Military history

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

A Nice Cup of Tea

THE WEATHER FORECAST was grim and the weather deteriorating as the great invasion force set sail. In Malta, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, naval commander in the Mediterranean and the recipient of the second Mincemeat letter, received the news that the flotilla had set off with more resignation than hope. The admiral had recorded a message for the troops, to be broadcast on loudspeakers once the task force was under way: “We are about to embark1 on the most momentous enterprise of the war, striking for the first time at the enemy in his own land.” The upbeat tone contrasted with Cunningham’s gloomy feelings as the flotilla set off into “all the winds of heaven,”2 with every possibility that the entire force might perish at sea. “The die was cast.3 We were committed to the assault. There was nothing more we could do for the time being.” Over dinner in the Malta headquarters, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the signatory of two Mincemeat letters, was even more direct: “It doesn’t look too good.”4

The weather steadily deteriorated, and the wind began to bellow, creeping up to gale force 7. The troop ships lurched and bucked through the “breakers and boiling surf,5 whipped into needle spray.” Landing craft tore free of their davits and smashed into the decks. Cables snapped. The gale—some called it “Mussolini’s wind”—screamed louder. Some soldiers prayed or cursed, but most “lay in their hammocks, green and groaning,”6 surrounded by the stench of vomit and fear.

While all around him retched, Major Derrick Leverton of the Twelfth Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery, jovial heir to a long line of British undertakers, played another hand of bridge with himself in the officers’ mess and happily munched the latest rations: “We are now getting Cadbury’s filled blocks,”7 he told his mother. “I had a Peppermint Crème and a Caramello—very nice.” Derrick, known to all as Drick, was thoroughly enjoying “the show,” as he referred to the invasion. He would have been happier still had he known of the small but important part played by his brother Ivor in paving the way for the invasion by ferrying a dead body to Hackney Mortuary in the middle of the night. Like Ivor, Drick had an irrepressible talent for looking on the bright side of everything, the consequence of being brought up in a family dedicated to dealing with death. “It was a most excellent cruise,”8 he wrote, describing the hellish trip to Sicily. “Once we were clear of land, everyone was told the whole plan: date, time and everything. We had maps, plans, models, a copy of A Soldier’s Guide to Sicily and a copy of Monty’s message each.” Drick was particularly impressed by the naval officer who briefed the troops on the strategic importance of Sicily. “He was excellent.9 He looked like a masculine edition of Noël Coward.” Major Leverton’s task would be to set up his field battery on the beach and shoot down any enemy planes attacking the invasion forces.

Leverton could not sleep. “I went up on deck10 just before the sun set and could see the Sicilian mountains quite clearly in the distance.” The wind was now dropping. “The sea had been wickedly rough11 all afternoon, but it had now calmed down. I definitely believe it was a miracle.” The soldiers had already set to work with chalk on the landing craft, on which were scrawled a variety of joking messages: “Day Trips to the Continent”12 and “See Naples and Die.”13 Shortly before midnight, Leverton watched the heavy bombers passing overhead, followed by towed gliders packed with troops for the assault. “I was standing up on deck14 by myself then. I had previously often wondered what my feelings would be when the party started. I was disappointed to find that I had absolutely none. Although I was perfectly conscious that quite a lot of people I knew were about to be killed and that I might be just about to kick the bucket myself, I wasn’t really interested. I didn’t feel excited or heroic or anything like that. I seemed to be watching a play.” Drick trotted below for a final hand of bridge (“rather a nice small slam”15) and another Cadbury Caramello.

At the same moment, just a few miles ahead in the darkness, Bill Jewell was setting the stage for the next act of the play. Submerged, the crew had heard the noise of the E-boat propellers fade as the torpedo attack vessel moved off. After twenty more minutes of listening, the Seraphcautiously resurfaced. The German boat was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she was lying in wait for an ambush. If so, the two vessels would have to fight it out. The deadline was now less than an hour away. “There could be no more diving16—this time the buoy had to be laid.” The wind had dropped, but the sea was still choppy, making Jewell’s task of dropping the homing buoy “three times as difficult as it should have been.”17 Just after midnight, the buoy was hauled back on deck for a second time and dropped at the precise spot indicated, one thousand yards offshore. Jewell now heard, for the first time, the low, thickening drone in the skies above, hitherto masked by the wind. “Unseen planes, hundreds of them,18 were roaring through the dark skies overhead. The vanguard of the invasion! ‘Invasion!’ That electrifying word.” For the first time, Jewell wondered if victory might finally be in sight: “The invasion of Sicily would be19 a long stride in the direction of Europe, and at least a short step on the road to Berlin,” he reflected. If it succeeded. The same thoughts were echoed among the assault troops. An American journalist sailing with the Fifth Division wrote: “Many of the men on this ship20 believe that the operation will determine whether this war will end in stalemate or whether it will be fought to a clear-cut decision.”

Jewell heard a series of loud explosions, and looking back toward the land, he could see “great fires springing up in every direction.”21 Those paratroopers who had survived the flight and the drop were now at work. At the same time, above the echo of detonations and the drone of aircraft, Jewell picked up another noise. The wind had now dropped completely, as it often does in the Mediterranean, and he could hear “the faint throb of approaching engines.”22 Italian coastal radar had also picked up the advancing fleet. Seconds later, a battery of searchlights from the shore turned night to day, and the British submarine found herself in the limelight. “Their blindingly brilliant beams23 cut across the water and blended into a dazzling ball of light concentrated on Seraph.” In normal circumstances, this would have been the cue to dive, but Jewell’s orders were to stay put until the flotilla arrived. The shore guns opened fire, and for the next ten minutes—“a nerve-tightening, shell-packed eternity”24—the Seraph sat immobile as hell exploded all around her. The cook, crouched behind the three-inch gun, cursed eloquently. Each shell sent up a plume of water, and the lookouts huddled into the sides of the conning tower, “as much to avoid the cascading water25 as to find protection from flying shrapnel.” Between explosions, the “throbbing beat”26 grew louder.

Wilhelm Leissner, alias Gustav Lenz, code name “Heidelberg,” head of German military intelligence in Spain.

Lieutenant Colonel Alexis Baron von Roenne, chief German intelligence analyst and anti-Nazi conspirator.

Adolf Clauss, butterfly collector and the senior Abwehr officer in Huelva.

Alan Hillgarth: spy-master in Madrid (above), gold-hunter in South America (below), novelist in his spare time, and, in the words of Ian Fleming, a “war-winner.”

Francis Haselden, Britain’s vice consul in Huelva.

Two photographs taken by the Spanish police of Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Wrangel Clarke, the officer in command of deception for Operation Husky. Clarke was arrested in women’s clothes in Madrid. He was then allowed to change into more conventional attire before being photographed again.

Juan Pujol García, Agent Garbo, the most celebrated double agent of the Second World War.

Colonel José López Barrón Cerruti, the Spanish security chief who played a key role in obtaining the documents.

Lieutenant Mariano Pascual del Pobil Bensusan, the Spanish naval officer and acting judge in Huelva.

Dr. Eduardo Fernández del Torno, the Spanish pathologist who carried out the autopsy.

Lieutenant Bill Jewell, commander of the Seraph.

Rosemary Galloway, fiancée of Bill Jewell.

Churchill and his senior officers plan the invasion of Sicily at the George Hotel in Algiers. Admiral Andrew Cunningham and General Sir Harold Alexander, the two intended “recipients” of the Mincemeat letters, are standing behind Churchill, center and right; the addressee of the third letter, General Dwight Eisenhower, is seated, right. General Bernard Montgomery is standing, far right.

General Sir Harold Alexander, the commander of Allied ground forces, who usually looked “as if he had just had a steam bath, a massage, a good breakfast, and a letter from home.”

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the formidable chief of the Abwehr, German military intelligence.

Derrick Leverton, undertaker, gunnery officer, and unsung hero of the Sicilian invasion.

The invasion flotilla steaming toward Sicily.

The tanks roll ashore on the south coast of Sicily.

British soldiers pass shells ashore.

Sicilians greet the Allied invaders as liberators.

Alexis von Roenne on trial before the Nazi People’s Court, accused of plotting against Hitler. He was found guilty, inevitably, and hanged in Berlin-Plötzensee prison on October 11, 1944.

Charles Cholmondeley hunting locusts in the Middle East in Bedouin costume.

A still from the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was: Ewen Montagu, right, plays an air vice marshal; the American actor Clifton Webb, left, plays Montagu.

Then, out of the gloom, came “a flicker of light from27 the leading destroyer of the mighty invasion fleet.” Moments later the ships took on form, as “dark shapes emerged slowly28 from the shadows.” Forgetting the shells dropping around him, Jewell thought he had never seen anything so lovely. “The English language needs a new descriptive29 noun to replace the hackneyed word armada,” he wrote. “As far as my night glasses would carry, I saw hundreds of ships following in orderly fashion.” The destroyer searchlights now picked out the gun emplacements on shore, “like footlights on a stage,”30 and opened fire. “Shells whistled high overhead.”31 Enemy planes screamed over, dropping flares to aid the onshore gunners.

Out at sea, Derrick Leverton admired the flak pouring into the sky “with different coloured tracer”32 and the shimmering light in the sky as the dry wheat fields above the beaches ignited. It was horribly beautiful. “With flares, searchlights and blazing fires,33 plus the vivid chromatic effects of bomb bursts and shell explosions, all of Sicily so far as the eye could reach was like nothing in the world so much as a huge pyrotechnical show.” The first destroyer passed the Seraph, her American crew “cheering the stubborn little submarine.”34 Moments later, a small landing craft approached with an American naval captain standing in the stern. Above the noise, he shouted: “Ahoy Seraph.35 The Admiral has sent me over to thank you for a great job of work.” Jewell gave what he later admitted was “a slightly astonished salute.”36 But the captain had not finished his peroration. “You know those boys37 who landed are going to remember for a long time how you guided ’em in.”

This was the moment for the Seraph to “slide warily back into the protective darkness.”38 Jewell took a last look back at the shore, where “tiny, darting flashes marked the progress39 of the assault force as the tommy-guns blazed a path through the defenders.” Bill Darby’s U.S. Army Rangers had hit the beach at Gela. Jewell “hoped the friendly, ever-joking colonel40 would do nothing foolhardy.”

Leading from the front, since he knew no other place to lead from, Bill Darby stormed up the beach like a man possessed, which he was, through the defenses, and straight on to the town of Gela, much of which had already been demolished by the naval guns. Italian troops of the Livorno Division attempted to make a stand at the cathedral and were swiftly overwhelmed by the Rangers. Darby personally held off an Italian counterattack by light Renault tanks, armed only with a .30-caliber machine gun mounted on his jeep. Realizing that something more substantial was needed, he ran back to the beach, obtained a 37 mm antitank gun, opened its ammunition box with an ax, and then, with the help of a captain, used it to blow up another Italian tank as it bore down on his command post. For good measure, he popped a grenade on the tank hatch, and its terrified Italian crew immediately surrendered. Some twelve hours into the invasion, Darby took a rolled-up American flag from his backpack and nailed it to the door of the Fascist Party headquarters in Gela’s main square. After the battle of Gela, Patton awarded Darby the Distinguished Service Cross and a promotion to full colonel. He accepted the medal and turned down the promotion, again. “Darby is really a great soldier,”41 marveled Patton.

To the east, Major Derrick Leverton was taking the invasion at a more leisurely pace. Having “wished my chaps good luck42 … all perfectly normal and matter-of-fact,” the undertaker waited on deck to be called to the landing craft. “As there was still a bit of time in hand,43 I went to sleep.” Leverton holds the distinction of being the only man to doze off in the middle of the biggest seaborne invasion man had yet staged. There was, he recalled, “quite a bit of banging about44 going on in the background,” but Derrick had no problem dropping off. As acts of heroism go, this very nearly compares to the exploits of Colonel Darby.

“It was getting close to dawn,45 and the hills could just be seen in silhouette” when Leverton clambered into the landing craft. In a few minutes he was ashore, after wading through the wreckage of gliders that had made “slightly premature landings.”46 Two dead paratroopers lay on the beach. Leverton was the last man to be upset by the sight of dead bodies. “The first thing I was conscious47 of,” he said later, “was the delicious smell of crushed thyme.” He and his men headed to the spot chosen for the gun emplacement, straight through a minefield. “Occasional mines went off,48 making a hell of a row and a lot of black smoke.” While his guns were unloaded, Leverton decided it was time for a cup of tea. His rations, he was delighted to find, contained “tea-sugar-and-milk powder,”49 which could be brewed simply by adding hot water. “Most nourishing, appetising and intelligent,”50 thought Drick. Then he was dive-bombed.

This, he told his mother in a letter, “added zest to the party.”51 “As the bombs came down,52 I hopped down beside a stone wall. A lot of dust and stuff flew about, and when I got up I found a bit of stone as big as a football had been blown out of the wall a few feet from my head.” Only an incurable optimist like Leverton could see the bright side of being bombed: “Another bomb fell in the sea53 and splashed us with nice cool water.” In case of further attacks, the undertaker instructed his men to dig “little graves about three feet deep54 which were most comfortable.” The guns had still not been unloaded, so Leverton tucked himself up in his foxhole and went back to sleep. Unlike his nourishing nap on the boat, this sleep was less restful. “I had rather an awful sort of dream55 of dive bombing and so forth and I woke up with a glorious sort of feeling that it was only a dream, when I realised it wasn’t a dream and the blighters were just above me in their dive.” The bombs caused only minor damage, although, as he wrote to his parents, “the concussion in my grave56 jarred a bit.”

By nightfall, the guns were assembled and in action. To Leverton’s satisfaction, one dive-bomber was shot down on the first day. Over the next six weeks, eleven more kills would follow, “plus quite a lot of ‘possibles’57 and ‘damaged.’” Leverton was happy. “Our chaps are very bucked at knowing we were the first battery to go into action in Europe since Dunkirk.”

It was hot on the beach, and organizing the guns in long drill slacks and gaiters was sweaty work. “I didn’t feel I was suitably dressed58 for the job,” wrote Major Leverton. “I therefore designed myself59 a utility invasion suit, consisting of a thin shirt, my blue Jantzen swimming shorts, a pair of blue gym shoes and a tin hat. An excellent and highly recommended costume.”

And so, as the bombs fell around him, this heroic British undertaker sat in his own grave, wearing his swimming trunks and a helmet, drinking a nice cup of tea.

MUSSOLINI WAS WOKEN by an army colonel at six in the morning to be told that the invasion of Sicily was under way. Il Duce was bullish: “Throw them back into the sea,60 or at least nail them to the shore.” He had been right all along: Sicily was the obvious target. “I’m convinced our men will resist,61 and besides the Germans are sending reinforcements,” he said. “We must be confident.”62 Never was confidence more misplaced.

By the end of the day, more than one hundred thousand Allied troops were ashore, with ten thousand vehicles. The Italian defenders surrendered in large numbers, often simply stripping off their uniforms and walking away or running. Sicilian cheers, not bullets, greeted the invaders in many places. The British Eighth Army had expected some ten thousand casualties in the first week of the invasion; just one-seventh of that number were killed or wounded. The navy had anticipated the loss of up to three hundred ships in the first two days; barely a dozen were sunk.

The butcher’s bill would be far smaller than Montgomery had feared, yet the invasion was still a bloody and chaotic affair. The airborne landings proved horrifically costly. Of the 147 gliders that set off from Tunisia, nearly half crashed in the sea, forced off course by strong winds and enemy flak. Just twelve landed in their assigned zones. The British held the bridge at Ponte Grande for seven hours, until the dwindling force of paratroopers ran out of ammunition and was forced to surrender. To the west, some three thousand paratroopers of the Eighty-second Airborne Division were supposed to land near Gela but ended up scattered by the storm across southeast Sicily, some as much as sixty miles off target. More than one in ten died in the first three days of fighting. Randall Harris, a sergeant in the Rangers, was one of the first onto the beach: he turned to see his company commander’s chest opened up, as if on a dissection table, by a mine. “I could see his heart beating.63 He turned to me and said ‘I’ve had it, Harry,’ then collapsed and died.” Aircraft carrying a second wave of paratroopers were shot to ribbons by “friendly fire” from the ground, resulting in the loss of twenty-three planes. “Stop, you bastards,64 stop!” screamed war correspondent Jack Belden as the gunners opened fire on what they assumed were enemy planes. At least four American paratroopers, mistaken for Germans, were shot dead on landing.

But amid the fratricidal confusion, deception and surprise continued to provide a vital protective armor.

At eleven o’clock the previous evening, André Latham, Agent Gilbert, had sent a wireless message to his German handlers: “Most important. Have learned65 from reliable source that large force now on its way to Sicily. Invasion may be expected hourly.” He was only telling the defenders what they already knew, for the first major alert had reached Italian coastal units several hours before Jewell dropped his homing buoy. By then, it was far too late for the defenders to make adequate preparations, and the bombing of the Sicilian telephone network ensured that many units remained unaware of the attack until it was well under way. Some went to bed, assuming the enemy would not be so rash as to attack in the middle of a storm. The Italian commander in Sicily was fully expecting an attack—indeed, the Italian intelligence services were never as taken in by the deception as their German counterparts—yet owing in part to Operation Derrick, the secondary deception, the assault was expected in the west, not the south.

As predicted, the response of the German divisions, stationed inland, was more vigorous. But by the time the Germans counter-attacked on Sunday, July 11, crucial hours had been lost and the Allied beachhead was firmly in place. Spitfires attacked the Luftwaffe’s Sicilian headquarters, disorienting what remained of German air defenses at the crucial moment. Field Marshal Kesselring had sent the Fifteenth Panzer Division to intercept the expected invasion in the west of the island, leaving the Hermann Göring Panzers to absorb the brunt of the assault. The Germans did nothing to hide their disgust as the Italian troops melted away and the coastal defenses collapsed like sand castles in a hurricane. A message to Berlin, sent on the day after the landings, reported the “complete failure of coastal defence”66 and noted sourly that “on enemy penetration many67 of the local police and civil authorities fled. In Syracuse, the enemy landings gave rise to plundering and rioting by the population, who accepted the landings with indifference.” So many Italians surrendered in the first two days that the long lines of prisoners impeded the advancing troops. Kesselring complained that “half-clothed Italian soldiers68 were careering around the countryside in stolen lorries.”

AT FIVE FIFTEEN on the afternoon of D-day, Kesselring ordered the Hermann Göring Armored Division: “At once and with all forces attack69 and destroy whatever opposes the division. The Führer has ordered all forces to be brought into operation immediately in order to prevent the enemy from establishing itself.” The German tanks could not break through. Some forty-three were destroyed, in bitter and bloody combat. The commander of the Göring division conceded: “The counterattack against hostile70 landings has failed.” The German tanks rumbled north to continue the fight inland. General Patton, screeching around the battlefield in his jeep, called it “the shortest Blitzkrieg71 in history.” Montgomery agreed with him on this, if nothing else: “The German in Sicily72 is doomed. Absolutely doomed. He won’t get away.”

THE CONQUEST OF the island was just beginning, and more ferocious fighting was to come, but the Sicilian D-day was over, and won.

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