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The Italian Star

 

Highland Division PhotographThe 51st (Highland) Infantry Division. The division was nicknamed the "Highway Decorators" in reference to the 'HD' insignia which adorned road signs along their axis of advance.

As the North Africa campaign was coming to an end the location for further operations remained a closely guarded secret. The Division crossed to Malta on the 5/6 July. The Division formed part of 30 Corps and landed in Sicily at the southeast tip of the island near Pachino. They landed on 10 July and were largely unopposed and pressed in land to secure the bridgehead.  On 13 July the Division was south of Vizzini and Francofonte. After an initial failure by other forces on Vizzini, the 51st Highland Division were ordered to take over the assault. This was successfully achieved on 14 July. At the same time they met determined defence at Francofonte and this position was also taken after fierce action.  The Division now continued the advance and on the night of 19 July they pushed forward towards Gerbini. The initial attack was unsuccessful and a further attack was mounted on the night of 20 July but this was also rebuffed with heavy losses. Montgomery now decided that there was no point in pressing on in this sector and ordered them to pull back.  Between 31 July and 1 August the Division mounted a Divisional assault on Sferro hills. The position was taken but in order to press forward the 78th Division was moved up to take the lead.  Pushing their way northward, the Division encountered only minor skirmishes. With their help, the Americans and Canadians were able to advance on Messina.  With the Americans taking over for the final push on Messina, the Division awaited leave of duty. General Wimberley was called away on urgent business in Britain.  He said to his men -
It is naturally easiest on this occasion merely to recall to memory some of the milestones passed in the long road which we have travelled together, ever onwards, from Scotland right across Africa and into Europe. 
For instance, the many tributes which your spirit, discipline and behaviour brought from those leaders best qualified to compare us with other Divisions in those now far-off days at home.
ALAMEIN
, and that moonlight night, when you went into your first battle, new and untried as individuals, but bearing in your historic tartans and your Pipes an inheritance of centuries of gallantry from your forebears, and each bearing Scotland's banner in your hearts.

MERSA BREGA and its mines, and our gallant Engineers who died as we went on.
BUERAT, and the rapid advance to RIPOLI, when your spirit to get forward, from the leading Highlander to the very back of the Division's Administrative Services, resembled a living flame.
MARETH, when you showed that the Highland Division could defend as well as attack.
The race for SFAX. That hard fight at AKARIT, when you pressed through mines and wire and defences as on a field-day, but paid the inevitable price for your gallantry.
The SICILIAN beaches; and now FRANCOFONTE, GERBINI, SFERRO and its hills, almost still reverberating with the crash of our artillery as our Gunners hammered the German infantry and tanks, and as our ?Die-hard? machine-gunners fired their belts on the bullet-swept tops of SAN ANTONIO.
By your deeds, it is not too much to claim that you have added to the pages of military history, pages which may well bear comparison with the stories of our youth, telling us of our kinsmen who fought at Bannockburn, Culloden, Waterloo, the Alma, and at Loos. Further, in achieving this you have earned, as is indeed your due, the grateful acknowledgments of your Country.

Ye canna mak' a sojer wi' braid an trappin's braw, 
Nor gie him fightin' spirit when his back's ag'in the wa'.
it's the breedin' in the callants that winna let them whine,
The bluid o'generations frae lang, lang syne.'

No individual, no Regiment, no Division can afford to rest on its laurels. Just as your fathers in the Highland Division won their proud position as the premier fighting formation in 1917 and kept it through many weary months, so must you, in this generation, maintain your reputation to the end of the road. To do this, you must ever set your own standards, you must 'gang your ain gait'; you must choose the hard and not the easy path. Your discipline and behaviour, your saluting, your battle drill, your battle technique must continually be overhauled and be kept at the highest level, come what may.  Provided all this is maintained, then, with your national background and your great morale, you will, in due course and God willing, fight your last battle as bravely and successfully as you fought your first - proud that all must still grant to you your Alamein motto of ' Second to None.'

For myself, I can best thank you in the farewell words of my great predecessor Sir Colin Campbell, who led our same famous Highland Regiments to such glory nearly 100 years ago- "From the bottom of my heart."

After General Wimberley's departure the division spent a further 3 months in Sicily.  On 4th November 1943, on Sferro Hill, in the presence of representatives of the 51st Highland Division a stone Celtic Cross was unveiled. A service entitled "51st Highland Division - Dedication of Memorial" was held.  The total casualties of the Division in the campaign had been 124 Officers and 1312 other ranks.  The Division sailed from Catania and was back in Britain before Christmas and was based in Buckinghamshire (Probably Bicester).

 

Highland Division Photograph

The campaign in Sicily was called Op Husky. In January 1943, Winston Churchill and the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with their senior military advisers at Casablanca, Morocco, to devise a military strategy for the coming year. With the North African campaign moving toward a successful conclusion, the leaders of the two nations debated where to launch their next blow. After several days of negotiations, they agreed to make Sicily their next target.  The original Allied plan was to launch two widely separate landings in the north-west and south east of the island. General Montgomery objected on the grounds that this approach violated the principle of a combined and closely coordinated force. After much discussion, the plan was changed with the British 8th Army landing on the south east of the island and the US 7th Army landing on the south.

The Division was quartered in Djidjelli on the Algerian coast. Preparation for Operation Huskey was conducted against a background of secrecy with deception plans suggesting that, among others, Crete was the next destination. It was however clear that the next operation would be a combined operation and the Royal Navy played an important part in the training. Familiarisation with a range of landing crafts and the terminology and procedures for amphibious operations took much of the time. Lectures and battalion level training commenced while the Division was reinforced and brought back up to strength. The training involved to three brigade exercises and then a Divisional landing exercise. The Division was then moved to Sousse and Sfax.  The division embarked for Malta on 5th July and disembarked on the 6th at Valetta where the Division moved into three camps. Montgomery visited and spoke to the Division on the 7th.  The stay in Malta was however short and the Division embarked on the 9th July for the invasion of Sicily. The GOC who was already embarked sent the following message:

"Now we are called upon once more to enter Europe. As the time approaches to go forward into battle never must we forget that we of this division helped by our English comrades , are ever the proud bearers of the ancient motto (Scotland For Ever) and in bearing it we carry with us Scotland's renown, Scotland's fair name and Scotland's prayers"

Royal Artillery:

  • 120 Field Regiment Royal Artillery
  • 127 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 128 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 61st Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery
  • 40th Light A-A Regiment, Royal Artillery

The Skies o're Messina are Unco and Grey - Poor bloody Squadies are weary.

Italy – Initial landings – September 1943
Salerno (Operation Avalanche)
 – Although this was essentially an American operation, British troops were involved.  No obstacles were encountered on the beaches, but the engineers were soon engaged in the construction of culverts to give access to off road dumps, the preparation of defences, the construction of airstrips. Their bulldozers were used to extract seven ditched tanks and to keep the traffic moving off the beaches. Within the beach head area the Transportation units repaired and then operated the port of Salerno.
Reggio
 – The landing was met with little resistance so after securing the bridgehead the engineers of 5th Division and 1st Canadian Division were engaged in the construction of landing craft ramps, ‘Z’ craft berths, a train ferry terminal, whilst the 932nd Port Construction and Repair company pumped out the dry dock. During the advance up the toe of Italy, the engineers built a total of 24 Bailey bridges.
Taranto
 – There was no opposition mounted against 1st Airborne Division’s landing at Taranto. A sapper of 261st Airborne Field Park Company drove a train deep into enemy territory and released 300 prisoners of war. 9th Airborne Field Company operated the port until the arrival of a Port Construction and Repair Company.

Salerno Mutiny - Comrades with High Principles

600 men  who on September 16, 1943 refused assignment to new units as replacements during the Allied Invasion of Italy It was, specifically, men from the British 51st Highland Division and the 50th Northumbrian Division, including some veterans of the war in North Africa. About 1500 of them had sailed from Tripoli, on the understanding that they were to join the rest of their units, based in Sicily.   Instead, once aboard ship, they were told that they were being taken to Salerno, to join the 46th Division, fighting as part of Lieut.-General Mark Clark's U.S. Fifth Army.  Many of the soldiers felt they had been deliberately misled.

Matters were made worse by the total lack of organisation when they reached Salerno, leaving them angry and frustrated. Most of the soldiers, a 1,000 or so fresh recruits, were taken off to join new units, leaving 500 veterans, 300 of whom were moved to a nearby field. They were still there by 20 September, refusing postings to unfamiliar units. They were addressed by the commander of X Corps, Lieut.-General Richard McCreery, who admitted that a mistake had been made, and promised that they would rejoin their old units once Salerno was secure. The men were also warned of the consequences of mutiny in wartime.

Of the 300 in the field, 108 decided to follow orders, leaving a hard core of 192. They were all charged with mutiny under the Army Act, the largest number of men accused at any one time in all of British military history. The accused were shipped to Algeria, where the Court Martial opened towards the end of October.  All were found guilty, and 3 sergeants were sentenced to death. The sentences were subsequently commuted to 12 years of forced labour and eventually suspended, though the men faced constant harassment for the rest of their military careers.

The pipie is dozie, the pipie is fey
He wullnae come roun for his vino the day
The sky owre Messina is unco an gray
An aa the bricht chaumers are eerie

 

Fareweill ye banks o Sicily
Fare ye weill ye valley an shore
There's nae Jock will murn the kyles o ye
Puir bluiddy swaddies are wearie
 

Then doun the stair an line the watterside
Wait yer turn the ferry's awa
Then doun the stair an line the watterside
Aa the bricht chaumers are eerie
 

The drummie is polisht, the drummie is braw
He cannae be seen for his wabbin ava
He's beezed himsell up for a photie an aa
Tae leave wi his Lola, his dearie

 

Fareweill ye banks o Sicily
Fare ye weill ye sheilin an haa
We'll aa mind shebeens an bothies
Whaur kind signorinas were cheerie
 

Fareweill ye banks o Sicily
Fare ye weill ye sheilin an haa
We'll aa mind shebeens an bothies
Whaur Jock made a date wi his dearie

 

Then tune the pipes an drub the tenor drum
Leave yer kit this side o the waa
Then tune the pipes an drub the tenor drum
Puir bluidy swaddies are wearie

This song is one of H Henderson's his best known. It is based on his own wartime experiences and is probably the best ballad to emerge from the Second World War. After service in north Africa, Captain Hamish Henderson saw action in Sicily before taking part in the invasion of Italy in 1943.
Hamish Henderson

Italy – The slog northwards – October 1943- May 1945

Throughout the Italian campaign the British, Dominion and Indian engineers were engaged in maintaining, building and repairing roads, constructing bridge and ferry crossings over fast flowing rivers, clearing mines and other obstacles, restoring electricity and water supplies, building troop accommodation, repairing and operating ports and railways, constructing and repairing airfields, mapping, bomb disposal, controlling troop and store movements, and maintaining the mail services.

D-Day Dodgers
It was generally believed that it was Lady Astor who, during a World war II speech, first referred to the men of the 8th Army who were fighting in the Italian campaign as the "D-Day Dodgers". Her implication was that they had it easy because they were avoiding the "real war" in France and the future invasion. The Allied soldiers in Italy were so incensed that Major Hamish Henderson of the 51st Highland Division composed a bitingly sarcastic song to the tune of the haunting German song Lili Marlene (popularised in English by Marlene Dietrich) called "The Ballad Of The D-Day Dodgers". One stanza says, "Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot/Standing on your platform and talking bloody rot./You're England's sweetheart and its pride;/We think your mouth's too bleeding wide./That's from your 'D-Day Dodgers' in sunny Italy."

Lady Astor said, "Winston, if I were your wife I'd put poison in your coffee." Winston Churchill replied, "Nancy, if I were your husband I'd drink it” 

We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy,
Always on the vino, always on the spree.
8th Army scroungers and their tanks,
We live in Rome among the Yanks,
We are the D-Day Dodgers, from sunny Italy.

We landed at Solerno, a holiday with pay;
Jerry brought his bands out, to cheer us on our way,
Showed us the sights and gave us tea,
We all sang songs, the beer was free,
We are the D-Day Dodgers, from sunny Italy.

Naples and Casino were taken in our stride,
We didn't go to fight there, just there for the ride.
Anzio and Sangro are just names,
We only went to look for dames,
We are the D-Day Dodgers, from sunny Italy.

Look around the hillside in the mud and rain,
See the scattered crosses, some which have no name.
Heartbreak and toil, all suffering gone,
The boys beneath them linger on;
They are the D-Day Dodgers, who stay in Italy.

They are the D-Day Dodgers, who stay in Italy.

 


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Last modified: 01/09/2013