National Geographic : 1943 Sep
Sicily Again in the Path of War BY MAYNARD OWEN WILLIAMS With Illustrations by Staff Photographer B. Anthony Stewart D RAMATICALLY, on July 10, 1943, Allied forces landed on Sicily. More than 2,000 vessels transported troops and armament, by far the biggest invasion armada in history. In Washington, Presi dent Roosevelt called the surprise landing "the beginning of the end" for Italy and Germany. Sicily lies just off the bomb-stubbed toe of the Italian boot, only two miles from the main land of Europe. The Allies have repeatedly blasted this onetime island paradise, to isolate it as geologic forces did ages ago. For the United Nations this mountainous remnant of a broken land bridge was an obvious stepping stone between emancipated North Africa and Axis-enslaved Europe (map, pages 312-13). Last spring, six-engined Axis transport planes, each carrying 120 armed men, swarmed across from Sicily to Africa in a futile attempt to stave off Rommel's defeat. Air Lanes over Historic Sea Now modern miracles of the air, bearing such romantic names as Flying Fortress and Liberator, Lightning, Spitfire, Mitchell, Ma rauder, Wellington, Boston, and Baltimore, rule the air lanes above the sail-winged sea through which Phoenician mariners ventured forth on epoch-making voyages to Carthage, Marseille, and the Pillars of 'Hercules. Bombs and gunfire brought the uncondi tional surrender of volcanic Pantelleria and outcropping Lampedusa before Allied land ing forces touched their shores (page 308). The two-square-mile volcanic fragment of Linosa quickly followed suit. Along with Sardinia, Sicily, and gallant Malta, these tiny islets command the Allied convoy route which follows the northern shore of Africa from Gibraltar to Egypt. In peace time, few steamers used this open shipping lane south of Sicily. Ports and population centers lay to the north, and the main traffic route was through the Strait of Messina. Since history began, triremes, sailing ships, and passenger liners, plying between Europe and the East, have used this maritime bottle neck. But there has been important traffic across, as well as along, the stormy Strait. Much of Messina, which arose after the earthquake of 1908, has been leveled again. "We made a mess of Messina," reported one of our flyers. The Maritime Station at Messina is a tangle of wreckage (page 311). Ferryboats have been sunk at their piers. Because through sleeping cars used to run between Rome and Palermo or Syracuse, peacetime passengers could ignore the Strait of Messina entirely. Neither troops nor civil ians can do so now. Planes churn the his toric bottleneck with their bombs and stop as much ferry traffic as they can. Nor can the largest island in the Mediter ranean hide its four million inhabitants in underground shelters as did Pantelleria, its hard-hit little neighbor to the southwest. On my seventh visit to Sicily I did not land, as Melville Chater did, at Messina.* I came from Africa, as the Carthaginians and the Saracens did, centuries ago. Having breakfasted in Bengasi and lunched in Tripoli, I came to the Sicilian port nearest to Tuni sia's Cap Bon-Marsala. At the airport, where Axis transport planes in 1943 massed to resist the Allied blitzkrieg in Tunisia, we were herded past the barracks of the military pilots and quickly passed through Customs. Surrounded by vineyards and famous for its wine, Marsala was once the strongest Carthaginian colony in all Sicily. It fell to the Romans after nearly ten years of siege. The Harbor of Allah The Saracens, coming across from Africa, gave Marsala its name of Mars-al-Allah, Har bor of Allah. They brought irrigation and fruitfulness to Sicily's smiling valleys. Fences of prickly pear, or Barbary figs, reminded me of Bible lands. Their fleshy leaves, edged with spines, are as good as barbed wire, and their fruit is a common food. Unsuspecting visitors who have enjoyed this exotic delicacy, its flavor combining those of melon and pumpkin, may be so foolish as to help themselves to the growing fruit. Micro scopic spines creep up their sleeves and a thousand tiny red spots appear on their arms. After that, they are content to let their hosts pry loose the juicy food from its prickly coat before touching it. An Englishman, John Woodhouse, first pro duced Marsala's golden wine in 1773. Joseph Whitaker, a successor, owns and has excavated * See "Zigzagging Across Sicily," by Melville Chater, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1924.