History

I REMEMBER SICILY

Sixty years after the invasion, journalist PETER STURSBERG recalls the landing

June 30 2003
History

I REMEMBER SICILY

Sixty years after the invasion, journalist PETER STURSBERG recalls the landing

June 30 2003

I REMEMBER SICILY

Sixty years after the invasion, journalist PETER STURSBERG recalls the landing

History

IT WAS AN exciting and invigorating time to be in London that late spring of 1943. The weather was warm, and I remember how sunny it was when I went to a cricket match at Lords. But, above all, there was the great expectation of the next phase of the war, the prospect of a new and startling development, not the second front that the Russians wanted, but a new front, with all its dark uncertainties and dangers.

By mid-May, the Tunisian campaign was over and Africa had been cleared of the enemy. The next blow had to be Europe. But where? I was a CBC war correspondent and the talk in the Cock Tavern, the

BBC/CBC pub off Oxford Street, was of a landing in Sicily or Greece, or Yugoslavia, the soft underbelly of the Axis, but behind all the gung-ho chatter was the unspoken but ever-present memory of the disastrous landing at Dieppe.

When the call came, it was about “going on a holiday to Scotland.” We talked in code. But I didn’t understand it. In the security of the CBC’s underground studio, I found out what it meant: I was to leave that night, June 11, to join the First Canadian Division,

which we knew to be in Scotland.

I had an interview that afternoon with H.G. Wells. It was to be recorded for use in a couple of weeks time. The briefing officer at Canadian Military Headquarters was pleased: the delayed broadcast would provide a cover for my movement. I was flattered that I should be of such consequence that I needed a cover. It was, however, because I worked in the relatively new medium of radio, which could be closely monitored by the enemy.

The next day, after a miserable overnight trip in a blacked-out train packed with troops, we boarded the Dutch liner, Marnix van Sint

Aldegonde, one of nine big ships anchored in the Clyde waiting to take the some 27,000 Canadians. As the days went by, a week, 10 days, two weeks, the troops confined to these ships (3,500 on the Marnix alone) began to be restive. It was difficult to keep them occupied; there was a landing exercise in the cold grey dawn on the Ayrshire coast where we all got soaking and shivering wet. At least the bar was open.

At last, we were off. The bar closed as the convoy passed the Glasgow anti-submarine boom. The third day out, the sealed orders were broken: we were to join the British Eighth Army for the invasion of Sicily. It was July 1, Dominion Day then, and, I thought, an appropriate time for Canadians to learn of their prime role in the attack on Europe.

During the voyage, there were a couple of alerts but no attacks. Through the Straits of Gibraltar, the weather turned hot, and the men spent most of the time on deck getting a tan. It could have been a Mediterranean cruise. However, heading north for Sicily, we ran into the invasion fleet; there were ships as far as the eye could see, big ships and little ships, warships and troopers, and swarms of landing craft.

It had been smooth sailing, but as we joined the armada an ugly storm blew up. The seas became so rough that they seemed to swamp our destroyer escorts. Would our D-Day, July 10,1943, have to be postponed? By nightfall the wind had dropped. The Marnix was still creaking and heaving, but it became apparent that we were to land as planned under cover of darkness. H-Hour was 3 a.m. However, the storm delayed operations; the assault troops had difficulty getting down the scrambling nets into the landing craft, which were being buffeted by the waves. They were unable to leave the ship till 5 a.m. when it was daylight.

This could have been disastrous, but there was little resistance. The Italians were less than enthusiastic about fighting and were soon to give up in droves. I went with the reserves, my portable typewriter wrapped up in my lifebelt so that it would be unsinkable. A DUKW, a large amphibious vehicle, came alongside our landing craft when we ran into a sandbank and took us ashore. I landed in Sicily without getting my feet wet.

Already, anti-aircraft guns were ashore, and tanks and more guns and troops were

landing. It was scorching hot, 38° C, and there was nothing in the sky, not even a cloud. I sat down on the beach and began writing my first story that would be flown back to Algiers and eventually read on the CBC. It was fantastic, this invasion in broad daylight without any opposition.

However, that night we knew we were at war. Enemy aircraft attacked and there was no cover. It wasn’t the bombs so much as the rain of steel chunks from the massed antiaircraft guns ashore and on the ships. We stood in a line on the beach—we were less of a target standing, ft was a fearful experience, like facing a firing squad. Our only protection was our steel helmets, which seemed so inadequate; an officer standing beside me was hit, his shoulder badly slashed.

The Canadians landed at Pachino peninsula, on Sicily’s southeastern coast, which was

a kind of dividing line between the British and the right flank of the U.S. Seventh Army. The former were to take Catania and to advance along the east side of the great volcano, Mount Etna, to Messina; the latter had the west side of the island and Palermo as its prize, also en route to Messina. Gen. Bernard Montgomery commanded the British, Gen. George S. Patton the Americans. Their rivalry began in Sicily. Patton was determined to beat Monty to Messina, and he did.

After a few days of bumming rides, we finally got a jeep of our own. Five of us piled on, Ross Munro of the Canadian Press, the only other Canadian journalist with the troops, myself, our conducting PR officer and two army cameramen. We made a triumphal procession, past thousands of happy, waving Italian prisoners; we even dropped in on the surrender of an Italian general. My memory of this rapid advance was of the burning heat and the powdery dust that covered the mass of tanks and trucks and made the suntanned soldiers look deathly pale. It was a great thrill: we felt we were making history.

Then we ran into the Germans on the foothills of Etna, and the going got tough. We reached the front at last, and came under fire. I realized the danger of covering a small action because although this was merely

a skirmish against German rearguards, seven Canadian soldiers were killed. Later, I saw their bodies wrapped in blankets, awaiting burial.

I had been acting like a print journalist, sending dispatches for later broadcast, and the CBC now cabled me to get to a radio station and make some voice broadcasts. The Canadians were held up at a place called Leonforte, where the Germans were making a stand, and I figured this was a good time to leave the front. As a result of my Priority 2 travel documents, I was able to take a landing craft to Malta and then fly to Algiers. There were extensive press and radio facilities at Allied Force Headquarters there, and I found that a couple of CBC engineers had arrived with recording equipment. When I heard on July 25 that Mussolini had fallen, I redoubled my efforts as I became more anxious than ever to get back to the front. I got off four 15-minute broadcasts, a couple of shorter reports, as well as an article for Maclean’s in just three days.

I made sure that the CBC engineer, Paul Johnson, and the portable recording equip-

ment would fly back with me. It was easy enough to get to Tunis, but all the planes to Sicily were full of Priority 1 personnel. There might be space later, we were told time and time again. In desperation, I turned from the official transport command to the Royal Air Force. They had two planes leaving the

IT WAS a fearful experience, like facing a firing squad.

Our only protection was our steel helmets, which seemed so inadequate.

next morning and there was room for me, and for Johnson, and for the portable recording equipment, which came in two large boxes together weighing 80 lb.

It was less than an hour flight to Cassibile, 30 km from the Pachino peninsula. Ambulances were unloading stretcher cases to be flown to hospitals in Malta and North Africa, and we hitched rides back to the troops, 100

km away, on several of them and an ammunition truck. We reached the front just after Agira was captured in what was the Canadians’ biggest battle of the Sicilian campaign. The Seaforth pipe band (from Vancouver) was going to celebrate this decisive victory by beating “retreat” in the town square. This would make for a great first broadcast report directly from the front. So we took the precious recording equipment in a jeep up to Agira, a typical Sicilian hilltop town on the road to Etna. We parked beside a Romanesque church in the medieval main square. There were priests among the crowd and I got them to ring the church bells before the band struck up.

I described the scene. It worked out wonderfully. The BBC used it on their shortwave service and the Seaforths were surprised and delighted to hear it the following night. It was called the “first sound out of conquered territory [in Europe].” It was, in fact, the first sound of liberation. PI

Peter Stursberg, 89, the author of 14 books, filed several stories to Maclean’s during the Second World War.