Background 

The Allied invasion of Sicily, a major campaign of the Second World War, saw the Allies capture the Mediterranean island from the Axis powers of Italy and Nazi Germany. Codenamed Operation Husky, the invasion opened with major amphibious and airborne assaults, followed by a six-week land campaign. It marked the beginning of the Italian Campaign which led to the toppling of Italian leader Benito Mussolini and the liberation of the country from Fascist control.

Operation Husky began on the night of 9th/10th July 1943 and ended on 17th August. It achieved the strategic goals set by Allied planners – clearing enemy air, land and naval forces from the island and opening the Mediterranean Sea lanes to Allied merchant shipping for the first time since 1941. The invasion also led Germany’s leader Adolf Hitler to cancel a major offensive at Kursk in the Soviet Union, in part to divert forces to Italy. This resulted in a reduction of German strength on the Eastern Front.

The 1st Battalion in Sicily

The 1st Hampshire landed at Alexandria in Egypt on 3rd April 1943 after two years’ service in the siege of Malta. The Battalion (along with the 2nd Devons, and the 1st Dorsets) formed part of 231st Brigade which had defended Malta. After a period of training near Cairo the Hampshire moved on 5th May to Kabrit on the Suez Canal for more comprehensive training in combined operations. The Brigade was assigned to Eighth Army’s XXX Corps, made up of the 51st Highland Division and 1st Canadian Division. Only a select few learned that their objective was the invasion of Sicily, ‘the soft underbelly of Europe’.

On 28th June, the battalion embarked on the SS Otranto at Suez, just one of hundreds of ships assembled there for Operation Husky. The weather for the voyage to the Sicily was perfect, but on the evening of 9th July, just hours before the landings, it deteriorated sharply and the men in the landing craft had to endure an unpleasant seven-mile trip through a heaving sea to the beaches.

The enemy, believing that no landing could be made in such conditions, were caught napping and the Hampshire quickly established a bridgehead near the village of Marsamemi on the Pachino Peninsula. Among several notable acts of courage, Captain AP Boyd and Corporal Higgins particularly distinguished themselves. Finding the section of beach on which they landed swept by fire from an enemy pillbox, which was itself surrounded by a double-apron wire fence, they rushed at the wire and threw themselves on it to make a path for the troops following them.

Having established the bridgehead, the plan called for 231st Brigade, including the Hampshire, to push inland to capture three further objectives. Accordingly, at 8pm, 1st Hampshire assembled and set off on a 17-mile march, not halting until 1.30am the following morning. At 6.30am the battalion marched off again, passing through the village of Noto where they were enthusiastically welcomed by the civilians, the first of many such experiences the men were to have during the fighting in Sicily and Italy.

For the first two days, the Brigade’s advance was surprisingly easy. As the battalions pressed forward the only sign of the enemy was of Italians surrendering in increasing numbers. On the afternoon of 13th July, however, resistance stiffened near the town of Vizzini where steady and accurate artillery fire from the hills ahead brought the advance to a halt.

‘A’ Company of 1st Hampshire was given the task of clearing the enemy, but it soon became apparent that the position was more strongly held than first believed – rather than Italian troops, the attackers were in fact facing a German unit of the Hermann Goering Armoured Division. In the ensuing fighting A Company lost many men, including Lieutenant J.D. Le Brecht who was killed leading his platoon in a gallant attack on the German positions. In another incident two men of the Company got lost in the dark and found themselves in Vizzini where they came across 45 Italian soldiers and an officer. The two Hampshire men took all the Italians prisoner and escorted them back to the battalion.

A full battalion-strength attack by the Devons the following day also failed and it was not until the 153rd Brigade mounted an assault that German resistance was finally broken. The advance then continued to the River Dittaino which was defended in strength by Italians. The 1st Hampshire led the crossing of the Dittaino, B and Companies launching surprise midnight attacks on two hills overlooking the river. A and D Companies then passed through, crossed the river at several points and captured two other hills about half a mile beyond in what was a textbook operation. At a cost of a few wounded, the Hampshire killed many Italians and took 20 officers and 864 other ranks prisoner.

The 231st Brigade pushed on and in nine days advanced 140 miles. After the Dittaino the first really serious opposition was encountered at Agira – a medieval town perched on top of a high hill in the shadow of Mount Etna – which was to be the scene of a grim and costly battle.

Agira was held by Italians, strongly reinforced by Germans of the Hermann Goering Division and the 29th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. For the operation 231st Brigade was placed under the command of 1st Canadian Division. The attack plan called for the Brigade to harass the enemy from the south while the Canadians launched a full assault from the west. The attack began at midnight on 22th July 1943. The Devons and Dorsets led the Brigade assault and successfully achieved their objectives. However, they were left seriously exposed when the Canadian attack failed.

On the night of 25th July the 1st Hampshire were sent forward, with orders to hold a hill called the Pyramid and another prominent feature called Campanelli, while the Canadians attacked again. Unfortunately, the Canadians were unsuccessful once more, leaving the Hampshire in exposed and extended positions which they were ordered to hold.

Around 4pm the Germans attacked A and B Companies on the Campanelli. In the very fierce close fighting – against crack units of the Hermann Goering Division and SS Paratroopers – B Company suffered heavy casualties before being forced from the top of the hill. The Hampshire continued to resist but, unable to call up artillery support and with their positions coming under fire from Agira, they finally abandoned the Campanelli and took up new positions at the Pyramids.

The Battalion continued to hold its positions here under almost constant shelling and drove off many counter-attacks. On the evening of 26th July German troops supported by tanks mounted a heavy attack D Company south of the Agira road. The Company withdrew a little but then counter-attacked with such determination that it regained the position.

It was not until 29th July that Agira was finally taken but most of the Germans had got away. The Hampshire, however, had carried the difficult task of harassing the Germans in their rear although by the end of the operation the battalion had been reduced to the strength of three rifle companies.

The 231st Brigade then advanced east from Agira to Regalbuto, It faced hard fighting in difficult country, with the Germans skilfully using the ridges that ran at right angles to the main road as defensive positions. On the evening of 29 July the Hampshire attacked Regalbuto Ridge, but were caught in the crossfire from hidden machineguns. Casualties were so high and the ground gained so small that the attack as called off. The ridge was eventually taken the following day following a Brigade-strength assault.

By the end of the Sicily campaign 1st Hampshire had lost 18 officers and 286 men killed and wounded. The Battalion’s awards included the DSO to Lieutenant Colonel JL Spencer and the MC to Major HD Nelson Smith, Captains AP Boyd and AK Guest, and Lieutenant CY Wilkinson.

After a short period of rest and training, the Hampshire joined the Brigade Group’s amphibious landing on the Italian mainland at Porto San Venere, near Pizzo, on 7 September. The landing was a hastily improvised affair and only the discipline and training of the Hampshire and the other Brigade battalions averted what might easily have been a disaster. After landing on the beach the Hampshire advanced swiftly, destroying a number of German vehicles as well as a number of enemy troops. The Germans later counter-attacked with tanks and infantry and in the running fight that ensued the 1st Hampshire fought grimly to protect the bridgehead behind them where supplies, vehicles and guns were being landed.

One platoon of B Company was lost to a man and there were many incidents of special gallantry. Company Sergeant Major Bowers and Corporal Touzel led attacks against an Armoured Fighting Vehicle, under heavy fire with hand grenades, knocked it out and killed all the crew. They then went on to put three other vehicles out of action, killing and wounding many of the crews.

The courage of 1st Hampshire and the rest of 231st Brigade ensured the beach-head remained in Allied hands. The Germans withdrew from Pizzo to be pursued by 1st Hampshire who, through a series of forced marches, covered 100 miles in less than a week. But this was to be 231st Brigade’s final action of the Italian Campaign. On 23 September 1943 it returned to Sicily, from where it embarked for home on 18 October aboard the Durban Castle.

1st Hampshire had left England 23 years earlier and many of the men had barely been home since. Captain Stone, for instance, had joined the Battalion in Constantinople in 1921 and had had only two home leaves in the years before the war. The qualities the 1st Hampshire displayed during those years, in Turkey, Egypt, India, Malta, Sicily and Italy, did not go unnoticed. They caught the eye of General Bernard Montgomery – also leaving Italy for home – who would place the Battalion centre stage in one of the defining operations of the war: D-Day.

Thumbnail photograph: copyright IWM NA5752