Capture at Gerbini, 20th July 1943
Account of Dell Porchetta, 7th Argyll & Sutherlands
An account from the wartime experiences of Dell Porchetta (Army Number 3317881) with the 7th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 'A' Company, No 8 Platoon.
This was another famous battle fought by the 7th Argylls and resulted in very heavy casualties and the capture of nearly all of what was left of 'A' company, including myself, some of D company and a few others. The battalion had been under strength even before the battle had started and we were up against Herman Goering's Luft Division Paratroops who were first class highly trained troops. Some of them had been flown in from the Russian front. Initially their main task appeared to be to hold Sicily until reinforcements arrived but with the strength of the opposition their aim appeared to change to that of slowing down the allies in Sicily so that the Germans could extract their equipment to the mainland.
Our previous patrols and contact told us that the enemy were holding the town in strength. Indeed after the battle many were of the opinion that the Germans were at divisional strength.
The start line was a deep ditch which ran at right angles to the railway. C and D companies were forward, B was to link up with support tanks of the 46th Royal Tank Regiment. 'A' company were in reserve. The attack was to take place in darkness on the night of the 20th July. Wire cutters were needed to cut through a double apron wire fence on the opposite side of the ditch and we walked and crawled towards what appeared to be a railway station or a siding. D company ran into fire first and there was accurate enemy machine gun fire which strafed the whole advance and caused several casualties. C company was now heavily engaged with the enemy on the railway line and had lost all its officers. 'A' company was now to come forward from reserve up the railway line under the command of Captain G. B. Horsburgh. Officer Cormack who had been drafted in from intelligence was leading no 8 platoon into this battle.
Engaging the enemy was case of firing at muzzle flashes in the pitch dark and trying to interpret through the loud shouting how the battle was developing. There was a fierce gunfight in amongst the railway wagons and the ammunition started to run low. The German Paras had a Schneisser machine gun each and these were very handy for close quarter fighting whereas with the Lee Enfield you had to load each bullet in the 10 round magazine. The German machine gun tracers were about 1 in every 2 rounds, ours were 1 in 7. There was deafening noise, lots of shrapnel and ricochets, a bit like being caught in the middle of a firework display and both sides were firing flares.
About half the station had been taken but the enemy outnumbered us. Even worse the ammunition began to run out and our wireless contact with battalion headquarters ceased. The enemy counter- attacked and was repelled. 'A' companies' survivors had taken to a railway culvert which did for a trench and there was maybe about 30 to 40 men crammed in there including some of D company who had taken cover on their way back from the aerodrome.
There was a self- propelled gun moving up and down the track firing at our position. A second counter attack was broken up by our tanks which had been sent in to assist our 'A' company and these tanks also engaged the self- propelled gun. The tanks were then withdrawn to assist B company who were also having a tough fight. Dawn was approaching and we had no wireless contact . Colonel Mathieson was in a tank trying to organise reinforcements and ammunition but this tank suffered a direct hit and the Colonel and all the crew were killed. Our second in command had also been killed. Almost all officers had been killed or wounded.
Dawn came and the Germans now counterattacked in force with tanks and with no ammo appearing and about 35 men left things were looking bleak. Officer Cormack and some men were in a signal box near the culvert when a shell from the self propelled gun went right through the walls and they quickly joined us.
With tank machine guns overlooking and firing into the trench we had to surrender. A German tank came up close and fired a warning shot over our heads. Unfortunately Pvt. Jimmy Reid from Tarbet had stood up at this point and was hit by the blast of this shot and killed instantly.
I had been standing near him and felt how tragic to be killed by what looked like a warning shot. It was probably Jimmy's first battle.
We breathed a sigh of relief that the two German prisoners we had taken had been very well treated and had run towards the tank commander at the point of our surrender and shouted "Britishers Gute !, Britishers Gute !" or who knows what might have happened in the heat of battle. The tank captain shouted in good English "Be quick, come out gentlemen!"
At this point Major John Lindsay Macdougall was still alive but badly wounded in the stomach and died shortly after.
Sergeant Dougie Graham [with the intelligence section] was in the same trench but managed to escape in the melee and hid in a railway culvert until nightfall. He finally made his way back to headquarters.
Some of these German paratroops had fought against us in the desert but one of our captors, a big tall German sergeant, we found out, had fought at Dieppe and the Russian front and some had come from Italy.
D company had finally reached the aerodrome and after some fierce hand to hand fighting were making their way into the wood which was heavily defended and losses were incurred by both D and B companies in trying to take pill boxes and an armoured car in the forest. Lieutenant McVicar of 'D' company from Dunoon was killed in action here.
The Germans launched successive counter attacks and steadily reduced the strength of the battalion's position which had now been reinforced with two Black Watch companies. With only four officers left and none of our tanks in the vicinity further enemy counter-attacks supported with tanks forced the battalion to withdraw and hold the line at the anti - tank ditch.
However the Germans had been dealt a severe blow and with their fighting capability possibly exhausted they did not press home their initial advantage and they withdrew from Gerbini. This battle had broken the back of the German resistance and shortly afterwards they withdrew all forces from Sicily to the mainland.
[Porchetta concludes this section of his account:]
We were walked back as POW's in the middle of a barrage by our own 25 pounders on the German tanks, then some lorries took us to a nun's school.
My brother Captain Bell Porchetta of the RAMC who was in the vicinity could find no trace of me but on making urgent enquiries he eventually found, to his great relief, someone in the unit who had observed me from a distance being loaded into a German truck.