Piercing The “Under-Belly” by John Rowland Field

Piercing The “Under-Belly”

Unusual summer ‘White Horses’ capped the waves in the Mediterranean ass the sun hid behind Etna, the mountain monarch that reigns over Sicily. As the sun retreated behind blanketing storm clouds, the wind gusted increasingly violent and chill. That Friday night held little sleep for those on board the fleet of vessels converging upon the quiet isle. Airborne and seaborne troops alike fearfully speculated on what weather might do to disrupt well-laid plans and hoped-for possibilities.
Etna’s silhouette merged with the blackness of the night as the planes and ships approached, and her fiery breath fled Westward. The labouring planes tugged troop-filled gliders on their way to release, and the ships pitched and tossed towards unsuspecting beaches called George, Howe and Item. It was 3.30am when the “Bergensfiord” engines quietened, and we went for a very early breakfast. The seas no longer broke heavily over the bows of the submarine chasers and the larger landing craft as they wormed their way amongst the battleships and troop-carriers. A black shore lay ahead and beyond there were red jewels that flashed, to the background noise of the guns that rumbled and chattered. Searchlights inquisitively fingered the night skies but faded as dawn approached and the surf quietened. But soon the silver sea was pockmarked by shells and columns of white foam where they fell. A little later, sunbeams were touching the mountaintops, and the greenery of the citrus groves and the vineyards began to be visible. Very soon we had a full picture of what lay ashore; the beaches, a bridge or two, a railway line, white farm buildings, backed by mountains and steep gorges. Soon, crammed in the tiny LCI we neared the beach, waded through the waves, and began to negotiate the stones and sand with many a fearful upward glance. Halfway up the beach and a Stuka roared towards us, to dive-bomb a craft with troops still aboard. But we were concentrating on the loads (Extra gear and ammo, food and officers’ valises) we were carrying towards the gap in the barbed wire that the bull-dozer had made behind the tumbled stones, and into an orange grove where our legs and trousers dried in the warm sun, as we found cover from the fire of the fighter-bombers that dived down every so often.
An Army Colonel came breezing by, and some of our lads admired him for his swagger, that breathed a confidence that we failed to see in our Major Kelly and Lieut. Pugh who had reconnoitred some 200 yards inland and found a quiet spot where packs could be dropped and “Tommy Cookers” got going for the longed-for “cuppa” to go with the “Compo” rations we were grateful to have to eat.
Soon the rest was over and, loaded up, we were off in single file and marching order along “Strada 114” over the great bridge that straddled the “Cassibile Torrent” which was reduced to a mere trickle flowing lazily out to the open sea to the East. Up the hill we trudged and suddenly it was a real raid with planes and anti-aircraft fire all around as we dived for cover. We became aware of how difficult it could be with a heavy pack on the back to stand up again, and decided that we would only take cover when it was absolutely necessary. But the next mile saw us horizontal half-a-dozen times, and the existence of a First Aid Post nearby had a message for us as we saw the wounded on stretchers there. But there was little time for sympathy. As we left the white walls and the trees we were aware of crackles, smoke and flames beyond the almond trees ahead. The file ahead with Lieutenant Pugh had stopped, but the voice of our gallant Major from the rear was heard: “Why have we stopped? Go on; Keep going!”. So, we went around the corner and there was a blazing ammo lorry, with rounds flying in every direction, and one or t5wo men who had been hit lying nearby. One of them had clearly “Had it”. The lorry was some 20 yards or so off the road, but there was a gap in the stone wall, which gave us some cover to get by. One by one, we crouched and ran past the gap. Safely past, a Colonel of Marines told us to wait a while, because Siracusa was not yet taken. Knowing that made us “sitting ducks” we got our trenching to work and dug little holes in the ground, laid out our blankets and brewed tea between the frequent raids. Just to the West of us there was a little Halt on the railway line which had a wall. We all wanted to refill our water bottles, and the ragged queue was six deep, which “Jerry” noticed and had a “go” at us with machine-gun fire. We all went horizontal, of course, and so quickly that I was flung against a wall bruising a knee. Somebody, mistakenly (?) got hold of my water-bottle, but I tracked him down – and thankfully, none of the bullets hit anyone. A “Red-cap” (Military Policeman) turned up from somewhere and in just a minute or so, without threats or swear-words, straightened out the rabble that we had become.
After about an hour, during which time enemy planes came over again and again, I managed to fill my bottle, and got a drink. On return, our officers told us we should not drink the water until we had put sterilising tablets in. But our NCOs didn’t supply us so most of us brewed up. Some fellows drank the water un-boiled anyway, and I heard of no one being any the worse for it.
The bombers came and went all evening, concentrating on the beach half-a-mile to the East of us. One of our fellows was hit by shrapnel, and lost a couple of finger’s. He was evacuated by hospital ship to Tripoli the next day. When things quietened down a bit, I got some little sleep in a hollow I had scratched for myself beneath an almond tree. It was sweet, and deep, until a mate shook me about 4am and said “Get rigged- there’s a counter attack”. A sudden blast of machine-gun fire underlined what my Pal had said, so with 150 rounds, and fixed bayonet, we were ready. The corporals rounded up their sections, and we were ready for action.
The machine-gun fire rattled on steadily, but seemed to be decreasing. The fires that looked like burning grass were burning high on the hillside, but the machine guns seemed to be thinning out, and were further off. There was a cold chill that came with the dawn, and we kept our watch on the wood before us but lower down the valley.
The sky held few stars soon after and the blackness had become grey. The gunfire was more distant. We heard tanks and tracked vehicle, and wondered whether the sound was getting nearer or further…. No, they were getting further away, and with the light came the news: Siracusa and the Pachino peninsular had been taken! But at the same time there came another drone from behind us where we lay on the ground and we saw a fountain of red tracer a few miles to the South, and then there was heavy flak going up. The planes were diving; little bombs are falling, and dust is rising in their wake.; shrapnel is whining down and the buzzing planes dash away. As it gets even lighter waves of planes follow each other. Can you believe it is Sunday morning?
By seven o’clock we are ready to march ion. There are still planes around, but their interest seems to be elsewhere. We follow the single-track railway line from the first Halt North of Cassibile station one behind the other with the dazzle of the sun in our faces. At the next Halt, we stop and Lieutenant Pugh leads us on to a cart-track heading towards San Michele. On the main road West of us there are motor-cycles, lorries and tanks gadding merrily towards Syracuse, and the inferno that is Priolo. We plod doggedly on our slow way, glad that it is not our job to meet the strong opposition of the Schmalz Battlegroup of the Herman Goering Division.
We come across a crashed American glider lying close to a pillbox, but the morning is quiet now. To our left four men appear to be watering a little donkey. Does it really take four strapping young men to meet the thirst of one small donkey in Sicily? Here is the railway liner again and the track goes under a bridge with the Fascist symbol and AnnoXV11 as a kind of dado along its parapet. Close by a building lance-corporal found a Bren gun barrel and a bicycle. Our stalwart Irish Major got someone to carry his Tommy-gun for him while he rides the bicycle until four more Italian men appear and he changes back again. Following a hollow lane, we come across a broken-down 15cwt truck, close to a lemon grove. Our commander details a few men to climb the bank, and collect lemons to supply all of us, and we are glad enough to munch these refreshing fruits as we go. At a crossroads, we meet a man pushing a cycle with two friends as company. Encouraged by our issue of “A soldiers’ guide to Sicily” we greet them with “Bwon Jowno!” and are gratified to find that they respond with the same sounds! They also give a kind of wave which was probably intended as a sort of salute. We continue along our road, picking blackberries as we go, and thankful that we have a quite a lot of shade from the trees as we pass an area of common land. In the distance, we notice that the sun is glinting on sea water, and to our left is a line of stately cedars leading to a white farmhouse with an aqueduct running across the valley we are walking down, and disappearing into more trees. Suddenly there is a burst of machine gunfire behind us, and all at once there is sudden roar and four German fighter-bombers pass directly overhead on their way to the beaches, we assume. Continuing on, we pass alongside a stream full of rushes which seem to grow ten or twelve feet high, soon there are pill-boxes and barbed wire, and then evidence of a minefield having been laid quite recently. This obviously was a surprise to our officers, and part of their ‘Council of War’ that I overheard seemed to involve that we would have to ford the stream. However, as I had noticed a bridge some quarter of a mile back, I tactfully mentioned this fact, and was gratified that this hint was taken; we were “About turned” and all trooped over and up the rocky hillside beyond where there was yet another crashed glider in a tomato field. Our Major trotted off in that direction, taking a Corporal and three Marines with him, telling the rest of us to “Keep going”. We did, and after scaling a wall, found ourselves on a beaten track, on the right of which as well as to our front were several well camouflaged pill-boxes. Out of one of these on our right issued half-a-dozen men, a couple of women and several children, all holding up their hands in token surrender., then two or three of our lads levelled their rifles at the men. Three of our men were detailed off to “look after” these people and to keep an eye on some heavy machine guns which the Major wanted to take back with him, though I had pointed out to him that they had been sabotaged and were useless. In the meanwhile, the Major had taken possession of a collapsible bicycle, a radio set and some cushions from the glider, and various men were carrying this booty for him, in addition to their own kit. Some of our chaps had picked some ripe tomatoes and shared them around for us to eat. On a heap of tomato haulm lay the body of a soldier, who had died of a leg wound. Someone had attempted to make a tourniquet from cordwood, but had been unsuccessful.
Plodding wearily on, we came to a farmhouse, and in its courtyard, a well with sweet, cool water in it, which we mixed with lemons juice and enjoyed greatly. Some of the chaps noticed there were chickens around and had nefarious designs on them. But the Major had seen them, too, and after warning everyone else off, he detailed his MOA to catch and kill a couple of them ‘for the Officers Mess’. He also commandeered a cart to carry some of the other ‘odds and ends’ he had found. Passing more of the crashed gliders and a couple of Italian women hovering around a goat, we tramped along a pleasant green lane towards almond groves and vineyards in the peace of the quiet sunny afternoon under the cloudless blue sky. Nothing broke the silence apart from the whisper of the breeze caressing the dry grass, and the tramp of our dusty boots.
We came to a hamlet which was animated by the chatter of three or four families who seemed to belong there. They jabbered away to us in Italian, which we failed to understand until we realised that the word cigarette seemed to be cropping up. When some of the chaps obliged, the animation quickly intensified and ‘entente cordiale’ was gained.
Another kilometre or two and the sound of planes and guns, bombs and shrapnel scattered us into the cover of a nearby vineyard. When things quietened and we scrambled out, we saw before us the blue water of the huge harbour and the white walls of the ancient city of Siracusa and the eleventh century Maniace Castle of Ferdinand of Spain.
Still our journey was not quite over. After a right turn and a fork to the left we followed the white lane down to the edge of the sea, where there stood a tile works with its kiln, and next door a little house with the legends ‘Birra Messina’ and ‘Moscato di Siracusa’ forming the background to a group of rather drab and forlorn looking men and girls, who waved and giggled as we went wearily by, wondering how much further we had to go before we came to the guns which it was our objective to capture and then use against the enemy. As we climbed the hill before us we saw a board which proclaimed that we were entering a ‘Zone Militaire’ and prohibited us from entering without good reason and permits. We reckoned we had very good reason to proceed and did so, until one perceptive fellow saw a group of men with foreign-looking steel helmets on their heads. So we stopped, looked and listened. Binoculars revealed that the strange people were in fact our own men, a sort of advance party, who had tried out some of the local military headgear, whilst they awaited the arrival of the gunners, us!
How relieved we were to know that we were there! The funny- looking lighthouse and eight ‘bumps’ nearby were to be home for the next month or more. We dumped our gear and made tea!
Soon the Major called me and my REME mate, Jock Wyness, and told us that two of the guns must be ready for action before nightfall. So, we examined them: –
• 6 X 76mm bore, 40cals. Vickers-Terni-Armstrong high altitude (85deg) guns made at Pozzuoli in 1918
• 2 X 40mm bore,39cals Vickers Terni pom pom guns
• 2X 6.5mm anti-aircraft machine guns
By swapping bits around (“Cannibalising”) we had three of the big guns ready for action that evening and Fired ‘seating rounds’ from them. Our objective was gained; the gun battery was captured, the correct ammunition was intact; we were ready for action, and very soon it was indeed “Action Stations” for us.
John Rowland Field.