SPECIAL REPORT

ASSIGNMENT IN SICILY

PETER STURSBERG July 12 1993
SPECIAL REPORT

ASSIGNMENT IN SICILY

PETER STURSBERG July 12 1993

ASSIGNMENT IN SICILY

SPECIAL REPORT

PETER STURSBERG

In the first Maclean’s report from the battle for Sicily in the summer of 1943,

Stursberg recounted how he and others in the seaborne assault had worried that “it was going to be like Dieppe,” the disastrous 1942 Canadian raid on the port city in northwest France (page 66). He went on to describe how, unlike the withering fire on the beach at Dieppe, the landing on the Sicilian beaches was largely unopposed:

he landing craft sheared away from the big troopship which brought us from Great Britain and moved slowly through water dark blue in the early light of morning toward the grey outline of the Sicilian shore. All around us was a host of great ships—troopships and freighters and warships—and in front of us were other landing craft. I watched these little boats disappear into the smoke screen just before they reached shore. There was the chatter of machine-gun fire and the louder noise of shell fire as a destroyer opened up in support of our infantry.

Then there was a sudden silence. Our landing craft was now close enough so

we could see lines of men moving across each beach. Our boat stopped a little way from shore and I thought, “We’ve hit the sand bar. Now we’ve got to swim for it.”

I could see vineyards and little white houses on shore and a town on the hills behind. The sun was shining now and the officer beside me said, “It looks like the sort of picture you get in a geographical magazine.”

An amphibian vehicle, called a duck, which had gone ashore, wheeled around and splashed out to us. It came alongside and everyone piled in. A few minutes later I jumped down on dry sand. I had landed in Sicily. It all seemed screwy. During the landing exercises on the British beaches we had waded ashore in water up to our chests and here I was in the real thing and not even my boots were wet.

I walked along a beach which was about as wide as Toronto’s Balmy Beach or Sunnyside. It did not seem like war. It did not even seem like an exercise. There was not a sound of shots being fired. A column of Italian prisoners passed me. One of them threw his helmet into the sea. It was a gesture of finality— he at least was through with the war. A Canadian soldier who had just come ashore picked it up.

Fifty years ago, Canadian soldiers engaged the enemy in their first major offensive of the Second World War—the massive invasion of Sicily on July 10,1943. They joined British and American armies in a longdistance seaborne assault that delivered more fighting men to battle than the Normandy landings in France 11 months later. It was a turning point: the attack on the mountainous Mediterranean island, and its conquest after 38 days of fighting, was the first breach in the control of Europe by the Nazi-Fascist Axis powers. Supported and transported by more than 3,000 ships and landing craft, and by thousands of aircraft, the invasion ultimately put ashore almost half a million Allied warriors against 300,000 Italian and German defenders who, amazingly, given the scale of the attack, were taken by surprise.

Beginning early on that July Saturday, more than 27,000 Canadian men and women, including nurses who helped set up a 600-bed hospital, and men of the navy and air force, joined the battle. Some 26,000 of them were soldiers of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, who had been awaiting action in England since 1939, and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. They had sailed about 2,800 miles from Scotland aboard 125 ships, three of which were torpedoed by German submarines off Algeria, with the loss of 58 Canadians. In Sicily, the Canadians captured an airfield at Pachino five hours after landing, and later seized a series of towns, sometimes in hard house-to-house combat in such inland strongholds as Leonforte.

CBC Radio war correspondent Peter Stursberg provided the first despatch to Maclean’s from the Sicily front. That report, slightly abbreviated, is reproduced here. To file his story to the then twice-monthly magazine, and to record his first voice reports, he flew to Algiers in the last week of July. Stursberg, now 79 and living in Vancouver, relates his wartime experiences in memoirs to be published in October by the University of Toronto Press.

The Sicilian campaign, code-named Operation Husky, ended in victory on Aug. 17. It prompted the surrender of Italy on Sept. 3, the day that Canadian and British troops crossed Messina Strait and seized the toe of the Italian mainland. The Allies faced a protracted, bloody struggle against stubborn German armies up the boot of Italy. But Operation Husky divided and sapped Germany’s military strength. And it provided a guide for the Normandy invasion on June 6,1944—a prelude to the end of the European war, on May 8,1945.

In Sicily, 562 Canadians died and 1,664 were wounded, including 12 nursing sisters. Shortly after the invasion, Beverley Baxter wrote in his London Letter to Maclean’s about the excitement over Canadian involvement in that campaign, and concluded: “The glory of Canada’s story deepens in the Mediterranean twilight.”

I sat on a sand dune and wrote my first story. Men were pouring out of landing craft and swarming ashore and larger ships were coming into the beaches. Their bows opened up like doors when they stopped and out of the hangarlike insides rolled tanks and trucks and guns.

There was the usual combined operations confusion in the early stages though somehow it was an organized confusion. I lugged my pack and typewriter through vineyards, sweat pouring off me from the burning noonday heat. I tramped along dusty limestone roads looking for divisional headquarters but nobody seemed to know

ï where it was. I saw an officer standing by a peasant’s hovel and asked \ him. He said, “It’s here.”

\ That afternoon watching lines of dust-covered men and vehicles : moving past the hut I decided to use my thumb. The first lift I got was enough to stop hitchhiking for good. It was on a Bren [gun] carrier and the towheaded kid who was driving it had not had his hands on the wheel for weeks and was giving it the works. We tore along the road in a cloud of white dust and skidded around a comer just missing a grey stone wall and a cactus hedge.

I was hanging onto something that kept slipping. I said, “The next comer is where I stop. Let me off there. Thanks a lot.”

THE NOISE OF MACHINE-GUNS, THEN A BLUE SPUTTERING LIGHT BURST—THE CANADIANS HAD TAKEN THE RIDGE

Ross Munro of The Canadian Press, who was the only other correspondent besides myself with the Canadian assault troops, had landed on the beach in another craft and I did not see him the first day at all. I did not see him until the third day.

The second day ashore I decided to go to Pachino. I got a ride in a truck to the town whose houses seemed to be crumbling away in the heat of the sun. There were a few decent buildings around the main square but the rest of it was a cluster of hovels. Most towns the Canadians took during the advance were as squalid as Pachino. From a distance they all look the same—a grey patch usually on a steep hillside, shimmering in the blazing sunlight.

I found civil affairs in charge of an American lieutenant representing the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territory [AMGOT], although the town had been taken by Canadian and British troops. Headquarters was in the main hotel which was about as pretentious as a cheap rooming house. The American was a tall earnest looking young man who had been a college librarian in New York. He was aptly fitted for the job as his parents were Sicilians and he could

speak the language fluently. He had as an assistant, an American paratrooper whom he had found in Pachino and he was very worried that he would lose him. The paratrooper, who looked like a Rockwell Kent drawing of an American soldier with long arms and legs, had been dropped in the wrong place and he would have to rejoin his unit when things got sorted out.

We went up to the lieutenant’s bedroom. I thought, “This is like the fantastic things that happened in adventure comics—this 25-yearold lieutenant who has come out of the sea to mn this town of 20,000, and his assistant who has dropped out of the sky.”

The lieutenant told me his chief problem was food. He said, “People here are starving. Really starving.” He was very serious, very conscientious.

We had dinner in the flyblown dining room of the hotel. We had three courses but the courses consisted of macaroni and cheese, sliced cucumbers, and fried potatoes. That was the best meal that the main hotel in Pachino could put on for the “Commandante.”

I stayed in Pachino that night and decided to reach the front the next day. I got a lift in a jeep with some Air Force boys. They were driving to Ispica and they were a bit jittery about it as they were not sure it had been taken. But Ispica had been captured by the Canadians alright, although I could not understand how it had fallen to them so easily as it was on top of a cliff. As a matter of fact the poorer inhabitants of the city lived in dwellings cut out of the cliff.

We arrived just as a Canadian AMGOT officer was taking over the town. ... I got a ride with a Canadian colonel who was going to divisional headquarters----We were bowling along at a good clip when I

saw the lanky figure of Ross Munro standing by a stone wall. I shouted to the driver to stop.

Ross and our conducting officer, Captain Dave MacLellan, Halifax,

and two Canadian Army photographers, Captain Frank Royal, Winnipeg, and Lieutenant Alasdair Fraser, Montreal, were having lunch in an olive grove. They had just got a jeep and were also trying to reach the front. The five of us rode that jeep for 100 miles through Sicily. AÍ Fraser sat on the hood and Frank and I generally sat on a pile of baggage at the back____

We drove the jeep through fields and over ditches and back and forth along dusty roads where we used to deliver our copy during the first few days, and it never broke down. It never complained. One time we hitched it to a requisitioned Fiat which had broken down and dragged it miles along a road. But we all felt that was going too far and we made it a rule we weren’t going to treat the “poor little thing” like that again.

I joined the lunch the fellows were having under the olive trees and when we finished we started up the road to the front. We were driving along when we almost ran down a civilian car containing two Italian officers and two Canadian officers. We trailed the car down a side road into an olive grove and then we saw the surrender of the commander of the Two Hundred and Sixth Italian Coastal Division, General Achilles d’Havet, to General Simonds [Lt.-Gen. Guy Simonds, commander of the Canadian 1st Division],

It was a strange scene, like pictures you have seen of defeated officers handing over a sword, only General d’Havet was asked to hand over his revolver.Through an interprets; the Italian Naval commander, whom we had also captured, asked for the honor of retaining his revolver. General Simonds agreed to this and just took the ammunition.

General d’Havet looked more like a restaurant keeper than a soldier. He was stout and his face was stuffy. He made a point of telling the Canadian commander that he was awarded the Military Cross by the Duke of Connaught in the last war.

We never did see the front during the initial phase of the Sicilian campaign. By the time we reached the forward troops they were resting and the British were carrying the battle farther on. We drove past columns of Italian prisoners who were obviously only too glad to be out of the war. We drove through towns Canadians had captured. We saw signs of skirmishes along the road, broken pillboxes, burning trucks and dead horses. But we did not see any fighting—the offensive had travelled too fast for us.

However, we were to get our share of battle when the Canadians started the drive from Vizzini, which the British had captured, into the heart of Sicily after a two-day rest in the Modica area. We saw the battle of Enna which was the first real battle the Canadians fought, and I doubt if any correspondents ever had better grandstand seats for an engagement such as this.

The battle began in the heat of the afternoon sun with an artillery barrage on a ridge

which the Germans held before Enna. We stood on a hill just a mile away and watched our shells sending up geysers of dust along the ridge. Our guns poured tons of high explosives on the German positions. Shells screamed and made noises like an express train over our heads.

The barrage lasted for half an hour and when the ridge was black and smoking, infantry began the attack. Through field glasses I watched little dots of men climbing over the dusty shoulder road close to a red house. I could hear the chatter of machine-gun fire and the heavier bangs of the mortars. There were little puffs of smoke coming from clumps of green near the top of the ridge where the

Germans were evidently holed in. #

It seemed an agonizing slowness with which the little dots moved across the road and up the lower slope of the ridge. They disappeared into what looked like a vineyard. The noise of machine-gun fire became more insistent and puffs of smoke seemed to be concentrating on a grey hut near the top of the ridge. Then a blue sputtering light burst in a wide arc across the sky. It was the success signal—the Canadians had taken the ridge____

Enna was on top of a 3,000 foot hill and seemed miles away. We trudged up a steep dusty road in blazing heat. We sat down on the side of the road to rest and I saw some peasants and some mules coming toward us. I said to Ross, “Let’s get a ride on these mules.” He thought I was joking but when the mules passed us their owners offered us a lift. I scrambled on one mule and Ross on another.

The men leading the mules were a villainous-looking crew. Ross said to me, “Keep your eye on the last man.” I did not see that this would do me much good as I had no weapon. The only thing I carried was a pair of field glasses

and I doubted I was a good enough pitcher to hit him at 10 feet. However, I dropped back alongside him.

He was a talkative bandit. He described to me in great detail how he had killed his two neighbors.

I said, “Ah.”

He licked his lips and bared his yellow fangs as he told me how he had murdered his last wife.

I said, “Si.”

He went on to describe some of his other nefarious deeds. I said, “ah” and “si.” He was obviously delighted with my conversational abilities. Sicilians and mules turned off the road after a couple of miles so we got off and started walking again.

We hiked along a steep road until we saw a man with a gun sitting on a high crag overhanging the road. We had heard reports of armed civilians shooting our troops and we looked at the man and we looked at the ditch at the side of the road and wished it was deeper. We shouted and he replied. He was an American outpost. He told us there was some American transport up the road.

We got a lift into Enna which was full of American troops. The central city of Sicily had been taken by United States troops although the Canadians had really won it at the battle of Enna. But the Americans who were on the left flank got there first.

A United States army captain drove us to his headquarters for supper. The roads were clogged with guns and trucks and troops pressing through the city. Later in the evening he drove us back to the Canadian lines.

We were beginning to get vehicles now and we needed them to drive through the mountainous country in which the Canadians were fighting. We got three captured Fiats as well as a captured Italian truck and a German infantry wagon which was fixed and running well.

With those it looked as if it was going to be an easy war to cover from now on. □