James Holland sets off for Sicily, where he pieces together the last days of Hedley Verity, one of Yorkshire and England’s greatest spin bowlers.

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Published in the March 2013 issue of The Nightwatchman 

The Plain of Catania in Sicily, and a pilgrimage of sorts. It is one of the most fertile parts of the island, largely flat and low-lying, bisected by rivers and dominated by the towering presence of Mount Etna. Hedley Verity would have seen Etna from the moment he landed at first light on Saturday, 10 July 1943, as part of the biggest seaborne invasion the world has ever known. There’s always a halo of cloud surrounding the summit; there would have been when Verity was here and there is when I visit the place nearly 70 years on. Cloud, or is it smoke? I am not sure but it hangs there, a contrast to the deep and cloudless blue of the sky.

Working out precisely where the 1st Battalion, the Green Howards made their attack on the night of 21 July, 11 days after landing, takes a while. I am armed with a copy of an original hand-drawn map, found in the battalion war diary, but one that is remarkably accurate. At any rate, I have managed to marry it up easily enough with an image from Google Maps: the tracks running down from the railway line, the curving dykes that were such a feature of this part of the plain, and even the buildings that had once been battalion headquarters.

Getting there, however, is another matter. New roads run to the south and north of the site, there is now a large factory to the east of the map, roughly where D Company began their attack. It is difficult getting off the main road and down to the rough lane that leads under the railway embankment, but eventually we manage it, and suddenly we are driving down the very same track marked on the hand-drawn map back in July 1943.

And there are the remains of an old barn or farmhouse, also shown on the map. The roof has gone and inside it is wild and overgrown, but we are now at the point where Captain Verity led his B Company into battle. The start line, to use the parlance of the day. We park up and walk along another rough track, also marked on the map, climb a dyke and look north. Up ahead was where Verity walked, behind the creeping barrage of artillery fire. It’s where the enemy were dug in: the railway embankment and the curving dyke, the Massa Carnazza, was where the Germans had their forward machine-guns, each set up with interlocking fire. These were expensive in ammunition, and not the most accurate weapons, but in any initial assault, there was nothing to beat the MG42 for weight of fire. These beasts could pump out 12 bullets per second, enough to slice a man in half.

We walk on, over water meadows in which creamy cattle with bells around their necks peacefully munch grass. We are nearing the site where Verity and his B Company had been left in the open, the barrage suddenly lifted, but still with more than 200 yards to the curving dyke and the enemy positions.

A high fence bars our way. Beyond, orange groves with large ripe fruit dangling from branches now stand where 70 years before had been cornfields. We retrace our steps, and eventually manage to approach the old battleground from the side. Some farm workers spot us and ask me what we are doing. A poor explanation in pidgin Italian ensues. They let us walk on, so that we are now behind the old German lines. But the place where Verity made his charge is hidden; those same orange groves, protected by more high fencing, now cover the spot. Later, I mention this to an Italian friend. “Ah,” he says, “Mafia estates.”

What is striking is how completely the din and violence of war has gone from this quiet corner of the world. But for many of the same features remaining, it is hard to imagine that it ever happened at all. I feel wistful, standing there beneath the oranges, their sweet scent heavy on the air, thinking of one of the greatest of English bowlers, lying out there, bleeding, gasping for breath, on this patch of Sicilian soil, knowing he would most probably die.

The Second World War affected the lives of every man, woman and child who lived through it, and that included sportsmen. Hard though it may be to imagine Kevin Pietersen or Graeme Swann being packed off to war, that is exactly what happened to the vast majority of first-class cricketers between 1939 and 1945. In Britain, conscription had been reinstated in May 1939 for men between the ages of 20 and 21, and on the first day of the war, September 3, 1939, Parliament passed the National Service Act, under which all men between 18 and 41 were made liable for conscription into the Armed Forces.

There were, of course, exceptions – those with skills or jobs that would benefit the war effort, such as farmers, physicists, even trade union officials and lighthouse-keepers. But not cricketers. They had to put away the whites and the bat, and put on battle dress and pick up a rifle instead, and like every other Tom, Dick, and Harry, go off and fight for King and Country.

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The County Championship was suspended, as were Test matches. For many, the war robbed them of what should have been the finest years of their playing careers. For others, it robbed them of their lives. Nine Test cricketers, five of them English, were killed during the Second World War.

The 1939 season was almost over when war was declared – the West Indies had already gone home and Yorkshire had won the Championship for the third time in a row, the sixth that decade, so it wasn’t so important that the remaining few matches were cancelled immediately.

During the so-called “Phoney War” of the winter and spring, there was talk of holding a limited county season, but the Blitzkrieg that began in May 1940 put paid to that. In any case, quite apart from the logistical difficulties of holding a regular first-class season in a time of war, many of the country’s leading cricketers were already in uniform.

One of those was Hedley Verity. That Yorkshire had won the Championship so regularly was in no small part due to Verity, who took an astonishing 1,956 first-class wickets in just 10 seasons at an average of 14.87. Not only did he top the English averages five times – including the 1939 season – he also took 10 wickets in an innings twice – including 10 for 10 against Notts. His record also included nine wickets in an innings seven times, eight wickets in an innings 13 times and an extraordinary 34 seven-fers. In 1934, he took 15 for 104 against Australia at Lord’s, including 14 wickets in a day – a record never to be bettered. Included among his victims was the great Sir Donald Bradman, dismissed for 36 and 13. It was England’s biggest victory over Australia at Lord’s, by an innings and 38 runs.

Hedley Verity was, without question, one of the great spin bowlers, arguably England’s best ever spinner. Who else compares? Laker perhaps? Swann is not in his league, for all his flair. But more than that Verity was, by all accounts, a lovely fellow. His face strongly suggests this – there is determination there, but a gentleness too. Quiet, unassuming and always generous towards others, Verity volunteered for the army out of conviction. He believed that Hitler and the Nazis were an evil that had to be stopped.

He first considered joining in the autumn of 1938, during the Munich Crisis. Meeting with an old friend, Colonel Arnold Shaw, of the Green Howards, whom he had first met during the India Tour of 1933/34, he asked his advice. Shaw suggested he read some military textbooks and told him to get in touch again should war break out. The Colonel sent him a number of books about military tactics during the South African tour of 1938/39, which he read avidly.

When war was declared he got in touch with Colonel Shaw, who now commanded the 1st Battalion, Green Howards and arranged forhim to go to Officer Cadet Training Unit. It seems Verity quickly showed a natural aptitude for military tactics. The best spin bowlers have sharp intelligence and a tactical mind, and Verity brought these skills to soldiering. The 1st Green Howards remained in Britain until the autumn of 1941, by which time he had become a captain and a company commander.

He was also still playing plenty of cricket, mostly for the Green Howards’ XI. In fact, there was still plenty of cricket being played all around the country, albeit not officially first-class, and especially so at Lord’s. The ground was looking rather sorry for itself by the second winter of the war, and had already suffered badly – a bomb had damaged the Nursery Ground and a number of incendiaries hit the grandstand and pavilion roofs. But despite this, and the fact that the ground was being used as an RAF recruitment depot, cricket continued. Sir Pelham Warner, former England captain of the Golden Age, manager on the Bodyline Tour and knighted in 1937 for services to cricket, had become acting Secretary of the MCC for the duration of the war and devoted enormous energy to ensuring that cricket continued. It was considered essential for morale that sport was played and so a number of matches were laid on – MCC versus the Public Schools and also lots of inter-service matches, which included a host of well-known pre-war names. There was a British Empire XI and a London Counties XI, for example. As Warner pointed out: “If Goebbels had been able to broadcast that the war had stopped cricket at Lord’s, it would have been valuable propaganda for the Germans.”

And there were, of course, the regimental sides as well. Most of these games – whether regimental or otherwise – were one-day affairs, a format that had been, until then, strictly the preserve of the village and league sides only – but they proved incredibly popular.

Verity played his last game on British soil in Northern Ireland in September 1941. Soon after, the Battalion was posted to Ranchi in India and then to Persia and Syria, before finally arriving in Egypt in March 1943. By this time, the war in North Africa was almost over. Alamein had been won, Rommel chased back into Tunisia and an Anglo–US force had landed in north-west Africa. Soon, the Allies would be masters of the North African shores, and then they would turn to Sicily. It was the obvious next step and a move that was hoped would hasten Italy’s exit from the war.

The 1st Green Howards were to be part of the Allied assault on Sicily, attached to 15th Brigade, 5th Infantry Division, in Eighth Army. While the Americans of Patton’s Seventh Army were given the western flank of southern Sicily, Eighth Army had the task of capturing the south-east, with its key airfields and ports. All seemed to go to plan initially with the Italian defences swept aside. Resistance, however, stiffened as they encountered the better trained, equipped and motivated German forces who had set up a blocking position, known as the Hauptkampf Line, to isolate the north-east of the island.

Suddenly, Eighth Army found itself up against the veteran 1st Fallschirmjäger Division, newly arrived in Sicily from the Eastern Front, and the Fallschirm Panzerkorps Hermann Göring, barely less formidable. The immediate British targets were the port and airfields of Catania, but what was worrying General Alexander, the Allied Commander-in-Chief, was that if the Allies were held up for too long, then more and more German troops could pour in as reinforcements across the Straits of Messina, the narrow channel of sea that linked Sicily to the mainland.

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The Plain of Catania is an easy place to defend and a difficult one over which to attack. Beyond lie the hills around Misterbianco, in which enemy guns could be easily concealed, while in the plain itself any attacker had to negotiate horrible amounts of water channels and ditches as well as the major River Simeto. All along were teams of machine guns and mortars. Yes, the Allies had big reserves of artillery and air power, but these could only support the attackers. Ultimately, it was the job of the men on the ground to get the task done.

There is a misconception that those fighting through the Second World War got off lightly compared with those battling it out on the Western Front. In fact, for a front-line infantryman in the Second World War the chances of survival were as bad, if not worse, as they were a generation earlier. And in many ways, there was not a huge amount of difference in the method of attack. Enemy positions were usually softened up with air and artillery barrages, and then the infantry advanced out across the open.

So it was that 5th Division were ordered to continue the push towards Misterbianco. On the night of July 18/19 1943, 13th Brigade managed to gain a shallow bridgehead across the River Simeto, but the following night it was the turn of 15th Brigade – and the 1st Green Howards.

There were two schools of thought about how to conduct night-time attacks. The first was to infiltrate as silently as possible in the first glimmer of dawn. The other was a night attack with artillery support – a heavy bombardment of enemy positions followed by a creeping barrage behind which the infantry would advance. The advantage of the latter was that it meant the enemy were cowering – or better, being blown to bits – while the infantry began moving forward. One major disadvantage, however, was that the enemy knew an attack was coming. Another was that invariably, the reality didn’t live up to the plan. Successfully following a creeping barrage was all about timing – and being able to stick to timings that had been carefully worked out on paper, in daylight. The trouble was that at night, walking over unfamiliar ground and with little means of communicating with the companies either side, and with the noise of battle all around, it could be very difficult to stick to those timings.

B Company was to lead the Green Howards’ attack, and Verity was B Company Commander. In effect, he was leading the entire battalion assault. One can only imagine what must have been going through his mind. As Company Commander, he would have had around 100 men – ten per cent were always left out of battle – made up from three platoons and his own company headquarters. He was responsible for them, for leading them, for getting them to the right positions, and for urging them into potentially lethal enemy fire. It was an incredible responsibility, one that he was no doubt equipped to handle, but which must, nonetheless, have weighed heavily upon him.

They had been moved up to their start position by lorry at around 10pm, then before the attack the barrage had opened up. In any attack, officers had to lead by example, and especially so company commanders. The noise would have been deafening. Shells hurtling over, screaming as they sped through the air. Explosions up ahead, the flashes of light blinding in the darkness. This was Verity’s first taste of combat. Nearly four years of training had come to this moment. His heart would have been pounding – adrenaline coursing through him.

They crossed the road behind the barrage at around 2am on the morning of 20 July, but were still struggling across the open ground, lined with ditches and water courses.

When the barrage finally ended, it must have been apparent to Verity that already the attack was far from going to plan. His B Company had done well. They were well ahead of the other companies, but still some distance from the enemy, which meant they were both exposed and isolated, with no support on their flanks. Without the deafening barrage, the abruptness of artillery silence would have been alarming. Ahead were fields of corn which gave comparatively good cover, but night attacks – especially the first experienced – were incredibly confusing and disorientating. Machine guns would now have been rattling, bullets hissing and zipping all around, and flares rising into the sky with a hiss, then a crack as they burst, and a crackle as they slowly descended, lighting up the ground like the floodlights at a day/night match.

As they approached a curving dyke, at first mistakenly thinking it was the railway line, they began crawling under withering machine-gun fire. It was now around 4am. The Germans used tracers in their machine guns, which would have been arcing towards them at knee height, little stabs of light, fizzing over their heads. Then mortars began falling around them too. They pressed on and managed to push the enemy in front of them back across a dyke, the Massa Carnazza. Behind them, the corn and few trees were catching fire, which silhouetted the Yorkshiremen as they tried to advance.

Captain Verity, desperately trying to take stock and think clearly, recognised that with their limited resources – a few light machine guns, grenades, sub-machine guns and rifles – the key immediate objective was the farmhouse. He therefore ordered one platoon round towards the farmhouse and another to give covering fire. No sooner had he done so than he was hit in the chest by a piece of flying shrapnel. Still leading his men, he continued to shout: “Keep going! Get them out of the farmhouse and me into it!”

A moment later, Lieutenant Laurie Hesmondhalgh, who was Verity’s second-in-command, was also hit and killed outright. Beside the wounded Verity was his batman, Private Tom Rennoldson. The Company was still struggling to make headway and it was clear that, unless they were quickly relieved by A and D Companies, they were going to remain trapped. In fact, A and D Companies were desperately trying to help their stranded colleagues, but were being pegged back by the same withering machine-gun and mortar fire that was decimating B Company.

By 4.30am it was all over. The attack had failed. B Company, without their commander and second-in-command, began to fall back, as did A and D Companies, so that by the time dawn broke Verity, with Rennoldson still beside him, was stuck firmly behind enemy lines.

Smoke hung over the battlefield while the dead and wounded lay where they had fallen as the sun slowly began to rise. Verity and Rennoldson were soon captured. The Germans brought a broken mortar carrier from the farm, packed it with sheaves of corn, lifted Verity onto it and took him, with Rennoldson still in tow, to their field hospital a mile or so to the north. It was a farmhouse, nothing more.

That afternoon, Verity underwent an emergency operation in a stable at the farm. As he was lifted onto a table, a grenade fell from his shirt. After a moment of panic, Rennoldson was ordered to unprime it, which he did. He remained with Verity until that evening, when he was taken away. It was the last time he saw him.

As darkness began to fall again, the makeshift hospital came under British artillery fire. It had clearly already been hit – there were holes in the roof and the windows were glassless. As Verity was recovering from his operation, a German ambulance was hit and exploded, killing all on board. Two doctors worked ceaselessly through the night.

He and the other wounded – British and German alike – survived the night and the next day were taken to Misterbianco and put onto open railway trucks, ferried up through Sicily and then transferred onto a ship and across the Straits of Messina to Reggio on the southern tip of Italy. Bundled off again, put into trucks, Verity and his fellow wounded were taken to a hospital and then the next day placed on another goods train, on straw, to begin a slow journey north to Naples. It is a journey of less than 300 miles but it took two whole days. All this travel, and being lifted on and off trains with little water or food, was not helping the wounded man. His bandages were filthy and he had been given no relief for the pain. By the time he reached Naples he was very ill indeed. Fever gripped him and his wound was now infected.

Nor was this hell-journey over. From Naples he was taken by truck to the Italian military hospital at Caserta. There Corporal Henty, another wounded Yorkshireman, recognised him. Word soon spread amongst the wounded British troops that the great English bowler was there with them. Verity talked to Henty, showing him photographs of his wife and sons, Douglas and Wilfred. He was in increasingly terrible pain; the wound was festering badly, and part of a rib was broken and pressing against his lung. Eventually, three days later, on 31 July, he was operated on again, and had part of his rib removed. Only a local anaesthetic was used.

At first, the operation appeared to have been a success, but then he suffered the first of three haemorrhages. He remained conscious to the end, talking about his repatriation and getting home again once the war was over. But he was in a bad way. The fever already suggested his wound was infected. The haemorrhage could have caused a Curling’s ulcer – a gastric condition brought on by extreme stress – or the break in one of the blood vessels caused by the operation could have resulted in bleeding into his lung; either way it would have been very distressing and frightening indeed. In any case, one of English cricket’s great bowlers finally died later that night. He was just 38.

Bill Bowes, his great friend and Yorkshire bowling partner, was in a nearby POW camp when he heard of Verity’s death from some Canadians. Bowes had been a gunner when captured in North Africa, and was dumbstruck by the news. Verity was buried in Caserta with full military honours, and now rests in the military cemetery in the town. It’s a beautiful place – a real corner of England. But it’s not Yorkshire…

[caption id=”attachment_141813″ align=”alignnone” width=”800″] Bill Bowes (left) and Hedley Verity at Headingley, April 1932[/caption]

Tragically, the attack on the Plain of Catania was to have been Verity’s first and last action. Before they had left Egypt, Verity had played in a cricket match with Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey, commander of XIII Corps. Dempsey, a keen cricketer, was anxious to have Verity on his staff. Verity initially declined; he did not want to abandon the men he had trained with and commanded before experiencing any action. However, he had agreed to leave the Green Howards and join Dempsey’s staff following the attack on the Plain of Catania, and so he would have done had he not been wounded that night. Dempsey later commanded Second Army in Normandy and beyond; Verity could have finished the war as a colonel or higher, playing an important role as a witness to the high command of the Allied war effort. It was not to be.

It is hard to find anyone who had a bad word to say about him. Comrades and cricketing foes alike lined up to sing his praises, not just as one of the finest English bowlers ever to play the game, but as a person too. Perhaps one of the most touching stories, however, came from Douglas Jardine. Despite their very different backgrounds, Verity and Jardine had become firm friends during their playing days together with England. Verity had even named his elder child Douglas in Jardine’s honour.

They hadn’t played together for years, and before the war Jardine had joined the Territorial Army and been sent to France with the 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment, part of the British Expeditionary Force. His battalion fought well, first along the River Dyle and then shoring up the southern line near St Omer as much of the rest of the BEF retreated to the coast. Eventually, with the Germans pressing hard from the south and having been shelled incessantly and bombed from the air, the Berkshires had been given the order to fall back too.

Exhausted and hungry, they had eventually reached the beaches. Dunkirk had been hard to miss: thick, acrid smoke shrouded the town from where the oil depot at the port had been bombed and set ablaze. Along the beaches, the scene was one of desperation: half-sunken ships lying off the shore, abandoned or ruined vehicles, upturned boxes of rations and ammunition, and thousands upon thousands of men, all waiting to be evacuated home.

Somehow, Jardine became separated from his men, but was spotted in the nick of time and ushered aboard a waiting destroyer.

“We’re bound to be all right, sir,” said one of his men. “She’s named after your favourite bowler.” The ship was HMS Verity.