FIRST FOOT ON FORTRESS EUROPE: the 1943 Sicily landings

It's early 1943 and the tide is starting to turn against Germany and its allies

The Soviet armies have held and defeated the Germans at Stalingrad. The British and Americans are in the last stages of clearing the Axis forces from North Africa. Italian activity in the Mediterranean has all but ceased. Continual bombing by the RAF Bomber Command and the American 8th Air Force is slowly strangling German armaments production.

Time to ramp up the pressure.


Where should the Allies strike their next blow? The British and Americans do not see eye-to-eye. Various options are discussed; Sardinia, Greece and Corsica among them.

Casablanca, early 1943. The western Allies argue over the next step. The British favour landing in the Mediterranean, the Americans are strongly opposed, believing nothing should take resources away from planning the invasion of France.

The British think an invasion of France before the spring of 1944 is simply not possible. But they have to attack somewhere, they cannot sit by doing nothing on land while the Russians are bearing the brunt of German attacks. Eventually, it is agreed. Sicily will be the first footstep into Fortress Europe.

A disinformation campaign is started, including the famous Operation Mincemeat, persuading the Germans to relocate troops from Sicily away to the Greek mainland and islands.


Invade Sicily? Agreed. Where exactly? Several key factors influence the choice.

  • the landing area must be within range of fighter aircraft flying from Malta and North Africa so they can offer protection to invading troops
  • there has to be a large enough port nearby, the capture of which would be able to take the supplies needed to keep the invasion moving.
  • there have to be beaches of sufficient length and breadth to take the invasion force. The beaches must also be able to support heavy armoured vehicles.

The Husky plan is a ‘dog’s breakfast’…it breaks every common-sense rule of practical fighting.

19th April 1943. General Bernard Law Montgomery expresses his opinion on the earliest versions of the plan to land British and American troops on Sicily, which advocated two separate landing locations.

STEPPING ASHORE: a timeline of key events in 1943

14-24 January

Casablanca Conference. US President, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister, Churchill decide Sicily will be the next target for the Allies.

6 February onwards

Men of the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP) land on Sicily from submarines to measure water depths, take beach samples to determine whether proposed landing sites would support tanks and gather other intelligence. By the end of March, of 31 men assigned this hazardous duty, 11 were lost.

12 February

Planning Instruction No.1 issued for invasion of Sicily. The plan would go through seven revisions before finally being approved on 3 May.

March and April

Green Howards arrive in Suez Canal area to begin preparations for the next operation, the destination of which they know nothing.

11 April

Water-proofing of vehicles and landing craft practice tested. Maps, without place names or grid references, are issued.

24 April

Montgomery gets his first look at the Sicily plan. He describes it as a ‘dog’s breakfast’.

3 May

Final plan for the invasion is approved, just 68 days before the planned landing date.

13 May

The campaign in North Africa ends. Planners can now give their full attention to planning the Sicily landings.

16 May to 9 July

The Northwest African Photographic Reconnaissance Wing fly 1086 sorties gathering intelligence on ports, airfields, beaches and beach defences.

8 June

Full-scale dress rehearsal of an amphibious landing conducted in the Gulf of Akaba.

11 June

Italian island of Pantelleria, 55 miles from Sicily, surrenders after a prolonged bombardment from air and sea.

30 June

Green Howards set sail for Port Said aboard HMT Tegelberg (1st Battalion) and HMT Orontes (6th and 7th battalions). Ultimate destination still unknown.

5 July

The Green Howards sail from Port Said for Sicily. On the Eastern front the Germans launch Operation Citadel, so begins the biggest tank battle in history at Kursk.

10 July

D Day. From the previous night and into the very early morning, glider and paratroops have attacked strategic points ahead of the main invasion force. By 10am on 10 July all three Green Howard battalions are ashore and moving inland. Initial enemy resistance is light. By the end of the day, Green Howards are 15 miles in land. Syracuse with its critical port has also been captured.

12 July

Green Howards have first contact with German troops of the Hermann Goëring Paratroop-Panzer Division at Mellili.

13 July

Reacting to the invasion of Sicily, Hitler calls off any further offensive at Kursk on the Eastern front. The city of Augusta falls and the drive to Catania begins.

14 July

British 1st Parachute Brigade seize Primosole Bridge, the key road bridge leading north. The parachute drop is badly dispersed and control of the bridge is lost.

16 July

British forces, including Green Howards, help recapture the bridge.

22 July

Palermo, the capital of the island, surrenders.

25 July

Mussolini is overthrown in Rome.

2 August

German commanders on the island begin planning for an evacuation of the island.

5 August

The city of Catania falls to the Allies.

11-12 August

German units start their withdrawal; crossing to the Italian mainland, the ‘German Dunkirk’.

14 August

British and US forces link up at Randazzo.

17 August

Messina is captured, ending the campaign. The island has been captured in just 38 days.

8 September

Italy accepts Armistice terms, its part in the war is over, for now.

9 September

Operation Avalanche, the invasion of mainland Italy begins with landings at Salerno, south of Naples.

13 October

Italy declares war on Germany.

The main centres of civilisation are by the sea, while many smaller towns nestle in the mountains. In view of the troubled history of the island these latter tend to be in naturally strong positions – particularly the older ones, some of which are on veritable pinnacles of rock.

The Soldier’s Guide to Sicily, published in 1943


The additional information on this map of the Sicilian coastline around Avola has been gleaned from covert operations in enemy territory. Scroll around the image to get a closer view of this vital data.

Formed in December 1942, the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP) is made up of men from the Royal Engineers, The Royal Marines and the sister unit of the SAS, the Special Boat Service (SBS). COPP operate in pairs. They are dropped offshore by submarine, then paddle ashore in canoes or kayaks to survey potential landing sites. They map hidden sandbanks on which landing craft may get stuck; calculate the gradients of beaches to ensure men and vehicles could get across them; take samples of sand or shingle to test for any waterlogging; bore down through the beach to the bedrock to see if the ground would support tanks, map exits from beaches and mark minefields and other beach defences. They return to the submarine at a pre-arranged point, assuming the submarine can get back through tides and enemy patrols, and return to base with the precious information.

The information gathered is given to Planning HQ and, along with information obtained through aerial reconnaissance, compiled into Naval Collation Maps. Maps are updated regularly – this one shows beach and inland features as of 17 June 1943, less than a month before the landing takes place. It is shared only with Battalion Commanders and those above them. Only they know the destination, everyone else sees maps with the place names and grid references removed for security purposes.

Gathering the information required to be able to annotate a map with helpful information such as ‘good scramble for infantry’ and ‘probable howitzers’ was lonely and dangerous work.

Of the 35 men of the various COPP who survey potential landing sites on Sicily, 11 were lost, some of  whom were never seen again. Those having No Known Grave are commemorated on the Cassino Memorial to the Missing in the Sicily and mainland Italy campaigns.

TRAINING BEGINS: landing from the sea against a defended shore

Training in assault landings – the loading of vehicles and driving on and off ships into various landing craft, or through water onto beaches, climbing over the side of ships, down into landing craft in a rough sea, the strict order for the loading and sailing of landing craft and combined operations become part of the daily routine.

In early June 1943 a full-scale dress rehearsal for the landing takes place in the Gulf of Aqaba. The troops still do not know where they will go ashore or when. All maps and ground models have the names of villages and mountains, as well as grid references, removed. Their destination is revealed only once they set sail on 5 July 1943.

The Green Howards’ 1st Battalion, veterans of a withdrawal from land TO sea in Norway in 1940, are selected for the assault force striking FROM the sea to the shore at Avola in the early hours of 10 July. The 6th and 7th battalions, forced to retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, and familiar with the Italian army due to more recent action in the western desert, will be part of the follow-up wave later the same day.

We boarded a landing craft and were taken about 2 miles down the Gulf. Turning around, we made a dash for the coast at a good speed and when we were about one hundred yards from the beach the ramp came down and, simulating the real thing, we jumped into waist deep water and went as fast as we could, encouraged by our NCOs. As we were laden with kit and weapons, it was a little difficult to keep our feet.  We charged up the beach shouting wildly and firing blank ammunition at an imaginary enemy.  

Private Bill Cheall, B Company, 6th Battalion

PHASE ONE: the landings

Aerial Reconnaisance image of the Marina at Avola

The Allies land on beaches in Sicily’s south-east corner. Once ashore at Avola, the Green Howards are tasked with capturing the port of Syracuse, achieving their mission by the end of D-Day: 10 July. They move up the east coast of the island, pushing the Germans and Italians north. American and Canadian forces land to the west of the British and move north-west, protecting the British flank and aiming for the capture of the island’s capital, Palermo. Initial opposition is light. Many of the Italian coastal units surrender in droves. Fighting will become more challenging the further inland the Green Howards progress.

On the morning of 10th July we were called about 0530. I looked out and saw that the bay off Avola was just filled with ships of all sorts and sizes. My first thought was, well if the Germans send their bombers over now, God help us!

We washed, shaved and dressed. Enjoyed a full cooked breakfast followed by the inevitable cigarette, then just sat and waited until we were called to the Landing Craft.

We climbed aboard and were lowered into the beautiful, calm blue sea. On reaching shore, a big Marine picked me up and carried me ashore, so I did not even have wet feet.

Recollections of J R Mumford, 7th Battalion Green Howards

The waiting was over and we moved towards the side of the ship, then over we went, heavily laden. Seeking a foothold on the scrambling nets was something which we had never rehearsed and I must admit that it was bit daunting.

Private Bill Cheall, B Company, 6th Battalion


The regiment's 1st Battalion drives a convoy of DUKW through a Sicilian street.

Affectionately known as ‘ducks’, the DUKW is an amphibious vehicle which transforms the way supplies are handled during the course of an invasions from sea to land.

The first time the General Motors vehicle is used in Europe is during the invasion of Sicily.

Before the arrival of DUKW, supplies had to be loaded from the transport ship into smaller craft that could get inshore or into a port. The supplies would then have to be taken off the smaller ship, placed into transport vehicles and driven to where they were needed. All very time consuming and labour intensive, with the whole process vulnerable to enemy attack.

DUKW are loaded whilst still onboard the transport ship, driven into the water to make its own way to shore. The driver is able to vary individual tyre pressures from the cab, depending on the ground or sea conditions. Once ashore, it can continue by road or rough ground.

DUKW FACTS: Empty weight: 5,900 kg. Speed: 50mph (land) 6.3 mph (water). Length: 9.45m. Width 2.51m. Load: 2300kg supplies, or 24 soldiers.

Sicily is a mountainous and beautiful island, lush green and hot, and majestic, unpredictable Mount Etna could always be seen.

We worked our way through the hills around Sortino and Lentini.  We passed through olive, orange and lemon groves and miles of low tomato plants, more like small bushes than tomatoes, with those oval ones you see on cans in shops.

And there was mile-upon-mile of seedless grapes. We would walk through bushes laden with the fruit and would just grab a handful as we walked past.

Private Bill Cheall, B Company, 6th Battalion

PAPER BULLETS - a war of words and caricatures

  • This simple single-sided piece of German propaganda suggests travel company Thomas Cook has been mis-selling the Sicilian dream holiday to gullible British troops.

  • Allied propaganda called on the Italian people to support the invasion and sabotage German infrastructure, suggesting time was running out for Hitler's grip on their country. The paper he is reading reports, "and the tasks of the Police are rendered extremely difficult by the hostile behaviour of the majority of the population."

  • Information aimed at helping soldiers arriving in Sicily know what to expect was provided in the form of a booklet issued by the War Office.

  • The Soldier's Guide also contained some interesting observations (stereotypes) regarding the local population.

AVOLA TO MESSINA - the 100 mile long coastal front

PHASE TWO: clear the Catania plain

The Green Howards must fight their way up the east coast of the island, moving methodically through Solarino, Sortino and Mount Pancali, where they defeat the elite Hermann Goëring Division to open up the road to Primosole Bridge, for which the Durham Light Infantry and Parachute forces later pay so dearly.

Then on to Lentini, until finally the prize of Catania and its airfield are secured.

0745hrs – Start time altered to 0830, gunners not ready yet. The men don’t like it – neither do I. ‘Pedestrian’ Smith seems quite cheery and is telling his platoon it will be dead easy. He and I found out some time ago that the best way to spend this last hour is to joke with the men – its good for them and good for you.

Captain Kenneth Nash, 11 Platoon, 7th Battalion. 14 July 1943. The Green Howards are ordered to attack Mount Pancali, strongly defended by the Germans due to its strategic position guarding the road to Primosole Bridge.

The Catania plain: July and August 1943

  • Catania: July 1943. Soldiers from the 1st Battalion fighting through the rubble strewn streets.

  • The importance of communications. Using the radio from the roof of a house.

  • August 1943: Catania plain. The entrance to B Company HQ.

  • Bren guns on the Catania plain - July 1943.

  • This photograph of the 6th Battalion’s Bren Gun Carrier Platoon features Captain Delf (standing, centre) and Lieutenant Fitzwilliam (with cigarette).

Hedley Verity (left) died in an Italian military hospital on 31 July 1943 after being wounded and captured during the fighting. 11 years earlier, whilst playing cricket for Yorkshire against Nottingham at Headingley on 12 July, he took all 10 of their wickets for just 10 runs, a world record which still stands. Verity, capped 40 times for his country, is pictured with his Yorkshire team-mate Norman Yardley, who also served with the regiment. Yardley was injured in Italy in January 1944, but survived and captained England in the 1947 season. Find out how we shared Verity’s story with young local cricketers here…

William Askew, awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions in Otta, was one of 48 men from the regiment who died at Belpasso in Sicily.

On 6 August 1943 Askew and his men were ordered to attack the town. It was an incredibly difficult situation, German Tiger tanks were on the roads and the terrain covered in lava and cacti.

The Green Howards advanced under the cover of the artillery barrage before entering the town establishing their position.

A miner from Easington before the war, Charles, or ‘Chuck’ Guy, as he signed off his letters, was part of the 1st Battalion’s  20 July 1943 actions west of the Bottaceto ditch on the edge of Catania Airfield, a key objective for the advancing Allies, and the same action in which Hedley Verity was wounded and captured. With their progress halted by artillery shelling, Guy was killed by shrapnel while taking cover in a ditch.

In 1939 Reginald Smith was working as a brewery labourer, living with his wife Mary in Burton-on-Trent. Like so many Green Howards involved in the Sicily landings, he’d seen action in North Africa. Whilst serving as a stretcher bearer with C Company at the Battle of Wadi Akarit on 6 April 1943, he was awarded the Military Medal for his actions attending to the wounded, despite being injured himself, whilst under heavy fire and his company’s last remaining stretcher bearer. Exactly four months later, Reginald was killed in the fighting near the village of San Giovanni and is buried in Catania War Cemetery. The quotation on the memorial plaque in our collection bears a quote from ‘his officer’ which reads “He was an outstanding character as well as the bravest stretcher bearer I have ever met.”

Charles Ridley joined the 4th Battalion in 1920 and served until he was ordained in 1934. For a number of years’ he was Vicar of Catterick and Tunstall and Chaplain at the Regimental Depot.
“Charles was very down to earth chap who expressed himself in plain Anglo-Saxon and never wrapped things up. During the war he was very much a sharp end Padre, serving in the Desert, Sicily and Italy,” remembered one Green Howards soldier. This triptych is one of a number of items used by Reverend Ridley in our collection.

This Italian officer’s waistbelt was ‘picked up’ in Catania in 1943. Sometimes the full backstory of an item which finds its way into the museum collection is less than clear.

SIGN OF THINGS TO COME. Stanley Hollis served in the Merchant Navy before the war. As a Company Sergeant Major for C Company of the 6th Battalion, The Green Howards, he was one of the force landing on the Sicilian beaches. On 18 July 1943, while holding a position on the railway line going north from Primosole Bridge… “C Company was taken by surprise and attacked by a strong enemy fighting patrol, some fifty men in strength, and a hand-to-hand struggle ensued. Two of the enemy were killed, and one wounded and captured, while the remainder scattered and fled.  The main body withdrew straight back up the railway line…CSM Hollis threw a grenade at one German which hit him full on the chest. It did not explode but was sufficient to send him dashing down the railway line like a ‘scalded cat’.” Regimental History, Synge. A year later Hollis would be part of the fighting force landing on the Normandy beaches.

Transcription of the letter from Captain AT Parkinson, Commander D Company, 1st Bn Green Howards to Private Chuck Guy's mother.

29 August 1943

Dear Mrs Guy

You have no doubt received the official notification of your son’s death in action. Your son was in the Company when I joined it in Bury and since then no matter what I asked him to do he always did it cheerfully and efficiently.

At the end of a long flank guard action we were halted by enemy fire by the river Simento, The transport was close by and it was here that I had the misfortune to lose some men, one of whom I very much regret was your son. A splinter from an enemy mortar bomb killed your son instantly.

During the whole of that action your son was a great help by his courage and cheerfulness.

The men and officers of the Company join me in this expression of our sorrow and sympathy with you in your hour of bereavement.

The Padre has conducted a burial service, and I can assure you that your son received worthy honour at the last.

Once again, expressing our deepest sympathy with you…..

More used to operating in the wide-open spaces of the western desert, the Green Howards find themselves fighting in condensed country, where mobility is hampered by the nature of the ground and the limited number of roads able to take large amounts of vehicles. These roads are bordered by dry stone walls, dense olive and lemon groves and a multitude of small rivers and streams, all hampering a swift advance, especially when the enemy take advantage of these features to attempt to slow the Allied advance.

Fighting in North Africa had largely been across vast flat, empty desert. In Sicily, the soldiers must assault and capture villages, many atop ridges approached by steep climbs. Civilians are now involved. Seeing their villages devastated and their loved ones killed or wounded, the locals are initially resentful of these new invaders. Slowly their distrust retreats.

As we approached one village we saw one villager’s chair outside his cottage. On looking closer we could see that he had placed his chair directly over one of the German mines. Then we saw the rest of the street; all the villagers had marked the position of every mine so that we could safely pass.

Alf Blackburn, 6th Battalion

Every time we passed through a village or township, the people greeted us with bottles of wine and garlands of flowers. The women and children would pass me by because of the gun, and then mobbed the rest of the section showering them with the flowers, wine and kisses.

It was only the old men of the village that showed no fear of the gun. I did on occasion, try to get someone else to carry the gun but no one would oblige, so I was stuck with it and none too happy about it.

I was getting a bit sick of kissing old men, and it would have made a pleasant change to have experienced something more to my taste!

Alf Blackburn, 6th Battalion

troops from Britain, America, Canada, Poland, South Africa, India and New Zealand were part of the invasion force

formed the Allied invasion fleet

made up the initial Allied force

used in the landings

involved in the invasion

used in the landings

the width of the invasion front. It would be half that a year later in Normandy.

from the German and Italian armies based on the island at the time of the landings

lost their lives during the fight to retake Sicily and are buried in the shadow of Mount Etna in the Catania and Syracuse cemeteries.

PHASE THREE: pursuit

Chasing the enemy from the island proves to be extremely difficult. By making use of the terrain, destroying bridges and roads and the use of small, mobile units, well-practiced in the use of machine guns and mortars and close quarter fighting, the German and Italian forces delay the Allied advance.

This buys time for the enemy to evacuate their troops and equipment to the mainland, to be used another day.

One major flaw in the initial planning for Sicily was failing to plan properly for the situation once the island had been secured. This lack of forward planning will later haunt the Allies as they attempt to progress north through mainland Italy.

A briefing delivered in the Roman amphitheatre at Taormina.

In less than twenty-four hours the Battalion had completed a fourteen mile march across country, crossing three rivers; made a successful night attack, and consolidated captured positions; carried out a further five mile advance against the defended town of Motta, and captured it.

Regimental history, summing up the actions of the 1st Battalion on 4 August 1943

SICILY SNAPSHOTS - images from our photograph collection

An photo from our collection featuring an unknown officer from the 6th Battalion, Taormina 1943.

Major Ronnie Lofthouse and ‘Freddie’ sitting in front of a viaduct.

‘Padre’ and ‘Mac’ at Augusta, Sicily – the port of embarkation for the Italian mainland.

1st Battalion Signal Officer McAdam relaxing on a sun lounger.

Then and Now

Comparing the summer of 1943 with those same locations in July 2023, 80 years on…

Left behind in Sicily

146 Green Howards soldiers lost their lives during the 29 days they were on the island of Sicily. Some casualties were evacuated off the island and died later in hospitals in North Africa. You can read the names of those who died here.

Not such a dog's breakfast after all...

This image in the museum’s collection shows General Montgomery addressing troops south of Messina, ominously saying “Where ever I go, I shall want you with me…it may be England”.


The challenges presented by the invasion of Sicily have to be resolved strategically before the Allies can launch an invasion in northern Europe. Those challenges were overcome in practical terms by the soldiers on the ground, with the experience preparing them in some way for what was to follow during the invasion of France the following year.

The stone walls and olive groves of Sicily would be replaced by the bocage of Normandy in 1944. Learning the art of urban warfare in village after village, sitting atop steep approaches – again, not something men of the Green Howards had come across in the desert – would prepare them for taking on defenders holding Normandy villages such as Ver sur Mer, Crepon, St. Leger, Lingreves and Longraye.

Arguably, without the experience, challenges and lessons learnt through the invasion of Sicily, the men of the Green Howards, of the 6th Battalion in particular, would not have been as well-equipped to land on the beaches of Normandy in 1944; achieving their initial objectives within 48 minutes of a boot hitting Gold Beach. But that’s an exhibition for another day…

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