The Invasion of Sicily - Operation HUSKY

JH Straczek

Throughout the dark days of 1940 and 1941 ships of the RAN were present in the Mediterranean operating alongside the Royal Navy and supporting Army operations. From the brilliant successes of HMAS Sydney, off Crete, to the tragic loss of HMAS Waterhen while running supplies into the besieged garrison of Tobruk - the Navy was there.

In late 1941 and early 1942 the ships of the RAN were recalled to help in the defence of their island home. Many of the ships which had won fame in the Mediterranean were to be lost much closer to home. By 1943 however, the situation had changed. The Allies were on the offensive and the RAN was once again in the frontline. Following on from the defeat of the Afrika Corps in northern Africa the Allies commenced planning for the liberation of Sicily. An amphibious invasion to be code-named Operation HUSKY.

Present in the estimated 3000 ship invasion force were HMA Ships Gawler, Lismore, Maryborough, Ipswich, Cessnock, Geraldton, Cairns and Wollongong. While these ships may have appeared insignificant in an order of battle that boasted six battleships, two aircraft carriers, 18 cruisers and over 100 destroyers their roles were vital ones. The corvettes had arrived in the Mediterranean in May and on 26 May Gawler, Ipswich, Lismore and Maryborough were formed into the 21st Minesweeping Flotilla at Alexandria. The remaining four corvettes were formed into the 22nd Minesweeping Flotilla.

During the build up to HUSKY the Australian corvettes were busily engaged in escort work. On 5 July Ipswich sailed from Tobruk as part of a tanker escort. She was detached off Benghazi were she was to join her sister ships Gawler, Lismore and Maryborough. At dawn on the 6 July these ships joined MWS36, one of the many invasion convoys. These ships arrived at the assembly point off Malta and immediately took their position as escorts for the stores ships.

The weather at this time, always critical for an amphibious assault, was proving to be marginal. The decision was taken to continue with the assault as planned. Fortunately conditions eased as the ships approached the island and the assault was able to be progressed without too much delay. Ships of the bombardment group commenced firing shortly after dawn and by 8:00am most of the German and Italian shore batteries had been silenced. The initial assault waves met with light resistance.

At 6:00am on 10 July the Australian ships, with the exception of Gawler, arrived at the release point ‘Baker East’. Gawler in the meantime was assisting one of the transports which found itself in difficulties. After the problems had been overcome Gawler signalled to the straggler “Follow father”. Daybreak was to reveal that the straggler who had followed father was the Convoy Commodore!

After arriving at their release position the Australian ships commenced carrying out anti-submarine patrols and mine sweeping operations. Throughout the day there were continual air raid warnings. The four Australian ships sailed for Malta, and hence Alexandria, on 11 July escorting empty troopships. During the return voyage Gawler carried out an attack on a sonar contact. A search after the attack failed to reveal any results.

As these ships were leaving Sicily HMA Ships Geraldton, Cairns, Wollongong and Cessnock were arriving off Sicily as part of a 36 ship convoy from Alexandria. The second group of corvettes spent the 13 July carrying out endless patrols off the beaches. During one of the air raids an American Liberty ship was hit and blew up.

The original corvettes, Ipswich, Lismore, Geraldton and Gawler returned to Sicily on 24/25 July with another convoy. After seeing their charges into the newly liberated port of Syracuse the Australian ships carried out continuous anti-submarine patrols off the port. At about 4:00am on the 25 July an air raid alert was sounded. The Luftwaffe launched an all out raid on the port and surrounding areas lasting for about one hour. During this time a bomb was seen to burst close to Maryborough, momentarily obscuring Maryborough’s silhouette. At first light the Commanding Officer of Gawler enquired if any damage had been sustained. The response from Maryborough read “No damage except to my underpants”.

Once their part in the invasion of Sicily was completed the Australian ships returned to their vital and still dangerous task of escorting convoys through the Mediterranean.

Thirty eight days after the initial landings the island of Sicily had been liberated.