Wednesday, 28 August 2019
Sferro Hills 1943/2019
I want to renew my thanks to all supporters of The Coincidence of Novembers and to say that editorial and design work on the book is progressing well. I also wanted to share an exploration made this July in Sicily, when Lisa, my wife, and I had the chance to trace the site of the Battle for the Sferro Hills, west from Catania. I have written this short account:
The Sferro Hills, Sicily, 1943/2019
Viewed from the South, Mount Etna rises magnificently above the Sferro Hills, and clouds were shrouding its higher slopes at mid-day on 12 July 2019. When my father, as a young officer with the Seaforth Highlanders, surveyed the scene with his field-glasses 76 years earlier the clouds were probably there too. As he later described:
It was a magnificent scene whose sweeping grandeur and delicate detail a middle-aged great-aunt (on one of her daring Victorian tours) would not have hesitated to express on cheap cartridge paper with misguided water-colours.
He sketched it himself on the afternoon of 30 July 1943, one day ahead of a key battle in the liberation of Sicily. But his purpose was not aesthetic.
And his focus was not the wide stretch of the valley but entirely on the route of attack about to be followed, with the objective of displacing German tanks and troops from the ridge east from the hill marked as Pt224. Etna had no place in his drawing. The operation by night would put particular pressure on him as an Intelligence Officer and his team which, together with the sappers, must make it possible for soldiers to cross the valley and ascend the hills safely, by the most advantageous route.
I took an afternoon off to draw a panorama of the Sferro hills. I lay next to a Middlesex machine-gun post in the thick dry couch-grass on the north-east slope of Mount Turcisi. The landscape in front was at peace … Below me on the right I could see the roof of Massa Turcisi, a huge and squalid farm. A track for vehicles had been found round the south side of Monte Turcisi leading to the farm and down to the dry stony bed of the R.Dittaino where Russell’s patrol reckoned Motorized Transport could cross. On the far side of the curling Dittaino wadi a white path twisted past a cottage and ran between gorze bushes and a cornfield to the line of the road and railway stretching together across no mans’ land … Across the road the Sferro Hills rose steeply; the grassy slopes mounted deceptively smoothly to Pt.224 at the northern end of the ridge. I turned my glasses on to a farm which stood half-way down the hill from Pt.224. It was called Iazzovecchio and a patrol had reported that the dogs still barked there. Not a sign of life now.
* * * * *
After the rout of Rommel’s troops in North Africa, the battle for the Sferro Hills was one of the last key confrontations with the German forces in Sicily before their withdrawal to mainland Italy. The Germans may effectively have been in retreat, but success was critical to prevent the regrouping of German troops or any resurgence of their panzer tank regiment.
There had been victory further south at Francofonte (where Paddy Nairne, a 22-year old veteran from the second battle at El Alamein the previous autumn, was awarded the Military Cross) but then a difficult engagement at Gerbini airfield. He had reason to be concerned about the view across the Dittaino valley. His own account links his sketch of the Sferro Hills with translating the Battle Orders into practical routes for the infantry to cross the valley and the dry river bed of the Dittaino.
In July 2019 Lisa and I were visiting Sicily and wanted to locate his vantage point. Much in the valley has changed: the A19 motorway running West-East parallel to the original road; a post-war cross-valley concrete structure; the recent upgrading of the railway to high-speed; the intensification of agriculture in the bed of the valley, and the addition of olive groves and fruit trees across the hills. Yet much was the same. After parking and walking the rough track up the lower slope of Mount Turcisi, we came to the wreck of the ‘squalid farm’ he had described as Massa Turcisi.
The farmhouse had been shelled by the German guns. Having been utilised as the base for the attack, this was no surprise. More surprising was the discovery that it had been left as a ruin, and allowed to collapse back into the landscape.
Lisa and I spent some time trying to triangulate the place from where my father had made his drawing. And although we couldn’t be certain of the exact spot, I found a place to sit with my sketchbook and draw from an equivalent position.
The battle would involve the Seaforth Highlanders and the Camerons:
It was to be a divisional battle. 152 Brigade were to take the Pte.224 feature and 154 the hill to the west of it. The Brigadier’s plan was for 5 Cameron to lead and capture Pt 224 itself; 5th Seaforth would follow the Cameron axis as far as Iazzovecchio farm and then attack north-eastwards to take Angelico farm, the green copse and the right-hand side of the hill.
[However] … as I put the finishing touches to my panorama I thought of the vehicles and supporting weapons. Not so easy for the chaps on their feet carrying picks and shovels, ammunition and rations; but to move the carriers, mortars, machine-guns, anti-tank guns of two battalions, one behind the other, down a rocky mountain, across a shingle river bed and up a steep hill against an enemy whose positions we could only guess and whose strength we did not know appeared a most hazardous business.
On the night of the 31 July the Allied attack was planned to start at 10pm. Paddy Nairne describes how he and others set off from Massa Turcisi an hour ahead to check whether the bushes and banks had been sufficiently levelled by the sappers for the crossing of the dry bed of the river. And then, as quietly as possible, they needed to lay white tape over the cornfield between the river and the level crossing, where the troops would cross both rail line and road before heading up into the hills.
Standing by the rail tracks today - the crossing-keeper’s cottage at Caponnelto still stands - one had to work hard to imagine the many fears of that night. So many things could go wrong, and the coordination between artillery fire from the Allied lines with the movement of soldiers towards the enemy was the first of these.
We retraced our steps and went two hundred yards when the barrage began. Monte Turcisi and the ridges right and left suddenly flickered with a hundred dancing flames. Immediately the air above us began to hum as rhythmically, but more harmoniously, as the symphony of seagulls on a seashore. We sniffed cordite and, looking back, saw the line of telegraph poles already obscured by a fog of dust punctured every few seconds by the red flash of a shell burst. We broke into a dog-trot. It was mentally disturbing to move away from the barrage: like turning one’s back on a house on fire. By now, I thought, the Camerons will have started.
As troops and weapons traversed the riverbed, crossed the fields, the rail track and the road, they faced the sloping track up towards the ridge of the Sferro Hills. And the schema of the panoramic drawing may have helped my father in checking and supporting the soldiers in their determination to capture the two key farms ahead.
But the night-time equivalent of this view would have had no easily identified landmarks.
… From the Observation Point on Monte Turcisi the track up the slopes to Pt. 224 had shone white in the sunshine. It had never occurred to us that it would be difficult to follow. Under the July starlight our patrols had had no difficulty in using it. But now visibility was down to ten yards. It was even hard to see the red tracer fired for direction by the Bofors. Suddenly A Company was again confronted with a choice of two tracks. One forked right, one left: nobody remembered this track junction. It was then a toss-up and I favoured the left. But we had been bitten once … The column stopped while investigation was made. We could not afford any error in the matter. To follow the Cameron axis to Iazzovecchio was an essential part of the plan.
They got it right. But at times the battle through the night was ferocious as the German troops had every reason to hold onto the Sferro Hills ridge tenaciously.
A misty dawn revealed our job unfinished. The green copse had been a German strong point and the going had not been easy. We could not yet stand among the bushes on the crest and survey the country on the other side of the hill. Scattered snipers prevented us. Nor clearly had the Camerons yet cleared Pt. 224 that overlooked us from the left. As the sun rose men were digging all over the hill.
Fighting through the day yielded better results but it continued through the afternoon.
The next three hours were the wearisome climax to the battle. The German tanks were dropping ‘fast balls’ all over the hill. Heavier caliber stuff droned overhead to the Sferro road behind us. Panzer Grenadiers assaulted Pt. 224, and one German tank forced its way gallantly to the peak. But six gunner regiments, backed by every anti-aircraft gun on the slopes, put down all they had in support of the Camerons. By two o’clock the Herman Goering battle group had had enough. The surviving tanks were seen driving away. The shelling slackened. By six o’clock it was just another still sunny Sicilian evening. The battle was over.
The losses were not as great as they might have been. And as my father put it, ‘With about thirty-five casualties in the Battalion it had been a “cheap” victory for us.’ But
… Perhaps this fact made the loss of Jack Davidson [Major J.H.Davidson DSO] seem all the sadder. For he died of his wounds in a dressing station below Monte Turcisi. No finer man ever fought and gave his life with 5th Seaforth.
* * * * *
To the South of Mount Turcisi stands a memorial to the 51st Division, unveiled on 4th November of the same year, 1943. It commemorates the losses from the Division for the whole Sicily campaign: 1,436 from all ranks.
My father’s 1943 map has survived, with the various key reference points visible:
He may have kept the map to help when writing his account of the battle while recovering from illness in the Military Hospital in Leeds later that year. He offered his narrative to his fellow officer Alastair Borthwick, to be incorporated into Sans Peur, the history of the 5th Highland Division, which Borthwick published in 1946 (and was reissued as Battalion: a British infantry unit's actions from El Alamein to the Elbe, 1942-1945 in 1994)
Or the map may have been, like his sketch, not just an aid to success in battle, but a momento of survival. My father would count himself lucky. Not everyone was.