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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Raid on Capo Murro di Porco

On the night of 9th/10th July 1943, the Allies launched Operation Husky, a major amphibious assault on the Axis-held central Mediterranean island of Sicily. The meticulously planned operation would see more than 2,600 ships and landing craft delivering 160,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, and 1,800 guns along 120 kilometres of coastline to the east and west of Capo Passero, the extreme south-eastern tip of the island. As the vast armada approached the coast, a small force of specially trained men carried out a surprise attack on a heavily armed coastal artillery battery in what was probably the first fight on Sicilian soil during Operation Husky.


The Lamba Doria battery had been constructed in the 1930s on Capo Murro di Porco, at the southern tip of the Maddalena Peninsula, which stretches out into the sea directly south of Syracuse. Armed with three 152 mm coastal defence guns and three 20 mm light anti-aircraft guns, it guarded the approaches to Syracuse and the Gulf of Noto and formed part of the Piazzaforte Augusta-Siracusa, a fortified zone based around the port cities of Augusta and Syracuse, and one of the most heavily fortified stretches of the Sicilian coast.


One of the 152 mm coastal defence guns at the Lamba Doria battery, being manned by members of the MILMART.

In July 1943, the Lamba Doria battery was manned by a mix of artillerymen and personnel from the Milizia Marittima di Artiglieria (MILMART) - a branch of the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (MVSN), better known as Blackshirts. From its position at the top of Capo Murro di Porco, the battery posed a serious threat both to the invasion beaches at the northernmost sector of the British landings to the south, as well as to an eventual assault on Syracuse itself. Clearly, for the operation to be successful, the battery would have to be silenced before the main landings took place.


This crucial mission was assigned to the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS), a new unit which had emerged from the recently reorganised 1st Special Air Service (SAS). The SAS was a unit of the British Army that had been formed in North Africa in July 1941 by David Stirling. Conceived as a commando force, its men had caused havoc whilst operating deep behind enemy lines in the North African desert, carrying out a series of daring raids on Axis airfields and supply dumps. However, with their maverick commander - Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling - being captured in Tunisia in January 1943, the men of the SAS were sent back to their training camp at Kabrit in Egypt, their future uncertain. Shortly afterwards, the unit was split into two, with half the men joining the newly created SRS, under the command of Major Blair 'Paddy' Mayne, and the other half making up the new Special Boat Squadron (SBS) under Major George Jellicoe.


David Stirling greets an SAS patrol on its return from a desert mission, in 1942.

By this time, Paddy Mayne was already something of a legend. A former rugby international for both Ireland and the British Lions, he was known for his utter fearlessness, stamina, and imperturbability in the face of extreme danger, and had been one of Stirling's original volunteers. Despite his reputation for having little respect for senior officers, and often disobeying orders, he was a gifted leader and a natural-born warrior. During the course of World War Two, Mayne would become one of the British Army's most highly decorated soldiers.


The fearless Robert Blair 'Paddy' Mayne would become one of the British Army's most highly decorated soldiers.

Although on paper, the SRS were answerable to a colonel commanding HQ Raiding Forces, it was very much Mayne's unit, and he immediately made it his mission to shape it and train it as he saw fit. On 20th March 1943, Mayne informed his men that they were to begin a very intense period of training - for what, no one knew, but it was going to be important. Within a week, they had set off for Palestine, where for the next two months they carried out intense physical training and long endurance marches in the oven-like heat. By the beginning of June, the men were in excellent physical shape and were ready to begin the final phase of their training. Boarding the converted Irish Sea ferry HMS Ulster Monarch, they set off on a further month of intensive training in seaborne assault, involving getting ashore in landing craft, climbing cliffs, and carrying out mock night-time attacks.


On 5th July, the SRS men left Port Said on board the Ulster Monarch, headed towards Sicily, and it was only now that their destination was finally revealed. With the use of intelligence reports, aerial photographs, and maps, the 18 officers and 262 other ranks of the SRS were fully briefed on their part in Operation Husky. Paddy Mayne had divided his men into three troops, together with a mortar platoon and a number of sappers who would be tasked with blowing up the guns.


The converted Irish Sea ferry HMS Ulster Monarch operated as a Landing Ship Infantry after being requisitioned by the Royal Navy.

As well as the battery itself, Allied intelligence had identified barracks, underground bunkers, and a nearby fortified farmhouse, known as Masseria Damerio. The plan was for the SRS men to land about half a mile to the southwest of the battery. No. 3 Troop was to land furthest west, clamber up the rocks, and head north to seize Masseria Damerio and cut the only road leading to the battery from the west, thereby making sure that no reinforcements could arrive that way. Mortar Troop would land to their right, before moving forward a short distance to the crest of a ridge from where they could fire on the battery. Next would be No. 2 Troop, who would also head north, before wheeling to the right and attacking the battery from the rear, while No. 1 Troop was to head straight to the battery and attack it from the west. Mayne’s idea was to completely confuse the defenders; in the darkness and early dawn, it would appear as though they were being attacked from multiple directions in a kind of pincer movement.



On the night of 9th/10th July 1943, the Ulster Monarch hove to off the imposing headland. At around 2 am, shortly before RAF Wellington bombers began a heavy air raid on Syracuse, the men were ordered to embark, and soon after, the landing craft were launched into somewhat rough seas. However, as they approached the shelter offered by the shore, the wind began to ease. Now, though, something else grabbed their attention; desperate cries were heard coming from the darkness around them. These were men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, who had been tasked with their own special mission. Flown in by gliders, they were meant to seize intact a key bridge leading into Syracuse, known as the Ponte Grande. However, owing to very strong winds and a lack of proper training for the pilots flying the towing aircraft, many of the gliders had been released too early and ended up ditching in the sea, leaving a large number of men desperately clinging on to the wreckage. One of the landing craft stopped to pick up a handful of survivors, but since the SRS mission was of the utmost importance, most of them had to be left to their fate. No less than 252 men from the 1st Airlanding Brigade and the Glider Pilot Regiment drowned that night.


A few hundred yards from the shore, the landing craft cut their throttles and coasted almost silently. Although in some places, the cliffs were up to 20 m high, particularly towards the eastern side, further to the west - where the SRS were due to land - they dropped away a little and the ground rose more gently, suggesting an easier climb. As the men came ashore between 3.15 am and 3.30 am, they were all surprised to find that the area had not been mined and that there was no enemy fire. However, it soon became clear that while the Mortar Troop and No. 3 Troop had landed in the right place, Nos. 1 and 2 Troops had come ashore around half a mile further to the east, and therefore almost directly south of the battery. Nonetheless, all teams made their way to the top of the cliffs and started to move in towards their objectives. Incredibly, it seemed that they had not yet been detected by the Italian garrison, most of which was still sheltering underground following the earlier air raid.


Captain Alexander Desmond Muirhead, whose Mortar Troop led the attack on the Lamba Doria battery.

Captain Alex Muirhead's Mortar Troop led the attack on the battery. With only their second round, they hit an ammunition dump, causing a massive explosion that perfectly illuminated the target. Red tracer from the SRS men began streaking and crisscrossing through the air, and although there was now some Italian green tracer as well, the response was half-hearted, to say the least. Most of the defenders appeared to be too shell-shocked or scared to offer resistance. A barracks, a command post, and three large underground bunkers were cleared one by one. By 4.30 am, the battery had been taken. While the SRS had not suffered any casualties of their own, 50 or 60 Italians had been killed or wounded, while another 50 had been taken prisoner. By around 5.30 am, the SRS men had moved clear of the battery, and the guns had been permanently put out of action by the sappers.


As Mayne fired green flares to signal that the battery had been destroyed, the raiding party was headed towards the Masseria Damerio to regroup, when a second battery, located around 3 kilometres inland, started firing towards the approaching Allied ships. Although the SRS had primarily been charged with destroying the Lamba Doria battery, Mayne had also been given latitude to take out any further enemy positions he encountered, and he now decided they would push on to the second battery, numbered AS 493. No. 3 Troop was instructed to take another fortified farmhouse, known as Casa Mallia. From a small lookout turret on its roof, it was possible to see the battery, located about a mile away. While Muirhead’s Mortar Troop bombarded the battery, Nos. 1 and 2 Troops were sent to capture it and put it out of action.


As the raiders advanced on the gun emplacements, they mopped up several groups of snipers and enemy strongpoints. A section from No. 1 Troop came upon a group of Italians waving a white flag, but as soon as they approached to round them up, the men fell flat and a machine gun opened fire from a nearby pillbox, mortally wounding 22-year-old Bombardier Geoffrey Caton. His colleagues immediately charged the pillbox, throwing grenades inside, before finishing off its occupants. Soon after, AS 493, which by this time had taken a number of direct hits from the mortars, was also taken after a brief firefight. However, more was yet to come.


SRS men celebrate the capture of Battery AS 493, with the battery’s rangefinder tower visible in the background.

Up ahead were two more batteries guarding the entrance to Syracuse's harbour, located at the northern end of the Maddalena Peninsula. The Emanuele Russo was another anti-ship battery like the Lamba Doria, while the second battery, numbered AS 309, was equipped with six 76 mm dual-purpose guns. The earlier fighting at the first two batteries seems to have had a demoralising effect on the crews of the last two however, as both were mostly abandoned and captured without much of a fight. Once again, their guns were disabled, and more prisoners were taken.


SRS men and sailors from Ulster Monarch examine a gun in the Emanuele Russo battery a few days after the battle.

Having finally silenced all the guns in the vicinity, the SRS men spent the night at one of the local farms, before moving westwards the following morning - 11th July - to link up with elements of the 5th Infantry Division who, having landed around Cassibile to the south of Syracuse, had captured the city the night before, thus achieving their D-Day objective. Having handed over their prisoners, the SRS crossed the Ponte Grande - the target of the 1st Airlanding Brigade two nights before - and marched into an almost deserted Syracuse. A panic had set in among the defenders when news of the landings had reached them. They had immediately started destroying their guns, and blowing up ammunition dumps and fuel stores, before deserting their posts en masse.


The SRS finally had some time to assess the result of their work: in less than 36 hours, they had captured or destroyed eighteen guns of various calibres, three rangefinders, and numerous machine guns and small arms. They had also taken over 500 prisoners and killed or wounded around 200 more. In return, the squadron had lost Bombardier Caton, while six other men had sustained injuries. The following day, having returned to the Ulster Monarch, they were given their next mission: Yet another seaborne assault - this time in broad daylight - on the naval base of Augusta, eighteen kilometres further north.


As the Ulster Monarch approached the harbour, escorted by three destroyers and a cruiser, the ships came under fire from a number of shore batteries, which was returned in even greater volume by the escorting warships, enabling the whole squadron to be landed on the eastern side of the city in two waves from the six assault landing craft available. As the doors of the landing craft opened, the men jumped straight into the water, up to their necks in some cases, and ran forward as bullets churned up the ground around them. Splitting into sections, they began clearing the town, which appeared to be completely devoid of any civilians. Although some pockets of enemy resistance persisted, by 4 am on 13th July, the lead elements of the 17th Infantry Brigade had arrived, and Augusta was secured. This final assault had cost the SRS a further eight wounded and two more fatalities: Corporal John Bentley and Private George Shaw, both medics.



On 21st October 1943, several members of the SRS received gallantry awards for their actions in Sicily. These included two Military Crosses and seven Military Medals. Major Paddy Mayne was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The official citation reads:


On 10 July 1943 and on 12 July 1943, Major R. B. Mayne carried out two successful operations, the first the capture and destruction of a Coastal Defence battery on Capo Murro di Porco, the outcome of which was vital to the safe landing of XIII Corps. By nightfall, Special Raiding Squadron had captured three additional batteries and 450 prisoners, as well as killing 200 to 300 Italians.


The second operation was the capture and holding of the town of Augusta. The landing was carried out in daylight, a most hazardous combined operation. By the audacity displayed, the Italians were forced from their positions and masses of valuable stores and equipment were saved from enemy destruction. In both of these operations it was Major Mayne's courage, determination and superb leadership which proved the key to success. He personally led his men from the landing craft in the face of heavy machine gun fire. By this action, he succeeded in forcing his way to ground where it was possible to form up and sum up the enemy's defences.


During the course of the war, Mayne would be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and became the Commanding Officer of the re-formed 1st SAS, which he would lead with great distinction through the final campaigns of the war in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Norway. He received a further two Bars to his DSO and was awarded the Légion d'honneur and the Croix de guerre by the post-war French Government. Sadly, he was killed in a car crash in December 1955, at the age of 40.



As for Capo Murro di Porco, today it forms part of a touristic area that boasts a number of scenic swimming spots. But still visible among the modern villas and tourist resorts are the crumbling remains of the Lamba Doria battery, where eighty years ago, the men of Paddy Mayne’s Special Raiding Squadron carried out the mission which proved so crucial for the success of Operation Husky.

 

References


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


Tudor, M. (2019). SAS in Italy, 1943-1945: Raiders in enemy territory. Fonthill Media.


Murray, I. (2018, November 22). SAS Special Raiding Squadron (SRS) – The Cliffs of Cape Murro di Porco. Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved March 4, 2023, from http://www.operation-ladbroke.com/sas-special-raiding-squadron-srs-cliffs-cape-murro-di-porco/


Murray, I. (2021, May 8). Paddy Mayne and the SAS Attack on the Second Battery. Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved March 4, 2023, from http://www.operation-ladbroke.com/paddy-maynes-decision-the-attack-on-the-second-battery/


Murray, I. (2021, May 8). Photo Story: SAS SRS & Airborne – Agony & Ecstasy in the Med. Operation Ladbroke - Feat of Arms. Retrieved February 27, 2020, from http://www.operation-ladbroke.com/photo-story-sas-srs-swimming-agony-ecstasy/




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