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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The 231st 'Malta' Brigade in Operation Husky

The 231st Brigade was an infantry brigade of the British Army that would see action in both the First and Second World Wars. Originally activated on 14th January 1917, it joined the 74th (Yeomanry) Division in the first week of April, and fought in Palestine and on the Western Front during World War One, before being disbanded on 10th July 1919.


Like all other formations on Malta, the 231st Infantry Brigade incorporated the Maltese cross in its badge.

A new 231st Infantry Brigade was created on 1st April 1943 by the re-designation of the 1st (Malta) Infantry Brigade and was composed of three regular battalions that had been stationed in Malta since the start of World War Two. Like all other formations on the island, the 231st Infantry Brigade incorporated the Maltese cross in its badge, which consisted of a white cross on a red shield. The brigade would go on to take part in three amphibious assaults against enemy territory in the space of less than a year, in Sicily, Italy, and Normandy, distinguishing itself in all the campaigns in which it participated.


Malta


Since the 19th century, the Mediterranean island of Malta, situated between Sicily and the North African coast, had been a vital way station along Britain's lifeline through the Suez Canal, to India and the Far East. Malta’s importance increased following the outbreak of World War Two, when, being the only Allied base between Gibraltar and Alexandria, it was ideally located for British naval and air forces based there to attack enemy shipping transporting vital supplies and reinforcements from Europe to the Axis forces in North Africa.


When Italy had entered the war on the Axis side on 10th June 1940, there were only five regular British infantry battalions on the island, including the 1st Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment. Together with the 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Malta Regiment, which was eventually expanded to four battalions, they formed the Malta Infantry Brigade, which had a total strength of 4,540 British and 1,552 Maltese troops in June 1940.


A patrol from the 2nd Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment, near Għaxaq, Malta.

In the months that followed, the infantry strength was gradually increased, with a further six battalions having been sent to Malta by January 1942, including the 1st Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment, which arrived from Egypt in February 1941. Eventually, steps were taken to reinforce and expand the original pre-war brigade to divisional strength, duly reforming it into four brigades. The 1st Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment, and 1st Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment became part of the 1st (Malta) Infantry Brigade on 14th July 1942. These three battalions formed a cohesive unit, despite lacking the accompanying equipment of a full brigade.


Each brigade was allocated a chosen sector of the island and its own regional headquarters. The 1st Infantry Brigade was assigned to the Southern Sector, with its HQ at Luqa. Throughout the siege of Malta, the infantry battalions were mainly tasked with performing an anti-invasion role, in case the enemy attempted to land, either by air or by sea, and so were kept busy building and manning defence posts, wiring the beaches and keeping vigil along Malta’s coast. They soon found themselves also carrying out a variety of other roles, such as helping to unload the vital cargoes brought in by the convoys, as well as assisting in rescue and clearance work after air raids. Perhaps their most important role however, was keeping the airfields operational, filling in bomb craters on the runways after air raids, as well as being roped in to help the Royal Air Force ground crews to refuel and rearm the aircraft.


A Bren gun carrier of the Malta Garrison tows a trolley-load of 250-lb bombs to a Vickers Wellington at RAF Luqa.

The men of the 1st Infantry Brigade might initially have felt that they were missing out on the action, having instead to carry out dull garrison duties, but as the war in the desert grew in importance, and the Axis forces became more determined to subdue Malta, there was to be plenty of action after all. During the first months of 1942 in particular, the enemy launched a prolonged and concentrated bombing campaign on the island, as well as an attempt to starve it into submission through attacks against Allied convoys that were desperately needed to deliver vital supplies. The British garrison was to undergo, together with the population of Malta, the bombings, the famine, and all the hardships of the siege, until the situation started to improve by the end of 1942, due to Allied successes in North Africa. With this improved situation, it was felt that Malta’s garrison could now be reduced, and on 1st April 1943, the 1st (Malta) Infantry Brigade, now re-designated as the 231st Infantry Brigade, was sent to Egypt.


Egypt


Arriving in Alexandria, the 231st Infantry Brigade travelled on to Cairo, where it underwent training for the next phase of the war in the Mediterranean; the invasion of Sicily. In particular, the men brushed up on their infantry skills and amphibious training. On 5th May 1943, the brigade was moved to Kabrit, on the Suez Canal, for more comprehensive training in combined operations. It also took on additional artillery, engineer, and medical units, to enable it to operate as an independent brigade within the British Eight Army’s XXX Corps for the upcoming operation. Under the command of Brigadier Roy Urquhart, the 231st Independent Infantry Brigade embarked on the SS Otranto at Suez on 28th June 1943, ready to take part in what would be the first of three amphibious assault landings that it was to be involved in during the war.


The 231st Independent Infantry Brigade would be under the command of Brigadier Robert Elliot "Roy" Urquhart.

The Landings


The date for the invasion of Sicily had been set for Saturday 10th July 1943. Although it would eventually be overshadowed by the Normandy landings the following year, Operation Husky would be the largest amphibious operation of World War Two in terms of the size of the landing zone and the number of divisions put ashore on the first day of the invasion. Some 160,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, and 1,800 guns were to be landed on 26 beaches, along a stretch of coast some 170 kilometres long.


While the U.S. Seventh Army was assigned to land in south-central Sicily, in the Gulf of Gela, the British Eight Army would be landing in the south-east of the island: XIII Corps would come ashore around the area of Avola, in the Gulf of Noto, while further south, XXX Corps, would land on either side of Capo Passero. XXX Corps' sector had been divided into three: The 1st Canadian Infantry Division was to land on the western side of the cape, at 'Bark West', while the 51st (Highland) Division would land at 'Bark South', further east. The 231st Independent Infantry Brigade would be landing at 'Bark East', around the village of Marzamemi.



In the build-up to the landings, an incredibly detailed and complicated plan had been worked out with regards to the routes and timings of the naval convoys. The challenge of coordinating all these movements to make sure that they all arrived at the right place and at the right time was immense, since, apart from troops already stationed in the Mediterranean, part of the invasion force was made up of units that had begun their journey from Britain, such as the 1st Canadian Division, and even further afield, such as the U.S. 45th Infantry Division, which had departed from the east coast of the United States more than a month before. The 231st Independent Infantry Brigade had sailed from Suez with Force 'N', under Captain the Lord Ashbourne in HMS Keren. The troop transports were timed to arrive at the release positions just after midnight, allowing for the landing craft to be lowered and assembled, before they could begin their approach towards the beaches. H-Hour had been set for 2.45 am.


The weather for the voyage to Sicily had been perfect, but on the evening of 9th July, just hours before the landings, it deteriorated sharply, and the men in the landing craft had to endure an unpleasant trip to the beaches. Most of them were seasick, and in many cases completely soaked, although, by the early hours of the morning, the wind finally began to ease. Although the heavy swell and the darkness had inevitably created a fair amount of confusion, nearly all craft in the first flight touched down at the right time and place in virtually complete surprise.


Troops from the 231st Independent Infantry Brigade landing near Marzamemi.

Although the troops had been expecting a hard fight, the landings were rather anti-climactic: Since the Italian defensive plan did not contemplate a pitched battle on the beaches, the enemy troops made little effort to defend them. The 231st Brigade quickly established a beachhead around Marzamemi, and by noon, the Hampshires, Devons, and Dorsets had reached their objective, which was the road running north from Pachino towards Avola.


Moving Inland


With the 1st Canadian and the 51st (Highland) Divisions also having achieved their first-day objectives, XXX Corps started pushing inland on the 11th, with its next immediate objective being the Noto-Pozzallo road. The 51st (Highland) Division - with the 231st Brigade under command - and the Canadians were ordered forward simultaneously, with the Pachino-Rosolini road as the divisional boundary. During the first two days, they were to meet very little resistance, with most Italian troops they encountered being very keen to surrender. The 231st Brigade took Noto on the 11th, where they were enthusiastically welcomed by the locals.


British infantry marching through Noto.

On the afternoon of 13th July, however, resistance stiffened near the town of Vizzini, where steady and accurate artillery fire from the hills ahead brought the advance to a halt. A company of the Hampshires was given the task of assaulting the well-defended town, which sat 600 metres above sea level, but it soon became apparent that the position was more strongly held than first believed: Rather than Italian troops, the attackers were in fact facing the Reconnaissance Battalion of the German Panzer Division "Hermann Göring".


Lt. Col. Walter H. B. Ray, commanding the 1st Dorsets, observing enemy movements from a ridge in front of Vizzini.

A full battalion-strength attack by the Devons the following day also failed, with the Germans refusing to budge, and even launching a counterattack. By noon, the 51st (Highland) Division, advancing from the direction of Palazzolo, had joined the battle, but it was not until later that night that the town was finally taken. The 231st Brigade now reverted to an independent role and was tasked with advancing towards Caltagirone, following in the trail of the Canadians, who were tasked with capturing the town.


From Caltagirone, the brigade advanced northwards, in the direction of Raddusa, which was taken on 18th July, before continuing in the same direction towards the Dittaino river. That night, the Hampshires launched an attack to capture a bridge across the Dittaino and an area of high ground just beyond it, which was defended in strength by the Italians. The attack proved successful, with the Hampshires crossing the river and capturing two hills on the opposite bank which overlooked, and sat astride, the road leading towards Agira. At a cost of a few wounded, they had killed many Italians, as well as captured twenty officers and 864 other ranks.


In the course of the next days, the 231st Brigade pushed on, until they reached Agira - a medieval town perched on top of a high hill in the shadow of Mount Etna - where, now under the command of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, they were to face their hardest challenge so far.


Agira


The Canadian Division, which after Caltagirone had taken Piazza Armerina and Valguarnera, was now advancing eastwards from the direction of Assoro and Leonforte, which it had also captured after very heavy fighting. Agira was the next mountaintop town along the same long ridge which started in the west with Assoro and Leonforte and continued eastwards all the way towards Paternò.



The first attack on Agira was scheduled for the night of 22nd/23rd July. While the Canadians were to launch the main assault from the west, a synchronised attack was to be carried out from the south by the 231st Brigade. Although the 231st Brigade succeeded in its objective of securing a height located some two kilometres to the east of Agira, it was left in an exposed position when the Canadian attack faltered under heavy artillery and machine gun fire.


A second attack after midnight on the 24th was once again halted at Nissoria, a small village located in low ground between two ridges, around halfway between Leonforte and Agira. Although the Germans had not been expected to defend this area, they had in fact reinforced the two ridges and were not planning on giving them up easily. In the early hours of the 25th, the Canadians secured the first ridge and Nissoria itself but became bogged down after coming under fire from the second ridge. As a result of these reverses, the 231st Brigade, which had been holding on to its exposed position in the face of almost constant shelling and numerous German counterattacks, was left with no option but to withdraw on the evening of the 25th. Another Canadian attack that same night was once more repulsed, before the enemy was finally dislodged from the area of Nissoria on the night of 26th/27th July.


View of Agira.

The following night, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment fought their way eastwards, each capturing a height directly overlooking Agira. The loss of these heights made the town untenable, forcing the Germans to finally abandon it. Meanwhile, each night, the 231st Brigade had managed to regain its height, only to be eventually withdrawn from the isolated position. The brigade was also involved in the final attack on Agira on the 28th but was unable to intercept the German forces as they retreated from the town. The battle for Agira had cost the Canadians 438 casualties, and the 231st Brigade some 300 - a lot from just three infantry battalions. Later that day, the Canadian Division, still with the 231st Brigade under command, continued eastwards towards Regalbuto.


Regalbuto


The town of Regalbuto, to the east of Agira, was held by a strong battlegroup of the Panzer Division "Hermann Göring", including its Engineer Battalion, a company of Fallschirmjäger, eight tanks, and various artillery pieces and nebelwerfers. The defence was being overseen by the divisional commander himself, Generalmajor Paul Conrath, who had impressed upon his men the need to hold on to the town at all costs: Yet again, the Canadians and the 231st Brigade were in for another tough battle.


The Hampshires were the first to go in, on the night of 29th/30th July, but as they moved towards their objective - a long ridge running parallel and to the south of the highway that passed through Regalbuto - they came under a heavy crossfire from machine guns, mortars, and artillery, forcing them to abandon the attempt. The position was seized the following night by the Devons, while simultaneously, the Dorsets seized Monte Serione to the north of the town.


Men of the 1st Dorsets who were among the first British troops to enter Regalbuto.

In the early hours of 1st August, the Royal Canadian Regiment launched an attack on the precipitous Tower Hill, on Regalbuto’s south-eastern edge, but by daybreak, they were still out in the open, where they remained pinned down until pulling back under cover of darkness later that evening. As they were doing so, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment launched their own attack on Tower Hill, successfully capturing it after adopting a longer, flanking route to the south. When this was followed up by an assault on Regalbuto itself in the afternoon of 2nd August, it was discovered that the town was empty: Conrath had pulled out his men during the night. Regalbuto was in Allied hands.


Closing Stages


With the capture of Regalbuto, the fighting in Sicily was over for the 231st Brigade. With plans for the invasion of mainland Italy now underway, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the commander of the British Eight Army, had to plan how he could start withdrawing some of his units in Sicily in preparation for that next phase of the war. For the 231st Brigade, rest and maintenance were the order of the day.


Monument dedicated to the men of the 2nd Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment, who lost their lives during the Sicilian Campaign, located outside the town of Regalbuto.

On the evening of 11th August, German troops in Sicily began a full-scale withdrawal across the Straits of Messina, which was completed during the night of the 16th/17th: The Sicilian campaign was finally over. Despite the Allies’ failure to stop the Axis forces from withdrawing their remaining units from Sicily, Operation Husky had been a great success. The island had been captured in just 38 days, leading to the Mediterranean lanes being reopened to Allied merchant shipping. Despite its success, the 231st Infantry Brigade had sustained almost 600 men killed or wounded, with the 1st Hampshires losing over 300 men, the 1st Dorsets 189, and the 2nd Devons 113.


Later Operations


After a short period of rest and training, the 231st Brigade took part in its second amphibious assault of the war, landing at Porto San Venere, near Pizzo, on 7th September, as part of Operation Baytown. Yet on 23rd September, the brigade returned to Sicily, from where it embarked for home on 18th October, aboard the Durban Castle. The 231st Brigade was now an experienced amphibious assault formation and had been chosen to be amongst those spearheading the invasion of France. Now assigned to the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, it was to start training for the Normandy landings, scheduled for the spring of 1944.


Men of the 1st Dorsets firing their 3-inch mortars at the enemy near Hottot-les-Bagues, France, on 11th July 1944.

The 50th Infantry Division was tasked with landing on Gold Beach on 6th June 1944. This turned out to be the hardest and costliest of the 231st Brigade's three assault landings, and the Battle of Normandy exacted a heavy toll on the brigade. The Normandy campaign was followed by more heavy fighting in North-West Europe, before the 50th Infantry Division was withdrawn back to the United Kingdom on 14th December 1944, where it was downgraded to a reserve division. The much-depleted 231st Brigade would serve as a training brigade until it was finally disbanded late in 1945.

 

References


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




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