Chapter 15 (1943-1944)

The Invasion of Italy: Part 2 - Anzio

Time to Explore Malta

The good ship Flores finally entered Grand Harbour on Sunday 22nd August 1943, where we found mail awaiting us and were able to sample the modest delights of life ashore. In no time tension relaxed and we remembered there was another world, though the sound of a telephone bell instantly recalled "Action Stations" and the adrenalin flowed violently.

flores at malta

HNMS Flores in Malta Harbour - photo taken from the deck by the author

Malta in those days was an incredible sight. Grand Harbour itself was filled to bursting with warships and merchant ships of all kinds, for whose crews the only practicable route to shore lay in a dhaisa, or high-prowed little boat seating four to ten people and propelled by a single oar over its stern, with a twisting motion. There were dozens of them. Arriving at the quayside at Valletta, one was faced with a long walk up to the town itself, which lies on a hill overlooking the harbour, or queueing for an ancient and rather precarious lift. Valletta possessed a stately main thoroughfare called King Street at the head of which lay the ruins of the once beautiful Opera House and along whose length were many shops, badly damaged and with hardly anything to sell but still conveying a sense of ordered and civilised life. I found later there was a notable distinction between towns which had suffered, however badly, but not changed hands and those which had been occupied and fought over.

“The Gut”
Parallel with this elegant concourse however was another, totally different, a narrow lane running in steps down to the harbour and officially named Strada Strata or Straight Street, but known to generations of sailors as "The Gut". It contained innumerable bars and in 1943 was filled every night with a seething mass of sailors, marines and soldiers of all nationalities, laughing, drinking and taunting each other, so that it was difficult to force one's way in any direction still less to find a space in a bar. Brawls were common and both British and American naval patrols constantly thrust their way through the crowds to break up minor scuffles and cart offenders away. Ladies of dubious repute, in fact no repute at all, plied their trade from whatever slight security they could find behind bars and tables or from upstairs windows. One bar was run by a homosexual called "Sugar" (the euphemism "gay" was unknown then) who provided a constant barrage of remarks, suggestions and insults to which his customers made loud and lewd replies; his bar was always popular.

A stone's throw away from all this mayhem one again found the gracious homes and manners of ordinary people, living quiet, moral lives and apparently treating these outrageous visitors with great tolerance. In war, when no-one knows what the next day will bring, "normal" behaviour becomes difficult to define and some form of emotional outlet in the shape of high spirits is inevitable. I have to say, however, that only rarely did I see wanton destruction for its own sake of the kind which today so often accompanies political demonstrations or even a football match in our own country.


Malta in 1983
Thirty years later, I returned to Malta on holiday and it was a strange experience. British rule had ended and thanks to the manipulations of a left-wing Government and an enforced close alliance with their supposed "brothers" in Libya, the Maltese had become distanced from Europe, its culture and its trade. The vast expanse of Grand Harbour was empty save for one visiting British frigate. Sliema Creek, where the "trots" or moorings for the Destroyer Flotillas once lay was similarly bare, and the great dockyard almost moribund.

The European connection was just being renewed and tourism - such as my holiday - was beginning to expand. But of the heaving, sweating, shouting, laughing, rough, vital and exhilarating mass of young men who once thronged Strada Strata and the main towns of Malta there was nothing. It was as if they and the mighty battle fleets they served had never been.

wee georgie wood    Douglas Fairbanks Jr. - USN 2Left: Wee Georgie Wood (with Laurel and Hardy). Right: Douglas Fairbanks Jnr during WWII

To Bizerta
But to return to 1943. We stayed only a few days in Malta, then set sail for Bizerta, a superb harbour on the North African coast and once a vital French naval base. The huge expanse of water provided wonderful swimming, and we would scrounge lifts ashore in any sort of boat that happened to be passing. Not that there was much of a town, but we mixed with many Americans, whose open-hearted generosity came as a surprise to us "Limeys" with narrower or more cautious natures. We were delighted to be entertained by British artistes from ENSA, including Wee Georgie Wood, a diminutive comedian of whom few readers will have heard today but who was then nationally known. We were also somewhat startled by the sight of attractive young British actresses in the group, with pale faces and light-coloured hair, and realised that we had seen only Mediterranean girls for many months, and not many of them. A visitor to our little ship, for business not entertainment, was none other than the film star Douglas Fairbanks Junior, then a Lieutenant in the United States Navy.

Frank and I had put in applications for a commission which had been sent forward. Everyone had to do at least six months at sea on the lower deck before being considered and we spent much of our spare time learning the finer points of naval life from the Manual of Seamanship which every sailor had (and I still have). After ten days' peace and quiet in Bizerta, however, we sailed again, this time with two US sailors on board. Both were communications men and the Telegraphist possessed an amazing device: he brought a typewriter with him and would transcribe Morse-code messages straight onto the machine. It was apparently standard American practice to teach their men to touch-type. Royal Navy Telegraphists wrote their messages laboriously on signal pads and I doubt if anyone ever thought of doing otherwise.

Our destination was Palermo, on the Western side of Sicily, and from there we were told would be launched another invasion, this time on the Italian mainland. As feared, the Italian change of heart had not manifested itself to any great degree in Sicily; in fact HMS Newfoundland had been torpedoed by an Italian submarine which was later forced to the surface and sunk by gunfire, including accurate fire from our own guns. But we now heard a positive announcement that Italy had surrendered. More importantly, the still powerful Italian fleet had finally thrown in the towel and was at that moment making its way to Malta, whence the British Commander-in-Chief sent a stirring Nelsonian signal to London saying something like “Be pleased to inform his Majesty that the Italian Admiral has struck his flag and the Enemy Fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the Fortress of Malta”. It took took a weight off our minds.

The Landing at Salerno
Forty eight hours later we were off Salerno, just south of Naples, where myriad landing craft were pouring men and material ashore. We spent all day firing at German guns and tanks, with considerable success we later discovered. The next day was quieter as the troops consolidated their precarious foothold and moved inland, but the first days of an invasion are always very hazardous indeed to the invaders and we prowled up and down the coast lending support wherever possible. That night there was a fierce air raid and while I was on watch in the radio room there was a rapid whoosh and a tremendous crash. When you are really close to an explosion it is like being hit with a stupendous hammer; the "boom" and billowing smoke which those farther away observe are merely products of it. I thought the ship had been hit as she quickly listed to starboard, but it transpired that it had been a very near miss indeed and had ruptured oil and water tanks below sea level.

Next morning a diver went down to examine the damage and it was decided that we would have to crawl back to Palermo and thence to Malta for repairs. While waiting, we heard another heavy explosion nearby and saw smoke billowing from the American cruiser Savannah. She had been hit by a radio-controlled bomb from an aircraft at 20,000 feet which pierced the fore part of the ship and exploded among the messdecks, killing about two hundred sailors. 

savannah


We were ordered to leave this dreadful sight and hesitantly moved away from the noise and smoke of battle, accompanied by another lame duck, the monitor Abercrombie which had struck a mine and also an Italian submarine which followed us on the surface, having surrendered. The Abercrombie was fitted with "torpedo bulges" which had in fact successfully absorbed most of the force of the mine's explosion. During the journey I was taken below below her decks and was able to see the buckled plates and invading seawater clearly visible in the bowels of the ship.


Palermo and the Ex-Foreign Legionnaire
We crept down to Palermo where both damaged ships were taken into the small dockyard and the crews could go ashore. I had never seen poverty of such a kind. The town was relatively undamaged but the buidings were dreadfully dilapidated and the lives of the people seemed quite primitive. Italy was then a defeated country, despised and rejected by both sides, and subject to either German or Allied military government, according to who occupied which part of it. For us, however, the American Forces offered the freedom of their extensive recreational facilities and we enjoyed swimming, boating and excellent meals at a sandy coastal lido. In this respect the US Navy differed from our own, which seemed never to give a great deal of thought to providing somewhere for its sailors to go.

My shore companion was frequently a man called Francois from the French Foreign Legion, one who had been conscripted to the Dutch Navy when we called at Algiers. Although he had served many years in French Indo-China and seen active service both there and in the Sahara, he was a most charming and aimiable man. With my schoolboy French and his abysmal English we nevertheless contrived to communicate. His one oddity was that his first action on setting foot ashore was to seek out a suitable brothel, after which he would meet me and we would discuss the world over a beer or coffee. It was the only life he knew and these the only women he ever met. I was surprised to learn from him and other lifelong adventurers that the ladies were often quite cultured and affectionate, abandoned by husbands and dependent on this, the only available livelihood, to bring up their children. They had a strict if businesslike code ofconduct; and in a good "house" their clients for the most part were expected to treat them with respect. But I must admit that I never had the slightest inclination to investigate the matter personally.

Change of Plan
As I have remarked before, a sailor's life is that of a nomad and sure enough, after a couple of weeks we set sail again. We'd had relatively easy living in harbour for ten days but now we set off for Alexandria, much to everyone's consternation. We were on our way to the Far East to fight the Japanese, a fact which those of the ship's company who had met them did not look forward to.

However, after a day at sea we were suddenly ordered to leave the other ships and return to Bizerta. Twenty four hours later we set off again, this time to Naples where we arrived on 10th October. The Allied armies had consolidated their first tenuous hold on the Italian mainland and controlled most of the South but had only managed to reach Naples in the North, a few miles from Solerno. Here was a city kept going by the iron grip of the Military. Sunken ships lay at all the quays, scuttled by the Germans, and we tied up against one, a huge freighter which even lying on its side dwarfed our hull. 

Flores Naples 1943

The Flores at anchor in Naples Harbour, 1943

We spent several weeks at Naples, including my 21st birthday on 18th December. Our Dutch Captain, Commander Bak, somehow found an English language copy of David Copperfield, printed (and obviously translated) in Italy and sprinkled with howlers, which he kindly gave me as a present and which I still have. The British chaps also decided to celebrate with a laced-up plum duff, for which purpose Ginger and I scoured Naples for a bottle of cognac, which we eventually ran to earth looking very smart with gold paper wrapping. We decided to sample it on our return to the ship and found ourselves with a hangover before we had finished the first glass. Fortunately we stopped there: the "cognac" was in fact 100-octane aviation spirit. The duff, alas, had to be jetisoned.

“See Naples and Die”
During this time we carried out sundry bombardments a little way up the coast, the Germans having made a stand at the Monastery at Monte Casino and able to dominate the narrow coast road. On one occasion we were dive-bombed by four Messerschmidts who descended on us with screaming engines; happily they missed us, but only just. The plume of water created by an exploding bomb or shell consists largely of steam and a very fine mist and is quite impressive when one is engulfed by it, though I must admit that admiration was far from our minds at the time. The destroyer Laforey accompanying us was not so lucky and had one man killed and nine injured. One could tell how ships had fared on a forey because they returned to harbour with guns pointing downwards if they had suffered casualties. And on one sad occasion we fished the body of a British fighter pilot out of the sea and took him back to Naples for burial.

We spent some eleven weeks going in and out of Naples, long enough to regard it almost as “home”. The weather was in fact putrid and the Allied advance came to a halt in a sea of mud. We always felt we had a better life than the soldiers or “Pongos” as they were inexplicably called, because we had hot water and regular hot meals. A soldier is always utterly dependent on the weather since in action he just lives permanently out of doors, often in a trench or foxhole. However, I never met a soldier who envied us the claustrophobia and the endless, merciless movement of life in a warship. Christmas Day came and went, with a fine dinner for all hands; but 29th December saw us up the coast in a surreptitious but spectacular night action in company with the cruiser Orion, pounding a little place called Gaeta where the Germans still held the coast road. Then, the very next day we were ordered back to Malta where we arrived at 7am on New Year's Day, sick and weary from fighting through a ferocious storm.

So ended 1943, which I had begun as a make-believe sailor and ended as a battle-tested sea salt. We were aware that the tide of war was changing and dimly perceived that victory would come our way one day - but when, and at what cost, we dared not contemplate.

A Too-brief Respite
We spent a pleasant ten days at Malta, though a sailor's pay was so small that sometimes one just ran out of money and had to stay on board. One day, while the ship was taking on ammunition, two or three of us watched a line of men struggling up an iron ladder, each carrying a heavy six-inch shell on his shoulder. Suddenly one of them stumbled and dropped his shell, which bounced on every step with a loud clang, finally coming to rest in the scupper. We stood petrified, expecting at any second to disappear into eternity; but, as we afterwards realised, the shells were not fused at that stage and the explosive is pretty stable until it is detonated.

On 11th January we received orders to sail and set off back to Naples, where we could not land because of a typhus epidemic sweeping the country so spent the night outside the harbour, dropping small grenades to deter "human torpedoes" - so called because a man could sit astride one to guide it to its target before swimming away safely himself. The Italians pioneered this form of attack and were very skilled at it: some of them clearly had not yet decided to accept the surrender which their Government had decreed.


Another Invasion
Two days later, to our great delight and amazement, two men suddenly appeared on board as reliefs for Frank and myself to enable us to return to UK for our Commission course. But it was not to be as easy as that. Instead of taking all our belongings and saying goodbye to the Flores, as expected, we were kept on board on the excuse that there was no accommodation ashore for us. Six days later the ship was suddenly brought to 30 minutes' notice for sea, then left harbour, took on oil and headed north. Some hours later we arrived at "P" Beach in the area of Anzio just south of Rome, where the British and Americans were making a landing to try to break the German stranglehold on the roads from Naples. The landing itself was a complete surprise and the troops got ashore easily and made good headway. But the American General hesitated and the Germans, who were masters at reading the situation and seizing every opportunity, quickly brought up strong reinforcements and instead of reaching a virtually defenceless Rome in a few days, as they could have done, the Allies were held ignominiously with their backs to the sea. They remained thus until weeks later when the main armies broke through from the South and occupied Rome. At this point, the Germans agreed to abandon Rome without a fight in order to spare it from destruction. (They did the same for Florence, whose priceless treasures were thus saved for posterity).

While the desperate fighting went on ashore at Anzio, we prowled up and down the coast, giving gunfire support wherever we could. The German Air Force, on the other hand, had a large number of inviting targets and we were subjected to heavy raids. On the second day of the invasion a group of torpedo bombers appeared out of the setting sun. As luck would have it, they came upon the destroyer HMS Janus just a few hundred yards to seaward of us and she was hit, blew up and sank in minutes with few survivors. We never knew whether other torpedoes had been aimed at us but had missed. Years later, I learned that the Germans had experimented with attacks by mini-submarines on the ships at Anzio, fortunately without success.

There followed severe night attacks. Frank and I had no duties because our reliefs had taken over, so we just had to sit playing cards on an iron hatch-cover through the bedlam of fire and explosion outside as if nothing were happening. However, after five days the weather intervened and the Flores took on an enormous wave which poured through an open hatch into the engine room, completely wrecking the main switchboard on its way. We were quite helpless, with no radar or radio, and spent the black night wandering over the high seas hoping not to meet anything.

Goodbye to the Flores
In the morning the ship was ordered to return to Naples where, scarcely believing that we were still alive, Frank and I left the Flores and took up residence in the makeshift barracks ashore to await passage to Malta and home.

A week later we joined the destroyer Grenville, accompanying a slow convoy down the coast of Italy, past the island of Stromboli with its active volcano and through the Straits of Messina, pausing briefly at our old stamping grounds of Augusta and Syracuse - a delightful cruise made more beautiful by the peaceful contrast with our former acquaintance with the area. We duly deposited our merchant ships at Bizerta, then were ordered post-haste to Malta, which we made at an average speed of 25 knots or nearly 30 miles an hour. This is pretty fast at sea and it was an exhilarating experience to carve through the water like an express train with a high bow wave and a long white boiling wake.

In Malta, we spent a happy two weeks, but imagine our surprise when we woke one day to see the Flores lying in Sliema Creek; still more when told that she was returning to UK, and we would be sailing with her! And so it came to pass that on 25th February 1944 Frank and I, on board Flores once more, left Malta bound for Portsmouth and home.

My father describes the action off the coasts of Sicily and Italy from his view in the wireless room. Another altogether fascinating perspective of the activities of Flores and Soemba was printed in a Dutch newspaper published in August 1943. Entitled “The Terrible Twins”, it makes fascinating reading.
Click here to read it


Next Page . . . Chapter 16: Doodlebugs

Previous Page . . . “The Terrible Twins 

Or return to Chapter 14: Invasion of Sicily



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