and poor nourishment for over a month had now taken its toll and showed up in various ways. Salt water sores, rashes, sunburn, dysentery, things we hadn’t time to bother with before now began to manifest themselves.

Fear was now gone and the inaction caused many to have letdowns. Many had not relaxed for weeks and now that it was over they had difficulty handling it. Mail from home would have helped at a time like this; most of us hadn’t had mail since April and it was now the middle of August. I would have given my right arm for a cool drink of Norwich water and Sweet Caporal cigarettes from the Women’s War league. Parcels and letters were awaiting us in Malta and we were heading that way by landing craft and ship.

If we had a doctor I don’t recall one, but someone, possibly an officer, doled out quinine for malaria, as mosquitoes were really bad. Under the worst possible conditions we tried to keep clean; the only clothes we owned were on our backs and we weren’t to get more until our return to England sometime in October. Khaki shorts and shirts were our uniforms.

After being free from dysentery, I now felt its ravages. Luckily though, I went the 100 miles or so to Malta aboard a real old veteran ship named the Ulster Monarch. Whenever there was a campaign this old stalwart was there. None of us were basket cases and certainly enjoyed being flaked out in bunks on the Monarch. I remember the ship’s sick bay assistant (Tiffy) handing me a fistful of pills. I counted them and there were 16. I asked him how many doses they were and he answered, “One. What are you going to wash them down with... the deck hose?” We all laughed but I wish I hadn’t. 

In a few hours, with my orders from the ship’s doctor to report to Hill 10 Hospital, I climbed the cement steps in Valletta Harbour as best I could. Malta isn’t very large and by asking a few natives I found my way to the hospital, dragged right out.

Bighi Ex-Royal Navy Hospital, Valletta, Malta

I wandered in and reported my condition to one of the English orderlies. I’ll never forget how cheerful his reply was in that Godforsaken place. “Oh, we’ll soon cure that, Canada.” “Yeah? How?” I said. “We’ll starve you for a week.” (So, what else was new?)

Caption: Ill effects of dysentery and malnourishment were felt by many members
of Combined Operations. CPO Hugh Houston of London, Ontario walks (left) in
Victoria, B.C., and(right) stands in Valletta, Malta, after experiencing both in the
Italian campaign. Photo from St. Nazaire to Singapore, Volume 1, page 155

But I was in no condition to argue and for a few days I found out how severe dysentery can be, and hunger was no stranger to me, but after four or five days the staff relented and gave me a little boiled cabbage. Here was FOOD and SUSTENANCE and I suffered very few side affects. I was on my way, even my ribs looked better. After about 10 days I was given a clean bill of health and released to wander freely about Malta and wait for my comrades who were late coming from Sicily in landing craft.

I found a vacant array of Air Force tents to sleep in and was fortunate to scrounge some food from the natives. I thought I had it tough - but I couldn’t hold a candle to these folks. I investigated a bit of the catacombs where many slept and lived through the intense bombing raids - no wonder the island was awarded the George Cross.

I can’t remember the name of the service paper I found in the tent, but there before my eyes was a photo of a Norwich air force boy, Bob Alexander. The paper reported that Bob had completed 30 missions and had returned to Canada to become an instructor. It’s a small world. I carried that paper for a long while.

When my friends returned from Sicily in their landing craft, I was waiting for them at the bottom of the cement steps. Our commanding officer Lt/Comdr Koyl and a few hands disappeared for awhile and when they returned they were weighted down with kit bags of parcels and mail. The blues disappeared and quietness settled in as every one of us, in a different posture, chewed on an Oh Henry bar and read news from home. The war wasn’t so bad after all. We shared with anyone who hadn’t received a parcel; no one went hungry. We feasted on chocolate bars, cookies, canned goods and the news.

There were still about 250 of us - we hadn’t lost a soul, but one man had a terrible shrapnel wound in his arm. We conserved parcels for a rainy day and were dispersed to ships and tents to live for a few days while our stoker got the engines on each craft ready for the invasion of Italy. Of course, no one knew when that would be, but urgency was the order of the day and repair parts were non-existent. We toured the island of Malta and some sailed over to Gozo, another small island. We mingled with the inhabitants but generally we took the opportunity to get some rest and re-read mail. I saw a movie, and before the show the music consisted of western songs by Canada’s own Wilf Carter.

Although no one ventured a word, we all had Italy in the back of our minds. Before we got too settled in, we were throwing our hammocks aboard our landing craft again and heading for Sicily. Our flotillas beached at the mouth of a now dried up river bed at Mili Marina, then a few days in Catania harbor itself, where we had a good view of German low-level attacks on a British cruiser. At night we watched German planes try to take evasive action as they were caught in the searchlights which circled the harbor. During the day we could see the smoke from Mt. Etna.

At midnight on September 3, 1943 our Canadian landing craft flotilla, loaded once again with war machinery, left the beaches near Messina, Sicily and crossed the Messina Strait to Reggio Calabria in Italy. The invasion of Italy was underway.


Clayton Marks of London contributes the following about the Canadians in Malta. From his book Combined Operations:

On August 5th operations ceased on the Sicilian beaches, and the two Flotillas (80th and 81st) returned to Malta. After a month of hard work under exceedingly difficult conditions the men were looking forward to a fourteen-day leave which had been promised them, always subject to "exigencies of the service". The news which greeted them on arrival in Malta was, first, that civilian dockworkers were on strike, and secondly, that their craft must be put in condition at once for a landing on the Italian mainland.

A Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM) in use during Operation HUSKY 
Photo credit - Imperial War Museum (London) 

Twenty-four cranky LCMs, which had been overworked consistently for a month to land 40,959 men, 8,937 vehicles and 40,181 tons of stores, must at once be retuned to concert pitch by the equally over-worked men who had operated them. Complaints were loud, eloquent, sustained and unavailing, but once this routine gesture was over with, the Canadians manifested, as always, a peculiar zest for anything mechanical. At the end of two weeks, during which all the fit men of both Flotillas worked day and night, they announced to amazed dockyard authorities at Malta that their craft were ready to sail again.

Please link to Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 8 (2)

Unattributed Photos GH

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 8 (2)

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

D. Harrison, with 80th & 81st Canadian Flotillas, manned Landing Crafts,
Mechanized (LCMs) in Operation Husky, near Avola (lower right), July ‘43
Map of Sicily found in Combined Operations by C. Marks, London

Introduction: The following post will be part of a Nov. 2016 presentation regarding my father's WW2 service with the RCNVR and Combined Operations organization.

Part 8 - Operation HUSKY - The Invasion of Sicily, July 1943

In the 1990s my father wrote two more articles for the Norwich Gazette that concerned his WW2 experiences with Combined Operations during D-Day Sicily, July, 1943. They follow below:


At midnight July 10, 1943 a vast number of merchant ships carrying the machinery of war were strung out as far as the eye could see, close inshore off the southeast coast of Sicily. Aboard a number of them were about 250 Canadian sailors with their landing crafts, whose job it would be to deliver this machinery ashore for the Army and Air Force. Every article required was there in the correct spot, and in the early morning light we went over the side and the invasion of Sicily was on in earnest.

The surprise wore off before noon and bombs began to fall. Some ships were hit and many Canadian sailors suffered from shrapnel cuts and burns. The worst attacks from German bombers came in very early morning and late dusk when a ship’s masts and super structure could be clearly seen but the planes weren’t visible. Attacks out of the sun were so fast there wasn’t enough time to be scared or unlimber a gun.

One day, about day three, a large net full of wooden cases landed on my landing craft. Stencilled on the side of each case were the words NAVY RUM; destination Officers’ Mess. I decided that the Officers’ Mess was in the engine room of our LCM. I never worked so hard and enjoyed it so much in my life.

Late that same night, we were resting aboard ship, trying to round up some food and comforting a chap with a terrible toothache, when suddenly the sky all along the beach lit up like a ball diamond at night. A German plane - with its engine cut - had coasted overhead and dropped chandelier flares. Amidst the racket of ack-ack fire we all abandoned ship, toothache and all, and headed our landing craft out of the convoy. We knew the bombers would swiftly take advantage of the lighted sky.

A few miles up the beach we anchored our craft, took out our saltwater soap and went for a swim while all Hell broke loose down the beach. The word got around somehow that I had rum and before long I had more friends than you could shake a stick at. A fool and his rum are soon parted, but for a few nights we slept in the lap of the gods. In the wartime Navy, a sailor is rated as either G or T (Grog or Temperance). If Temperance, the sailor gets extra pay of six cents a day. Suddenly, every darn one is G, but as I said, we all slept well and although my head was splitting, I took it in good part. We needed each other. In the early morning it was back to the firing line.

After about a week of being continually harassed by bombers, ack-ack fire and dog fights in the sky (we Canadians shot down a wing tank and almost single-handedly drove the Americans from the skies) one of our fellows on a short reconnoitre ashore found an abandoned limestone cave. This cave, a huge hump in the beach landscape, was to become our shelter at night for nearly three weeks. About 60 of us slept there, including another Norwich boy, the late Buryl McIntyre. The remaining Canadian boys slept in holes dug along the beach, covered over by whatever they could scrape up.

The cave itself had been used at some time to house cattle to protect them from us. It was large enough to sleep many more. The roof was 70 or 80 feet thick and supported by huge limestone pillars inside. We soon obtained a barrage balloon (the same way I got the rum) which we anchored on top of the cave. Unless a bomb dropped in front of the door, we were as safe as a church. There wasn’t a bomb as yet that could pierce that roof.

The limestone underfoot was almost like wet cement, but we happily trudged through this, put our hammocks down doubled up, laid our mattresses on them, curled up in our blankets, clothes and all, and slept like logs. We even recessed navy lamps into the walls. The ceiling was about 20 feet high. It was cool, damp and safe and we shared our good fortune with several little green lizards who had cool feet.

Early each morning we paraded out and slung our sleeping gear over bushes or on the lower limbs of olive trees and they would be quite dry by night. We decided to free one sailor from duty and he was to take over as a cook, something we just didn’t have. The cook’s duties were to find food and cook it in a huge metal cauldron, which we had procured in the same way as the rum and barrage balloon.

The cauldron was raised on stones and heated by pouring gasoline on the limestone underneath. This worked out quite well. The cook scrounged tomatoes (pomadori) which were plentiful and we managed some bully beef (the same way as rum, barrage balloon and cauldron). This was all stirred up together and one night we had tomatoes and bully beef, and the next night we had bully beef and tomatoes. Once in a while we threw in a sea boot to add a little flavour. Although we were like a bunch of orphans, spirits always remained high. There were hundreds of cleverly contrived anti-personnel bombs about, but we and the cook were well-schooled on these.

Field Marshall Montgomery spoke highly of the Canadian flotillas through the British Admiralty and said he was glad to have us along. After about 38 days, the Army and Air Force had won the day and Sicily was freed. Our work was done. Our commanding officer, Lt./Cdr. Koyl gave us the news and said we could now return to Malta and prepare for Italy. In our glee someone shot down the barrage balloon and we said goodbye to the cave, which we had nicknamed The Savoy.

Since we remained on good terms with our officers and never heard anything about the rum, I concluded they didn’t know where it went and I didn’t enlighten them. On the next invasion, I was hopeful they would send food. 

The Canadian Flotillas of LCMs approach Malta for rest
and repair in early August, 1943 after the invasion of Sicily
Photo, used with permission, from the collection of Joe Spencer



Not many days slip by but that I think of my comrades in the navy. One I served with on landing craft during World War Two came to mind recently. This branch of the service was called Combined Operations because some of us navy men joined with the army and air force to invade foreign soil.

This time of year, close to Remembrance Day, memories of the war and my comrades come to mind more strongly. I have found that bonds formed in war are unbreakable. Although my comrades are scattered like leaves upon the ground, I have a mailing list of over 200 comrades and a memorial list of about equal number.

In the navy nicknames abounded. Depending on the time of day and the situation at hand, my nicknames changed. Usually in the evening aboard ship I was called Cactus because I carried a battered old guitar and it was time for a few navy ditties. At other times I was called Do-go, which when translat-ed into navy language by my comrades meant, “Get out of our sight, move it.”

This time of year as always I thought of my comrades and one in particular came to mind because he and his pet monkey added a very strange twist to the war during the invasion of Sicily. I have thought many times of the strange scene that transpired about July 14, 1943. I don’t believe I ever knew Murphy’s correct first name but he was hung with the nickname Ephus P. He was called Prairie Dog too because he hailed from one of the prairie provinces.

Ephus P. was a devil-may-care type of sailor, with a smile a mile wide and a very tender heart. I suppose he missed the animals of the prairies and in a weaker moment at Cape Town, South Africa, Ephus P. purchased a small fawn-coloured monkey for his pet and to be our ship’s mascot.

The monkey and Ephus P. soon became inseparable; wherever the sailor went the monkey travelled on his shoulder, smiling in his own way, like his master. Since bananas were a thing of the past the monkey usually chewed on a mango, or hardtack biscuit, on which he munched away, the chips flying. The biscuit container was dated 1917. Ephus P. and the monkey became a familiar sight aboard ship and although we disapproved of the monkey at the mess-table at meal times, the two of them just smiled at us and we accepted its presence before too long, provided of course that the monkey remained on his shoulder.

The early morning darkness of July 10, 1943 found the Canadian sailors and their landing craft shuttling war materials ashore, but as daylight came the surprise was over - the news had travelled fast and the German air force appeared in numbers with bombs and some strafing. The vast gathering of ships of all types offshore answered every attack with tremendous gunfire.

The ship that I was on, along with Ephus P. and his monkey and several other Canadian sailors and officers, was an American Liberty ship named the Pio Pico, and many of the trucks in the hold were already loaded. They contained artillery shells, land mines, high octane gasoline for aircraft and, although I’m sorry I didn’t find out sooner, several cases of high octane rum.

After about four days of incessant German bombing and the terrible din of exploding anti-aircraft shells, the poor monkey, in this crazy bizarre world of man’s inhumanity to man, went berserk and no longer clung to Murphy’s shoulder but climbed screaming to the farthest parts of the ship. It had gone completely mad and out of control. As I recall, a well-placed bomb would have blown us all sky high, so orders came down that we must destroy Ephus P.’s monkey before it bit or scratched us or a member of the American crew. How ironic. We Canadian sailors, realizing Murphy’s fondness for his pet, stalled for awhile hoping the monkey would improve, but such was not the case and the officer’s order was emphatic. We had no choice and explained this as best we could to Murphy.

With heavy gloves on their hands, the sailors placed the monkey in a bag of sand and lowered it over the side into the water. It was a very sad moment indeed, but the war had to go on, and we tried to comfort Ephus P. as his tanned face glistened with tears.

Whoever coined the phrase ‘war is hell’ would have received no argument from Murphy and his comrades that very hot day off the Sicilian coast.

“Ephus P. purchased a small fawn-coloured monkey (Jocko)”
Photo credit -

Articles are now found in the book "DAD, WELL DONE", pages 104 - 110.

Londoner Clayton Marks records several pages of historical notes concerning the adventures of Canadian Flotillas of landing craft in Sicily, July 1943. In Combined Operations we read the following:

SICILY - Operation HUSKY - July 10, 1943

The armies for the invasion were gathering in England. Many of their divisions were already hardened, trained and ready. Weapons, stores and supplies were accumulating in enormous volume, in incredible variety.

Great fleets of Allied bombers were now battering at German industries, cities and strategic centres; at the country's brain, nerve centres and heart. The war seemed to be moving toward its climax, as indeed it was. Yet the grand diversion, the round-about closing in from the south which had begun with Operation Torch on November 8, 1942, was still in progress; had still to reach the point where it could mesh and move forward as an integral part of the final assault. It had advanced through several phases during the mid-months of 1943, and in some of those phases the Landing Craft Flotillas of the Canadian Navy had again played a part.

About the middle of March, 1943, several large convoys left British ports for Suez. The end of the North African campaign was coming in sight, and the next step would be the forcing of a passage to the Italian mainland. Sicily lay between North Africa and Italy, separated from the toe of the boot only by the narrow Straits of Messina; and Sicily was chosen by Allied planners as the next step toward Rome.

The convoys, which were to round Africa and come up through the Red Sea to Suez and Port Said at the eastern entrance to the Mediterranean, carried the Combined Operations Flotillas and a portion of the troops for the landings on Sicily; and among them were the 55th and 61st Canadian Flotillas of LCAs (assault landing craft). Later convoys were to carry the 80th and 81st Canadian Flotillas of larger landing craft (LCMs) for the ferrying of vehicles and heavier stores. Together, the Canadian personnel manning these Flotillas totalled about 400 men, while another 250 Canadians served in British Landing Craft Flotillas or in the support ships. They were a microscopic proportion of a force which consisted in all of 2755 transports, escorts and landing craft of many kinds; yet they were to be an important part of the ferrying forces at the beaches where they were used, and their performance was to be of a high order.

Far from Sicily, as the battle for Tunisia swept on to its conclusion, the men of the Landing Craft Flotillas trained under the broiling sun of Suez. Large-scale amphibious exercises, as tough and realistic as possible, ironed out difficulties remembered from the Torch landings, tested the men and the craft to their limits, gave rise to excited speculation as to what actual coast resembled the "dummy" beaches against which the exercises were directed.

On July 4th all Combined Operations Officers were called together for final instructions, and on July 5th the assault convoys sailed from Port Said for a rendezvous position south of Malta. On the 9th the rendezvous was reached, and to the men of the 55th and 61st assault Landing Craft Flotillas, watching from the decks of the Landing Ships Strathnaver and Otranto, it seemed that every horizon was crowded with arriving convoys. At sea in the western Mediterranean and gathering at the rendezvous, were sixteen escorted convoys and two large Naval covering forces of battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers and destroyers.

At the rendezvous position the convoys assembling from the eastern and western Mediterranean divided into two great forces which passed up on either side of Malta. The Western Task Force carried the American Seventh Army which was to land along the southwest coast on a front extending southward from Licata. The Eastern Task Force carried the British Eighth Army, which included the First Canadian Division and the First Canadian Army Tank Brigade. It was to land along a two-corps front extending from the western side of the Pachino Peninsula around northeastward as far as Syracuse. Canadian soldiers and sailors, for this operation, were not to have the satisfaction of working together. The Canadian Division was to drive in on the western side of the Pachino Peninsula, carried in British Landing Craft. The Canadian Landing Craft Flotillas were a part of the subdivision of the Eastern Task Force which was to land British troops on the eastern side of the Peninsula, a little to the north of Pachino itself.

Toward evening on the 9th of July, the Eastern Task Force approached the shores of Sicily, and the summit of Mount Etna loomed through the haze.

Two things went wrong in the early stages. The odds against bad weather in those waters at that time of year were long, but a gale blew up. D-minus one started as a hot day without a ripple on the water. By noon there was a seasonable breeze from the northwest. By 1500 it was blowing force 4 and three hours later it was more like force 7. Almost all the troops in the landing craft were sick. As the British came under the lee of the land, conditions for them improved, but the Canadians and the Americans had no such shelter, and had to disembark soaked to the skin and in full misery of seasickness. Yet the bad weather had one good effect; the enemy, certain that we could not make a landing, tucked up and went to sleep.

For a time it was thought that the whole operation would have to be postponed, but after darkness it was decided to continue in the hope of better weather at dawn.

The second misfortune concerned the airborne troops. Two operations were planned for the night before D-Day - a British glider borne landing and an American parachute drop. In both, the aircraft became badly scattered, owing to the high winds already mentioned; and only a fraction of the troops - though actually enough to do the job - reached their objective. Unfortunately in the British sector about a dozen out of 134 gliders were released too soon, and were lost in the sea, with many casualties. Air routes had been carefully planned to ensure that the airborne troops did not have to fly over the convoys; but something went wrong with the promulgation of these orders, and in a reinforcing operation three nights later, there were several cases of our own transport aircraft being shot down by our own ships. Failure in aircraft recognition was one of the causes.

Midnight brought the steady thunder of transport planes, passing over to land parachute troops inland. Half an hour later the assault convoy which included Otranto and Strathnaver arrived at its position seven miles off the coast above Pachino. Rolling in the heavy swell, the landing ships stopped their engines. Troops loaded down with battle equipment came up from the holds and began to climb into the landing craft hanging at the davits, a full platoon to each craft.

"the landing craft hanging at the davits, a full platoon to each craft"
Photo credit - RCN Photographer Lieut. Gilbert Milne

One by one, as the platoons settled into their places, the swaying assault craft were lowered forty feet to the water below. Motors began sputtering; the craft moved away from the ships and formed up for the run to shore. It had been planned to have Fairmile motor launches lead each Flotilla separately to the assault point; but as only one Fairmile arrived it was necessary for the 55th Flotilla to take station on the 51st which followed directly behind the launch.

At fifteen minutes past one the wavering columns of flat-bottomed craft set off for the beach seven miles away. The night was black and the sea was very rough. It was windy, wet and cold. The soldiers huddling against the gunwales became sea sick; buckets came freely into use.

Even some of the Naval stokers, working throttles amid the fumes of their torrid little engine rooms, began to feel the effects. Seas washing over the side called for constant bailing. Coxswains and Officers, peering ahead through the darkness, found it difficult to pick out the landmarks which had been shown to them on the charts before the operation began. Navigation of the craft, always difficult, became trebly so in the rough weather, with the southerly set of the water off the coast increased by the force of the wind. A searchlight knifed out from land, swung toward the craft, and illuminated every man's face in a white glare. Then it swept on, apparently having revealed nothing to the watchers ashore.

Canadians in Combined Ops: Photo - Combined Operations, Page 89

As the flights came nearer in they were unable to locate their beaches. Estimating that they had drifted a bit too far to the south, they turned and ran northward, paralleling the coast. A red flare, apparently dropped by a plane, blazed up; and in its light the exact landing place for the first wave of the Flotilla was revealed.

Abreast of each other the craft moved in. As they felt the scrape of sand along their bottoms, the ramps at the front went down and the troops stepped ashore, wet and miserable, crouching in anticipation of a blaze of fire. Only silence greeted them and they fanned out and made for their objectives. The empty landing craft began to withdraw, and it was not until they were again moving seaward that a single machine gun opened up to spatter the water about them.

The second wave of landing craft found their sector of beach protected by a breakwater which they had to skirt under light fire. As they rounded the breakwater and turned in to shore the fire grew a little heavier, but they grounded without casualties on the rocky beach. The ramps went down, the bark of orders began amid the whistle and spatter of machine gun bullets, and wet, whey-faced, seasick soldiers, bending under their heavy battle gear, stumbling along decks slimy with sea water, fuel oil and their own vomit, set off unheroically on a historic campaign. Sailors, equally wet, half as miserable, and certainly not envying their "pongo" brothers, made haste to get their craft back to the older element.

Canadians in CO, including Clayton Marks
Photo - Combined Operations, Page 89

Another wave of assault landing craft was standing off shore with parties of engineers whose work would be to clear mines when the beaches were secured. Some fire from machine guns and howitzers was falling unpleasantly near, but the main sounds of battle were retreating inland. It seemed clear that the beaches had been gained with little resistance, and the engineers and the landing craft men began to watch impatiently for the Verey light signals from shore which would call them in. The defenders were making things difficult by setting off their own flares of every colour, but at last the authentic signal came and the craft raced in to beach. Fire from shore grew sharper and was unpleasantly accurate, but once again no casualties resulted. By four-thirty in the morning, all the assault landings had been made. The beaches were securely held; mine clearing was in progress. It remained only to ferry the reinforcement troops ashore and empty the transports so that they could move away from the beaches before enemy aircraft arrived.

Sunrise came at three minutes before six, and promptly at six a JU88 put in an appearance. A little later two Messerschmitts swept down to strafe the ships with cannon fire.

They were ineffectual, however, and too late. Reinforcements were streaming shoreward in uninterrupted processions of landing craft, and by two o'clock in the afternoon the assault Flotillas had done their work. They were hoisted back aboard the landing ships, and the convoy, much relieved to be out of the area, sailed for Malta. In less than twelve hours the two Canadian Flotillas had landed two-thirds of a brigade of British troops with their essential supplies and gear. They had suffered no casualties.

Following the assault convoys and moving into station off the beaches even before the first arrivals withdrew, came ships with the heavier mechanized equipment and supplies for depots to be established inland. Vessels carrying the larger landing craft came with them, and two of these carried the 80th and 81st Canadian LCM Flotillas which were to land near Avola. The LCMs began their work four hours after the LCAs but instead of finishing in twelve hours, they were to be occupied for some ten weeks, first on Sicily and then on the Italian mainland.

The first of the LCMs were lowered from their parent ships at about five-thirty on the morning of the assault, a few minutes before sunrise. Loaded with vehicles and stores, they steered in toward beaches now securely held, deposited their freight, and turned back for more. For the first few hours there was no interruption to the ordered chaos of the build-up. Transports stood off the coast, each with its identification number placarded on its side. Landing craft ran in under their high sides, loaded with feverish haste and put off to unload at the same tempo ashore, satisfying the most urgent of the hand-to-mouth requirements.

At one point gasoline would be required to get vehicles moving inland; at another troops would be running short of ammunition. Headquarters units would require more signalling equipment; troops held up by resistance on the forward fringes might need a howitzer to break through. The landing craft was diverted from ship to ship and from point to point along the beaches to meet each need as it developed. This was the preliminary phase of the work, preceding the stage when shore depots would be established and stored; and it had to be got over with in a hurry before enemy aircraft arrived.

The comparative quiet was broken at nine o'clock in the morning. An enemy bomber came in very fast and dropped a stick of bombs along a stretch of shoreline occupied by two British vessels and by the Canadian landing craft carrying the Senior Officer of the 80th Flotilla. The smaller British vessel, a tank landing craft, was squarely hit and blown to pieces. The other British ship was heavily damaged, and every man on her bridge was killed. The Canadian craft, well up on the beach with some of her men ashore nearby, had a miraculous escape. The force of the explosions knocked down the men on the beach, and the Flotilla Officer was blown back into the well deck of his ship, but no one was injured. Considerably dazed, but marvelling at their luck, the men recovered and went to the assistance of the British merchantman, helping to take off her wounded and transfer them to a hospital ship.

Two hours later a series of heavier raids began. Throughout the night and for the next forty-eight hours the attempted blitz rose to a total of twenty-three separate raids, costing the invasion forces five merchantmen and a hospital ship. The decline of the Luftwaffe's efforts was rapid, however. Air cover from Malta began to show its murderous effectiveness, and by the third day planes flying from captured Sicilian bases were adding their strength to the Allied umbrella.

During the four weeks that followed, the work of landing stores and reinforcements settled down into a routine for the craft of the 80th and 81st Flotillas. It was a grinding routine, and it was never free from danger. Every type of cargo had to come.ashore in their craft; sixteen-ton tanks, heavy trucks, tiers of cans of high-octane gasoline, ammunition, army rations, small arms and mortars. Heavy seas often made both the run-ins and the work of loading and unloading very difficult. The huge requirements of the armies put heavy pressure on the ferry system and for the first forty-eight hours of the operation every man remained on the job without rest. Even after that, the best arrangement that could be worked out was a routine of forty-eight hours on for twenty-four hours off.

The Canadian Flotillas formed, of course, only a small part of all the Flotillas engaged, but wherever they operated the warmly admiring comments of British Officers seemed to indicate that they were pace-setters. The mechanical aptitude and the loving care which their maintenance parties lavished on the craft gave particular cause to marvel. During eighteen days of continuous work not one craft of the Flotilla was out of operation.

The demands of the armies proved higher and the demolitions in Sicilian harbours more inconvenient than had been expected, and landing craft had therefore to be kept longer on the ferry service. This meant a great deal of discomfort for the Canadians, as for all the landing craft Flotillas. The beaches of semi-tropical Sicily in late July and early August were far from being health resorts. Almost every man suffered at one time or another from a variety of disorders which included dysentery, septic scratches, jaundice, sandfly and malarial fever.

The small, amphibious craft were not equipped for life on the beaches. Moreover, their men were now everybody's children and no one's. Their parent landing ships had long since departed. They ferried cargo ashore from every ship that came, but their home was the hot beach, and there their companies had to make what living arrangements they could.

Some found accommodation of a sort in an old, disused Army camp and many more had to take shelter in a very dirty and uncomfortable cattle cave. Their food consisted of rations acquired from the Army, occasional largesse scrounged from the better-hearted merchant ships, and what they could acquire from an impoverished countryside. The cave-dwelling members of the Flotilla had improvised a stove of petrol tins in order to apply some heat to their unsavoury victuals; and one evening the stove blew up. Flames licked back into the cave, igniting another can of petrol and consuming most of the kit bags, hammocks and clothing of the men. About half the personnel of the 80th Flotilla had to get along for the next three months on borrowed gear.

On August 5th operations ceased on the Sicilian beaches, and the two Flotillas returned to Malta.

Combined Operations, pages 79 - 85

Unattributed Photos GH