WW II, a British focus  




Chapter IV
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Sicily, Italy and Home - June 1943 to June 1944

With the end of the North African campaign, Fourth Light was wound up and the brigade reformed as a normal armoured brigade, less one regiment to begin with. 3 RHA left us to join 7th Armoured Division, 2 KRRC settled down near Tripoli temporarily under command of 1st Armoured Division: The Royals became Corps troops of 13 Corps, KDG of 10 Corps. Brigade HQ left Sfax on May 21st to return to the Delta of Egypt for the last time reaching Beni Yusef on June 4th, coming under 13 Corps. June 1st was the official date when "Light" was dropped from our title. Our two new, regiments were 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) and 44th Royal Tanks. 3 CLY had been part of the original 22nd Armoured Brigade and had been reforming in Egypt since before Alamein. 44th Royal Tanks had come to the Middle East in the summer of 1941 and had first seen battle under 1st Army Tank Brigade in the Crusader operation. They had played a notable part in the fighting round Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh and later in the capture of Bardia by 2nd South African Division. In the Knightsbridge battle they were part of the ill-fated 1st Army Tank Brigade which suffered heavily with 151 Brigade. Reformed, they took part in the withdrawal to Alamein and in the battles round Alamein itself in June and July 1942. In the Battle of Alamein itself they had been equipped with flail mine-clearing tanks, the first regiment ever to be equipped with them.

Matilda, equiped with flail Both regiments were now fully up to strength and equipped with Diesel Shermans. Never had the brigade been so well and thoroughly equipped.

13 Corps' planning for the invasion of Sicily was already far advanced: 3 CLY had already been placed under command of the 5th Division and 44th Royal Tanks under the 50th (Northumbria) Division. Tactical Brigade HQ was to accompany HQ 13 Corps for the invasion, the rest of the headquarters following on D+28. 2 KRRC were to remain at Tripoli. During June the regiments were loaded, distributed over a large variety of craft, Tac Brigade being at Port Said on board HMS Bulolo and LSP Dilwara. On July 5th we sailed from Port Said: after an uneventful voyage we arrived off the Sicilian coast on the night of 9/10th July. Brigade HQ was not controlling the two regiments and their stories must be given separately up to the 21st

Sherman M4A1 The Sharpshooters with 5th Division were due to land shortly after first light. It was not however till midday that the first tanks, half of C squadron, supporting 13 Infantry Brigade, came ashore. At 3 o'clock nine tanks of B Squadron also landed: they joined 17 Infantry Brigade beyond Cassibile in the late afternoon and entered Syracuse at last light. C Squadron meanwhile had had a small evening battle south of Florida. On the 11th the rest of the regiment landed, B Squadron meanwhile carrying on the advance north of Syracuse with 2nd Bn Northamptons. A party of enemy in the woods south of Priolo held up this advance all day and movement off the road was very difficult: in trying to move down the road three tanks were knocked out. A Squadron meanwhile sent a troop into Syracuse to help in the final clearing of the town. The half of C Squadron that was with 13 Brigade had entered Florida at eight after a short engagement: they continued the advance towards Taverna and had quite a battle to capture Solarino. For the loss of two tanks they destroyed one French R 35 tank and several guns and mortars. They were joined at Taverna by the rest of the squadron which had landed in the afternoon.

On the 12th B Squadron with 17 Brigade entered Priolo at half past eight, but were held up on the river to the north where the bridge was held. The river was a considerable obstacle, and it was only after an attack with two battalions that tanks were able to cross. Just before last light, after several unsuccessful attempts, two tanks got over and supported 6th Bn Seaforths into Augusta during the night. On the 13th A Squadron relieved C Squadron with 13 Brigade, and continued the advance until the enemy were met at five in the afternoon north of Tentilla. An attack was put in, in which half of the squadron took part: the enemy counter-attacked strongly with tanks: six of the seven Sharpshooter tanks were knocked out. No further advance took place that day and the regiment was concentrated north of Priolo.

At six o-clock in the evening of July 10th half of A Squadron of 44th Royal Tanks had landed with 50th Division, followed four hours later by the rest of the squadron. The following day the rest of the regiment landed, less 9 tanks of C Squadron which were lost when their ship sank before landing. The regiment concentrated east of Avola, moving on the 12th to east of Florida, less A Squadron which led the advance of 69 Brigade through Palazzolo, directed on Solarino. They met the enemy beyond Palazzolo and destroyed four guns, took sixty prisoners and killed many more. A further attempt to advance met strong opposition towards last light. After dark the advance was called off and the squadron withdrawn to Cancattini Bagni. On the 13th C Squadron, weak having lost 9 tanks at sea, was placed under command of 151 Brigade to clear the enemy still between Palazzolo, now held by the Highland Division, and Solarino. A mobile column from the brigade, led by a troop of C Squadron, was first held up by a burning lorry: the leading tank charged straight through it to clear the way for carriers to resume the lead. Round the next corner a R 35 tank engaged the first carrier: from then on the tanks went into the lead. The leading tank was fired on by ten R 35 s and in reply knocked out two R 35s, 4 cars and 3 lorries. This blocked the road completely. Looking on foot for a way round, the troop leader saw a white flag and, on going up to it, received the surrender of the commander and staff of the Italian 54th Napoli Division. Continuing the advance, an antitank gun and some 105 mms were met: with the help of a company of 6th DLI they destroyed 4 guns, 11 lorries and 3 more R 35s. Further on they met and destroyed 12 vehicles, 3 R 35 s and a motor-cycle, bringing their total for the day to 8 tanks, 6 guns, 29 assorted vehicles and 3 motor-cycles, a great effort for one troop. The rest of the regiment had been concentrated. 50th Division's advance towards Lentini through the hills past Sortino was going well, but it was not thought possible to get tanks through by that route. Meanwhile the Corps Commander had decided to concentrate the brigade and use it to continue the advance to Catania, through Lentini. Accordingly the brigade, consisting of The Sharpshooters, 44th Royal Tanks and A Squadron. of The Royals concentrated south of Priolo. 5th Division was no longer in contact with the enemy and we were told to move through Augusta to Villasmundo. To ensure that our route was clear half a squadron of Sharpshooters and a company of embussed infantry with carriers were to go as far as Villasmundo in the moonlight. There was considerable delay in getting this party married up and it was half past five in the morning of the 14th before they reported Villasmundo clear. The Sharpshooters led and passed through the town at eight o'clock. 50th Division were reported near Carlentini on the high ground to the south and we were placed under their command.

At 9 o'clock a persistent stranger on the brigade forward control was spoken to by Brigadier Currie and turned out to be the Headquarters of the Brigade of 1st Airborne Division, who were to have been dropped during the night to capture Primosole bridge, south of Catania. We had heard that they had been dropped in the wrong place, but their brigade HQ an a handful of men held the bridge. Spasmodic conversations with them continued for an hour, after which we heard no more.

Meanwhile the fight for Carlentini was going slowly: the Sharpshooters were having great difficulty with the going and progress was slow without the support of infantry or artillery, the latter being provided later by the voluntary help of 24th Field Regiment. Eventually they joined hands with troops of 50th Division. As there was only one road and that a very bad one, it was decided to pass 44th Royal Tanks through, the Sharpshooters having run short of ammunition. This took a long time as tanks were continually shedding tracks on the rocky hairpin bends. In addition the move entailed overtaking troops and transport of 50th Division in the tortuous streets of Carlentini and Lentini.

Eventually 44th Royal Tanks caught up with the leading troops of 69 Brigade: they were opposed by two German tanks and had met several small parties of our own airborne troops, none of whom however knew anything about Primosole bridge. One squadron of the 44th Royal Tanks was placed in support of 151 Brigade, but for various reasons the attack on the bridge was postponed until the following morning. The attack was launched early in the morning of the 15th supported by 44th Royal Tanks, while the Sharpshooters protected the left flank.

Owing to mines and vehicles blocking the road, tanks could not cross the bridge: 151 Brigade had succeeded in making a very narrow bridgehead but were later withdrawn. Before dawn on the 16th a further attack was made: 8 DLI secured a bridgehead just large enough to allow the sappers to clear the mines and obstructions, which they did in time to let a squadron of the 44th Royal Tanks pass over at first light. Unfortunately the bridgehead was under accurate anti-tank fire and four tanks were knocked out, the CO and 3 other officers being killed. During the day the Royals had engaged many small parties of enemy on the bridges between the left of 50th Division and the right of 30 Corps, the Sharpshooters being concentrated in reserve. A further attack in the bridgehead area had been put in by 6 and 9 DLI during the night 16/17th. At first light the Sharpshooters, relieving 44th Royal Tanks with 151 Brigade, passed over the bridge. The bridgehead area continued to be most unhealthy, until the source of trouble, a strong point about 300 yards north-west of the bridge, was finally located and cleared by the Sharpshooters. Before that was done the Sharpshooters had lost their CO and 5 tank commanders from sniping. The battle for the bridge was now over and the Sharpshooters supported the extension of the bridgehead, being relieved by the 44th Royal Tanks on the 18th. During the day they had one sharp battle, assisting 1st Royal Berks who had been surrounded, and lost five tanks in doing so. On the 19th 13 Brigade of 5 Division passed through, supported by B Squadron of the 44th Royal Tanks, directed on Misterbianco. Little progress was made in the face of stiff opposition, a further five tanks being knocked out or damaged. On the 20th the Sharpshooters supported an attack by 5th Division to cross the River Simeto. For the rest of the month the brigade was in reserve. Of the 95 tanks with which we had landed, 25 had been knocked out. On July 22nd our tank strength was 67: it had never fallen below 55 in spite of practically no respite from movement or action, a great feat by the fitters.

On 1st August the advance was resumed against rearguards to Catania which was reached on the 5th, the brigade finally coming to rest at Aci Castello, a beautiful little seaside town eight miles to the north. 30 Corps now took over the advance up the coast and we came under their command. Our first task was to organise and command two sea borne expeditions to cut the coast road behind the enemy, one to land immediately behind the enemy line, within range of 50th Division's artillery, the other, known as operation Blackcock, to land an independent force near Cap D'Ali, the furthest north we could go without being troubled by coast defence guns on the Italian mainland. This force consisted of Tac Brigade HQ, No. 2 Commando, one squadron of the Sharpshooters, a troop of 56 Field Battery RA (SP), a troop of jeep-drawn 3.7 hows, a troop of 6 pounders and 295 Field Company RE less a platoon. The Commando were to sail in LSIs from Augusta, the rest embarking in LCTs at Catania. Within 48 hours the force had been collected east of Misterbianco, waterproofed and was ready to embark. Embarkation at Catania went very smoothly and the LCTs sailed punctually at eight in the evening of August 15th.

In the early part of the night the full moon became almost totally eclipsed, but was shining full again when we reached our rendezvous with the LSIs at two in the morning. We now saw the road at Cap D'Ali, our objective, being blown. It was decided therefore to land further north, although the beaches there had not been reconnoitred. After some difficulty in finding exits from the beach, which was itself perfect, the force was landed at Cap Scaletta in broad daylight in face of accurate but intermittent shelling. We took up positions covering the road. No advance south to join 50th Division was possible as the road was blown in two places. The Brigadier therefore concentrated on advancing north towards Messina. As movement in daylight up the road was bound to be expensive, a moonlight advance was decided on. 2 Commando with the Sharpshooter squadron were to advance at eight and if possible continue to Messina. Demolitions and mines however caused considerable delay. At ten o'clock on the morning of the 17th we entered Messina to find the enemy had withdrawn over the ferry, leaving a vast heap of equipment behind. We met American patrols at the north end of the town and later General Patton himself was received in front of the town hall. Tac Brigade HQ and the squadron of Sharpshooters returned by road and sea to Riposto and back to Aci Castello.

46th and 50th Royal Tanks and 111 Field Regiment RA now came under our command from 23rd Armoured Brigade and we came into Army reserve.

On September 16th, orders were received for the brigade, less 111 Field Regiment RA, to move to Taranto: the Brigade Commander went in advance to report to 5 Corps to get the form. All tanks and tracked vehicles were to move by sea and the wheels by ferry from Messina, thence by road to Taranto. Brigade HQ arrived at Taranto on 23rd September and received orders to move to Bari area and come under command 78 Division, being prepared next day to take command of forward reconnaissance elements of the division.

Our force consisted of A Squadron The Royals, on squadron of the Sharpshooters, one squadron 56 Recce Regiment, recce squadron of 1Air Landing Brigade, one company of 1 Kensingtons, 17 Field Regiment RA less one battery, SAS squadron and a similar body known as "Popski's Private Army". 626 Field Squadron RE joined the Force by bits and pieces and subsequently became part of the brigade.

This force had just captured Canosa and was meeting opposition across the River Ofanto, over which the bridge was blown: on the coast the town of Barletta was not yet occupied. Very little progress was made this day, but Barletta was finally entered and passed: 4th Armoured Brigade now became the spearhead of the Eighth Army in its advance up the east coast of Italy.

Once again our main opposition was enemy rearguards and demolitions. Enemy antitank guns were well placed and cleverly concealed. When a crossing over the River Ofanto had been found, the brigade moved very fast, until held up by defended demolitions on the line of the railway and the river south of Manfredonia. The Sharpshooters, who were working up the inland road, passed through Cerignola meeting no enemy until held up six miles south of Foggia. The fight went on until dark, when the enemy blew the bridges and withdrew. The advance was resumed at first light on the 27th: after struggling with demolitions, we entered Foggia, still burning from the Royal Air Force's attack the night before, to find much abandoned equipment. Meanwhile the Royals had found Manfredonia clear. San Severo was clear and 56 Recce Regiment entered Lucera, releasing many British and South African prisoners, survivors of Tobruk. Patrol bases were now established at San Severo, Lucera, Troia Satriano and San Paulo: for administrative reasons no major move forward could be undertaken before October 1st.

On this day the brigade was ordered to take the high ground on either side of Serracapriola and clear the way for 11 Infantry Brigade to advance to Termoli. For this operation 5th Northamptons came under our command. All bridges south of Serracapriola had been destroyed and there appeared to be only two possible crossings: one near the sea at Ripalto, the other about two miles upstream from the main road bridge. The Sharpshooters less a squadron were to cross by the latter and take the ridge south of the town: this done, 5th Northamptons were to cross nearer the main road. and attack Serracapriola through the thick olive groves round the town: meanwhile the Royals with one squadron of Sharpshooters and part of 56 Recce Regiment were to cross to Ripalto and take Chienti, the whole operation being supported by 17 Field Regiment RA. All went well and 5th Northamptons took over the defence of the town. During the night a heavy rainstorm broke, turning the country into a sea of mud and making movement off roads impossible. The country beyond Serracapriola appeared to be fairly good going for tanks and the brigade was ordered to continue the pursuit and seize the high ground overlooking the River Biferno. No opposition was met but progress was made very difficult by extensive demolitions and mines. By last light on the 2nd we had reached the line Portocanrione - San Martino, which was taken over by 11 Brigade. During this time the rest of the brigade was concentrating south of Foggia. 2nd Bn KRRC and 14 Light Field Ambulance came from Tripoli and we were joined by 98th Field Regiment RA, equipped with self-propelled 105 mm guns, who came from Fifth Army on the west coast. Leaving the Sharpshooters in reserve, Brigade HQ returned to the rest of the brigade. By October 5th the whole brigade, less the Sharpshooters and A Squadron of the Royals was complete near Lucera.

On the night Of 4/5th, 11 and 36 Brigades of 78 Division had been counter-attacked on the far side of the Biferno. The Sharpshooters were ordered to support them. For two days a fierce battle was fought in which at one time the enemy got to within 400 yards of Termoli harbour, their objective. The Sharpshooters undoubtedly saved the situation. They lost 8 tanks and knocked out 6 before being relieved by 12th Canadian Tank Regiment.

On October 9th, 46th Royal Tanks were sent up to join 78 Division on the coast road: on the 22nd 50th Royal Tanks joined 8th Indian Division on the inland route through Larino. The remainder of the brigade joined the Sharpshooters south of Serracapriola on the 24th. On the 27th 98 Field Regiment joined 78 Division. 2nd Bn KRRC moved to Termoli to guard the FMC. On November 2nd Brigade HQ moved to five miles north of Termoli.

46th Royal Tanks had been supporting 78 Division who were facing the River Trigno, and 50th Royal Tanks had one squadron forward with 11 Indian Infantry Brigade, where they had done magnificent work, getting their tanks to places where it was hard to believe that a tank could possibly go. They were firmly positioned on a hill overlooking the River Trigno opposite Celenza, where they could only be supplied by mule.

On 3 November the battle of the River Trigno began. In a hard morning's fighting 46th Royal Tanks lost 7 tanks, accounting for 6 enemy tanks and 2 SP guns. Meanwhile from the ridge south of the Trigno, at least 20 enemy tanks and SP guns had been seen coming down the road from Vasto to San Salvo. They were accurately engaged. In the afternoon the Brigade Commander was sent for by the Army Commander and ordered to bring 44th Royal Tanks from Serracapriola and take charge of the armoured battle.

Plans were being made for an attempt to take the San Salvo ridge, when reports came in that the enemy had withdrawn, and 50th Royal Tanks were ordered on to the ridge. 44th Royal Tanks had moved up and were sent over the river, 46th Royal Tanks being left to reorganise and come into reserve. 5 Northamptons of 11 Brigade, supported by 50th Royal Tanks, with great determination over difficult country and in face of considerable opposition captured the high ridge south of Vaso. 2 KRRC were brought forward from Termoli.

The advance continued along the San Salvo - Vasto road, 44th Royal Tanks following 50th Royal Tanks to the west of the axis, covering the left flank. The intention of the brigade was that 50th Royal Tanks would support 3 6 Infantry Brigade on the coast road, while 44th Royal Tanks and 98 Field Regiment RA would support 11 Infantry Brigade on the axis Cupello - Scerni. On 5 November Vasto was entered by 46th Royal Tanks, who had taken over from 50th Royal Tanks: on the Cupello - Scerni axis 676 Field Squadron RE were to prepare a crossing over the River Sinello. The Sappers were unable to do this, but 44th Royal Tanks managed to get all their tanks over and advanced on to the high ground on the far side the next day and established a bridgehead.

On 7th November 11 Brigade moved on to capture Paglietta and Mt Calvo, the high ridge dominating the River Sangro. The next period was spent by 4th Armoured Brigade in collecting tanks and making plans for the assault on the River Sangro. On 16 November 46th Royal Tanks, much to the regret of the Brigade, received orders to rejoin 23rd Armoured Brigade, leaving their tanks behind. This just enabled the other three regiments to be made up to strength.

Extensive reconnaissance of the River Sangro and the ground immediately beyond it were made, but the weather was against us from the start: every time the ground showed signs of drying, down came the rain again, upsetting all precious plans. Meanwhile both divisions had been pushing elements across the River and the brigade was ordered to infiltrate tanks across. 2 KRRC, now under command of 8 Indian Division, had been ordered to occupy Mt Calvo on 15 November: After six very uncomfortable days there, they were ordered to attack and capture the "Castle" feature on the left of the escarpment held by 8 Indian Division. This was a strong and difficult position, well defended with dug-in positions: though they failed in the first attempt, they made no mistake the second time.

The rain kept falling and the river rose at times to such heights and the current to such a strength that it was quite unfordable: as a result supply of those troops across the river became most difficult. Bridges were built under most difficult conditions. The first tanks across were of 50th Royal Tanks on 21 November, followed by 9 tanks of Sharpshooters on 22 November. Later a better crossing further up the river was found, but it was not until 28 November that we had a total of 124 tanks across.

The final Corps plan was for 8 Indian Division to attack up the Mozzagrogna road and for 78 Division, led as before by 4th Armoured Brigade, to pass through and mop up from Santa Maria to the sea. The attack was partially successful, 21 Brigade capturing Mozzagrogna; but every kind of evil device - mines, booby traps and demolitions - prevented 50th Royal Tanks from getting to them: counter-attacked by tanks and flame-throwers, they were forced to withdraw. Sharpshooters and 6 Inniskillings were to capture R. Li Colle feature as far left as Santa Maria and 44th Royal Tanks and 2LIR were to pass through and mop up Fossacessia to the sea.

An extremely bad anti-tank ditch was encountered, but with great determination Sharpshooters kept trying, until eventually a way through was found: great credit is due to the Sharpshooters and 6 Inniskillings for their determination not to be beaten that day. 626 Field Squadron performed a heroic task in sweeping and marking lanes under most unpleasant conditions.

44th Royal Tanks eventually got through, going round by road through Mozzagrogna. On 30th November an extremely heavy barrage was opened on enemy defences in front of 44th Royal Tanks: as it lifted from block to block, a squadron of tanks and a company of infantry overran the area regardless of mines or ground, followed by another squadron and company on to the next block. The plan was entirely successful and the enemy was shattered and completely overrun. Fossacessia was entered and the area from there to the sea mopped up. BY 30th November the entire Sangro position was in our hands, many Germans killed, some 300 prisoners and much arms, equipment and stores being captured.

The next objective was the big feature overlooking the River Moro. On 4 December 38 Bde took over the front, supported by 44th Royal Tanks. 44th Royal Tanks had some difficulty in crossing the river and it took all day to subdue the enemy on the feature. Sharpshooters made strenuous attempts to cross, but after 8 tanks had been bogged, further attempt was abandoned, Sharpshooters remaining in fire positions on the east of the river.

From now until the end of the month the Brigade remained in reserve under command 5 Corps, less 50th Royal Tanks under command 8th Indian Division and 44th Royal Tanks and 98 Field Regiment under 1st Canadian Tank Brigade and 1st Canadian Division respectively. Sharpshooters and 626 Field Squadron RE withdrew to the Treglio area for rest and repair while Brigade HQ moved to the old HQ of 65 German Division in Treglio.

At the end of December Brigadier Currie left the brigade to go home and take over the job of BRAC to First Canadian Army. He was succeeded by Brigadier H J B Cracroft, who had been commanding 12th Royal Tanks in North Africa. We were now told the great news that at last the brigade was to go to England for the first time in its history. 50th Royal Tanks left us to rejoin 23rd Armoured Brigade near Naples and the brigade moved to Lucera, where we handed in our vehicles and equipment and entrained for Taranto. Several days were spent in Taranto until we entrained again for Naples. Here we took command again, after a long absence, of the Royal Scots Greys. On January 27th 1944 we embarked on MV Tegelberg and HMT Almanzora and set sail for home.

On February 7th our convoy arrived at the "Tail o' the Bank" after an uneventful voyage. We steamed up the Clyde to the King George V Dock at Glasgow, where the Black Rats first set foot on the soil of the homeland. We went straight by train to Worthing, where we came under 1st Corps, settled into billets and went off on leave.

On March 16th Brigadier Currie returned to command us, Brigadier Cracroft transferring to 8th Armoured Brigade. We were re-equipped with Shermans, unfortunately not diesel, and got our first 17 pounder tanks. Discussions and training exercises were carried out mostly with 51st Highland Division, whom we expected to support when the great day came. June 1944 found us, as June 1943 had done, all teed up to set sail for an invasion.

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