Fred Collins (deceased)
9th Battalion Royal Fusiliers
I was involved in the invasion at Salerno which took place in July 1943. The allies invaded Sicily and from there began preparations for the Salerno landing. The battalion was in Tripoli and went to the harbour to practice embarking on landing craft and then simulate beach landings. Our first practice took us out to a beach and the doors of the craft opened and ran into three feet of water. Each practice was the same, and the Brigadier in charge eventually said we were good enough! From Tripoli we were sent into the mountains to Tarhuna. As another type of practice we undertook mock attacks against the Ghurkhas – after a great length of time we finally achieved success and then the roles were reversed. Our battalion was at the top and the Ghurkhas attacked us. Incredibly, they achieved success in the attack very quickly. After more practice we got better, and eventually the Brigadier said we were good enough to undertake the real thing, so we returned to Tripoli.
When the time came for our battalion to move into a holding area near the docks, I picked up my equipment and felt a sting in my thumb – a scorpion fell off my bag and scuttled away! After some pain and medical treatment it was much better by morning. We embarked on a Polish ship called The Sobieski which had different landing craft to what we had trained on. The gun turret was on the left-hand side with a Vickers machine gun. Our platoon officer said Fusilier Jones couldn’t man the gun, whereas I (having been part of the Bren gun team) would have to man the gun. Mr Iles, our platoon officer arranged for a matelot to teach me how to use it.
On 9th September we were told to get kitted up, including inflated Mae Wests. We got into the landing craft and were lowered into the sea. On one side a rocket ship was firing rockets at us as we headed for the beach. We managed a dry landing and, as we ran up the beach, I heard mines going off; luckily there were none in our path. We heard Germans calling “Schnell, schnell die Englander” but we ran on and met no opposition. Our RSM told us to leave our small back-packs and they would be picked up later, but we never saw them again!
Tobacco plants were growing on either side of the road and we spotted two Germans near some trees. Our sergeant told me to give them a warning shot and they came out with their hands up. One was carrying a brief case which we took charge of and sent back to base to be checked out.
Our platoon officer told us that a German 88 millimetre gun had been located in a farmhouse nearby and our objective was to put it out of action. We advanced through six foot high tobacco plants and the next thing I knew was that our section was under fire. My right hand was badly wounded; colleagues Parsons, Lebruly, Jones and Anderson had bad wounds. Jones managed to dress my hand and did his best for the others as he was the only one capable of doing so. I noticed my leg was bleeding and I had taken a thigh injury. Having used my field dressing, I had to use my handkerchief as a compression dressing. At the beach dressing station, whilst lying on stretchers waiting for the St David hospital ship, I was next to a German soldier. He gave me a light for a cigarette whilst saying that they were better soldiers than us and would push all the allies back to the sea.
That was my first day in Italy! Once recovered I returned and spent the rest of the war in Italy.
If you find this short tale interesting please look for a book which I have written called ‘Once a Fusilier, always a Fusilier’ – a copy of which is lodged with the Imperial War Museum in London.