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'Come on aboard...' the skipper said, to Tommy in his combat kit.
The British soldier sweating, grinned, sang an Army skit.
'Oh, why are we waiting...' went the melody; he winked his eye
To all the Yankee matelots aboard the LCI

Crammed all around the battered port, the ships were riding carelessly
At anchor, filled with troops on each, hundred and eighty-three
Liberty ships and Monitors and Ships of Mercy painted white
With large red crosses, port and starboard, brightly lit at night

A vast Armada, spreading far..'Old Glories' fluttered in the air--
Crusade of Freedom,--soon to sail, but Tommy knew not where.
Hot Afric' sun arose behind the hills around Bizarta's lake,--
September Morn...an Arab's cry of worship...'ALLAH'S AWAKE!'

Calm Mediterranean, blue and clear.. Ah, 'Mare Nostrum!' Sea of fame
Thy jelly fish in purple splendour scattered as we came
Out in thy middle, Ships from South joined ships from East and MORE from West,
Bespecked the far horizon blotting out thy silvery crest

Small LCIs with ramps of steel, flat-bottomed keel, sped through the spray
Heaved up, sank down, lurched to and fro and Tommy, sick and grey
Did try his best to keep possessed, his canvas bunk he held the more
And spewed into his paper bag 'My bloody guts!' he swore.

Spelling and stifling hot below--a reeking hatch--his mates, the lot
Battle-wise heroes all bar none, ready to die as not
Each of them pictured joys he knew, as half delirious there he slumped
With small pack for his pillow; breathing fumes the diesels pumped

The craft's flat bottom smacked the surf...shuddered the ship from stern to bow
Steel hatch doors opened with a clank...the sun's rays stabbed below
Swirling through blue-grey smoke appeared the Padre, Holy in his word,
'Rise up and come on deck my lads and let us praise the Lord.

'For Italy, our enemy, surrendered to us on this eve
Thank God for lives and bloodshed saved.' Glad news hard to believe
Relentlessly and heeding not, the swarm of ships steered to the goal
Loud sirens shrieked and signals flashed to carry out the role.

Red setting sun flamed up to the sky...a fiery arc placed on the sea.
Every second nature changed the tinted scenery,
Turing the stately 'Fredom Fleet' to ghostly moving silhouettes.
Sharp rasped the order: 'Blackout time! Put out those cigarettes!'

Down in his quarters' maps in hand, the Company Comander came.
'Ha, Sergeant Major, get the men, I shall explain the game...
The River Picentina here, the Asa River, here on right.
Expect the beach is Jerry mined. No questions? Sleep tonight.'

So back below the single deck, and guided by a dim blue light,
The tommy groped towards his bunk, to rest before the fight,
While some played solo, whispered, smoked, or scanned a bible in the gloom
But foremost was in each man's mind--'What spells tomorrow--Doom?'

Disturbing snores and heavy sleep, (t'would wake a dead man from his grave)
A score of bells raised merry Hell. 'STAND TO' the signal gave
Leapt from his bed, grabbed hastily for kit, steel helmet, 'bondook' charged
He heard the engine go full speed...towards the beach he barged.

Though bristling mines bobbed threateningly, cut free by sweepers' paravanes,
Into the steel-torn flaming beaches stormed Mars's hurricane
With Lightnings streaking through the sky, and giant warships thunderous fire
Red hails of lead and floating flares lit up the shore's barbed wire

Shock of the crash..beach reached, ramped down..fixed bayonets through the inferno
Charged Tommy Atkins...Warrior...So began Salerno
'He's gone ashore,' the Skipper said, and Tommy in his combat kit
Was showing Jerry how to fight... FOR FREEDOM...THAT WAS IT.

PRELUDE TO SALERNO, by Wyndham James
Click to enlarge, CSM Crosby, Sgt Battle, CSM James, Blida 1943

Pictured at Blida, North Africa in the summer of 1943, are CSM John Crosby, who was killed in action on 21/9/44; Sgt ‘Sibble’ Battle, who was in charge of the 16th DLI’s cooks through to the end of the war (his unusual nickname was acquired during pre-war service in India); and CSM W ‘Jimmy’ James.

A Welshman living and working in London at the outbreak of the war, Wyndham 'Jimmy' James (5950427) enlisted in the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment in January 1940. He was with the 16th DLI from its formation in Scotland in July 1940, initially as the Signal Platoon's sergeant and training instructor (see the Photographs section of the site) and was a Company Sergeant Major with the Battalion at the time of the Salerno Landing in September 1943. He wrote this hugely evocative poem in 1945.

The Padre ‘Holy in his word’, was the Battalion Padre the Reverend G Meek, who did indeed call a service of Thanksgiving aboard the LCI. Needless to say, his optimism about a peaceful landing was misplaced! For Padre Meek’s own memories of Salerno, click here.

Notes:

LCI: Landing Craft Infantry.

Lightnings: the US Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined fighter, which was much used in the Italian Campaign.