Operation Battle of Centuripe

The 'Battle of Centuripe' was fought between British and German forces as part of the 'Husky' (i) Allied invasion of Sicily (2/4 August 1943).

Major General V. Evelegh’s British 78th Division, of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army, was engaged in fierce fighting around the town of Centuripe in central Sicily in the hill country between the Dittaìno and Salso rivers. Centuripe, a hill town set on a very high rocky pinnacle and approached by only one steep and twisty road, was itself the key to the whole Adrano position, whose capture would in turn force the Germans to withdraw to new positions. The British troops captured the town after heavy fighting, and as a result the Germans began to consider the advisability of abandoning Sicily altogether.

The key position in the German defence line across Sicily was Centuripe, a village perched on the top of a formidable line of steep hills along with its precipitous sides which gave it an almost impregnable position. The lesser hills round it were well defended by the Germans, and would have to be taken before Centuripe could be tackled. Defending this position was Generalmajor Paul Conrath’s 1st Fallschirmpanzerdivision 'Hermann Göring', consisting mostly of Oberstleutnant Ludwig Heilmann’s 3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment as part of the Kampfgruppe 'von Carnap'. As well as the paratrooper regiment, the Kampfgruppe comprised one artillery regiment and a number of reconnaissance units that included a number of tanks and supporting infantry units. Heilmann had succeeded the Kampgruppe's initial commander, Oberstleutnant von Carnap, after the latter had been killed by British artillery fire late in July.

The 78th Division assembled for a drive toward Catenanuova and the capture of Centuripe as part of 'Hardgate'. The country between the two villages was wild and rough, and characterised by very large rocky crags similar to those among which the 78th Division had fought in the campaign in Tunisia. This terrain covered the one mountain road between them. Evelegh ordered Brigadier N. Russell, commander of the 38th Brigade, to take Centuripe, and the plan was for a night advance to be made with heavy artillery fire available at call. The 6/Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 1/Royal Irish Fusiliers were the battalions allocated the main tasks, and the 2/London Irish Rifles was ordered to make a dangerous flanking manoeuvre.

On the evening of 1 August the 2/London Irish moved to a lying-up area in the wadis below the foothills of Centuripe. No transport was able to get forward and that meant that all ammunition, food, and other supplies had to be manhandled, with led to a delay.

At 12,00 on the following day, the 2/London Irish moved forward to a line behind the 6/The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment of the 36th Brigade, which were fighting in the hills behind Centuripe, and in the August heat the attackers could see the village resting on the summit of the large hill. The task of the 2/London Irish was to take three commanding hills, Points 704, 611 and 703, behind Centuripe, but it was not known in what strength they were held by the Germans. It was hoped that most of German attention would be to the main battle and that they would concentrate on this rather than their rear.

The 2/London Irish’s G and F Companies crossed their start line after a 15-minute bombardment by 25-pdr gun/howitzers, and were soon on Points 704. After G Company had overwhelmed the position, H Company moved on to take Point 703. On the start line the company had some casualties as it had to face machine guns from the hill and from the sides. G Company helped in silencing the enfilade fire, and when darkness arrived the 2/London Irish consolidated the ground which the battalion had gained. However, the third hill still held out and the decision had to be made whether to wait until it had fallen, or to carry on without delay and rely on the preoccupation of the Germans with the left-flank attack. It was the latter course which was adopted, and the 1/Royal Irish Fusiliers put in its assault toward the north and rear of Centuripe, and the 6/Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who throughout had been in close contact with the Germans on the frontal sector, obtained a foothold on the southern edge of the village after a heavy barrage, which included scaling a 100-ft (30-m) cliff.

The 1/Royal Irish Fusiliers pushed through the northern end of the town, fighting was stubborn and hard, Two PzKpfw III medium tanks created the worst problems, but in the absence of British tank support the German armoured vehicles were eventually knocked out by PIAT weapons. The 38th Brigade then had the difficult task of house-to-house fighting, which proved difficult against the tough paratroopers, but by the evening it was thought that the town had been cleared. The Germans counterattacked, however, and although this German effort was largely repelled some small teams did succeed in infiltrating into the little town to snipe as the Irish cleared the streets and houses. Throughout the night more men from 38th Brigade moved into the town to reinforce those already there. Finally the Germans launched another counterattack, but this effort was weak and easily repelled, and after this the German resistance began to fade.

Just before dawn on 3 August the whole of the area, including Centuripe, fell to the 38th Brigade. The operation had been tough, in difficult country, and the chief credit for the success went to the 6/Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which bore the brunt of the fighting.

There was no respite after Centuripe had been captured and the 1/Royal Irish Fusiliers had mastered heights beyond the village, and the 2/London Irish Rifles, marching through Centuripe, reached rising ground overlooking the Salso river. The transport had difficulty in getting down the winding road from Centuripe because of a large crater, which took the sappers 12 hours to fill, and also as a result of the fact that in their retreat the Germans scattered mortar bombs and shells throughout in the area.

The capture of Centuripe cracked open the entire German defensive line to Catania, and the Germans had therefore to withdraw to a new position, the 'Etna-Linie'. This had to be abandoned, however, and plans were soon made to abandon the whole of island of Sicily.

The 2/London Irish Rifles quickly reached high ground on the far side of the Salso river, and at night E and F Companies got to the Simeto river. As dusk approached, two platoons of G Company moved across the river with reserve ammunition, mortars and machine guns for the immediate support of the other two companies. By darkness the bridgehead was secure and the Germans withdrew during the night so that in the morning a fighting patrol of the 2/London Irish Rifles located the Germans half-way up the hills on whose crests lay the next objective, the much-bombed town of Adrano. That was not a target for the 38th Brigade, however, but rather that the 78th Division’s two other elements, the 11th and 36th Brigades. Between the afternoon of 1 August to the fall of night on 5 August, the 38th Brigade had advanced 25 miles (40 km), in the process fighting battles at Centuripe, on the Salso river and the Simeto river.

The brigade spent five days resting in the cool waters of the Simeto river, by which time the rest of the division had captured Aderno and Bronte, and were holding the hills on the far side of the latter town. The crossing of the Salso and Simeto rivers and the fall of Aderno had severed all the German lateral communications to the west and south of Mt Etna, and caused the fall of Paterno, Santa Maria and Biancavilla. The 1/Royal Irish Fusiliers, in the meantime, had captured Capella and Monte Maletto and cleared the village. The fall of Maletto and the subsequent rapid approach to Randazzo forced the Germans on their last hurried withdrawal to the sea.