It’s a long way from Sickeen to Sicily
About 1,600 miles as the crow flies. A young Galwegian found himself there in the stinking heat of July 1943. He would swap the Dyke Road for the Sunken Road, or the Sandy River for the Simeto River. For sure he would rather have been somewhere else, kicking ball in the Plots, up the Dyke Road, or swimming down at the Waterside, maybe even venturing to Cooper’s Cave... turning up in St Brendan’s with no homework done was a walk in the park compared to this.
Getting to this hot hell was not easy either.
Ambrose Cosgrove was born on August 15 1920 at No 38 Sickeen, the youngest child of Michael — who was born in Henry Street — and Mary, neé Hehir, who was from the Small Crane. Ambrose went to St Brendan’s, learned to play pitch and toss, mitched occasionally, and tried not to go hungry. He did odd jobs after leaving school and then got permanent work in McNamara’s on Williamsgate Street. His brother Paddy went off to join the Air Corps at Baldonnel, and maybe this gave Ambrose the wanderlust because he decided to join the British army.
His mother’s heart was broken, there was no consoling her. He and a pal called Dido Byrne went to Omagh to enlist in the Territorial Army on March 10, 1941. He was not quite 21. He completed his basic training and was transferred to Warrington to join the Durham Light Infantry as a member of the 6th Battalion, the famous ‘Faithful Sixth’. In October of that year he went AWOL and returned to Galway to see his beloved mother, and though she begged him to stay, he was driven by some sense of loyalty and duty, and so he said his goodbyes. It was the last time he saw his family and his home. He went back to his battalion where he was docked seven days pay.
In June 1942 his battalion boarded the HMS Duchess of Windsor bound for Freetown. Their journey took them on to Durban, Aden, El Quassassin, and Kilkurk. It was not all plain sailing, there were hardships and forced marches along the route. They were now part of the British Eighth Army which would eventually meet up with the American Seventh Army for the invasion of Sicily.
On July 10, 1943, these armies landed in Sicily as part of Operation Husky. They waded ashore from the landing craft. He managed to survive the intense fire from the Italians in the sand dunes and his company headed towards Avola. They hiked 22 miles to Solarino in the intense heat and fought a costly battle. By July 16 they were entrenched just south of Primasole Bridge which was a bailey bridge leading over the Simeto River to Catania. Their objective was to gain control of this bridge, which was being defended by crack German paratroopers. Because of the unceasing shelling, no one could bury the dead, who seemed to be everywhere, so the soldiers referred to the area as ‘stink alley’.
On the night of the 17th, in spite of heavy fire, Ambrose and another private managed to cross the shoulder-high river, rifle in one hand, while holding on to a rope with the other. On the other side was the Sunken Road where the Germans were embedded. Ambrose and his mate began digging a ‘scrape’ in the earth to give themselves some shelter. Their sergeant arrived and ordered them to push on. As they were in a kneeling position, they began to rise up, Ambrose going a little higher than his comrade. A shot rang out and his comrade saw Ambrose spin around and drop to the ground. He was dead, shot through the neck by a sniper’s bullet.
By mid-day the following day, the battle was over. The Germans surrendered. There were 500 dead, including the lad from Sickeen.
The telegram arrived at O’Donoghue’s Terrace, where his mother now lived. She was beyond consolation. Her youngest child is now at rest in the British War Graves Cemetery just outside Catania, so we dedicate this column to the memory of a young Galwegian, Private Ambrose Cosgrove 3662608.
Our thanks to Johnny Cosgrove, 745 Cobbler’s Court, Pickering, Ontario LIV 2Z4, Canada, for all of the above.