Milazzo town and citadel are located on the north coast of Sicily, not far from the strategically important Straits of Messina, the narrow waterway separating Sicily from mainland Italy.
On two occasions, separated by four generations, Inniskillings were in Sicily and had occasion to occupy Milazzo.
First visit: 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot during the Napoleonic period, 1805-1812
The ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, firstly as a French general and then as French Emperor, were to control as much of the Eastern Mediterranean as possible. Firstly, he led an army to conquer Egypt. This was frustrated by Admiral Nelson’s naval victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. French forces in Egypt were eventually defeated in 1801 by a British army, which included the 1st Battalion of the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot.
French ambitions after 1802 extended to the conquest of all of Italy. Central and northern Italy were already occupied and ruled by client princes and monarchs. The southern part, called the Kingdom of Naples, remained.
Based in Malta, captured from the French in 1800, the British attempted to frustrate these ambitions by military and naval action.
Using their naval superiority, achieved at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, British forces were sent in late 1805 to assist the King of Naples. The army, which included the 1st Inniskillings, landed in Calabria in Southern Italy. The subsequent campaign was a rather feeble affair, and the army retreated in the face of a French advance. It evacuated to its naval transports but had to wait for about a month until permission was received from the King of Naples to occupy the island of Sicily in 1806.
The 1st Inniskillings garrisoned Messina and Milazzo and remained based in Sicily until 1812.
They were joined there in 1806 by the 2nd Inniskillings who were housed in huts in Milazzo.
Corporal James Nicol’s letters
The Inniskillings Museum has photocopies of three short letters written from Sicily between 1806 and 1811 by James Nichol to his father. James was a corporal in the 2nd Battalion, which arrived in Sicily in 1806.
In his first letter written shortly after his arrival in Sicily, dated October 1806, he refers to a lot of sickness among the soldiers. At first the men had no shelter, having one blanket each and a board laid on the ground. His daily food was 1lb of beef and 1lb of bacon and a pint of wine. Bread of course would have been plentiful and vegetables were cheap. In the letter he mentions Milazzo.
In all his letters he enthuses about how cheap the wine was!
In his 1809 letter, he refers to the short expedition which captured the island of Ischia. And he complains about receiving so few letters from home.
His 1811 letter recounts artillery exchanges across the Straits of Messina. “They send their 42 lb shot over our barracks and we return them the same by way of kind compliments.”
James died of unknown causes in 1812, perhaps disease or action in Eastern Spain.
The one event of particular significance that the regiment was involved in at this time was the Battle of Maida, in July 1806. This was the climax of a small expedition from Sicily onto the mainland. This consisted of an army of about 6,000 men sent to harry French forces in Calabria. The Inniskillings were in a brigade commanded by Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole (of Florence Court, County Fermanagh).
There was a brief engagement, lasting about 15 minutes, with a slightly larger French force. The French were defeated. The particular significance of the engagement is that it was the first time British infantry had stood up to and defeated a Napoleonic army.
An incident occurred at this time which has gone down in regimental folk lore! After the battle, the regiments returned to the beach where they had landed. Permission was given for the men to bath in the sea to wash off the gunpowder soot from the battle. While in the sea, an alarm was raised as a large dust cloud was spotted. It was feared that French cavalry were approaching. The soldiers rushed from the sea, and without putting on their clothes, grabbed their muskets and ammunition and formed line of battle on the beach. The dust cloud turned out to be a herd of buffalo! Thus the Regiment became known as “the skins”.
(the circumstances surrounding this gruesome object – the iron cage – are unknown. A possible explanation lies in the practice in the British Army at the time to execute men for desertion, looting or murder, and to display the corpse before the assembled regiment as a warning)
At times small detachments were sent to garrison the fortress of Scilla across the Straits, until it was captured by the French.
The only release from the tedium of garrison duty in the later years of the occupation was the exciting news of the actions of the Mosquito Fleet. This was a force of fast rowing boats and gun boats commanded with great flair by an Inniskilling officer, Captain Thomas Reade. The soldiers and gunners were British, the sailors Sicilian. This ‘fleet’ defended the coasts of Sicily and attacked French convoys, capturing ships, ammunition and supplies.
Colonel Sir Thomas Reade, CB. Thomas Reade was from Congleton in England, had run away from home and joined the Lancashire Militia at the age of 16. He transferred to the 27th Foot where his family purchased him a commission as lieutenant in 1800. He served all of his military career in the 27th.
He served with the 1st Battalion in Egypt in 1801 and then in Malta and in Sicily, was promoted to captain in 1805, and major in 1811. He was awarded a decoration by the King of Naples, the Knight of the Sicilian Order of St Ferdinand and of Merit. This was most likely for his leadership of the Mosquito Fleet. After Sicily, he fought in the campaign in Spain 1812-14, and then in North America in 1814 in the war against the United States. He arrived back in England with seven companies, the rest delayed by storms, to join up with the 2nd Battalion for immediate shipping to Belgium to be part of the Duke of Wellington’s allied army for the campaign against Napoleon. At first the Inniskillings were a part of the protection force guarding the French Royal family and would therefore not likely play an active part in the campaign. Reade was transferred to the general staff, the Quarter-Master General’s department. Thus he missed Waterloo where his regiment was to play such a heroic part. He was knighted in 1815, a Companion of the Order of the Bath, no doubt in recognition of his exceptional service, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
He then served as assistant adjutant-general of the troops guarding Napoleon in his exile on the island of St Helena until Napoleon’s death in 1821. After this, in 1824, Reade was appointed consul-general in Tunis, a post he held until his death in 1849. He is credited with doing much to persuade the ruler of Tunis to abolish slavery in his lands. Also, he made an extensive collection of Roman and Greek archaeological remains which are now in the collection of the Manchester Museum.
In 1812, the two Inniskilling Battalions joined a British/ Sicilian force sent to eastern Spain.
Second visit: 6th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers during the Second World War, 1943
In 1943, a British and American army invaded Sicily in the first step to opening a front in southern Europe against Germany and Italy.
Two battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were in the invading army. The 2nd Battalion went in first, landing on 10th July 1943 near Syracuse. It fought up the east coast and along the eastern slopes of Mount Etna. (see Inniskillings Museum publication: Globe Trotters).
The 6th Battalion landed a month later at the same place and followed a more inland route, and ended their campaign on the western slopes of Mount Etna.
Their main and most significant action was the capture of the village of Centuripe. This was a small hill-top town which occupied a key position in the German and Italian defences stretching from the northern Sicilian coast to the eastern shore near Catania.
On 2nd August, along with the other two battalions of the 38th (Irish) Brigade, 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and 2nd London Irish Rifles, the German defences were attacked, with the Inniskillings in the lead.
The cliffs leading to the town had to be scaled against strong resistance. After a foothold had been obtained in the town, there was fierce house to house fighting. Eventually the village was reported as clear of the enemy. The cost was high, nine Inniskillings were killed and 39 wounded.
The Battalion was awarded more gallantry decorations (6) for this action on a single day than any other Inniskilling Battalion in any of their engagements in the Second World War. When General Montgomery was shown the cliff that the Inniskillings climbed, he is reputed to have said, “Impossible”.
Following this, the Inniskillings fought their way north along the rugged slopes of Mount Etna pursuing the retreating enemy. It was rough terrain, consisting of broken lava deposits with innumerable stone walls along narrow tracks. By 15th August, the Germans had evacuated the island.
After a period of training and relaxation, the Battalion moved to Milazzo where it embarked on 18th September on Landing Ships, destined for Taranto in southern Italy.