Sicily and across to mainland Italy

 

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Jim was finally able to confirm what Pip probably suspected, that he had been unable to communicate with her because he was involved in the preparations for the invasion of Sicily which began on the night of 9-10 July. The Eighth Army landed in south east Sicily which may explain why the only pictures Jim had of Sicily were four postcards of Catania on the east coast at the foot of Mount Etna.

Catania

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily complete with elephant fountain

Sicily, 23 July 1943

“Woman Dear, I cannot remember how long ago it is since I last wrote to you but it must be a considerable time. It is also many moons (or seems so) since I last heard from you. I suppose you will have guessed the whyes and wherefores – we are now in Sicily. It is permissible I believe to tell you that. It explains numerous gaps in my letter writing for some time back but of course I couldn’t tell you so. The country is certainly a big change from the desert but I cannot quite decide which is the hotter – it is much more relaxing here I find.”

“It is a great pity that the invasion (which is one thing I thought we would avoid) took place so early in the year. In another eight or ten weeks one will be able to guzzle grapes, peaches, oranges, plums, almonds, etc. etc. to bursting point but we don’t do so badly. Our rations (all tinned) are very good indeed and we are looking forward with foreboding to the day we return to normal ones. At present I’m full of Scotch broth, oxtail and tinned pears.”

“I think you would like Sicily, Pip, loads of hills with little townships perched on the sides – most of them a little knocked about now of course – and lots of trees and shrubbery. It has a much more English look about it than either Egypt or Palestine or even S. Africa, the fields being smallish and irregular with hedges which although cactus, look like our own hedges at a distance. There are loose stone walls as in Derbyshire and the Lakes. Many hillsides are terraced to grow almonds and there are plantations of orange, pear, lemon, plum, pomegranate trees in the valleys. A pleasant place if it wasn’t for the bangs. The peasantry mind their own business and are not unfriendly – many appear the very opposite. What else can they do of course – they are very poor and illiterate and live in a state of semi-feudalism sleeping in sundry cases with the livestock. Like the Irish, America is their Shangri-La, many have been there or have relations there, some of them are in the U.S. Army. The usual mix-up.”

Sicily bunker

A wartime bunker beside a "loose stone wall" and plantation in Sicily

Many thanks to Mike Handy for the two colour photographs on this page. They were taken in 2017, inland from Sampieri, which is on the south coast of Sicily.

Jim referred to Lord Haw-Haw, the nickname of William Joyce, an Irish American who broadcast Nazi propaganda from Germany during the war. Clearly, the troops were able to listen to, and laugh at him, even in Sicily. Jim went on to describe his impressions of Sicily…

Sicily, 27 July 1943

“I see Haw-Haw is saying that we are glutting ourselves on fruit we haven’t seen for nearly three years. Someone may be but around me it isn’t ripe yet… We have run over more grapes than Covent Garden has seen for four years – they’re still green… I’ve seen no eggs at all and very few chickens or in fact any livestock worth mentioning… I’m sitting on the limestone step of a little barn half-way up a steep hillside. The barn is partly cut out of solid rock and roofed with rough tiles. The door is about three inches thick and inside there is nothing but a load of hay, some horse trappings on a nail, one or two baskets containing some mysterious black looking nuts, a trestle table with a straw mattress on it and a very ancient table with two drawers. Here lives an old man with patched trousers and a cap. He has a donkey which he ties to a ring beside his bed at night.”

Sicily cart

A well decorated Sicilian horse and cart

“I’ve eaten or tried to eat their ‘pasta’, a staple diet. It consists of little rolls of dough, brown and coarse and apparently full of sand and grit, boiled and sloshed with tomato sauce. Horrible stuff. I managed two or three forksful and then gave up. Then they insisted on me having some cognac which must have been over-proof. A wine-glass nearly killed me. I was rotten for two days afterwards. There must have been nearly twenty people living in that one roomed cottage.”

The next letter was addressed from “B Sqdn. 44 R. Tanks C.M.F.” indicating that Jim was now part of the Central Mediterranean Force, rather than M.E.F. – the Middle East Force. He touched on the invasion and continued to describe the country before giving a further possible reason for the long delay between letters.

Sicily, 26 August 1943

“I’m so glad to hear that you received the L.C. telling of my arrival here. It was all surprisingly uneventful I assure you although we naturally expected all sorts of unpleasantness.”

“The only thing to break the monotony of the trip over was provided by a Wellington bomber, one of the escort, which obligingly created a little sensation by gently falling into the drink from whence the bedraggled crew was fished out by a light cruiser. Crawling up the last few miles very silently on a glassy sea under a thin smoke screen was a little eerie but that was all.”

“Everywhere are orchards and groves on man-made terraced fields – the amount of labour required to do it must have been enormous and taken hundreds of years of semi-slave labour. There is a most intricate system of irrigation as the place is rainless from May to Oct. Nov. Every stream is harnessed between concrete walls and must serve its purposes."

Sicily terraces

Another bunker with terracing beyond on a hillside in Sicily

"I was bathing the other day in icy water coming straight from Etna… Some days the smoke from the crater is almost non-existent and is never in great volume. Where the lava is bare it resembles nothing more than huge slag heaps, very ugly stuff which will cut you to ribbons in very quick time.”

Etna from Catania

Etna complete with "slag heaps" seen from Catania, Sicily

“At present I’m in dock recovering from malaria – another reason for me to dislike Sicily. I never knew it was possible to get so hot with a fever without bursting into flames or at least charring a little! However it’s all over now and I should be rejoining the mob shortly. I’m full of differently coloured pills all with a horrible taste.”

The next letter really demonstrates how slow the communications had become; it was dated 12 September, which was nine days after the Eighth Army landed in mainland Italy and an armistice was agreed. Jim began by referring to his malaria and then went on to give his views on the armistice.

Italy, 12 September 1943

“I feel quite O.K. again now and the skeeter season is nearing its end so perhaps we’ll get a little peace. The flies are just as bad as they were in Egypt. I suppose you got the news of Italy packing in about the same time as we did. The fact that it was signed on the 3rd explains away the ‘phoney’ feeling I had about our landings at Regio. There didn’t seem any real effort behind it all. How did folk in Blighty react? The Army here was entirely indifferent – with a little exaggeration one might say there was scarcely a comment passed about it but the civvies went a little potty. We were doing a rather lousy night march and the villagers were dishing out free vino of all kinds to the troops whenever we stopped in a village. Many farms had bonfires blazing outside the buildings and I saw one or two lanterns hanging outside the doors of houses in the villages. For them the mala guerra was finito but I think most of our blokes felt as I did – that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference – Johnny Wop has been only waiting to be collected anyway for the last six months or more. The only resistance we had in Sicily for instance was from Jerry. I’m quite sure that Jerry has left Italy out of all her plans and calculations for some time past and he is probably telling the truth when he says that he foresaw it long ago.”

"Regio", or more correctly Reggio di Calabria, is the city on the coast of mainland Italy opposite the north-east tip of Sicily, where the invasion force landed on 3 September, so confirming Jim's whereabouts.

Three weeks later Jim wrote apologising for the lack of letters from him but didn’t enlarge on the reasons. He described overhauling his kit and the discovery of his pipe, a roll of film and other items.

Italy, 2 October 1943

“I have accumulated a chocolate coloured pullover with a polo collar and two darns, one grey and one blue in the elbows – very pleasing to the eye… and finally I have a tablecloth from a café in Tel Aviv which makes a respectable pillow. The rest is army kit – a thing no one bothers about at all.”

Recalling the lorry load of ammunition he and Fred were responsible for in the desert he wrote:

“We gave it all to Jerry in the finish anyway – stacking it neatly in the sand at Knightsbridge so that he would be able to check it all up at a glance. It was logical after all as he had all the guns before that. What an army!”

The army produced guides to Sicily and Italy to prepare the troops for what they would find after the invasion. Extracts from both these publications may be seen on the Soldiers' Guides page in the Memorabilia section of this site.

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