DIFFICULTIES OF SMALL BOATS
Described by L. Blair Wallister, USCGR
I was on duty aboard the Coast Guard Transport Samuel Chase during the preparations in North Africa for the invasion of Sicily. The convoy left North Africa on the 6th of July, Tuesday, and headed east in the Mediterranean along the shores, the north shores of Africa, around the coast, zig-zagging, of course, from time to time, down through the Tunisian war channel and then gradually up and around again in a very zig-zag pattern past Malta and past Gozo, in the direction of Sicily.
Up until the last day of the convoy before making attack on Sicily, we could have attacked probably any one of five different places. In the trip through the Mediterranean the sea in all directions seemed to be filled with other convoys. Practically any direction in which the eye turned there was another convoy proceeding either in our direction or in a direction approximately the same as ours toward the same goal. The enemy undoubtedly knew we were in the Mediterranean and were headed toward an invasion but judging from the number and direction of the ships, he could not have identified the invasion point accurately up until the night of Friday, July 9.
On that night we headed directly north toward Sicily. The weather had been fair up until Friday July 9, but on that day the winds picked up and the seas built up and there were heavy, fairly heavy seas and a good deal of sea sickness among the assault troops. The convoy continued through the heavy seas, and there was considerable trepidation felt about getting the landing boats ashore in the surf that would undoubtedly be found along the coast.
Our meteorological data was complete and upon consulting this data we discovered that seas of five feet or higher, that is a surf of five feet or higher along the beaches, was probably to be expected not more than one percent of the time and this turned out to be one of the one percent days. Admiral Kirk later described the conditions as a terrible surf. The ships came in sight of Sicily shortly after midnight. Our first sight of Sicily consisted of heavy fires glowing along the shores near Gela, fires started by the strong bombardment which had been given by air force during the day. As we closed in we needed no sign posts and in fact navigation was facilitated by the fires that were to be seen burning on the Sicilian mainland. To the east of Gela, which was our invasion point, the Scoglitti light could still be seen burning. Evidently the Italians were not worried about an invasion at the time, or if they were they were more concerned about maintaining their own aids to navigation than they were about blacking them out against us.
We dropped our anchors at the appointed time and place about six miles off shore and at about 1 a.m. in the morning of Saturday, 10 July. The landing boats were dropped over the side and headed toward the rendezvous areas where they were to proceed into the attack with the PCs and the SCs as guide and control ships.
Aboard our own ships all was in complete blackness, of course, and we had no indication of the progress that the attack waves were making until about five minutes before H-hour, H-hour being 0245 on 10 July. About five minutes before H-hour we saw the searchlights sweeping the seas. The first waves of the attack were all caught and sharply silhouetted from our position in the light of the searchlights. We expected immediately, of course, that machine guns and shore batteries would open on the landing waves going in. However, the shore batteries did not open up. The searchlights then executed a peculiar maneuver. They rose into the air, dipped again to another position, rose again and dipped and did this several times, scanning back and forth in apparently attempting to pick up outlines of ships at sea without paying any attention to the landing boats coming in shore. Later on we received various reports from the Italians. One report that we received was that they believed their own fleet was maneuvering off shore. Another report was that they wanted to see what the big ships were and weren't paying any attention to what they believed to be scouting boats in shore.
At H-hour practically all of the first waves, hit the shore. Our first indication of that came when red rockets, signal rockets were fired and we knew that our boats were ashore. In the meantime one of the cruisers was closing in and picked out the most offensive of the large searchlights the Italians were using and lobbed over three shells and watched them arch through the sky with their tracers gleaming red as they floated slowly in a perfect V formation into the shore and drop squarely on this searchlight position and completely blasting out the searchlight, the gun, the gun crew and every living thing in that immediate vicinity.
The cruisers then continued to fire on other searchlights. An artillery general who was making a landing in one of the LCV boats from our ship, turned to the Coast Guard officer, who was in charge of that particular wave, and said that he had never in his life seen such fine gun fire, either on land or sea, which was an excellent testimonial to the fire of the cruisers on that particular occasion.
The PCs and SCs in some cases had difficulty lining up the waves and leading them in. On one occasion a PC had trouble with her compass and the wave which she was supposed to have led in was led in by a support boat which was commanded by Lt. Comdr. Bernard Scalan, Coast Guard officer, and he took the position which the PC would have otherwise had taken in leading his wave in. As he came in shore another scout boat which had already taken an assigned position near the pier at Gela proved to be of great help. This scout boat put under the command of Ensign Darnell, U.S. Naval Reserve, had lain off the main jetty at Gela for about a half hour preceding the arrival of the support boat and its wave and showing lights out to sea enabled them to
fix their positions and approach the beach accurately in exactly the position that they had planned. As they approached at Gela, some of the shore batteries opened up. Some of the guns, some of the landing boats were raked with gun fire from machine guns. Shell fire, also, landed among the landing boats. One boat was swamped through a shell which landed alongside of it and the coxswain of the boat told the soldiers that they would have to jump overboard and helped to cut packs off their backs and then directed them to a nearby LCI and most of the men in that particular boat were saved. Another boat which was swamped lost most of its crew as well as the soldiers who were being transported ashore.
Most of the landings Were made good in the first wave and the soldiers quickly proceeded up the beach and took the machine gun emplacements under fire from their own machine guns and they managed to cut down resistance within several hours. Later we learned that most of the beaches, the coastal defenses, were manned by native Sicilian troops and the story that some of these Sicilians told us was that they were very anxious to keep us off the beach if they could, to defend their beaches, but once they saw that the Americans had gained beachheads their desire to fight was dampened considerably because they didn't want their cities, their homes, their villages and their farms fought over and they didn't want their families subjected to danger of shell fire and lead flying through the air and, consequently, after our beachheads were made good the opposition from the Italians along the coast line largely dissipated and we took many prisoners even before daylight. The town of Gela was shortly surrounded and on early morning of Saturday the entire town fell into our hands. In the original landings, in the landing boats, the transport to which I was attached found it a valuable idea to mount the .30-caliber machine guns forward in the boats.
Later, talking to the boat crews from other boats I discovered that they ran into a difficulty which our transport had previously ran into in North Africa, namely that with the machine guns mounted on the scarfrings in the gun scuttles the danger of raking your own boat was not to be ignored and consequently the setting of the guns forward gave the gunners a clearer range and didn't endanger lives of those in the boats to which the gunners were attached.
With the dawn of Saturday, the German air force came over, two Messerschmidts knocked down an observation plane which was scouting gun fire from one of our cruisers and fortunately the crew of the plane were rescued by the landing boats which were nearby. The German planes then proceeded to rake the beaches, strafing, dive bombing, skip bombing and even laying mines. One of the beaches during the course of the morning had to be closed because German planes had laid mines on the beach and we had to proceed to disarm and pick up these mines before our boats could be allowed to proceed inshore again.
The chief difficulties encountered on the beach were the heavy surf, which blew up again on Saturday morning, after calming down for the original landings on Saturday, very early right after midnight the winds flattened out. The original landings were made in a very flat sea, but on Saturday morning, with the coming of daylight, the seas did continue to build up so that there was considerable broaching and swamping of all sorts of boats on Saturday morning. Also, on Saturday morning an LST which was carrying half tracks and 105 mm. anti-tank equipment and anti-aircraft guns, all priority equipment, the LST in making its landing grounded on a sand bar which turned out to be about 100 yards off shore and while trying to rig pontoons suffered a direct hit from German aircraft and blew up with considerable loss of personnel and complete loss of all equipment aboard. The beach on which she had been trying to make her landing had to be evacuated and new beaches set up.
On the transport to which I was attached one of the LCM's had been reconstructed for use as a salvage boat. The after end of the ship, the LCM, or tank lighter had been decked over and extra heavy towing bits had been installed. The control box had been moved forward about six feet to allow the after end to be decked over according to plans which had been layed and originated by Captain Roger Heimer, who was in command of the USS Chase. The forward ramp had been arranged with an "A" frame on it so that it could be used for lifting up the after ends of boats that broached and the tank lighter, salvage boat, had also been equipped with a bulldozer for the use in handling wire cables from the stranded boats and getting them off the beaches.
The salvage boat as thus described performed very valuable service in this connection, hauling off swamped landing craft. The craft carried very strong, long ground tackle which was used whenever necessary and four special purchases to seaward and special rigs had been devised for utilizing both shore and sea purchases. The boats that had suffered damage were brought back to the ship and hauled out of the water, repair crews stood by and were ready with all sorts of repair gear.
Plugs had been prepared in advance, 30 caliber, $0 caliber plugs, tapered plugs ready to pop into holes from gun fire and the average time out of boats that had suffered damage in making landings was about one hour and 20 minutes.
An interesting factor in this invasion as different from the North African invasion, the chief damage to the LCV(P) or Higgins boats was in the matter of propellers. That was due to the fact that there were rocks along the coast. In this invasion the chief damage was due to jammed rudders, evidently due to the fact that it was a sandy bottom and in backing off from the beaches in many cases the boats rammed their rudders against the sand bar and when they were still astern to the waves, because of the heavy surf they had to back out a considerable distance before they could turn around without danger of broaching. The LCM's were very successful in this operation because they came up fairly high on the beach, but probably in most successful of all were the LCT barges. The LCT's came higher
on the beach than any other landing vessel and proved their worth again and again. One LCT could hold as such gear as perhaps twenty of twenty five of the LCV(P)s and was able to get higher on the beach with it with less danger of swamping or broaching. The LCIs were able to get close enough in that troops were able to debark for the most part in water not deeper than their arm pits.
In some occasions where they were not able to get in the close, LCV(P)s and even ducks were used as abridge to get the soldiers into shallower water before they came down and waded in the rest of distances. In many cases of course, lines were rigged between the LCIs and the shore to assist the soldiers in getting ashore. The LST's had considerable difficulty getting close enough to shore to debark their mechanized equipment. The pontoons were rigged in some cases but were not entirely successful, apparently due to the fact that the heavy surf continually disturbed them on the beaches near Gela, most of the LST's had to be unloaded with LCV(P)s, Army ducks and LCT's. One LOT in particular which was quite useful had had part of the side cut away and the ramp of the LST's was lowered right onto the deck of the LCT. The Army ducks proved their worth in this operation. They are very successful because of the fact that they were able to proceed up the beaches and in scattering the supplies which they brought ashore, they were able to disburse them, carry them up into the dunes and disburse them so that they didn't block the beaches with tremendous supplies of material which were vulnerable to enemy air attack.
During the day, Saturday, enemy planes came over, not in large quantities, usually one, two or three at a time and continued to strafe and skip bomb along the beaches. The American planes for the most part were engaged in supporting the infantry and attacking the enemy and consequently there were very few dog fights. We would see formations of American planes fly over and disappear inland or fly along the beaches, disappear and presently they'd be followed by one, two, or three of the German planes coming over and doing their strafing or else bombing the transports. The Italian planes were notably absent in this operation. We saw none whatever. The types of German planes which were most encountered were Messerschmidts, Focke-Wulfs, Junkers 88's, and early on Saturday a couple of Stukas, thereafter we saw no more Stukas.
The heavy seas caused many of the landing boats to broach or swamp on Saturday and the salvage boats were busy all day long along with salvage tugs which were used in this operation, I believe, for the first time in an invasion operation, but were very successful in hauling off LCI's which broached and LST's which were grounded on the sand bars.
Late Saturday we received an urgent call from the shore asking that we give immediate priority to all anti-tank 105 mm. equipment. Boats which were half loaded were unloaded and other equipment which was on deck or in the hatches ready to be brought up was pushed
aside and immediate priority was given to this equipment as requested. Later the Army unloading crews which had been helping to unload the landing boats on the beaches were withdrawn to the defense areas and it was necessary for the boat crews of the Higgins boats and tank lighters, the LCV(P)'s and the LCM's to do their own unloading. Because of the fact that this took three and four times as long, the landing boats were subjected to additional danger from air at attacks and also were much more liable to swamping and broaching, swamping largely being due to waves which came around the bow and rolled back down the ramp causing the after end of the boats to settle and the next few surfs might roll over the stern of the boat and swamp it from the rear.
During the night we supplemented our boat crews with additional men to assist in the unloading. At this time we did not know why the Army unloading crews had disappeared. We found that out later on. We suffered several air attacks during the night with German planes coming over dropping flares and then bombing us after their flares had lit up the transport area. Sometimes there were as many as 10 to 15 flares in the air at one time and anti-aircraft fire against these flares was in some cases effective and in most cases seemed an unfortunate waste of ammunition,
German planes in these night attacks both on Saturday night and on Sunday night used siren or screaming bombs and we were able to understand the demoralizing effect that these bombs had had on the Poles, and on the French, because of the fact that during the night the screaming bombs made a lot of noise as they came down, first the roar of the engines of the dive bombers, then the screaming bombs and by virtue of the fact that the bombs grew to a crescendo as they approached the surface of the sea, they seemed to be directed toward your ship. During the day time, of course, you are not aware of the bombs until they land and then you see the explosion and the splash and if you are still alive there is nothing to worry about. But at night you hear these things coming toward you and because of the fact that they grow louder they do seem to be coming directly at you and they tend to be rather nerve racking and we could sympathize with the people of Poland and France for that reason. Numerous bomb straddles were recorded on the American destroyers that night. In fact every destroyer but one was reported as having been straddled by bombs, but none of our ships were hit during the night attacks.
On Sunday morning we found out for the first time what the necessity for anti-tank equipment had been. Splashes were seen on all sides among the transports along the beaches, no aircraft were overhead. Out first surmise was that enemy coastal batteries had suddenly been revitalized. This proved not to be the case when we were able to observe the fire coming from German tanks. We learned that some 60 German tanks had outflanked our infantry, come around their lines and during the night had disposed themselves on the second ridge beyond the beaches. There was some slight cover here and these German tanks in coming up on this ridge took vantage points and
during the day with 75 mm equipment apparently proceed to bombard both the beaches and the transport area. Several of our transports were hit at this time, but fortunately no serious damage resulted although it necessitated all of the transports weighing anchor and proceeding out to a safer position a little farther to seaward.
At this point one of our large cruisers moved inshore and engaged in a duel with the tanks. After knocking out 14 of the German tanks the other tanks turned tail and headed back toward their own lines. At this time the anti-tank equipment which had been sent ashore from the various transports came into its own and an additional 15 or 16 tanks were knocked out on the way back, so that out of the original German force probably not more than 50 percent returned to their own lines according to reports which reached us aboard ship.
The enemy evidently made a major tactical error in allowing the tanks to remain on the second ridge, had the tanks come down to the beaches they undoubtedly would have been able to destroy most of our equipment, completely disrupt our landings and our own shell fire from the cruisers in attacking them could have ruined what would have ever remained on the beaches of our gear, our supplies, so that it was fortunate for us that the tanks did not come down to the beaches but stayed on the second ridges,
Sunday afternoon we were attacked by a force of 21 Junkers 88's, flying a perfect V formation. Echelons of three flew directly over the transport area and at this time a liberty ship was struck directly by what was probably a 200 pound bomb, the bomb landing on loaded gasoline and ammunition trucks on the forward deck. The Captain of the ship, observing that it would undoubtedly be hopeless to try and save the ship, immediately gave the order for abandoning ship and several score of landing boats which were on transports nearby were rushed over to the liberty ship and to our knowledge, virtually the, entire crew was picked up before she later exploded and burned with great volume of smoke and detonation of explosives in all directions.
During these operations also, one of our transports was hit on Saturday morning just after she had opened her number one hatch. The bomb fell directly down the hatch into the number 1 hold, but fortunately the fire was brought under control within three hours and what appeared at first might be a ship loss turned out to interfere in no wise with the unloading of the ships, except that her forward magazines had to be flooded. This spoke for excellent damage control aboard this particular vessel.
On Sunday night the vessels in the transport group were again attacked by enemy aircraft in much the same fashion as previously and for the first time we have sure knowledge that on this night we knocked down at least one of the enemy fliers.
In general it may be remarked that the anti-aircraft fire on the
part of the transports, landing ships, LCI's, LST's, LCT's, was definitely disappointing, particularly on the part of the landing ships themselves. Apparently aircraft identification had not been sufficiently indoctrinated in crews so that there were many cases of the crews of these vessels firing on our own planes with as much readiness as they fired on enemy planes. In all, during the entire invasion, there were probably less than a half dozen enemy planes destroyed. The number of friendly planes destroyed was regrettably large.
On Monday morning the transports, the Samuel Chase among them, completed unloading for the major part. Sixty-five hours was the total time required for unloading our vessel. We stood by during the hours of Monday while other transports completed unloading. Late on the afternoon of Monday, German planes came over again and this time tried a new tactic, namely strafing the barrage balloons. About a half-dozen barrage balloons were shot down, evidently with the intent of sending over torpedo planes about sundown to attack the ships, or else dive bombers. However, by sundown the ships of the convoy had weighed anchor and the convoy had sailed out of the Gulf of Gela and back into the Mediterranean. We had been well-protected during this entire time from seaward by a destroyer screen and also by mines layed by our own minelayers, which protected the transport area. Whether the German torpedo planes actually came over that night or not and whether they were disappointed, we'll never know because our convoy was safely at sea by that time and returned to its home port in North Africa without further difficulty.
In connection with German and Italian prisoners taken, it may be interesting to compare the psychological attitude of the prisoners. Among the Italians, mainly Sicilians whom we interrogated, we found a thorough and genuine hatred for the Germans. Part of this may be assumed, was put on in order to bring some favor with us because the men were prisoners, but the sincerity of it in many cases could not be doubted. The Italians claim that the Germans had planted mine fields behind their coastal defense areas and before the secondary defense areas which the Germans manned. The Italians were not advised of the paths through these mine fields and many Italians were lost in attempting to retreat from the coastal defense areas because they didn't know where the mine fields were. The Italians also said that the German troops who came into their cities were gruff, were unfriendly and supercilious. As a consequence the population by and large disliked them thoroughly, and as one prisoner expressed it, after dark whenever people could they threw rocks at the Germans.
On the Natale de Roma, the birthday of the Fascist party, the 21st of April, we were told that on this festival the natives of Gela, the inhabitants of Gela made it a point wherever possible to get out in the country, to pack whatever kind of lunches they could get together and get out of the city so that they would not be compelled to give the Fascist salute and contribute to the Fascist party on this particular anniversary. The prisoners frequently uttered implications against Mussolini, claiming to dislike him thoroughly and
pointed out that Sicily being an island people had no great interest in Mussolini's dreams of colonial empire and to them the Italian expansion only represented loss of lives of their loved ones, where they would have preferred to stay in their native lands on their native soil and live in a peaceful quiet way. The welcome accorded so many Americans in Sicily is probably due to the fact that Sicily has provided a great source of immigration for Americans of Italian descent in this country and it seemed that hardly any Sicilian family did not have at least one or two relatives living in America.
In contrast, the German prisoners were unfriendly, for the most part proud and in many cases actually haughty in their demeanor. When questioned as to the conditions at home they said that the conditions were very good. And when asked if they believed that Germany might collapse internally as she did in the last war due to American attack, they rather sneeringly pointed to the fact that Germany controlled Holland, Denmark, Norway, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Albania, and a large part of Russia. In consequence they considered that their part of the war was well won, whereas we had only conquered a part of North Africa and made landings on one island in the Mediterranean at that time and so they felt that, we had no right to talk about an impending allied victory, that Germany had already won her victory and it was only a case now of holding on to what she already had. It was a proud attitude and one the truth of which can only be ascertained by events that are happening and will continue to happen.
Lt. Walliser, what was you particular job in this operation?
I was the senior deck officer and during debarkation stood watches with the navigator of the ship, as senior OD six hours on and six hours off.