Battle Honour, SICILY 1943

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The theatre distinction SICILY 1943 is emblazoned on the Queen's Colours of The Royal Irish Regiment.

Following the Allied victories in North Africa, the Allies next attacked what Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as 'the soft underbelly of the Axis'. The first major objective was Sicily and Operation HUSKY, was launched. Five of our former Regiments' battalions fought through Sicily serving in the 5th Infantry Division, 50th (Northumbrian) Division and the 78th (Battleaxe) Division. The 117 Light AA Regiment (formerly 8 RUR) would arrive from North Africa in August, having been inadvertently diverted via Malta to be almost immediately attacked by Messerschmitts before moving forward to protect the airfields at Lentini. Operation HUSKY culminated in the liberation of Sicily in September, 1943.

The first landings were on 10 July near the ancient city of Syracuse. General Montgomery's Eighth Army would advance up the eastern side of the island, encircling Mount Etna, while Patton's American Seventh Army would advance up the western side - both heading for Messina to the east. Our former regiments in Sicily were the 2nd Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 13 Brigade, the 1st Battalion The London Irish Rifles (1 LIR) in 168 (London) Brigade, and in 38 (Irish) Brigade, the 6th Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 2nd Battalion The London Irish Rifles and the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Docking at Syracuse on 13 July, 1 LIR, with the 50th Division advancing along the east coast on Montgomery's right flank, marched to Mellili. The first action for the Battalion was on 17 July as the left forward battalion in a 168 Brigade night attack against the German defensive line along a wide ditch, the Fosso Bottaceto. They advanced with swords* fixed and were engaged in close quarter battles and confused fighting. Having achieved the Germans' first line of defence through 'sheer guts ... vigour and dash', the situation became precarious as the battalion on its right flank failed to reach its objective. As the Brigade was unable to move forward a reserve battalion, 1 LIR withdrew around first light after its worst single daily losses during the Second World - 34 dead and more than 100 wounded.

Next in action was the 2nd Inniskillings on 19 July when 13 Brigade, also on the Eighth Army's right flank, advanced to the River Simeto to seize the enemy held bridge LEMON. This resulted in a significant breach of the German defensive line and, following a short rest, the 2nd Inniskillings pressed forward again to Sferro where they mounted aggressive patrols against the Germans intent on holding positions to protect their Gerbini airfield. When later involved in pursuit operations on the slopes of Mount Etna, Montgomery visited and congratulated the Battalion on its operations and fighting to date. The Battalion had been attempting to overcome Tremonte, a German strong-point near Pedara that had been successfully holding out to cover their troops withdrawing to the rear. Monty issued a challenge, stating that if the Inniskillings didn't succeed with their second attack, he would direct a brigade to overcome the objective. Rising to the challenge, a night attack was mounted and by the morning of 8 August, the 2nd Inniskillings had captured Tremonte! His last contact with this Battalion had been in Egypt when it had joined Eighth Army in preparing for the move to Sicily. His message of welcome had included the words 'very proud indeed to welcome these Irish soldiers into my Eighth Army'.

6 INNISKSOn 28 July, 38 (Irish) Brigade arrived in Sicily. Over the next three days, they headed north over very difficult mountain roads, arriving on 1 August at Catenanuova to the south-west of Mt Etna to take part in Montgomery's 'left hook' around and to the west of Mt Etna. The Division's objective on Montgomery's left flank, was to unhinge the German defensive lines and lateral supply roads to the west of Catania. The Irish Brigade was directed to attack Centuripe. The terrain over which they had to operate was rocky and craggy - similar to the terrain they had fought over in North Africa. When Centuripe fell on 3 August to the Irish Brigade, the German defensive line to Catania began to crack. It had been a tough operation over difficult country and against a dogged enemy. Montgomery declared 'The taking of Centuripe was a feat which will live in the annals of British Arms'.

(Above, Carriers and troops of the 6th Inniskillings move up to Catenanuova.(© IWM (NA 5399))

The advance continued despite heavy fire and the extensive cratering of roads by the enemy. Crossing the River Salso on the 4 August, patrols penetrated forward to the River Simeto. After a hard battle the Irish Brigade forced a crossing enabling the other two brigades of the 78th Division to pass through and capture further objectives. The Irish Brigade had advanced from 1-5 August over a distance of some 25 miles, overcoming the enemy in three major intense actions at Centuripe, the River Salso and the River Simeto. As the other brigades in the 78th Battleaxe Division passed through and took up the fight, the Irish Brigade reorganised and recovered with five days of rest on the banks of the River Simeto.

The next task for the Irish Brigade was to capture the German defensive positions at Maletto and then advance to link up with the 1st (US) Division on the route to Randazzo. The Battle of Maletto was fought on 11 August when a night attack secured the objectives, though at the cost of many casualties. The offensive was successful all along the line and the enemy pulled out of Catania, withdrawing rapidly to the coast where they aimed to escape intact from Messina across the Straits to mainland Italy.

The advance continued, in very hot weather, delayed by pockets of resistance where our Battalions continued to take casualties. They were joyfully greeted by the Sicilians who, though officially still enemies, were in effect being liberated, and they didn't care much for their mainland cousins - reserving a particular hatred for Mussolini. There were light-hearted moments too and when Major Brooks, commanding C Company of 1 London Irish arrived at Battalion Headquarters, fatigued and covered in dust, he was greeted by the Second-in-Command saying 'Hullo, Bill, what sort of a day have you had?' to which Brooks replied 'Frightful, I have been kissed by an Italian!'

Soon, the great race between General Patton and General Montgomery was over and when the Americans broke into Messina at the northern end of the island, Sicily was liberated.

The theatre Battle Honour SICILY 1943 was awarded to our former Regiments and was carried forward by The Royal Irish Rangers in 1968 and then passed to The Royal Irish Regiment in 1992.

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A 'sword' is a Rifle regiment's traditional title for a bayonet.

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