Troina and Centuripe

On the evening of 31 July, Terry Allen had explained to Bradley that he was now planning a much larger-scale attack on Troina, and had brought up not only the three infantry regiments of the Big Red One but also the Goums, who were being passed around as much as the 39th Infantry. Flint’s men were to spearhead the attack again, with the 18th Infantry attacking from the south, the 26th to the north and the 16th in reserve. Supporting them were no fewer than twenty-four artillery battalions – nigh on three hundred guns.

On paper, it was a formidable force that had been assembled; but on that Sunday, 1 August, it wasn’t enough. The narrow and limited road network, lined with mines, bridges blown and holed by craters, meant a terrible log-jam of traffic so that much of the artillery simply couldn’t get forward. Flint decided to attack anyway, and managed to get his leading companies from Scheffel’s 1st Battalion on to a key bit of high ground, Hill 1034, less than 2 miles west of the town, where they came up against the weakened Kampfgruppe Ens. Although it wasn’t Flint’s place to lead his men into battle in person, he was visibly out in front, and at one point stood up from their cover and, banging his chest, yelled, ‘Hey, you fuckers, we’re coming to get you!’ He might have been at best eccentric and at worst completely mad, but the men loved it. By dusk, however, Oberst Ens had managed to rally his men and they launched a brutal counter-attack, pushing the 1st Battalion back a mile. By midnight, the battalion was down to just three hundred men. They’d been slaughtered.

Allen now tried a double envelopment, sending his men to the north and to the south to try encircling Troina. Getting the men into position and bringing up all the guns took time, so the next day the Americans made little ground; even the Goums to the north, trained to fight in mountains, were unable to get across the Troina river, and in the heat and dust the day’s fighting was dominated by an artillery slugging match. Although the 26th Infantry, sweeping around the north, made some progress, it was not until Tuesday, 3 August, when the Big Red One attacked at three in the morning, that another major assault was made. The 18th was to attack from the small town of Gagliano, around 6 miles to the south of Troina. It meant a stiff climb, and their lines of advance took them well clear of any road; so not only was their vast arsenal of motorized vehicles going to be no use to them at all, since they wouldn’t be able to get their 105mm howitzers into position, Cannon Company were going to be out of a job. With this in mind, Lieutenant Frank Johnson and the rest of Cannon Company were now attached to the Anti-Tank Company as muleteers. Around fifty emaciated animals were hastily bought from impoverished Sicilian peasants and sent up the trail to the 18th’s supply dump at the base of Monte Pellegrino, 3 miles to the south of Troina. There, Johnson and his men improvised saddles and packs and bridles using old ammo bags, blankets and rope, then loaded each of these beasts of burden with some 250 pounds of mortar shells, twelve cases of rations, or several reels of phone wire and radio equipment. This, though, was the easy part. None of them had any experience of handling animals, let alone cajoling laden mules over skyline crags and precipitous cliffs by night on unfamiliar terrain. ‘How to make a mule move is still the animal’s secret,’ wrote Johnson. ‘We pull on the reins, to the accompaniment of bites; we push from behind, getting kicked more than once; we gently tap their ears with a club, receiving only a scornful flopping; we even seductively whisper sweet nothings in persuasion, but somehow our charges fail to share our realization of the urgent need of supplies topside.’

Nebelwerfers helped stall the American attack yet again that Tuesday, as did the constant withering fire of machine guns and mortars. General Bradley visited Allen in the morning, joining him in his CP, an empty school-house with the Fascist slogan, ‘believe, obey, fight’, painted on one of the exterior walls. Bradley knew Allen was well aware of the importance of this battle, but had developed doubts about him. For one thing, he worried he was getting tired; it was also well known that the Big Red One commander liked a drink.

A battalion of twelve 155mm ‘Long Tom’ howitzers, six-wheeled towed beasts, had been dragged into position behind the school-house and began pounding the enemy, their muzzle blasts rippling the roof tiles.

‘Terry,’ Bradley said, turning to him, ‘could you arrange to have those guns shoot over the building instead of through it?’3 Allen reached for the field telephone and the guns were moved back a short distance.

So far, II Corps had rarely called on direct air support, but now, at Troina, air support parties on the ground were radioing in target requests directly to controllers, who then passed them on to the fighters. What was needed was ground fighter control units equipped with VHF radio that would enable them to talk directly to the pilots above; that would come, but in early August 1943, the Allies were still feeling their way with close air support operations. Further trials and much refining of methods were needed.

As a result, fighter-bomber operations over the battlefield were at times haphazard. Around Troina, with smoke hampering visibility, ground troops fighting at close quarters and pilots dependent on maps on their knees as they flew, pinpointing targets correctly was difficult, to say the least. A P-40 Kittyhawk, for example, flying over at 340 miles per hour, might have a run-in to its target of as little as half a mile, a mile at most, giving the pilot just five to ten seconds in which to assess wind speed, peg his own speed and establish a stable attitude. Even from 500 feet off the deck, the target itself – a gun battery, for example – would be tiny to the naked eye and, without any kind of weapons guidance system, and only a basic gyro-stabilized gunsight through which to judge release range and account for any crosswind, whether it was hit or not was really a matter of luck. Close air support hammered the town, but inevitably also dropped bombs in the wrong places. A column of American tanks was strafed, while aircraft also narrowly avoided bombing General Allen’s CP. All this meant that up there around Troina, close air support was only of limited help.

The key, as always in mountain warfare, was to take the high ground around an objective, because from there observers could pinpoint enemy targets and direct fire. The trouble was, that meant infantry had to emerge from where they were hidden into open ground and get moving. Smoke shells, artillery, their own mortars and suppressing fire could all help. It was recognized on Sicily, for example, that the distinct ‘brrrrrp’ of the German MG42 and the more solid rapid fire of the .30-calibre or Browning automatic rifle would rarely be heard in the same vicinity at once, because one side would fire then duck down, then the other would have a go. None the less, advancing forward over open ground took guts of steel, along with determined and dogged leadership to keep the men going, and was, needless to say, extremely dangerous – even more so on a mountain where the soil was so thin. Men would advance spaced out, perhaps ten yards apart, but that distance was often hard to maintain, and, in any case, a single mortar shell or two-second burst from a machine gun could easily fell an entire squad of ten men, leaving perhaps two dead, two more severely wounded and the rest hurt enough to be out of the battle. Battalions moved forward in companies, usually eighty or so men at a time, two platoons up front, one behind in reserve, with medics and company HQ attached. Of the four companies in each battalion, no more than three – at most, but usually only two – would be attacking at any one time. This meant a battalion attack generally had around 240 men at the sharp end, and since a regiment would usually only send two battalions forward at a time, an infantry division’s attack at any given moment would involve directly about 1,500 men – about 10 per cent of its total strength.

Although Allen’s men at Troina were attacking across a 10-mile front, each regiment was doing so with its individual battalions, companies, platoons and squads, and it was very easy for these to become bogged down. A platoon would start taking casualties, men would shelter behind rocks or in the many gullies, or behind crests and ridgelines, and suddenly the attack would be stalled. Shells would be continuing to scream over, mortars crashing, machine guns burping and chattering. The noise would be immense, the ground would shake, and the concussion of heavy shells would ripple over the troops with a blast of wind and debris. Grit, stone and dust would clatter on their helmets, a buddy would get shot or have a leg or arm shattered or his guts ripped out or get blown to smithereens. It was amazing, really, that anyone had the courage to get up and keep going at all.

And this was why assaults against a determined defender equipped with decent weaponry took time. In fact, if the infantry failed to take an objective swiftly, there was really only one way of winning and that was to grind down the enemy by hurling over twice, three, four times as much ordnance at him. One tactic Germans could always be relied upon to use was counter-attack – and that was the moment of vulnerability for them, because the moment they got up out of their own foxholes and sheltered positions, they faced exactly the same problems that confronted the American infantry, only worse.

General Rodt, the 15. Panzer Grenadier Division’s commander, had won a defensive victory on 3 August, but the Big Red One had still made ground; they were getting closer. That evening, Oberst Ens’s men counter-attacked once more against Hill 1034, where the 16th Infantry had taken over from Flint’s men. And once again, American artillery ensured the panzer-grenadiers made only limited gains. Unlike the Americans, the Germans had no reserves at all, and that night Rodt asked Hube again if he could pull back his men. No, was the answer, again. Neither Hitler nor Kesselring had authorized the evacuation of Sicily, and that meant they had to go on holding out for as long as possible. Troina was key to ensuring that.

From down in the Dittaino valley, the town of Centuripe could be seen in the distance, perched impossibly high in the mountains. At certain times of the day when the sun was high, it twinkled and shimmered, a silvery line on the top of a briefly flat crest. The town sat on neither the Hauptkampflinie nor the Etna Line, but roughly in between the two, a jutting outpost. However, because of its height, and because it lay on the same ridge as Leonforte, Assoro, Agira and Regalbuto, it stood sentinel to the Etna Line, imperiously guarding the key towns of Paterno and Adrano. If the British could get up on Centuripe, they would be able to stare down at these latter towns and unlock the entire position around the south of Etna – and with it, Misterbianco and Catania. Equally, if the Germans there could hold on, then they could very well frustrate British ambitions for quite some time to come.

Centuripe was one of the most extraordinary towns in all of Sicily. Built on the apex of a number of spurs and ridgelines and then spread along them, from the air it looked either rather like a thick-limbed starfish or a prostrate man, depending on the angle of view. Lying some 2,000 feet above the Dittaino and Simeto valleys, it could be reached only via one winding, narrow road of numerous switchbacks that ran from one valley up to the town and then back down again to the other. All around it were the arms and legs of the ridges that fanned out from its centre, and which plunged precipitously, sometimes in sheer drops, at other places in a series of 6-foot-high terraced walls, elsewhere in banks of loose stone and scree. Guarding Centuripe now were some of the best German troops on the island, men from ‘King’ Ludwig Heilmann’s 3. Fallschirmjäger – the 1. Bataillon and much of the 2. Bataillon – bolstered by some Panzer Mk IIIs, a field artillery battery and an anti-tank troop from the HG Panzer Grenadier Division. Fallschirmjäger had double the number of machine guns a normal infantry unit would have – one every five men, rather than one every ten. This meant that every approach up to the town was covered not only by mortars and artillery fire, but also – and especially – by machine guns, whose teams had been placed in such a way that the moment anyone attacking showed their head, they would come within the field of fire.

It was the newly arrived 78th Battleaxe Division who were given the unenviable task of capturing this imposing objective; and, because of the successful capture of Catenanuova more quickly than expected, Major-General Evelegh decided to bring forward his attack by twenty-four hours. As a result, his 36th Brigade were sent in to attack on Sunday, 1 August. The key to their chances of success, as always, was the fire support – even Fallschirmjäger couldn’t be firing their MGs properly when shells were falling all around them – but Major Peter Pettit and the 17th Field Artillery were struggling to find the right places to set up their batteries of 25-pounders. Excellent field guns though they were, each weighed more than 1½ tons and required a Morris Commercial Quad – or equivalent – gun tractor to tow it, plus an extra ammunition limber. The 17th, like all British field artillery regiments, consisted of three batteries of eight guns, so twenty-four in all – and while they were terrific once in position, the problem in Sicily, particularly when firing at such an oddly shaped and difficult bit of high ground as Centuripe, was successfully getting them into good firing positions in the first place; below the town, there were few opportunities for a 25-pounder, Quad and limber to get off the road and deploy. ‘We recce almond groves on steep hillside and move in after dark,’ noted Pettit in his diary. ‘Very difficult country, rocks, bad roads and worse tracks cratered or landslid.’

Evelegh’s 36th Brigade managed to cross the open country before nightfall and then launched its attack that night – but made only limited progress, so that by first light the next day, 2 August, none of the infantry battalions were in the town itself, but rather were pinned down some way short, Centuripe still towering over them up slopes that looked even more precipitous and impossible than they did from the valley floor. During the morning, they continued to try to inch their way further up the slopes; but while progress could be made through the hidden gullies and folds in the land, the moment they emerged into the open, machine-gun bullets scythed through the air and another wave of mortars whistled down.

As the day progressed, however, so the supporting artillery increasingly began to join the fight. In all, there were three field regiments and a further three regiments of medium artillery firing 5.5-inch howitzers, so the best part of 150 guns in support, of which only a fraction had been available the day before. Getting them into position was not at all easy, because the road up was both covered by enemy fire and cratered; the engineers worked ceaselessly to repair it so that the artillery could get into position. Peter Pettit and the 17th FA moved up as close as they could, but the road was a nightmare to climb. ‘It is cut out of mountainsides,’ he jotted in his diary, ‘with hairpin bends galore and steeply terraced almond groves on either side.5 Go over and you drop for hundreds of feet.’

General Evelegh decided to bring in a second brigade, the 38th Irish, to attack the town again that night; one of its battalions, the 2nd London Irish Rifles, were to climb west of the town and capture three high features, Hills 611, 704 and 703 on their maps, which covered the north-west of the town. From here, the London Irish could give mortar and machine-gun support for an assault by the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers – or ‘Faughs’ as they were known – who were to attack the town’s cemetery at the end of the western arm of Centuripe’s prostrate man. The 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, meanwhile, were to attack up what had already been dubbed ‘Suicide Gully’ – the prostrate man’s left leg.

In the 6th Skins, 10 Platoon sergeant in A Company was Ray Phillips, a tough soldier who’d fought well in Tunisia. As a rule of thumb, infantrymen – of whatever nationality – could be divided into four rough groups, which for argument’s sake could be labelled A, B, C and D. Most fell into Category C – men who were willing to do their bit but didn’t want to be there, weren’t interested in using their initiative very much, wanted to keep their heads down and prayed they might survive. Category Ds were those who simply couldn’t cope at all – who were terrified, and who would most likely crumble in the face of danger or run away. Numbers in Category D were small. Then there were Category As – adrenalin junkies, thrill-seekers, who regarded war as little more than Boy Scouts with guns. These were the most gung-ho and would be the first to join any special forces. There weren’t many of these, either. But then there were the Category Bs – men who didn’t want to be in the war, would far rather be at home, but would go the extra mile to get the job done and who would selflessly look out for others above themselves. These were comparatively few in number, but there were enough of them to keep the armies going. Typically, they were company commanders or sergeants. They were the backbone of any infantry unit, the glue around which the Category Cs could function. Sergeant Ray Phillips was one such man.

The battalion had moved up the previous day, 1 August, marching through cleared minefields, over blown bridges, on through Catenanuova and past what had been the HG Division command post. All around them they had seen a lot of abandoned equipment and transport, as well as plenty of dead. ‘The pioneer battalion had gone on ahead,’ noted the battalion diarist, ‘and had buried most of the dead Boche by the time the main body arrived so the stench wasn’t too bad, but the hum of a dead mule wasn’t too pleasant.’

Orders to push on up and take over from 36th Brigade were received and they were told to be ready to move at 3.30 the following morning, 2 August. They moved out at 4 a.m., heading up the slopes for the best part of 2 miles, which entailed a climb of nearly 2,000 feet along tracks so bad even the mules couldn’t cope; there was nothing for it but to hump everything themselves, including the No. 22 radio set, which weighed more than 16kg, plus spare batteries. They had been expecting to climb straight into the town, but when mortars started falling nearby it became clear that 36th Brigade had not managed to take the peaks and that they would have to do that first. They paused on a knoll marked on their maps as Point 640, hidden from view from the summit, and began sending out patrols, while B Company moved across a gully to Point 664, in order to attack up the right leg of the prostrate man. The heat, as ever, bore down. Exhausted after their climb, they were short of water and energy, so Brigade HQ decided they should not launch their attack until later that afternoon.

The battalion was briefed for attack at 3 p.m., by which time mortars and Nebelwerfers were screaming over and they started to take casualties. In A Company alone, two men were killed and eleven injured. They set off at 4.30, with C Company leading behind heavy artillery fire. Their first objective was Point 709, on which stood a large church, Santa Nicola, at the end of the left leg. Following behind were A Company, led off by 10 Platoon. Sergeant Phillips had listened carefully to the briefing; there was no alternative to Suicide Gully; they could expect MG42s to fire on them, and there were lots of Jerry paratroopers about. The situation, Phillips thought, looked pretty hopeless. They were also told to carry their rations as well as ammo and the men began to grumble. Phillips wasn’t having it. ‘The damn job’s got to be done,’ he told them, ‘so let’s do it.’ Phillips had a new platoon commander, Lieutenant Morrow, who he thought was a grand chap, but who was about to go into action for the first time. As they got moving, the air was soon filled with zipping bullets and fizzing shards of shrapnel and Morrow was hit in the head, so Phillips took over command.

Up ahead, C Company had somehow managed to get into the edge of the town, but there were still plenty of enemy firing at Phillips and his men as they scaled an almost sheer 100-foot-high rock face. ‘God, what a job,’ he wrote. ‘It seemed impossible with all the arms, ammo and weight of food etc., still, bashed on we did, it was child’s play for Jerry to pick us off as we were climbing, still he was a hell of a poor shot and only got 4 of my boys, the bastard.’ On they went, and Phillips managed to clamber up on to the road that ran around and beneath the Church of Santa Nicola, the rest of the platoon following. Then one of his best men lost his footing, stumbled and fell backwards on to a mine which blew him sky high; tragic as it was, Phillips was all too aware they might well have all suffered the same fate. Ahead was a small shack, so he charged it and smashed down the door, but found no enemy inside. It provided a good place for his men to pause and get their wind back, so while they rested, Phillips went for a look around. Shocked by the state of the shacks the townspeople called home, he saw the church at the end of the promontory about 200 yards away so decided that should be their next objective.

He was now joined by Major George ‘Hobo’ Crocker, the A Company commander, only recently back in the line, having been wounded in Tunisia. Phillips wondered where the rest of his company was, but it seemed Crocker had lost them in the climb and his wireless set was out of order. There were only twenty-four men now in 10 Platoon, most of them in fact not Irish at all but Welshmen – a not uncommon situation by this stage of the war, as regional regiments were filled with whoever arrived from the training depots. Phillips had also lost his mortar team and his PIAT man, wielding the only anti-tank weapon they had as infantrymen. This was not a time for dilly-dallying, however; Phillips knew they had to get on, and so, having made a quick appreciation, he got his section commanders together – all three corporals he knew he could rely on – and told them the plan. They were going to make a dash for the church. There would be small arms firing at them, but it couldn’t be helped; this was a key objective, overlooked the advance of the rest of the battalion following behind, and had to be secured. And there was only one thing for it: to run as hard as they could. Phillips led 1st Section, and although four of his men were mown down the others reached the church and stormed inside, fortunately finding it empty. With the remainder of the platoon safely in and around the church he took a quick roll-call and discovered he had only thirteen men left, although all three of his NCOs were still standing. No sooner had they had a brief pause to catch their breath again than the Germans counter-attacked, in what looked like company strength. ‘We gave them hell,’ he wrote, ‘fired everything we had into the swines, killed a hell of a lot, good show.’

Being holed up in the church now didn’t seem such a good idea after all, so he told his men they were going to simply charge the enemy. Out they went, shouting and firing Bren guns and Tommy guns from the hip. The startled Germans turned and ran, and Phillips and his men followed right into the heart of the town, to a small triangular piazza. He’d had in mind to push on round to Point 709, which was B Company’s objective on the prostrate man’s right leg, but the town was now swarming with more Germans, who had recovered their balance. Taking cover, they fired back, but more of his men were getting hit. Phillips himself was nicked on the arm and, having had it bandaged up, tried to see if he could get any help, but it was hopeless – they were effectively surrounded. Back with his men, he told them there was nothing for it but to give the enemy hell for as long as possible. With luck, the rest of the battalion would join them. ‘We were in a tight corner,’ he noted, ‘but Jerry had to come and get us and he didn’t dare, for as soon as one poked his head out, he had it.’

They were still holed up as dusk descended. Elsewhere, the sounds of battle could be heard, although from the piazza it was hard to tell from what direction. In fact, by 9 p.m. the London Irish had managed to secure all three of their objectives, the high points to the north-west of the town, while the Faughs had also got on to Point 711, the town’s cemetery, at the end of the left arm of the prostrate man. By now, Phillips had just eight men left – and then his two best Bren gunners, Beer and Dackin, were hit, a big blow. At this point an Italian tank rumbled into a street 150 yards away; Phillips knew he couldn’t allow it to get into the fight, so, grabbing one of the Brens, he let it get within 100 yards then opened up with the machine gun, emptying some thirteen magazines at it. Fortunately, it did the trick: the tank reversed and disappeared out of sight.

With darkness, Phillips took two of his remaining men and went out on a recce to see just how many Germans were still about, so that he could judge whether to make a break for it. There seemed to be far too many for comfort and so, getting back to what was left of his platoon, he led them down into a coal cellar where he hoped they could hide until reinforcements arrived. Outside, they could hear the enemy troops talking and searching for them, but eventually it seemed to quieten down and so, telling his men to stay put, he ventured out again, and this time found the rest of the battalion who had begun clearing the town. Hobo Crocker had been wounded and so was sent off to an RAP; and at daylight, Phillips began the search for those of his men who had been killed. ‘Found 3,’ he noted, ‘and as I was going to one I found an Itie taking the boots off the body. I shot the swine dead.’ At roll-call, he had just four men still standing from a platoon of thirty-seven. ‘Too bad,’ he added, ‘but we won the day.’ The Germans, who had already begun thinning out in the town early the previous evening, had now pulled back. The Battleaxe Division had taken Centuripe; and once again, it was the infantry who had had to claw their way forward, and at a terrible cost. For the survivors, there would be more fighting to come; but for the time being, Phillips and the rest of A Company were able to enjoy some hot tea and breakfast and then a chance to sleep for the rest of the day, before loading up on to trucks and moving on, down the winding hairpins amid clouds of dust and on towards Adrano on the Etna Line, their next objective. ‘Goodbye Centuripe,’ wrote Phillips, ‘you ghost town of the heavens.’