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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Operation Husky: The Fallen - Part Two

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Catania War Cemetery


Catania War Cemetery, located seven kilometres south-west of Catania, contains 2,135 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, 112 of them unidentified. Most of those buried here were killed in the later stages of Operation Husky, especially in the heavy fighting to establish a bridgehead across the Simeto river and advance across the Plain of Catania.



With the beachheads secured, the Allies started moving inland. In the Eight Army's sector, XXX Corps was to advance towards the area of Enna-Leonforte, while XIII Corps was to move northwards along the eastern coast, traversing the Plain of Catania, before seizing the port city and continuing towards Messina. To hasten XIII Corps' progress, two special operations were to be launched on the night of 13th July: The Malati Bridge, to the north of Lentini, would be seized by No.3 Commando in an amphibious assault, while further north, the Primosole Bridge, across the Simeto river, would be captured by the 1st Parachute Brigade. If both bridges could be seized intact, XIII Corps' infantry and armour could quickly pass through after dawn on the morning of 14th July. Whilst the plan looked good on paper, German reinforcements had already started arriving in Sicily, meaning that the fighting was about to get much tougher.


All the roads heading north towards the Plain of Catania converged at the Primosole Bridge, which lay across the Simeto River.

No.3 Commando landed at Agnone at 10.30 pm on the 13th as scheduled, and after advancing several kilometres inland, managed to take the Malati Bridge intact. By the early hours of the morning, however, XIII Corps had still not appeared, having been delayed by strong resistance south of Lentini. To make matters worse, German troops now launched a major counterattack. At one point, a Panzer IV appeared less than 200 metres away and began firing its heavy machine gun towards the Commandos, who were around the bridge with no cover. As they ran towards a wall by the side of the road, a number of men were wounded, and some were killed outright, including Lieutenant Anthony Danvers Cavendish Butler. 27-year-old Butler had originally joined the North Irish Horse before volunteering for the Commandos.


The Malati Bridge.

After several hours of repeated shelling and heavy mortar and machine gun fire, and with still no sign of XIII Corps, the Commandos were forced to withdraw, having lost 28 men killed, 66 wounded and 59 captured or missing. Six Commando dead, including Butler and another officer, 22-year-old Lieutenant George Charles Montague Cave, were buried at the bridge. Today, the two men lie side by side at the Catania War Cemetery.



Shortly after the Commandos had abandoned the bridge, XIII Corps finally arrived, forcing the Germans to fall back before they could blow it up. The British column pressed on towards the Primosole Bridge, where the second coup de main operation had also got underway according to schedule the night before. Unfortunately, by this time, the 1st Parachute Brigade had already run into serious trouble. Yet again, the airborne operation had gone awry. Most of the transport aircraft were subjected to friendly anti-aircraft fire, which dispersed the formation. Although 39 of them managed to drop their sticks on or near the allocated drop zones, 49 did not, with some of the men ending up as much as 30 kilometres from the target. Eleven transports were shot down, with many more damaged, while out of the nineteen gliders carrying anti-tank guns, only eleven successfully came down anywhere near the landing zones. The strength of the brigade in action was twelve officers and 283 men out of the 1,856 that had set off.


The south end of the Primosole Bridge.

Unlike in the case of Operation Ladbroke, pathfinders had on this occasion been sent in ahead of the main force, tasked with setting up beacons and flares to accurately mark the landing zones. The unit in question, known as the 21st Independent Parachute Company, was commanded by 47-year-old Major John Lander, who had pioneered the concept of pathfinders. Unfortunately, most of them were dropped miles away from their target, and those who were dropped in the right place were delivered an hour and a half after the arrival of the main body. Major Lander was not directly involved in the operation but decided to fly as a passenger in one of the aircraft towing the gliders so that he could observe the work of his men from the air. Sadly, he was killed when the aircraft he was flying in was shot down.



Also flying in on the operation was 35-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hamilton Payne Crawfurd. Commissioned into the Royal Artillery (RA) in 1927, Crawfurd saw service in Belgium and France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and was among those evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940. In 1942, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and in October of that year, he was appointed to the post of Commander Royal Artillery to the 1st Airborne Division. For the assault on the Primosole Bridge, he accompanied the 1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, RA, with the intention of acting as a forward observation officer to the advancing elements of XIII Corps. Yet the glider he was travelling in crashed on landing, and Crawfurd was among those killed.



Despite these mishaps, the small number of Paras that landed near the bridge managed to capture it successfully, taking a number of prisoners, and removing the demolition charges. By 6.30 am, around 120 men were dug in around both ends of the bridge, though with German troops both to their north and south. Just as in the case of the Commandos at the Malati Bridge, with the reinforcements from XIII Corps having failed to materialise, the lightly armed paratroopers were eventually forced to fall back once they had nearly exhausted their ammunition. Shortly afterwards, the leading elements of XIII Corps finally arrived on the scene, forcing the enemy to fall back in their turn, though only as far as the northern bank of the Simeto. Of the 295 men of the 1st Parachute Brigade who had fought at Primosole, 27 were killed, 78 were wounded, and a further ten were missing.


Among those killed was 23-year-old Sergeant Victor Padureano. Born in Belgium to a Romanian-born father and an English mother, Padureano had enlisted into the Royal Artillery before volunteering for airborne forces in 1942. After qualifying as a military parachutist in August of that year, he was posted to the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, with whom he served in North Africa. Padureano was awarded the Military Medal (MM) for 'conspicuous gallantry and leadership' on 28th March 1943 at Djebel Abiod, in Tunisia.



Another paratrooper killed in action on the same day - 14th July - was 22-year-old Lieutenant John Cecil Horner, commanding No.9 Platoon, 'C' Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion. Originally an accountant, he had enlisted into the Territorial Army in June 1939, before being granted an emergency commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Devonshire Regiment in November 1940. After volunteering for airborne forces, he was sent with a draft of reinforcements to North Africa in May 1943. Horner was among the many paratroopers who were dropped short of the Primosole Bridge. Whilst trying to lead his men towards it on foot, his party came across forward elements of XIII Corps, headed in the same direction. As Horner conferred with the driver of the lead Bren Carrier, a Kittyhawk ground-attack aircraft was mistakenly fired upon, and it proceeded to attack the column, dropping a bomb which hit the carrier, killing Horner.



In the meantime, the battle at the Primosole Bridge was far from over. Although the leading forces from XIII Corps had arrived too late on the 14th to go into battle straightaway, the 151st Infantry Brigade launched an attack at 7.30 am the following morning. This was repulsed with heavy losses, as was a second attempt later that night. It was not until a third attack on 17th July that the bridge was finally secured, by which point all three infantry battalions that comprised the 151st Brigade - the 6th, 8th, and 9th DLI - had suffered heavy losses in the often confused close-quarter fighting in the thick undergrowth. The whole area was pockmarked with shell craters, while the bloated, fly-covered corpses of the dead from both sides lay everywhere.


The aftermath of the battle at the Primosole Bridge.

Among those killed was Warrant Officer Class II (WO2) Ralph Foster Diston, of the 9th DLI. He had previously been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his actions at Wadi Zigzaou, Tunisia, on 21st March 1943, during the Battle of the Mareth Line, where he ended up being wounded. After spending time in hospital, Diston returned to his unit in time to take part in Operation Husky. The former miner died of wounds sustained at Primosole, aged 30.



Another member of the 9th DLI who fought at Primosole, earning a DCM, was WO2 Frederick Thompson, who was Company Sergeant Major (CSM) of 'C' Company. At one point, he had to take charge of the company after all the officers had become casualties. Although he survived the battle, he was killed three weeks later, on 9th August, aged 23.



Whilst the Primosole Bridge was finally in Allied hands for good, the expected rapid breakout failed to materialise, as the valuable time gained by the Axis forces in this delaying action had enabled them to establish a defensive line further to the north. In fact, attempts to continue the advance on this axis were heavily repulsed, with XIII Corps becoming bogged down, forcing the Eight Army to shift its attentions further west, where the 51st (Highland) Division, part of XXX Corps, had established a small bridgehead across the Dittaino river, near Sferro, by the morning of 19th July. Two nights later, the Highlanders were tasked with capturing Gerbini, beyond which lay the Simeto river, and then the Plain of Catania. Although they initially made good progress, by morning, a major German counterattack had driven them back to the south of the town, having suffered heavy casualties, including 38-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Robert Mathieson, the commanding officer of the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Mathieson had been standing on a tank, coordinating the battle, when it received a direct hit, killing its entire crew.



Another casualty from the same battle was 31-year-old Lieutenant Archibald Mackenzie MacVicar, a former teacher from Dunoon, who volunteered for the army soon after the war began. Originally enlisting in the Scots Guards, he was later commissioned in the 7th Argylls, with whom he fought in North Africa, being wounded at the Battle of El Alamein, and again at Wadi Akarit. Sadly, he failed to recover from his latest wound, suffered during the failed attack on Gerbini, succumbing to his injuries on 25th July. In the end, Gerbini would not be taken by the Highlanders until 1st August, by which point the newly arrived 78th Infantry Division had also captured the town of Catenanuova to their north-west, and was now advancing northwards to the hilltop town of Centuripe.



Guarded by some of the best German troops on the island, and only accessible via one winding, narrow road, Centuripe would be a tough nut to crack. On 2nd August, the 38th (Irish) Brigade was given the unenviable task of assaulting the town. After bitter house-to-house fighting, the enemy was driven from Centuripe by first light on 3rd August. Among those killed was 22-year-old Captain William Hanna, serving with the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers. Hanna, from Armagh, had previously represented Ulster in rugby, cricket and hockey. Soon after war broke out, he was commissioned into the Royal Ulster Rifles, with whom he travelled to North Africa in early 1943, before being attached to the Royal Irish Fusiliers as a platoon commander within 'D' Company towards the end of the Tunisian campaign. When the company commander was badly wounded, Hanna stepped up to the role, only to be killed whilst leading his men in the epic assault on Centuripe.



A very short distance away from the grave of Captain Hanna is that of another soldier from the same unit, Fusilier Edward Graham, who had originally joined the Territorial Army as a Private in the DLI, before transferring to the Royal Irish Fusiliers when war broke out. Although he survived the Battle of Centuripe, he was killed, aged 31, during an ambush by German soldiers ten days later, near the small town of Maletto, to the north of Catania, without knowing that his wife had given birth to twin boys just 22 days earlier. At the time of his burial, his body could not be identified, and his grave was later marked with a headstone bearing the inscription “Unknown Soldier”, while he was posted as missing. Years of research by his sons showed that only one soldier from his battalion who was killed in the area did not have a named headstone, suggesting that the unmarked grave was likely to be their father’s. It was only in 2017 that his sons, by now 74 years old, were able to attend a special ceremony at Catania War Cemetery, where a new headstone bearing Graham’s name was finally installed.



With the fall of Centuripe, the Germans realised that their position around Catania had become untenable, and so they started pulling back towards the next line of defences. XIII Corps, which had been on the defensive near the Primosole Bridge since 18th July, was now able to resume its advance, and having finally taken Catania on 5th August, continued northwards towards Messina, whilst dealing with rear guards, minefields and booby traps along the way. On 11th August, the 6th DLI were cautiously moving forward near Altarello when there was a loud explosion. Sergeant Albert Dunn, an ex-glass factory worker from Sunderland, had been awarded the MM for his bravery on the opening night of the Battle of El Alamein. On this occasion, he had been trying to lift a German anti-tank mine from the road, not realising that the mine itself was booby-trapped. The resulting explosion blew him in half. In 1946, Dunn’s father collected his son’s MM from the King at Buckingham Palace.



On the same day that Dunn was killed, 'D' Company of the 8th DLI was advancing down a side street in Giarre, just north of Altarello, when the town was hit by German artillery. One shell fell into the middle of the road, just in front of the advancing men. WO2 Selby Wardle was badly injured and was evacuated to the Regimental Aid Post to receive treatment. CSM Wardle, a former coal miner, had been a pre-war territorial with the 8th DLI. He served with the BEF in France in 1940, being among those evacuated from Dunkirk, before later seeing action with his unit in North Africa. Wardle was awarded a MM for his actions at the Battle of Primosole Bridge, which was later presented to his wife and young son since he sadly did not live to receive his medal in person, having succumbed to his injuries two days after he was wounded, aged 25.


 

References


Holland, J. (2020). Sicily '43: The assault on fortress Europe. London: Bantam Books UK.


(n.d.). Sicily 1943. Durham Light Infantry 1920-46. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://durhamlightinfantry1920-46.weebly.com/sicily-1943.html




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