The story of the second World War in Sicily is not overtly apparent to the casual visitor. There are few monuments, few reminders, few tangible remnants. And yet there are still people alive who lived through it and can recount it. And the story is an important one.
There is one – excellent – museum in Catania: Il Museo dello Sbarco, which should not be missed by anyone interested in the subject. But travelling around Sicily it seems that all traces of the war have been erased – as indeed, largely, they have. Even the most important – a stone commemorating the signing of the Italian armistice on 3rd September 1943 in a field near Cassibile has gone missing.
It is as if Sicily has gone out of its way to forget the Second World War. Yet the events of 10th July 1943 were among the most significant of the last century1. And for Europe too, since it was the first step in the re-invasion of the continent by the Allied forces.
However, before we arrive at the story of the invasion, let us provide some background…
The background to the invasion
The Allied forces had advanced along the coast of North Africa, from the east through Egypt and Libya and from the west from Morocco and Algeria, finally liberating Tunis on 20th April 1943. The Germans were in retreat and it was only a matter of time before the Allies crossed back into Europe. The only question was where they would chose to invade.
How the Allies fooled the Germans into wrongly guessing the point of invasion is a fascinating story in itself but for now I will just refer the reader to the book “Operation Mincemeat”2 for details. Suffice to say that the Allies succeeded in duping the Germans into believing the re-invasion of Europe would begin in Sardinia and Greece, rather than Sicily.
It is impossible to measure precisely, but the relatively low loss of life throughout Sicily during World War II suggests that the deceit was a success.
The invasion plan
Operation Husky (as the invasion of Sicily was codenamed) was to be the largest invasion by a landing force in military history and it was to remain so until Desert Storm in 1991. The invading forces were to depart from Tunisia on the 9th July and were to arrive in Sicily later that evening. Being the middle of summer, temperatures would be above 30C so the date was planned for a waxing half moon which would grow over the following two weeks and allow the forces to move at night.
Troops were to land on Sicily by parachute, by troop-carrying glider and by amphibious landing craft (the invasion of Sicily was the first time the DUKWs were used) and they would be backed up by firepower from the American Navy at sea. Once they had gained a beachhead around Gela – chosen for its flat sandy beaches which would aid the arrival of an amphibious force – the main object was the airfield of Comiso, which in those days was one of the largest in Sicily.
Subsequently, the plan was a pincer movement on Messina, intended to drive the Germans off the island. The left claw would be the American Seventh army under General Patton, landing on the beaches near Gela and moving North to Palermo before heading East to Messina, whilst the right claw would be the British Eighth army under General Montgomery landing just south of Siracusa and heading north, via Catania for Messina.
But on the morning of 9th July a storm blew up over the Mediterranean. The paratroopers had practised in winds of up to only 15mph but were told that day to expect winds of up to 35mph over Sicily. For a short while General Eisenhower and General Alexander considered delaying the invasion, but to leave it until the next half moon would have been to risk scorching August temperatures. They decided to press ahead.
It was almost a disaster right from the start…
Facing strong headwinds, some of the gliders never made it to Sicily and landed in the sea. Some just turned round and landed back in Tunisia. Others landed on Malta – which they had confused for Sicily. Those that did make it to Sicily invariably crashed on landing as the reconnaissance had failed to identify the rocky terrain of much of the ground. The loss of life among the personnel was horrific.
The amphibious landing craft fared little better. They encountered strong swells in the sea and many had difficulty beaching. Unloading them in the surf proved almost impossible.
But the paratroopers, from the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division and under the command of Colonel Gavin, were subjected to even greater havoc. As they jumped from the planes the wind dispersed them like thistledown over the vast random wilderness of southern Sicily in an arc between Butera and Ragusa. They landed in isolate clumps, hundreds of metres apart, with no idea of where they were or where they were supposed to be going. It took some of them several days to regroup. Some of them never did – and there are stories of American serviceman wandering anonymously throughout Sicily long after the campaign ended. Even Colonel Gavin, the campaign commander, later admitted he had no idea where he had landed and it took him two days walking to arrive at the battle.
Landing over such a wide area did have one advantage however: it panicked the Germans into thinking that the invading force was actually many times larger than it was.
Anyone who has travelled along the south coast of Sicily will have remarked (even today) how undeveloped the roads are. There is only one main route – the SS115; 240 miles of single carriage road from Siracusa to Trapani.
I was driving this morning on the SS115 in the direction of Gela. Scarred by an outdated oil-refinery it is one of those places that nobody visits. The landscape through which I was driving was littered with the detritus of horticulture. It is one of the foremost places in Sicily for growing aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes and lettuces. But tired of the monotone of polytunnels, I was impatient to get on with the journey, to get somewhere more interesting.
I find driving this road particularly tedious. If there is traffic, the road requires concentration. If there is no traffic, it requires extra concentration: there is no knowing when an articulated lorry will pull out of a side road just in front of you. Tractors seem to appear as if by magic just yards in front of the car bonnet. Dogs sleep on the warm tarmac. Cars approach unseen from behind and overtake on blind bends seconds before a lorry approaches in the opposite direction. There are endless potholes and the narrowness of the road means that wing mirrors scrape as cars and lorries pass each other.
After an unremarkable drive of the last hour, just after the right turn to Acate, I recognise the vineyards on the lefthand side belonging to the Planeta winery of Cantina Dorilli. Planted in the last twenty years, after the winemakers discovered the unique qualities of the deep russet ferrous soil these are the Nero d’Avola and Frappato grape varieties that make up the fabulous Cerasuolo DOCG: one of Sicily’s foremost wines.
The road curves to the right and narrows through a cutting as it angles downhill towards the Dirillo valley. A small rectangular sign on the righthand side reads: “Dirillo 1120m”, marking the start of the three-quarter mile long bridge.
There is not much for the eye to appreciate here. To the right there are nondescript fields of fennel, lettuces and orange groves, loosely surrounded by lines of arundo donax reeds. There are polytunnels everywhere. The sea lies about a mile to the left, but at this minimal elevation is still out of sight. The eye is drawn straight ahead to the higher ground on the far side of the river.
At the far end of the bridge the road curves sharply to the left and I am forced to concentrate on driving. I miss the low farm building on the right and the pillboxes and turrets hidden in the hillside; their concrete camouflaged by the dust. At the last moment, I catch sight of two flags. But it is too late to stop without risking an accident and I have to drive on another mile in order to turn round.
Taking more care this time, I pull off the road and park on the edge of a dusty farm track opposite some low buildings. As I get out of the car, a farmer emerges from a gate with a crate of oranges. I ask if it is possible to visit the pillboxes.
Of course! The farmer gestures for me to stay put, indicating he will be back as soon as he has put down his orange crate and he disappears into the farmstead. I look around me. Against the deep cerulean sky, I can see bee-eaters flying like sparks from a blacksmith’s anvil. A roller bird is perched on a telegraph wire beyond.
Three minutes later, the farmer returns – now dressed in full military regalia and with a powerful torch in his hand. He gestures for me to follow him. His name is Sig. Cristoforo Ventura and he farms the land roundabout. A wiry and tanned septuagenarian, with eyes that fix you with their look, Cristoforo moves lithely for his age.
One year old at the time of the Allied invasion, in the intervening years he has learnt all there is to know about the night of 10th July 1943. To begin with, it was through talking to the shepherds who had witnessed the battle first hand. In more recent years he has received visitors, especially form the United States, and they have brought their own accounts. Piece by piece, Sig. Ventura has recreated the jigsaw of events that make up this crucial wedge of military history.
We stop for Cristoforo to show me the monument to the 39 American servicemen who were killed in the battles on the 10th and 11th July 1943. He points out Italian surnames in the list: Angelo, Scambelluri. Americans were keen to have Italian speaking soldiers in the invading force in Sicily, Cristoforo tells me.
We head up the hill to the pillar-boxes, turrets and gun emplacements. As we walk, Cristoforo stoops down and picks out pieces of cordite still remaining from 1943. When it rains, he explains, they get washed to the surface.
We arrive at the first turret and turn round to look back from where we have come. We are at an elevation of perhaps twenty metres above the level of the road and slightly offset from the straight line of Ponte Dirillo ahead of us. In the foreground, between ourselves and Biazzo Ridge is the basin of the River Dirillo, though it is impossible to make out even the thinnest trickle of water. The only evidence for its existence being the fertile soils planted with citrus and vegetables. Beneath us and to our right is the road – the SS115 – with the lorries thundering past carrying their containers of fruit to Messina and beyond the Straits. Far off to our right, perhaps a mile away but still out of sight, is the sea and the beaches where the amphibious craft had landed on the morning of 10th July 1943.
Cristoforo has brought an ammo box of a book along with him – The History of the Second World War in Sicily – and he opens it at a well-marked page to show me photos of the gun emplacement in the aftermath of the battle. What we see in front of us today is little changed from the photos of 1943.
Built in 1942 by the Italians, to an ironically British design, the half a dozen or so turrets, represent a sizeable defensive position and any traffic heading west in Sicily would have to pass between them. It is easy to see their strategic importance.
Walking round the back of a gun emplacement we step through a low doorway leading into a tunnel. Cristoforo switches on his torch and we ferret along in the dust. It is just about high enough to stand up in without stooping down. After perhaps ten metres the tunnel angles to the left and we can look out through letter-box slots across the Ponte Dirillo. From the wall behind us, Cristoforo picks out pieces of shell and offers them to me.
To our left the tunnel surfaces through a narrow hatch into the gun turret and Cristoforo’s makeshift ladder allows me to climb inside. The 180 degree view is segmented into three wall-painting sized rectangles. Inside there is barely room to turn round, let alone swing a rifle or machine gun. I call out to Cristoforo to tell him I am coming back down the ladder. The echo of my voice drills into my head. The noise of firing inside one of these turrets must have been horrific.
As we exit from the bunkers, I look around me. There is a newly dug pile of sand. Cristoforo explains that just before I had arrived he had been digging out another of the pill-boxes.
“The wind carries the sand and fills them up. To keep them cleared out is a constant labour.” At seventy-eight years old, Cristoforo still maintains this site on his own. Lean, fit and strong, he looks as if he could keep going for many years yet. But then what? Who then will maintain this memory?
Back at his farmstead, Cristoforo invites me to survey some of the maps, photos and memorabilia he has collected over the years. And as we do so, he tells me more about how the battle of that night unfolded.
10th July 1943
On the night of 9th July, just as they made landfall over Sicily, the 505th Regiment commander paratrooper Colonel Gavin, was one of the first to jump from the swarm of Douglas C-47 Skytroopers. Tugged by a ferocious cross-wind, he landed about 20 miles away from the intended drop zone. By his own later admission he had no idea where he was and the rest of his men were scattered across southern Sicily like droplets of rain in the desert. To top it all, he had badly sprained an ankle on landing and could barely walk. It was hardly an auspicious start to an invasion.
Together with a band of about 20 men that he eventually gathered, they trudged and limped all through the night and the following day towards the sound of the guns and the battle. Gradually acquiring other stragglers, and occasionally engaging in standoffs with Italian anti-paratrooper patrols, they soldiered on.
Meanwhile, on the morning of the 10th July, after a short skirmish, a more fortuitous company of Gavin’s men had already seized control of the gun emplacements and turrets of Ponte Dirillo.
However, the fiercest of the fighting was yet to happen. It was not until the following day, the 11th July, that the Tiger tanks of General Conrath’s Herman Goering Panzer division stationed at nearby Niscemi began the counterattack. Prowling down the narrow country roads towards the coast they started to engage the Americans.
Above Piano Lupo on the modern-day SP11, heavy fighting ensued, most of it haphazard. Many of the American soldiers were seeing action for the very first time and their losses were acute.
By this time, Gavin and his men had now got themselves as far as Biazzo Ridge (a stone’s throw from the modern Planeta winery of Cantina Dorilli) where they came face to face with some of German Tiger tanks that had travelled down the SP1 from Acate. Ill-equipped to face such fighting, the only advantage they had was the high ground on which they had the good fortune to find themselves.
Others of the Panzers barrelling down the SP1 had turned right onto the Gela road and headed towards Ponte Dirillo. And although the Americans by this time were in command of the gun emplacements, they were badly armed and the fighting was once again intense. The losses were heavy.
By the end of the day, at Ponte Dirillo, the Americans had lost 39 men including their Lieutenant Commander and commander of the 1st Battalion of the 505th.
Cristoforo shows me a photo of the young Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Gorham holding in his arms a baby, who one day would follow in his father’s footsteps to become a military commander. And who frequently came back to Sicily to visit the site of his father’s death. As I hold the photo in my hands, Cristoforo tells me how it came about.
On the second day of fighting, near Piano Lupo, Gorham found himself near a bazooka team, and when one of the members of the team was killed, Gorham took over the bazooka himself. Edging forward into the open he took aim at one of the Tigers. He fired the rocket, hitting the tank in the flank and sending it into flames. His bravery set an example for his men that would later earn him a Distinguished Service Cross.
Then the following day, at Ponte Dirillo, Lt. Col. Gorham continued with much the same bravado as he had fought the previous day. On this day though, he was only equipped with a rifle and was firing through the eye-slits of the tanks. Perhaps he had begun to assume his own invincibility and his confidence had outgrown him. He was spotted by a gunner in one of the tanks who fired on him at close range and was killed instantly.
He was later to be awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross – one of only five servicemen in the 82nd Airborne to receive more than one – but his death had been the result of a rash bravery that had been typical of much of the fighting in these few days. Lacking the firepower and in the face of the German Panzer Division, perhaps rash bravery had been the only way to defeat them.
It is not known how many tanks the Herman Goering Panzer Division lost in these two days fighting, but at the start of the invasion on 9th July they had 90 tanks in the area. It is estimated that around half of these were destroyed and a good number of other were badly damaged. They had lost 30 officers and around six hundred men. Comiso airfield and Gela had already fallen to the Americans. It was a substantial blow and on the evening of 12th July General Conrath give the orders for the Germans to retreat.
The Americans held the line from Licata through Gela, right to Comiso.
The remainder of the Sicily campaign
The fighting in Sicily was to last another five weeks, with the German withdrawal across the Straits of Messina all but complete by 17th August. After their initial hardships of the first two days, the Americans under General Patton were to make swift progress to Palermo and thence along the north coast to Messina. The British were to have a tougher time of their advance – particularly at Primosole Bridge just south of Catania and at Centuripe but to General Patton’s chagrin, Montgomery still beat the American general to Messina.
However, undoubtedly the toughest battle was fought by the Canadians at Assoro on 20th July, but whose victory was to be decisive in breaking the German defensive line south of Etna and thus opening the door for the Allies to Messina.
Cristoforo shows me more of the memorabilia he has collected. There are personal letters and greetings cards from the family of Lieutenant Colonel Gorham, regimental medals left as presents from well-wishing visitors and a photograph album containing pictures of the commemoration ceremony that takes place on each year on 10th July. There is a certificate too, from the Mayor of Gela in recognition of all his hard work.
It is clear that as well as the back-breaking and endless task of keeping the bunkers free of sand, Cristoforo has made it is duty to collate and collect these memories. The pride he takes in doing so is evident, and his preparedness to selflessly share his knowledge is admirable. But, despite the certificate from the mayor of Gela, I can’t help feeling that his contribution to Sicilian history is not recapitulated in the way he deserves.
I sign the visitors book and thank Cristoforo sincerely for all he has shared with me. His commentary and easy manner has made my visit to Ponte Dirillo one of the most memorable of my visits in Sicily.
Esplora Travel visit Ponte Dirillo on their Treasures of Sicily tour.
1 It is arguable that the events of the Second World War cemented the relationship between Sicily and the United States which had begun with the mass emigration of the 1920s. In the 1950s, there was even a proposal that Sicily succeed from Italy to become the 53rd State of America. But even if such a proposal sounds flippant, it was the story of how the Sicilian mobster Lucky Luciano who opened the gates for the American army to Palermo in return for being let out of jail in the States that undoubtedly also opened the door for the rise of the mafia in the 1950s. [return to text]