All My Brothers: the story of London Irish Colour Sergeant Edmund O'Sullivan

 Edmund O'Sullivan.

28th February 1919 - 24th May 2009.

 



Edmund (Ted) O'Sullivan, born in Peckham in South London on 28th February 1919, was conscripted into the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles on 18th October 1939. The 2nd Battalion was one of the three battalions that made up the Irish Brigade, which was formed at the start of 1942. The story of his life which was published in 2007 and is reproduced in full below, begins with an account of his experiences on 15th/16th May during the 4th Battle of Cassino when he was Colour Sergeant for E Company in the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish. Subsequent chapters cover the origins of his family in Ireland, his early life in London, his training in the London Irish and, finally, his eyewitness account of the Brigade's campaigns in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy.

Ted invites you to read about his long and eventful life.

All My Brothers is a vivid and moving account of great courage and achievement which the Irish Brigade website hopes you will enjoy.

 

Contents
 
Chapter 1 The road to Sinagoga
The story starts with an account of the attack on the Gustav Line on 16 May 1944.
Chapter 2 The Irish Journey
The history of Ireland to the departure of Ted O'Sullivan to London during the Great Potato Famine.
Chapter 3 From Limerick to London
The history of Ted O'Sullivan's family in London until 1919.
Chapter 4 The making of a London Irishman
The story of Ted O'Sullivan's life from his birth until his conscription into the London Irish Rifles in October 1939.
Chapter 5 A warrior on the home front
The story of Ted O'Sullivan's service in the London Irish Rifles from October 1939 until November 1942.
Chapter 6 Into the Cauldron: the war in Tunisia
Ted O'Sullivan's account of the Irish Brigade's battles in Tunisia from December 1942 until May 1943.
Chapter 7 Storming Etna: the campaign in Sicily
Ted O'Sullivan's account of the Irish Brigade in Sicily, July-August 1943.
Chapter 8 Blood in the Sangro: the campaign along the Adriatic
 
Ted O'Sullivan's account of the Irish Brigade's battles on the Adriatic Coast, the Apennines and Monte Castellone in December 1943-April 1944.
Chapter 9 Dodging D-Day: Cassino, Trasimeno, the Gothic Line and the Argenta Gap
Ted O'Sullivan's account of the Irish Brigade at Cassino, Rome, Trasimeno, Egypt, the Gothic Line and the Battle of Argenta Gap.
Chapter 10 Brothers reunited
Ted O'Sullivan's account of the Irish Brigade's occupation duties in Austria, the dissolution of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles, his return to London and his wedding on 19 October 1946.
Ted's post war story, "All my Sons and Daughters" can be found here.
 

 

Chapter 1
The road to Sinagoga
Back to contents 
 
The cornfields wave toward the sky.
And from above the clouds reply
With smiles of gentle sleepiness.
Below, the summer sun’s caress
Lies softly on the silent plains.
And deep within the sunken lanes,
 
The trailing thorns hang down to dream
And slowly in the silver stream,
The leaves of weary willows drift
And sway to lazy winds that lift
The heavy heads of drooping trees
With tenderness of silken breeze
 
But Stranger, Stranger, don’t you see?
Behind each crimson-tinted tree,
Within those hollow, haunted walls
And torn upon each thorn that falls
So gently, gently, groping down
Beside the silent fields that crown
The sleepy summer’s brittle glare
With ripples in the sun-swept air?
 
Stranger, don’t you see that there
The devil’s terror-laden breath
Suffuses all with taint of death?
That here one summer long ago
The silent lanes did slowly flow
With drops of dying hearts that bled,
And drained the dying to the dead?
 
That here, vain tears of frozen grief
Once trembled on each withered leaf
And hung from every tearing thorn;
And out amongst the golden corn,
Blind eyes did strain in vain to see
The light that mocked their agony.
 
This poem -- named Lacrimae Liri (Tears of the Liri) -- was written by Nicholas Mosley, MC, platoon commander in E Company of the London Irish Rifles, when he was in hospital after being wounded on the morning of 16 May 1944 just before the London Irish Rifles' attack on the German Gustav Line around the hamlet of Sinagoga. It was inspired by news of the heavy casualties the battalion had suffered that day.
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With death all around and eternity beckoning, two young Londoners spent the night of 15 May 1944 in a front-line trench at the shell-shattered entrance to the Liri valley 80 miles south of Rome. 
The countryside was full of flowers and ripening wheat. But there was no peace and little sleep. Rifle shots and the chatter of machine guns were interrupted by explosions and shouts. Tracer bullets flashed through the darkness. The fragrances of the season were obliterated by the reek of high explosives, rotting flesh and the waste of unwashed soldiers. For some, this was to be a restless last night. Both men were sergeants, but experience showed wearing stripes made them targets for snipers and artillery.
Colour Sergeant Edmund O’Sullivan, a peace-time tailor’s salesman known as 'Rosie' to his comrades, was E Company quartermaster in the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles. He was responsible for supplying more than 100 men that were to form the left-flank of an attack, due next morning, against the German lines less than a mile away. Platoon Sergeant Edward Mayo, a car worker before the war, had proven himself to be a nerveless leader in more than a dozen battles in North Africa, Sicily and south Italy. Wounded three times, he had won the Military Medal (MM) for valour. Mayo’s job was to lead his men towards the German defences when the signal came. After 18 months fighting, the two sergeants were among the most experienced non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in the British Army. O’Sullivan was 25. Mayo was just 24.
The original plan had been for the attack to begin that evening, but it had been postponed until first light. O’Sullivan had brought up supplies and decided to provide Mayo company during the anxious hours before sunrise. It was the end of the fourth day of the biggest Allied assault against the Gustav Line, the toughest defensive barrier of the 2nd World War. It ran from the Tyrrhenian Sea south of Gaeta and along the Garigliano river which guards the foot of the Aurunci mountains. From there, the line extended to the Garigliano’s confluence with the River Liri which flowed down from the direction of Rome. It then followed the east bank of the Gari River, a tributary of the Garigliano, and then the Rapido as it flowed through the town of Cassino into the Abruzzi Mountains and from there to the Adriatic coast.
The line’s dominant feature was Monte Cassino, a 1,700-foot mountain where St Benedict had built one of Christianity’s first monasteries at the start of the 6th century. Monastery mount was a natural strongpoint that commanded the road to Rome and the entire Cassino battlefield. The Allies had tried, and failed, to capture it twice before. In February, the monastery had been destroyed in a bombing raid that wrecked one of Italy’s finest historic buildings and blasted hill tops for miles around. On 15 May, its ruins were still held by German paratroopers.
The Gustav Line from Cassino to the coast had been pounded by artillery and bomber for four months. But only infantry could decisively break it. On the section of the front where the London Irish were that May night, this required foot soldiers supported by tanks breaking through minefields and wire, fording the fast-flowing Gari river and advancing across more than 1,000 yards of open land cleared for machine guns. The map co-ordinates of roads and buildings had been registered for heavy artillery and mortars. German infantry supported by hidden tanks were protected from bombs and shells in concrete strong points.They were ready to emerge to mow down advancing troops. Spotters in the mountains followed every day-time move. At night, flares illuminated no-man’s land. Snipers patiently waited for targets to show themselves in a fatal careless moment. Along the Liri front, the Gustav Line was almost 1 mile deep. Some believed it was unbreakable. Behind it, was another band of fortified strong points called the Hitler Line. The lessons of defeat in 1918 had been thoroughly studied by Germany’s 2nd World War commanders. Most had served on the Western Front in the Great War.
The Allies had also learned terrible lessons since their initial attack on the Gustav Line in January. The first breakthrough attempt made by American, British and Free French divisions had been spread too thin. Close to where the London Irish were waiting, American units had been decimated before even getting to the Gari (known to the Americans as the Rapido). The weather during the January offensive had been appalling. On the Cassino massif, attackers froze to death. Most fighting units had at least 20 per cent casualties. Some were wiped out. When the attack was eventually called off in early February, the Garigliano to the west of the Liri had been crossed, but progress was minimal.
The piecemeal Allied strategy was echoed in an amphibious landing at Anzio north of the Gustav Line on 22 January involving several divisions including the London Irish’s 1st Battalion. It was initially largely unopposed, but there was no energetic attempt to capitalise on the surprise the landing had delivered. The Germans counterattacked and almost forced the Allies into the sea. The Anzio beachhead settled into a stalemate that lasted for four months.
The second assault on the Gustav Line centred on the town of Cassino and the mountain behind. It began on 15 February with the bombing of the monastery. British, Indian and New Zealand divisions were thrown in. The line held and Allied casualties were, again enormous. On Monastery mount, the Indian army hurled itself against German machine guns, many dying as they ran through webs of wire booby-traps. An entire division was decimated.
After a short interlude, the Allies tried for the third time. British, Indian and New Zealand troops were ordered into Cassino and up the mountain. There was vicious hand-to-hand fighting in the ruined town. Again, the attackers were bloodily repulsed. The third offensive was finally called off on 23 March.
By the start of May 1944, Cassino had become a symbol of German stubbornness and Allied persistence. Tens of thouands on both sides had been killed, wounded or broken in a stalemate similar to the holocaust battles of Verdun, the Somme and Ypres of the 1st World War. A strip of land miles wide stretching from the sea into the Abruzzi had been turned into a stinking cemetery. Only rats and flies flourished as Italy’s cold, wet winter gave way to spring. The defenders were exhausted and depleted. But the Gustav Line was still largely intact.
The Allies decided on a fourth, massive attack. It would involve about 200,000 fighting troops supported by tanks, bombers and what would be the greatest artillery bombardment of the war so far. There would be co-ordinated attacks along the Liri valley front involving successive waves of infantry and tanks that would leapfrog each other through the minefields, wire and machine guns until open ground was reached and the road to Rome cleared. The British 8th Army, of which the London Irish was a part, was to play a key role in the fourth assault. It had been transferred to the Gustav Line during the third battle from the Adriatic coast where it had fought since landing in Italy in September.
On the sound of the first pip broadcast by the BBC for 11pm on 11 May, more than 1,000 guns exploded into life to signal the start of the fourth battle for Cassino. The 5th Army, which comprised US, Free French and British troops under General Mark Clark, smashed through German defences in the Aurunci Mountains to the west. In the east, the Polish Corps was given the task of taking Monte Cassino. But the critical struggle would be in the centre at the mouth of the Liri river valley.
The job was given to the 8th Army, which had defeated General Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein in October 1942,  but now comprising entirely different units,  Two of the 8th Army’s divisions -- the 4th British and the 8th Indian -- formed the first wave. Their mission was to cross the Gari and secure a deep beachhead on the west bank. They would build seven bridges over the river to allow the next wave through. The 78th Division, including the London Irish, were to complete the breakthrough and open the way to Rome, victory in Italy and the defeat of Germany and its remaining allies.
The 8th Army’s attack started to misfire almost from the beginning. The first wave of attackers got lost in mist and smoke. Boats used to cross the Gari were swept away and sunk. Soldiers fell into the river and drowned. Those that got across were pinned down by German machine guns, mortars and shells. By the dawn of 12 May, only a fraction of the planned progress had been made. None of seven bridges over the Gari had been completed. This meant there was no tank support for the men on the west bank who were effectively cut off.
Instead of being able to complete three bridges in their section of the Gari, the engineers of the 4th Division were told to concentrate on Amazon, and later completed a second one, Congo. These two bridges were to be the initial route ahead for the 78th Division. Working under fire throughout the night, the engineers completed Amazon at quarter to five in the morning of 13 May. More than 80 out of a total workforce of 200 were killed or wounded. But by the end of that day, the 4th Division were at last in force on the west bank of the Gari. It was time to throw in the 78th, and they were to cross the river by Congo bridge.
Its cutting edge was the 38th (Irish) Brigade, a unit that had been in action in the Mediterranean theatre since November 1942. It had three battalions comprising about 1,000 men each: the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliersthe 6th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles.
The Inniskillings originated as the 27th Foot of the British Army. It was first formed in 1688 to fight the army of Catholic James II who had fled London earlier that year and been replaced by William III (William of Orange), a Protestant married to James’s eldest daughter Mary. The 27th Foot fought on William’s side at the battle of the Boyne in July 1690 and at the decisive victory over James’ forces at Aughrim in the west of Ireland in 1691. The regiment was based in Enniskillen in County Tyrone, an Ulster county that remained part of the UK after Ireland was partitioned in 1922. It had served the Crown across the world including America during the Seven-Year’s War against France (1756-63), in the Spanish Peninsula during the Napoleonic wars, at the centre of the British line at Waterloo in 1815, in the 1st and 2nd Boer Wars and in several theatres in the 1st World War. In between the wars, the regiment was used in garrison duties, often in India. They were known as the 'Skins', a reference to the moment during the Napoleonic Wars when the regiment was surprised bathing and fought the French naked.
The Royal Irish Fusiliers were formed in 1793 and was originally named the 87th of Foot. It was given a name rather than a number in 1881 and served as the county regiment of Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan, three of the nine counties of the province of Ulster. Following the creation of the Irish Free State, only Armagh remained in the UK, but the regiment continued to recruit from both sides of the border. Its battle honours included theSpanish Peninsula campaign during the Napoleonic wars and both Boer wars. The regiment was expanded to 14 battalions in the 1914-18 war and they saw action on the Western Front, Gallipoli, the Balkans, Egypt and Palestine. In May 1940, its 1st Battalion formed the rearguard protecting the withdrawal of British and French troops from Dunkirk. The regiment’s nickname was the 'Faughs' (pronounced fogs), based on their motto: Faugh a Ballagh, Irish for 'Clear the Way'.
The British Army was restructured following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, when five of its Irish regiments were dissolved. The Royal Irish Rifles was renamed the Royal Ulster Rifles, and the Skins and Faughs survived.
The London Irish Rifles was a territorial regiment founded as a volunteer force in London in 1859 during one of the periodic scares about war with France. Its initial recruits included Lord Palmerston (Henry Temple), a Protestant Irishman of English descent with estates in Sligo who had earlier that year become Britain’s first Liberal Party prime minister. The regiment provided men to other units that fought against the Boers during 1899 to 1902, and became part of the Territorial Army on its creation in 1908. During the First World War, the 1st Battalion fought on the Western Front at Loos, where it went over the top kicking footballs, on the Somme front, at Ypres and at Cambrai and played a part in the final attack on the German lines during the summer of 1918. Its 2nd Battalion was formed in 1914 and served at Vimy Ridge on the Western Front before being posted to Salonika during the Balkan campaign and again in Egypt and Palestine. It was part of the British, Commonwealth and Imperial Army that captured Jerusalem in December 1917. The 2nd Battalion was disbanded in the summer of 1918 to provide troops for other parts of the British Army.
After the 1st World War, the London Irish returned to territorial activities. Its status was lifted by the involvement in the 1930s of Jack Macnamara, a Conservative MP representing the English constituency of Chelmsford. He was an opponent of the appeasement policy pursued by the British government of the time headed by Neville Chamberlain. A friend of Winston Churchill, Macnamara promoted the role of the territorials. In 1937, the London Irish became the territorial battalion of the Corps of the Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR), a regular regiment recruiting from Antrim and Down, which were both Ulster provinces that remained British after partition.
Macnamara was made commanding officer of the London Irish in 1938 as the fear of war grew. The regiment was one of the first territorial units to reach full strength and form a 2nd Battalion. the London Irish Rifles had been based at the Duke of York’s headquarters on Chelsea’s King’s Road since the early part of the century, and this was close to London’s West End, which probably explains why they attracted a number of actors and theatre workers. One platoon was almost entirely made up of dustmen who worked in the Chelsea area. There was a close affinity among the regiment’s original colourful core who had trained in the pre-war years out of commitment and pleasure in each other’s company.
On 1 September 1939, call-up papers were issued to the members of the two battalions. The 1st Battalion was given the task of supporting L Division of the Metropolitan Police at its headquarters at Brixton Police Station in the south London Borough of Lambeth. One Sunday soon after the war began on 3 September, the Catholics of the London Irish paraded to Mass at Corpus Christi Church on Brixton Hill. As a rifle regiment, it had been trained to march at 140 paces a minute compared with the 90 paces a minute for conventional infantry regiments, and using a technique developed when the first rifle regiments were formed to fight in North America in the 18th century, the London Irish carried their rifles at the trail when on parade. This entailed holding a 10 pound rifle at its balance point between butt and muzzle. Riflemen, as a result, were extremely fit.
O’Sullivan, then 20, was preparing to serve Mass at Corpus Christi, his local Catholic Church, when he heard the London Irish marching outside. Looking out the window of the sacristy, he saw the London Irish’s distinctive caubeen, Irish for “baggy hat”. It is an oversized beret with green feathers (hackles) held in place by a silver harp cap badge. The officers wore green caubeens with feathers in St Patrick’s blue. The battalion’s band, comprising Irish bagpipers, drummers and flautists, thundered out the Garry Owen, the regiment’s rousing marching anthem (also the marching tune of the New York City Police and the US 7th Cavalry which was wiped out at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876). They were brought to a halt and filed briskly into the church. London Irish chaplain Father McKenna entered the sacristy. He was well known to O’Sullivan and his family.
“Hallo Father McKenna, are you in the London Irish?,” he asked.
“Yes,” McKenna replied. “Why don’t you join us? You could be my batman, a nice cushy number.”
“No, thank you, Father,” said O’Sullivan “I am going to the signals as a dispatch rider.”
He also thought the way the London Irish marched was far too much like running. At the start of October, O’Sullivan received his call-up papers. “Not the signals but the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles,” he recalled in his memoirs written 47 years later. “Despite the assurance of the former director of music of the Royal Horse Guards who I had served at my tailors, I was not to be a dashing dispatch rider but a foot-slogging rifleman.”
The two London Irish battalions were separated as events in France turned for the worse in May 1940 and they were to serve together only briefly in the final weeks of the war. For more than two years, they were deployed on home defence duties. This meant the riflemen were often safer than their friends and families who lived through the London Blitz. They were prepared for combat in increasingly intense training exercises in different parts of the UK. The 2nd Battalion spent part of 1940 based at Haverfordwest in south-west Wales, a place that O’Sullivan was to return to in quite different circumstances more than 20 years later.
Initially, the 2nd Battalion was part of the 47th (London) Division. In January 1942, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the creation of the 38th Brigade and for it to be named the Irish Brigade. The initiative was reluctantly accepted by the exclusively-Protestant government of Northern Ireland. Irish brigades had been formed by exiled and migrant Irish soldiers fighting in the armies of France in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thomas Meagher’s Irish Brigade fought for the Union during the American Civil War of 1861-65. Hundreds of thousands of Irishmen had served in the British Army since it was first formed as a permanent force in the mid-17th century. But the term Irish Brigade had only been rarely used in the British Army and the first occasion was during the 2nd Boer War. Before partition, Irish nationalism was considered to be potentially subversive by the British establishment. The British Army had fought Irish republican guerillas during the Irish independence war of 1919-21. But following partition, the army decided to emphasise the connections with Ireland, which remained a source of regular army recruits. It approved the adoption of Irish symbols by the remaining Irish regiments. In the London Irish, this included saffron kilts for the bagpipers and the caubeen, which some believe had been worn by Irish soldiers since the start of the 17th century. Britain also wanted to maximise its appeal to potential Irish recruits from the UK and elsewhere. Associations with Ireland in the new war with Germany would serve a useful propaganda purpose in neutral Ireland and in the United States, which was not to become Britain’s ally for more than two years after the conflict started.
The Irish Brigade was a throw-back to the time just 20 years before when the whole of Ireland was part of the UK. Many of its officers were descended from the Protestant ruling class that controlled much of its land since large-scale English and Scottish colonisation began at the start of the 17th century. They revelled in the symbols of old Ireland and the legends of great Irish soldiers but were nevertheless uncomfortable with the rituals of Irish Catholicism, which appeared alien and superstitious. These mixed emotions were complicated by the sectarian divisions within the six Ulster counties that were retained within the UK by the 1921 partition treaty that ended the Irish independence war and from where the London Irish, the Faughs and Skins drew recruits.
Nevertheless, the religious divide was treated lightly. In the London Irish sergeants’ mess, Catholics would ironically sing the anti-Catholic 'The Sash My Father Wore' to appreciative Northern Irish Protestants. The religious division was even constructively institutionalised. In the London Irish band, the kilt-wearing bagpipers were invariably Catholic. Flautists, many trained in Orange Order Bands that celebrated the Boyne and other Irish Protestant victories, were uniformly not. A sense of Irish unity was inculcated within the brigade. However riven their motherland may have been, the men of the Irish Brigade were to be a single family with no divided loyalties. This was proved again and again in its record in the 2nd World War.
Protestant Irish leadership extended across the British Army. General Bernard Montgomery, victor of El Alamein, was the son of an Anglican bishop who ran a Church of Ireland diocese on the banks of Lough Foyle in Donegal, part of the Irish Free State in 1939. General Harold Alexander, supreme Allied Commander in Tunisia and Italy in 1942-45, was also of Donegal Irish descent. He had served in the Irish Guards in the First World War, when he became the youngest colonel in British Army history. The Duke of Wellington. Britain’s greatest general, was born Arthur Wellesley in County Meath in what is now the Irish Republic. It is estimated that at least 25 per cent of British foot soldiers at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815 were Irish or of Irish descent.
It was upon this tradition that the Irish Brigade was constructed in the spring of 1942. Its first commander was The O’Donovan, chief of the O’Donovan clan and a First World War veteran who had won the Military Cross (MC) for bravery. The O’Donovan was succeeded by Nelson Russell, previously commander of the 6th Faughs who had been born in Lisburn in Northern Ireland. Russell had been awarded an MC during the 1st World War and capped for playing cricket for Ireland in the 1920s.
On its creation, the Irish Brigade was allocated to the 6th Armoured Division, which was conceived as an elite unit. The 6th was then preparing for the Allied invasion of French North Africa where American and Britishtroops were to fight together for the first time since the US joined the war in December 1941. In June 1942, the Irish Brigade and the 6th Division were moved to Auchinlech, 40 miles south of Glasgow. Training was stepped up with week-long exercises in the glens and mountains of Ayrshire. On 12 November, the brigade, now part of the British 1st Army, enshipped at Greenock on the river Clyde west of Glasgow to join Operation Torch which had started four days earlier with Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria. On 19 November, it started to disembark in Algiers. A week later, it moved east by train to Bougie and from there was transported by truck into Tunisia where it was put into the front line 100 miles south-west of Tunis in mid-December.
The first serious fighting involving the Irish Brigade took place north of Bou Arada in January. On 19-20 January, the London Irish suffered grievously during an attack on German positions on Hill 286, to the east of the road from Goubellat to Bou Arada. More heavy casualties were inflicted when the battalion was hit by a Panzer counterattack at the end of February. The brigade was withdrawn from the line to lick its wounds but was soon back in action and participated in the final battles around Tunis in April and May 1943. Tunis fell on 7 May and the Irish Brigade joined the victory parade into the city at the end of the month. It was the second enemy-held capital to be captured by the Allies.
The Irish Brigade was transferred into the 8th Army for the invasion of Sicily which was completed on 17 August. There was a break in the fighting of almost three weeks. The war resumed with the invasion of southern Italy on 3 September. The Irish Brigade was transported by ship to Taranto on 24 September, travelled by train to Barletta and moved by landing craft to Termoli further up the Adriatic coast. It was involved in two bloody further engagements at San Salvo and the River Sangro. With winter closing in, the brigade was moved to the high Appenines in the centre of Italy where the London Irish stayed until February 1944. In mid-March, it was shifted to the Cassino front and, from the end of the month, held positions in the mountains east of the monastery.
In mid-April, the brigade was pulled out of the line for rest and preparation for the fourth Cassino assault.On 10 May, the Irish Brigade moved forward to the forming-up area at Presonzano east of the main road to Rome via Cassino. The Cassino battle plan was revealed to its senior officers. Asked about how the brigade would deal with the challenge, its commander Brigadier Thomas Patrick David (TPD) Scott declared they would “fart and fly hard”.
The artillery barrage the following night signaled the start of the assault. The brigade was on one hour’s notice to move, but this was extended to four soon after the first waves went in. It was a sign that the attack was not proceeding to schedule. Another day passed and, on 13 May, the brigade diverted itself with football matches played against the background roar of the guns. The order to advance to the front was finally issued late that night. After not much more than one hour’s sleep, the brigade set off for its start positions at 2am on the morning of 14 May.
The concentration area was behind Monte Trocchio, a hill east of Cassino which acted as a screen against German observation and shelling. The brigade started arriving after 4am. It waited behind Monte Trocchio. Exploding German shells sent splinters hissing dangerously in all directions. It was impossible to talk. In mid-afternoon, the brigade moved forward, using the abandoned railway line to Cassino as a road part of the way until breaking off to the west along a track to the Gari river. By 4pm, they were over the river into a bridgehead no more than 400 yards deep. By this time, bullets were falling among them from German rifles and machine guns. They dug in and waited.
As the sun rose on the morning of 15 May, the brigade surveyed the destruction caused by three days of intense fighting at the mouth of the Liri valley. The view ahead was obscured by huge fruit orchards and bushes. There was a maze of small hills and gullies, often with bogs at their base. A road from Cassino ran across the front from the right to the town of Pignataro to the left. Cutting through the route of the brigade’s advance was a stream called the Piopetto which flowed diagonally from the left to join the Rapido south of Cassino town. It was soon realised this would prevent the easy use of tanks. The stream would have to be bridged. The only advantage the attackers had was a constant veil of smoke which made aimed firing difficult. Apart from that, it was perfect defensive territory.
The brigade was to be sent forward to continue the assault against the Gustav Line which had cost the 4th Division so much. The Skins were given the lead role. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey Edgar Nicholas (Bala) Bredin, however, opposed the idea of a night assault. He wanted the attack to begin the next morning but was overruled by divisional headquarters. The Skins went in at about 3am and made quick progress.
German resistance began to mount. Bredin called a temporary halt but the advance resumed at 8am when the tanks arrived over a bridge hastily constructed across the Piopetto. By midday, the Skins were in serious trouble. Half their supporting tanks had been knocked out. They were stuck in a minefield ringed by German anti-tanks guns and had already suffered more than 70 casualties. But the Skins had reached their objectives. The goal now was to hold on until they were relieved by the London Irish who were given the task of breaking through the final sections of the Gustav.
The London Irish were scheduled to attack on the afternoon of 15 May in parallel with the Lancashire Fusiliers of the 11th Brigade to their right. But just before the scheduled time of the attack, a barrage of shells fell on the battalion’s headquarters, killing London Irish commander Ion Goff and the commanding officer of the supporting tank unit. Other officers were killed and wounded. Major John Coldwell-Horsfall, who had been appointed second in command of the London Irish in March, took over leadership of the battalion. The attack was delayed until 730pm.
It had been another bitter day for the 8th Army. Many young men had died. They included Michael Blair Wallace, son of the English writer Edgar Wallace who was then aged 28 and a lieutenant in the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. It had been in action as part of the 4th Division since 12 May on the right of where the London Irish were waiting for the order to advance that evening.
The line of the attack from the London Irish trenches was north-west towards the village of Sinagoga, which occupied a hill around a mile to the front. Three of the London Irish’s four fighting companies were to lead the attack: E on the left was to head to Sinagoga Wood, G on the right with H in the lead in the centre. F Company would move up behind the three lead companies. A dozen tanks from the 16th/5th Lancers would follow the advance line. The other elements of the attack would be the mortar platoon, machine gun units and the battalion’s mobile six-pound anti-tank guns. There were some vehicle carriers and a battery from the 17th Field Regiment to provide short-range artillery cover.
With the minutes ticking past, Horsfall got a call from brigade headquarters back on the Rapido. The attack was to be postponed until first light to give the Lancashire Fusiliers more time to get into position. Word was spread to the rifle companies. The London Irish settled in for the evening.
Mayo and O’Sullivan dealt with the change calmly. But they knew that the attack was inevitable and they would both have crucial roles in it. Mayo’s was to galvanise his men into rising from their trenches and advancing through exploding shells and mortars and lethal machine gun fire. O’Sullivan would follow close behind bringing trucks with supplies in plain sight of the enemy’s guns. Having seen so many die, they knew their chances of emerging unharmed were small. Fantasies of returning home as bemedalled heroes had long gone. But new recruits to the London Irish facing their first battle drew comfort from the two young veterans who had survived so much. They were called the immortals.
Neither of them should have been there. Two days earlier, O’Sullivan had discharged himself from a hospital in Bari where he had been sent after a recurrence of malaria contracted in Sicily. Mayo had been nominated for officer training but had refused to leave E Company.
It was an uneasy evening full of foreboding about the coming dawn. “You know what I’m going to do after this lot,” said Mayo, fingering a Luger pistol he had taken from a German officer. “Use this to make a living.” O’Sullivan thought he was only partly joking.
There had already been a bad omen. The third London Irish immortal, E Company Sergeant Major (CSM) George Charnick, who had been with the battalion since Tunisia, was hit in the arm by shrapnel earlier that day and hospitalised. At dawn, O’Sullivan warily returned towards the Rapido. Mayo roused his men who crawled with their mess tins to get their breakfast stew.
As it was being served, 9 Platoon commander 2nd Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley was wounded. There was nothing to do but crouch in the trenches and wait. The machine gun fire from the German lines had increasedbut the morning was lovely. The sky was clear and brilliant sunshine illuminated an undulating landscape. Olive trees swayed in the breeze. Riflemen checked their weapons, wrote home and hoped they would outlive the day.
At 9am, 72 British heavy artillery pieces delivered an avalanche of shells on the German lines. The guns of the 17th Field Regiment opened up from behind the brigade. The horizon was transformed as the explosions from hundreds of high explosive shells coalesced into a wall of black cloud pierced by orange flashes. The sky and sun were swiftly blotted out. The gunners adjusted the range, pushing the barrage forward 100 yards every minute. This was E Company’s signal to move.
Company commander Major Mervyn Davies climbed from his trench followed by his batman and a signaler with the company’s short-range radio. For a moment, the three lone figures walked across no-man’s land towards the inferno. Two of the three platoons were still in their trenches. Mayo rose from the ground and turned to his men. “Eight Platoon, follow me,” he shouted. They climbed out of their trenches. The rest of the company joined the advance. The dash towards the German lines was terrifying. Shells and mortars exploded.
Men fell, but the casualties were scattered. Some were hit by shrapnel from shells fired by British tanks advancing behind the riflemen. The shattering din was split by the screech from Nebelwerfers, deadly German six-barreled mortars.
In minutes, E Company reached the German lines. The trenches were largely abandoned, but there were some German dead and wounded. Survivors threw their hands up in surrender. But their comrades in the ruinedbuildings of Sinagoga were still holding out. The tanks advanced and, at close range, systematically destroyed each strong point. Their machine guns scythed down those who ran. All three attacking companies were now fully engaged with the enemy. Hidden German 88-millimetre artillery guns opened up, knocking out most of the tanks supporting the London Irish in Sinagoga. Jimmie Barnes, a 20-year-old London Irish corporal from county Monaghan, led his section in a wild bayonet charge towards the guns. They were machine-gunned before they reached their goal. Barnes lobbed a grenade at the guns and was killed as he did so. He was unsuccessfully recommended by his company commander for the Victoria Cross.
In the chaos, Horsfall rose from the turret of the tank he used as battalion headquarters and aimed his pistol at a German charging towards him. Suddenly, the rifle was knocked from the German’s hands by a bullet or shrapnel. He collapsed to the ground and immediately surrendered. More emerged from cornfields around the village and were shot down. The firing subsided. The day’s first objective had been taken. It was 1pm. The London Irish had been fighting for four hours.
The lull was temporary. The land on the left across the Piopetto was still in German hands. Panzer grenadiers supported by tanks were spotted advancing towards Sinagoga as a fresh counterattack began. From the village’s shattered buildings, the London Irish countered with machine gun and rifle fire. British tanks moved out into the open ground. There was mayhem as soldiers from both sides fought and died in the wheat. German tanks joined the attack and were knocked out by hidden British Shermans. The London Irish pushed forward another half mile amid more carnage. As the sun set, the firing died down. Finally, both sides collapsed in exhaustion.
With darkness descending, O’Sullivan loaded up the company’s trucks with the evening’s meal including boxes of cakes, hot sausage rolls and cheese pastries. The road to Sinagoga ran through the areas of the most intense fighting. Fires in burning buildings and destroyed tanks acted as torches in the gloom. At the London Irish advanced headquarters, O’Sullivan was given the map reference for E Company by riflemen who were to guide him. The boxes of food were unloaded and O’Sullivan set off with his team in the direction indicated.Suddenly, his elbow was gripped by an invisible hand. “Where are you going,” said a voice. “To E Company with food,” he replied. “The house you can see on the right is held by Germans. We are the battle patrol platoon and we have it under observation.” O’Sullivan nervously retraced his tracks. Another few steps and he could have been shot or taken prisoner. The riflemen who sent him the wrong way mumbled their excuses. O’Sullivan soon found E Company.
The Irish Brigade had decisively fractured the Gustav Line. The following night, commander-in-chief of all German forces in Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, ordered the line to be abandoned. On the morning of 18 May, a white flag was hoisted over the monastery on the peak of Monte Cassino. Lieutenant Kazimierz Gubriel of the Polish 12th Podolski Lancers approached the ruins and found 17 wounded paratroopers, the remnants of the Monte Cassino garrison. More than 1,000 of his comrades had been killed and wounded while trying to take it and the land where they fell above the monastery is now a huge Polish war cemetery.
The battle for Cassino was over. But the campaign continued. The 78th Division chased the German rearguard north towards Rome until it was pulled out of the line for rest and reinforcement. The 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles were to be in action constantly thereafter with a single six-week break until the war’s last day in May 1945. But the attack on the Gustav Line was one of its finest moments. The cost of victory on 16 May 1944 was, however, almost unbearably high. The battalion had lost nearly one quarter of its fighting strength: more than 100 killed and wounded including nine officers and many experienced NCOs.
There was a sombre mood that night among the battalion’s survivors. Major Davies, his voice breaking with emotion, described the morning’s events. E Company had reached its objective to the left of Sinagoga. Mayo ordered his men to dig in to prepare for German retaliation. After making his own slit trench, Mayo urged his riflemen to dig faster. He returned to his meagre redoubt with Corporal O’Reilly, the son of an Irish family from Cavan who had also won a military medal.
There was the sudden scream of Nebelwerfer mortars. One howled towards Mayo’s trench and exploded. He and O’Reilly were instantly killed.
“I was going to recommend Mayo for the Distinguished Conduct Medal,” Davies said.
Riflemen in the sergeant’s platoon were quietly weeping in the darkness. Lance-Corporal Gerard Keegan, a Lancashire Irishman aged 21 who had been made acting sergeant in Mayo’s place, was carving tender words on a cross for their leader’s grave. “Sergeant Eddie Mayo MM. The greatest Sergeant in the world.” Lance Corporal Keegan was himself killed by German shells six days later.
 

This has been an account of a single day, and the events that led up to it, at a turning point in the world’s bloodiest conflict. It describes the role of the men who played unscripted parts as leaders and heroes in a drama that echoes in our own times. Two of them, bound together in comradeship and respect, saw its dawn. One fought and died before dusk. The other lived to see peace, raise a large family, educate thousands of young people and tell his moving story.
All Our Brothers is based on what Colour Sergeant O’Sullivan, the survivor, saw before, during and after these watershed moments in the Liri valley. It describes extraordinary developments in the 2nd World War that transformed his life and ended that of so many others. This book is also about O’Sullivan’s family and friends in the first half of the 20th century. But the climax is the day he lost his closest war-time friend, the hero Eddie Mayo.
O’Sullivan was a member of a talented family with a remarkable record of service during the 2nd World War. As he and the London Irish prepared to assault the Gustav Line in May 1944, O’Sullivan’s father, also called Edmund but known by everyone as Mick, was working to ensure the railway system operated smoothly during the Allied invasion of Europe which began 20 days later on 5 June 1944. His elder brother Daniel, then 27, was a gunner in Bomber Command in the Far East. His younger brother Thomas, 23 and a Royal Air Force (RAF) armourer, was preparing to join the Allied invasion of France after D-Day. Another brother, William, two months short of 21 and a Royal Navy telegraphist, was on a mission in the Mediterranean. The fifth and youngest O’Sullivan brother Bernard, then just 14, was training to be an officer in the Merchant Navy. There were two sisters: Ellen (Nellie), 26 and seriously ill with tuberculosis, and Lilian, aged 16, who was working as a messenger at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.
Their mother Elizabeth (Lizzie) had endured the Blitz and was about to face the greater terror of flying bombs that started falling on London in June 1944. It is almost impossible to imagine the terrible anxiety Lizzie experienced every day that summer knowing four of her sons were in peril on four war fronts, a fifth was being trained to join the conflict, a daughter was close to death while German bombs and missiles threatened her own home. What is remarkable about Lizzie’s wartime experiences is that they were not unusual. Practically every woman in Britain had loved ones in danger as the 2nd World War reached its appalling crescendo.
All My Brothers is also an account of the Irish people of London whose labour and dreams have over many generations helped make Britain’s capital the vibrant city it is. Theirs is an unrecorded history that is remembered mainly in the stories still heard and repeated by hundreds of thousands of Londoners and their families. Overcoming economic disadvantage and racial and religious discrimination, they raised their families, nurtured lively communities and fought for their country. There were villains as well as heroes. But at their best, they were rarely bettered. No group of immigrants has done more for London than they. None more richly deserves a proper memorial. This is a small repayment in words permanently enscribed of the overdue debt London and every Londoner owe them all.
The road to Sinagoga that Ted O’Sullivan took in May 1944 was a long and eventful one. Its story will be told in the following pages.
It starts in Ireland itself.
 

Chapter 2
The Irish Journey
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Had I heaven’s embroidered cloths
Enwrought with golden and silver light
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-night
I would spread the cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams
 
Aedh wishes for the cloths of Heaven by WB Yeats.
 
Ireland is an island, but it hasn’t always been one.
At the peak of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, it was connected by causeway to the west coast of Scotland. Mainland Britain could then be reached by foot from what is now France. This allowed people to travel to Ireland from continental Europe. The first settlers in Ireland were cut off when world sea levels rose as the ice steadily melted. Stone-age crop-growers arrived by boat about 6,000 years ago. Metal-workers later used Irish copper and imported gold to make ornaments and jewellry. The Celts, who probably originated from northern Spain, came with the iron-age 600 years before the birth of Christ. At that time, Celtic civilisation extended across Western Europe.
The Irish were then nomadic tribespeople who did not build permanent dwellings. They lived on the milk and meat of cows, sheep and goats and followed their herds in search of better grazing in an island where a mild climate allowed grass to grow most of the year. In long cross-country walks, the Irish developed an oral culture based on story-telling, poetry and song. Since everything was memorised, there was no need to write anything down and nothing to write it on anyway. Ireland, like all Celtic societies, was originally illiterate.
The economic system was equally uncomplicated. Wealth was stored in ornaments and jewellery not coins. Trade was done by barter. Men that weren’t priests were warriors, though wars were seasonal, limited and about livestock and the best grazing. The idea of owning land was alien since there was no purpose in claiming territory if it was overgrazed and no way permanently of enforcing a claim anyway.
The pinnacle of Irish society was occupied by kings, in reality tribal leaders. They were classified into three categories: kings of local kingdoms of which there were more than 100, over-kings that ruled several kingdoms, and high kings, who were rulers of entire provinces which varied in number from five to almost a dozen. The title of High King of all Ireland was nominal since provincial kings held most power. The most persistently-dominant Irish dynasty until the middle of the 11th century was the Ui Neill or O’Neil. They were based in the north and had their ceremonial capital at Tara in Meath in the centre of Ireland. Here, a massive earthwork fort was built similar to structures created by Celts in England at Maiden Castle and elsewhere. Tara was to acquire a mystic significance for the people of Ireland as visitors will immediately understand. From its top, it is as if you can see the whole of the island of Ireland.
The Irish government accepts the contemporary existence of 21 ancient Irish titles and dozens of secondary Irish clans. Clan Irish names are constructions based on the identity of an original patriarch or leader. The origin of O’Sullivan is obscure. According to Dr Daithi O hOgain, associate professor at University College Dublin, a 10th century Munster prince Eochaidh mac Maol Ughra who was noted for his generosity was nicknamed Suildubhain (the dark-eyed). There is a myth that a greedy poet visiting Eochaidh asked for his eye, which the prince handed over. This story originally long predates Eochaidh but it was applied to him because his nickname was misunderstood to mean blind (literally Suillebhan). Eochaidh’s grandson was the first to be called O Suildubhain. Due to a softening of the d into v after the l, the name was soon pronounced O’Suilleabhain (o soo-li-vaw-in). This means son of the one-eyed. At this point, the O’Suilleabhain clan held land in the south of what is now County Tipperary. Following the Norman invasion, the O’Sullivans were forced further southwest and finally occupied land on either side of Kenmare Bay which separates the modern counties of Cork and Kerry.
Two O’Sullivan brothers established separate areas of dominion. Giolla (Irish for Servant of) Mochuda O’Suilleabhain occupied most of the Iveragh peninsula and were based at Dunkerron. His younger brother Giolla na bhFlann O’Suilleabhain held almost all the Beare peninsula and had his headquarters at Dunboy. Mochuda is the patriarch of the main branch of O’Sullivans knows as O’Suilleabhain Mor (O’Sullivan, The Great). Na bhFlann is the founder of the O’Suilleabhain Bearra.
The O’Suilleabhain Mor divided into two. The junior branch became the MacGillycuddy O’Sullivans with their base at the castle of Bauneclune on the river Laune. A further division of the O’Sullivan Mor produced the McGrath O’Sullivans of Cappanacush near Dunkerron. The O’Sullivan Beare divided as well and produced subsidiary divisions: the O’Sullivan Clann Labhrais, who settled near Bantry Bay, and the O’Suilleabhain Maol (The Bald). The O’Suilleabhains competed with neighbouring clans: the MacCarthys, who were the mediaeval kings of Munster, the O’Donoghues and the O’Donovans.
English invaders from the 12th century capitalised on Irish tribal rivalries to divide and rule south-west Ireland. The spread of English led to the Anglicisation of clan Irish names. O’Suilleabhain became O’Sullivan. The process has been accelerated by removing O’ and Mc. O’Connor (O Conchobhair) became Connor, O’Donovan (O Donnabhain) became Donovan, O’Kelly (O Cellaigh) became Kelly, O’Flynn (O Flainn) became Flynn, O’Hanlon (O hAnluain) became Hanlon and O’Sullivan became Sullivan. The inconsistent Anglicisation of Irish names and the influx of non-Irish people over the centuries have resulted in the people of Ireland having on a per capita basis more family names than any other people on earth. The Irish spread. Bands called Scots settled in the west of the British mainland. They bequeathed the name by which Scotland is known.
The centre of gravity in tribal, nomadic Irish society changed with the arrival of Christian missionaries during the 4th century when mainland Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall and Wales were under Roman rule. The pope appointed a bishop to the Irish in 431, suggesting conversion was already taking place. St Patrick, the most celebrated missionary and Ireland’s patron saint, was first brought to the island as a slave but later returned in the middle of the 5th century, when he was a bishop, to preach the gospel. A church associated with St Patrick was established in Armagh. It is the basis for the town’s claim to primacy over the rest of the Irish church.
Christian missionaries founded self-contained communities comprising a church and a few dwellings. Bringing learning from Europe, they provided healthcare and education. This attracted the wandering Irish and facilitated conversion. The missionaries in turn were affected by the culture they encountered. They learned and wrote down the Irish language. A literate society emerged that has left many manuscripts in Latin and Irish and beautiful craftsmanship in metal and stone. The Book of Kells is recognised as the supreme example of Irish ecclesiastical manuscript illumination from this period, which is sometimes called Ireland’s Golden Age. Young men were educated. Some became priests and monks. Remote from the Roman pontiff, the Irish Celtic church developed distinct religious practices.
As Irish monasteries grew in wealth and influence, Ireland became known as the island of saints. Irish monks helped bring Christianity back to Britain and Europe and led missions throughout the continent until the start of the 12th century. A shining example was St Colum Cille (Columba), who founded a Christian community on the island of Iona in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland in the second half of the sixth century. St Aidan, the first bishop of Lindisfarne in north-east England, was another. St Benedict, a Roman nobleman who founded isolated religious communities including the monastery at Monte Cassino, is regarded as the founder of Western monasticism. The Irish monk St Columbanus, who originated from Bangor on the north-east coast of Ireland, is often ranked with him as a co-founder of a movement that was to change the face of Europe. Columbanus first left for France in 591 where he founded monasteries in Peronne in central France and, finally, at Bobbio in northern Italy where he died in 615.
The Anglo-Saxons, who were farmers, colonised Roman Britain but made no attempt to conquer Ireland. Their mixed arable and dairy system could not cope with Ireland’s continuous rainfall and the Irish had little that they wanted to buy. The Vikings, who originated from what is now Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia, brought radical change. They were, essentially, traders who made long-boats capable of vast sea journeys and lived in towns. Viking settlements were established in Iceland and on the north-east coast of America. To the east, they founded Moscow, reached Constantinople and traded with China.
The first recorded Viking raid on Ireland in 795, which targeted a monastery settlement, began more than 150 years of attacks and colonisation. They founded several of Ireland’s largest settlements, including Dublin and Limerick, and introduced coinage. They also brought a new generation of Irish names including Doyle. By the end of the 10th century, the Viking challenge across Europe was fading as they integrated with host communities and defences against Viking war bands improved. Irish kings fought back against the invaders. The greatest was Brian Boru who became High-King of Ireland in 1002. He defeated the Vikings at the battle of Clontarf north of Dublin in 1014 but was killed at the moment of victory. Boru was the last High King to extend his effective rule across the whole of the island of Ireland.
In the Middle Ages, Irish rulers were increasingly influenced by developments in Europe. Under powerful popes starting with Gregory III in the second half of the 11th century, the Vatican started to assert itself. The Irish church conformed to Roman practices and discipline. Irish kings began to adopt the feudal system refined by Norman rulers who by the end of the 11th century controlled what are now northern France, England, southern Italy and Sicily. They had seized land in the Middle East during the 1st Crusade which climaxed in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.
The Irish political system at this time was unstable with a tendency to degenerate into war. In 1166, Diarmit MacMurchada (Dermot MacMurrough), the king of Leinster, which encompassed much of the east of Ireland, was expelled from Ireland by the new Irish High-King Ruaidri Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor). Seeking support to recover his lands, MacMurchada went to Bristol, where he already had contacts among English merchants. He then travelled to France to see Henry II of England, great grandson of William the Conqueror. MacMurchada acknowledged Henry as his lord and was granted in return the right to recruit fighters for a campaign to regain Leinster.
The first were found among the lords of the border lands between England and Wales. They were veterans of a century fighting the Celtic Welsh. The leader of the Norman knights who pledged their support was Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare, Lord of Pembroke in Wales. He is known to history as Strongbow. MacMurchada returned to Ireland with Norman knights in 1167. Strongbow joined him three years later with a larger force. Together, they captured Waterford in south-east Ireland and then Dublin. The partnership between the Irish king and the Norman adventurer was sealed when Strongbow married MacMurchada’s daughter Aoife. In 1171, MacMurchada died without legitimate male heirs. Strongbow, as husband of his eldest daughter, secured control of Leinster.
Henry II, concerned that Strongbow might seek to found an independent kingdom, landed in Waterford in October that year. Strongbow made obeisance to the king, who then visited Dublin. In return, Strongbow’s control of Leinster received King Henry’s blessing. The Norman conquest of the rest of Ireland was completed by the middle of the next century.
The invaders were colonisers. Their names are their greatest legacy and include Barry, Butler, De Burgh (Burke), De Lacy, Dillon, Fitzgerald, Montgomery, Plunkett, Power, Prendergast and Roche. The conquerors recruited English peasants and craftsmen, mainly from the west Midlands and south-west England, to work on their Irish estates. Their legacy is in names common across Ireland such as Bagenal, Bermingham (after Birmingham), Bruton (after a town in Somerset), Edgeworth, Fleetwood, Goldsmith and Spring. The countryside, particularly in the drier east of Ireland, was transformed. New towns were created including Dundalk north of Dublin, Sligo in the north-west and Kilkenny in the south-west.
The Norman nobles established a parliament which met in Dublin. The native Irish had no effective answer to the invaders’ use of armoured knights. A campaign to make Brian O’Neill Ireland’s high-king ended in defeat in 1260 at the Battle of Down where O’Neill was killed. But a new factor had already been introduced into the Irish power balance. The previous year, the son of the king of Connacht, Aed O’Connor, had married a princess from the west of Scotland. She brought with her 160 mercenary fighters from the Hebrides called Gall-Oglach (foreign fighter), or Galloglass, by the Irish. Galloglass swordsmen were heavily armoured and well-armed and were an effective counter to Norman military tactics. They were used by other Irish kings against the invaders and helped reduce the Norman advantage in Ireland. The Galloglass fighters bequeathed another set of Irish names including MacDonnell, MacSweeney, MacSheehy and MacCabe.
The settlers’ self-confidence was also undermined in 1315 when Edward Bruce -- brother of Scotland’s Robert I (Robert the Bruce), the victor at the Battle of Bannockburn -- invaded Ulster. He joined forces with the O’Neill family in a campaign against the Norman English. The Scottish threat was only finally ended in 1318 when Bruce was defeated and killed at the battle of Dundalk.
The weather was the invaders’ most formidable foe. Their system of mixed arable and pastoral farming couldn’t flourish in Ireland’s damp climate. There were famines and migrants returned to England. The settler population was further reduced by the Black Death in 1348-49. Ireland’s Norman lords turned for labour and support to the native Irish. They began to adopt Irish customs and culture. Some married into noble Irish families. They were described as Hiberniores Hibernis Ipsis (More Irish than the Irish).
Concern about the loss of English influence in Ireland led to futile attempts to halt the process of integration. Laws were imposed, starting with the Statutes of Kilkenny of 1366, that made it illegal for the English to speak Irish, marry Irish people or foster their children with Irish families. In an effort to bring his subjects to heel, King Richard II came to Ireland twice at the end of the 14th century. He was deposed by King Henry IV in 1399 and eventually murdered. His successors accepted the increasing independence of the leading Norman families of Ireland. These included the Butlers, who were earls of Ormond in south central Ireland, and the twin branch Fitzgeralds, who were earls of Desmond in the south-west and of Kildare in the east. By the end of the 15th century, effective English power was confined to an area north of Dublin. In the rest of the Ireland, traditional tribal leaders were dominant. But it was to be a final flourish for old Celtic Ireland. The 16th century was to be a turning point for the people of Ireland and their rulers.
Norman conquest. Ireland at the time of the peak of the Norman conquest. Native Irish control had been reduced to pockets in remote or inaccessible parts of the island. The lands of the Ui Neill (O’Neil) were the most extensive. The land of the O’Sullivans was in Munster in the far south-west. All the big towns and cities were in Norman areas. The city of Limerick in west central Ireland was on the frontier between Norman Ireland and the land of the native Irish.
The Old English, as the descendants of the Norman lords of Ireland were called, supported the Yorkists in the English civil war, known as the Wars of the Roses, in the 15th century. Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and was crowned Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs. The Earl of Kildare rejected the new Tudor regime and used the Irish parliament to legitimise the claim for the English throne of Lambert Simnell, who was presented as one of the Princes in the Tower and crowned in Dublin as King Edward VI. The Princes in the Tower were the sons of the Yorkist King Edward IV who many historians agree were murdered by their ambitious uncle King Richard III when their father died.
Simnell’s supporters were decisively defeated in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses at Stoke Field in 1487. King Henry decided it was time to assert his authority over the Old English. In 1494, he dispatched Sir Edward Poynings to Ireland as his chief governor in Ireland. Later that year, Poynings forced the Irish parliament to pass legislation known as Poynings Law that asserted that it was subordinate to the English parliament in London. But the Tudor grasp on Ireland was precarious.
A radical new English attempt to dominate Ireland began during the reign of Henry Tudor’s son King Henry VIII. The assertion of royal supremacy over the English church and the programme of dissolving religious houses precipitated by Henry’s determination to divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn were extended to Ireland which was given the status of kingdom in 1541. In return for accepting King Henry’s sovereignty, Irish chiefs were granted titles. But attempts to impose Protestant doctrines were resisted. Most Irish people rejected the Reformation and remained Catholic.
Under Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I, Ireland was seen as an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity was land that could be profitably exploited. The threat was the Old English with their Catholic Irish allies that defied the crown and refused to conform to the Anglican Church. Elizabeth was desperate for money to finance war with Catholic Spain, leader of the European Counter-Reformation. Spain was benefitting from gold produced
from its South American empire. The solution involved seizing Irish land and selling it to English merchant adventurers. Their first plantation was created in Laois and Offaly in the centre of Ireland in the 1550s on the seized estates of rebellious O’Connors and O’Moores. Other plantations were attempted in the south-west and in Ulster. But the biggest project came after the Fitzgerald (or Geraldine) rebellions led by the Earl of Desmond. His land was confiscated and used in more ambitious plantation projects.
The plantation policy and other provocations eventually led to all-out rebellion. In 1595, Hugh O’Neill -- the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, clan chief of the O’Neills and head of a rebel confederacy -- declared war against English rule. He won a decisive victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in Armagh in 1598. Queen Elizabeth responded by sending an army to Ireland under the Earl of Essex, a favourite of the English queen. The climax of the rebellion came in 1601 when a Spanish army sailed to Kinsale in Ireland’s far south to support the rebels. O’Neill’s forces marched south but were comprehensively defeated outside Kinsale on Christmas Eve that year.
The rebellion sputtered on against increasing odds. Donal O’Sullivan Beare, chief of his clan since deposing his uncle in 1593, joined the rebellion and led his clansmen from his castle in Dunboy on the Beare peninsula to Kinsale. He then retreated to Dunboy. After the castle was taken, O’Sullivan Beare turned to guerilla warfare against the English and their Irish supporters. In December, he led his followers to find protection with allies in Leitrim 200 miles away in the north of Ireland. More than 1,000 set out but only 35 arrived at the end of a 14-day march. Some settled on the route and are called the Beares. Their suffering is remembered in the Irish folk song, The March of the O’Sullivans.
After the death of Elizabeth and the succession of King James I in 1603, Donal joined a delegation of Irish leaders that went to England to plead for the return of their land. They were rebuffed. Donal travelled secretly back to Cork and left for Spain where he was murdered in 1618 in what some say was an English assassination plot. Head of the O’Sullivan Mor, Eoghan, did not join the 1596-1603 rebellion and retained his lands.
The end of the rising destroyed the political effectiveness of the Irish clans and the traditional system of Irish (Brehon) law. O’Neill signed a compromise peace treaty with the English government in March 1603. But he was a marked man. On 3 September 1607, he finally fled Ireland with his family, retainers and allies including Rory O’Donnell, the 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, in an event remembered in Irish history as “The Flight of the Earls”.
By leaving without royal permission, the fugitive lords were deemed to have relinquished rights to their lands. These comprised the modern Irish counties of Armagh, Fermanagh, Derry and Tyrone, in what is now Northern Ireland, and Cavan and Donegal in what is now the Irish Republic. They were confiscated by the state. The following year, the crown announced a plan to offer the counties to Scottish and English settlers, the Church of England and what were described as “deserving Irish”.
There was one adjustment to the settlement mandate for the Coleraine region in county Derry (Daire, Irish for oak tree). This was awarded to London merchants. They renamed the county and its county town as Londonderry. The plantation process was less successful than envisaged. But there were almost 20,000 settlers, mainly Presbyterian Scots, in Ulster by the death of King James I and the succession of his son King Charles I in 1625.
Native Catholic Irish were forced out of plantation areas, though some remained to work as labourers and formed a sullen underclass. The view of the colonisers was that if the natives would not embrace Protestant enlightenment, then Protestant settlers should take over Ireland and turn it into the new Israel. Their methods presaged those used by English settlers in North America. Sir Walter Raleigh, a West Country merchant who was given lands in south-west Ireland as reward for his involvement in repressing the Desmond rebellions, made two failed attempts to found settlements in Virginia during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
In 1607, the year of the Flight of the Earls, a third Virginia settlement was established in circumstances that echoed the Irish experiment. Investors, backed by the crown, were given a mandate to create American plantations. Farmers and artisans were lured to the new world by the promise of work and wealth. The intrusion met, as it did in Ireland, violent resistance from the native population and led to war and growing confiscations of land by the newcomers. The settlers discovered that tobacco, which originated in the West Indies, flourished in Virginia. The colony’s labour shortage was eventually solved by using African slave labour. Ireland in turn was to benefit from the introduction from the Americas of the potato, a nutritious root vegetable that flourished in the island’s damp, temperate climate. It’s said that Raleigh brought it to his Irish estates, but it is probable that Spanish traders had already introduced the prolific tuber.
Britain was peripherally affected by the 30-years’ war which started in Bohemia in 1618, pitted Protestants against Catholics and devastated much of Germany. Nevertheless, the passions of conflict between Catholic and Protestant in Europe contaminated British politics and shaped its actions in Ireland. In 1631, Charles I appointed Sir Thomas Wentworth as his Lord Deputy to Ireland. He stepped up the plantation programme but alienated the loyal Old English by including their lands in the confiscations. Wentworth enraged many of the settlers by trying to force Presbyterian leaders to conform with the practices of the Church of England. Wentworth was loved by King Charles and made Earl of Strafford, but he fell foul of the king’s foes in parliament. He was charged and convicted of treason and executed for high treason in May 1641 in a sign of parliament’s increasing restiveness.
Sensing England’s government was weakening, Ulstermen led by Sir Phelim O’Neill, a member of the Irish parliament, rose in rebellion on 22 October 1641. They had several motives including the wish to recover land confiscated under Strafford and prevent further sequestrations. The rebels also wanted to repeal Poynings Law and the enshrinment in law of The Graces. This was a concession granted to Old English families that involved them paying money in return for the right to retain land.
They declared their loyalty to King Charles, but denounced “Evil Counsellors” that had him in their power. The rebels quickly seized the government strongholds of Newry, Armagh, Charlemont and Mountjoy. A plan to take Dublin Castle failed because the conspirators’ plans were leaked. O’Neill declared that there should be no attacks on Protestant settlers. But fury festering for decades exploded across Ireland. Thousands of Protestants were killed as the native Irish took revenge. Exaggerated tales of monstrous brutality spread across Britain. The consequences were to be appalling.
The rebel leaders meanwhile built on their early gains. O’Neill’s forces took large parts of Tyrone, Armagh and South Down and had captured Dundalk by the end of October 1641. On 29 November, the rebels defeated government forces in the first pitched battle of the war at Julianstown in County Meath. By then, Leinster had fallen and Drogheda was under siege. The government counterattack began in March 1642 when Scottish units under the king’s command arrived in Ulster.
By the middle of May, most of Down had been recovered for the crown amid much indiscriminate violence. As conditions degenerated, leaders of the insurgency reached an agreement in Kilkenny with Old English families and the native Irish to form a Confederacy. This would act as an alternative to the existing system of Irish administration. Its supporters asserted their rights as subjects of the crown and pledged to restore Catholicism to Ireland. The Confederacy’s first general assembly in October 1642 elected a 24-member council. Owen Roe O’Neill, a veteran of Spain’s European wars, was the Irish Confederates’ best commander. The forces of the crown inflicted defeats on the rebels in set-piece battles, but could do little against guerilla warfare in the countryside.
The rebellion in Ireland was quickly overshadowed by the start of the Civil War in England which began on 22 August 1642 when King Charles raised his standard in Nottingham against parliament. The war turned the Irish conflict into a three-way struggle involving the Confederates, dominant in the west and south-west, the forces loyal to the king and the armies of parliament. A peace negotiated between the Irish Lord Deputy, the Duke of Ormond James Butler, and the Confederates in September 1643 was unpopular with the settlers.
Another peace offer made by Ormond in August 1646 was rejected by the Confederates for not providing sufficient guarantees for the Catholic Church. Finally, an alliance between the king’s supporters and the Confederates was agreed in 1647. It brought calm to much of Ireland.
The interlude was brief. King Charles surrendered to parliamentary forces later that year. He tried, convicted and executed in January 1649. The king’s excution united the monarchy’s Irish supporters of all faiths. Britain’s new republican government sent Oliver Cromwell to reinforce parliamentary units already in Ireland and decisively end Irish resistance. Cromwell’s large army arrived in Dublin in August 1649 and marched north. The following month, he captured Drogheda where the garrison, Catholic priests and many civilians were massacred. In October, Wexford in the south-east was captured and a similar atrocity perpetrated. Kilkenny, the headquarters of the Confederacy, capitulated in March. Clonmel was taken after a hard fight in May.
Cromwell then left Ireland, never to return. Irish nationalists regard him as a bigot who hated Catholics, a genocidal war criminal and a hypocrite who pressed for the deposition and execution of a king on the grounds of his tyranny yet dissolved parliament, ruled as a dictator and even considered having himself crowned. There is some truth in all these charges. But there is no doubt that Cromwell is a significant figure in British history. His memory is celebrated with a statue in his likeness outside the Houses of Parliament in London. It is just one example among many of the conflicting interpretations of Irish history that continue to weigh on any debate about Ireland’s future.
The parliamentary army continued the campaign in Ireland. Limerick surrendered in October 1651. Roscommon and Galway gave up in the spring of 1652. Resistance finally ended with the surrender of Inishbofin Island off the coast of Mayo on 14 February 1653 and of an island fortress on Lough Oughter in April.
The British government then set about taking revenge and recovering the cost of the war. An Act of Settlement passed in August 1652 divided Irish landowners into two groups. Those that had taken part in the 1641 rebellion were sentenced to death or had their land confiscated. Those that did not had to give up their existing property and were granted land in Clare and Connacht. Cromwell is said to have declared that the Irish had two options: to go to hell or to Connacht. A contemporary Irish saying was that in Connacht there were neither trees on which to hang a man nor water in which to drown him. Of Ireland’s 20 million acres, 11 million were confiscated by the state. Four Irish counties were set aside for the government: Carlow, Cork, Dublin and Kildare. Ten went to those who supported the campaign against the Irish rebels. These were Antrim, Armagh, Down, Laois, Limerick, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Waterford and Westmeath.
Head of the O’Sullivan Beare clan Donal Cron had joined the war against Cromwell and was forced to go into exile. Most of his land was taken over by English settlers including Sir William Petty, a supporter of Cromwell who was tasked to produce detailed maps of Ireland, and his son-in-law the Marquess of Landsdowne. Daniel O’Sullivan Mor, leader of his clan, had also joined the war against the Cromwellian forces. He was eventually surrounded at Dunkerron, but managed to escape, also to France. His lands were mainly lost to Petty and other Cromwellian settlers.
In this period, whole clans were transported west. They included the Ulster family of the O’Hanlons who finished up in Clare. Thousands of Irish people were sold as slaves to work in West Indian plantations. Their descendants in Barbados are named Red Legs because, it is believed, of the sun burn their ancestors suffered on their exposed lower limbs while working the sugar cane fields. Barbadian planters became extremely rich but were brutal. Their 1661 slave code, which was exceptionally harsh, was adopted by Jamaica then transferred to the United States when Barbadian planters founded what became the states of North Carolina and South Carolina. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the Confederate rebellion against the Union government began in North Carolina.
Catholic worship was outlawed, Catholics were banned from public life and priests were banished, imprisoned or executed. Those harbouring priests were subject to the death penalty. The ban on the use of Irish imposed by previous law was enforced. The aim was to encourage Irish Catholics to become Protestants or face physical elimination. But this early attempt at ethnic cleansing was impractical and economically damaging. Some of the harsher effects of parliamentary rule in Ireland were ameliorated after Oliver Cromwell’s younger son Henry became Ireland’s Lord Deputy in 1657 and Lord Lieutenant the following year. Oliver Cromwell, who was made Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland in December 1653, died in 1658. He was succeeded by his son Richard.
The new Lord Protector was forced to resign in May 1659. Army leaders decided to restore parliamentary government. The first elections in 20 years for the English parliament, held under rules that granted votes to less than 10 per cent of the male population, took place in April 1660. The majority of those elected wanted an end to instability and war. One way was to restore the monarchy.
Meanwhile, Charles I’s eldest son Charles had signaled in a statement issued from Breda in the Netherlands that he was prepared to compromise. On 25 May, responding to an invitation from parliament, he landed at Dover and was crowned King Charles II in April 1661. The new king was a Protestant, but promoted tolerance of Catholics while taking measures to limit the freedoms of non-conformist Protestant sects. Some Cromwellian Irish land confiscations were reversed, Catholic priests were released and there was a relaxation on the ban on the Catholic Mass. But Irish leaders were obliged to sign a document of loyalty in order to secure reparations. Those that didn’t were harassed.
Charles II, who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, died with no legitimate heir in February 1685. He was succeeded by his brother James II, a Catholic convert with a Catholic wife, Mary of Modena. James further relaxed restrictions on Catholics and promoted his Catholic supporters. Protestants began to fear a Catholic restoration. When James tried to end laws against Catholics, leaders of the Church of England protested. In May 1688, his wife bore a male heir: James Edward. He was bound to be raised a Catholic, thereby ensuring a Catholic king for the indefinite future.
Conspirators contacted William of Orange, who was married to James’ Protestant daughter Mary. They asked him to intervene to save parliament and the Protestant faith. William landed at Torbay in November with a large army made up mainly of Dutch and German soldiers in the last successful foreign invasion of the UK. The conspirators, who included some of Britain’s most powerful figures, started to seize key cities. Others, including John Churchill who was to become the first Duke of Marlborough, switched sides to support William. The army was effectively in rebellion and James decided to flee London. He was intercepted but was allowed to leave at the end of the year. In exile in Paria, he plotted to recover his throne with French support.
Backing for his cause was found mainly in Ireland and among the Catholic Highlanders of Scotland. Supporters of James II (called Jacobites) seized most major Irish towns, though the gates of Derry were closed against them in December 1688. James landed in Ireland in March 1689. In June, he summoned the Irish parliament which voted to restore more confiscated land to its original owners. William’s army arrived in Ulster in August 1689 and William himself followed almost one year later. Derry, besieged by James’ army, was relieved. William and James met at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. James was decisively defeated and left Ireland for ever at the end of the year. The Jacobite cause in Ireland was finally crushed at Aughrim in Galway, in the bloodiest battle in Irish history, on 12 July 1691. Limerick, the final Catholic stronghold, surrendered at the end of the year. Under the terms of the treaty that ended the fighting, Irish soldiers loyal to King James were given the option of leaving Ireland and joining the French army. More than 10,000 did, forming a core of experienced fighters that served France throughout the continent. Some went on to fight for the Austrian Emperor, the King of Prussia and other European rulers.
The exiled Irish soldiers of this period were called the Wild Geese. An Irish Brigade comprising soldiers of Irish descent fought at the Battle of Fontenoy in which France defeated the British Army in 1745. Its motto “Faugh a Ballagh” was later adopted by the Royal Irish Fusiliers who were called the Faughs as a result. Descendants of the Wild Geese and other Irish exiles that subsequently fled Ireland rose to illustrious heights in their adopted country. Patrick MacMahon, whose family left Limerick after the Battle of the Boyne, became in 1873 the first president of the French third republic. Richard Hennessey from County Cork joined the French army in 1740 and subsequently founded the cognac distillery that bears his name. Robespierre, the French revolutionary leader and author of the terror to crush the enemies of the republic who was guillotined in 1794, claimed he was of Irish descent, though this has been challenged by modern historians. Charles De Gaulle, French president in 1959-69, was of part Irish descent.
The defeats at the Boyne and Aughrim were a further disaster for O’Sullivan clan leaders. Daniel O’Sullivan Mor, who had left for France following the Cromwellian wars, had returned to Ireland with his son Eoghan Rua to support King James. They went back into exile in France following the defeat. Eoghan Rua’s grandson Rory had some of the O’Sullivan Mor lands restored by Queen Anne, who succeeded William and Mary. His son Donal died in 1754 and was the last of his line. The only real survivors of the O’Sullivan clan leaders were the McGillycuddys, a name they took from the part of Kerry they lived in. Despite fighting the English in the Geraldine, Cromwellian and Williamite wars, the McGillicuddy O’Sullivans managed to retain their title and some of their lands.
The Irish exiles dreamed of returning as part of a campaign to restore Stuart rule. The first, failed Scottish Jacobite rebellion of 1715 was inspired by James’ eldest son Charles Edward, known as the “Old Pretender”. In 1745, the “Young pretender” Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of James II, landed in Scotland and led a Scottish army including some Irish officers on a campaign south. At Derby, the prince decided to retire to Scotland. In April 1746, his army was butchered on Culloden Field near Inverness.
Bonnie Prince Charlie’s adjutant and quartermaster was General John O’Sullivan of the Cappanacush O’Sullivan branch and the leader of a contingent of Irish cavalrymen in the Jacobite army. He followed the prince back into French exile. His son Major Thomas Herbert O’Sullivan served in the French, English and Dutch armies. The last of that line Louis O’Sullivan was US ambassador to Portugal in 1854-68. Descendants of other O’Sullivan exiles to the US include John Sullivan (1740-95), who was descended from the O’Sullivan Beares. He was a leading general in the American War of Independence. An island off the South Carolina coast is named after him. John Louis O’Sullivan, an American journalist born in Ireland, coined the phrase Manifest Destiny in an article about the future of the US which is sometimes seen to be the inspiration of contemporary ideas that the US has the right to global dominance.
Following the fall of Limerick, discrimination against Catholics was intensified by the Protestant Irish parliament, which was given additional powers by King William. Catholics were excluded from business and politics and were prevented from bequeathing land to other Catholics. Jacobite sentiment flared following the accession to the British throne in 1714 of George I, the protestant ruler of the German state of Hanover. The Dublin parliament voted in 1728 for the disenfranchisement of the small number of landed Catholics with the vote.
The early 18th century is sometimes called the peak of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Large urban schemes transformed Dublin, Limerick, Cork and Waterford. Canals and roads were built. Fabulously wealthy Protestant landowners built great houses that are still a feature of the Irish countryside. Dublin challenged London as Britain’s cultural capital. Protestant Irish writers including Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, and Richard Sheridan, who created The Rivals and other celebrated theatrical works, defined the era.
Confident in the permanency of their dominance, the Protestant ruling class started to relax the penalties on Catholics. British government attitudes to Catholicism changed following the Vatican’s recognition of the Hanoverian dynasty in 1766. The penal laws were eventually rescinded. Most restrictions on Catholics were repealed in 1778-92 as new challenges emerged to British rule.
The discriminatory religious laws which weighed on Irish Catholics had been applied to Presbyterians who were systematically excluded from public life. Protestants of all sects and wealthier Catholics also found common cause in their opposition to Ireland’s subordination to the English economy. Britain’s defeat in the American war of independence inspired fresh thinking. London’s approach to governing Ireland was evolving at the same time. The French revolution of 1789 and attacks on the Catholic Church in France had turned the Vatican into a possible ally in Britain’s wars with the new French republic. Thousands of French royalists, including some of the descendants of The Wild Geese, found refuge in the UK. The ban on Catholics voting in Irish parliamentary elections was removed at London’s insistence. In 1795, the British government financed the establishment of the St Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth to train Irish men for the priesthood. It was an example among many of the contradictions in British governance of Ireland which makes it difficult for a dispassionate historian to reach clear conclusions about this period of Ireland’s history.
But Irish discord persisted and was expanded by new grievances. Secret rural associations carried out raids against settler farms. The Irish Protestant establishment resented the remaining political limitations imposed on them by London. Life was difficult for Protestant settlers and hundreds of thousands of Scots-Irish people left Ulster for North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their descendants included US presidents Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S Grant and Woodrow Wilson. Celebrated Civil War general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was of Ulster Protestant stock. Successful Ulster migrants to the US included the Dunlop family. The Mellon family, which originated in Tyrone and founded the Mellon Bank and Gulf Oil, has memorialised its Ulster connection in the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh.
Ireland exported labourers to the British mainland, many to work seasonally on farms and on canal and railway building projects in the 19th century. Irishmen were press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Thousands joined the British Army, establishing a tradition of service for the British crown that helps explain why hundreds of thousands of Irish men voluntarily chose to fight for the UK in the 1st and 2nd world wars. When the 13 colonies broke free from British rule, sending convicts to North America became impossible. Irish prisoners, including political ones, were transported to Australia, where the first penal colony had been established in 1789 in Sydney Cove.
The perspective from London was that Ireland was of limited economic value but vital to the security of the British mainland, particularly from France. The priority was to keep the country weak and dependent. A divided community made ruling Ireland easier. But some middle class Protestants, encouraged by the successful American rebellion and the French revolution, developed an alternative non-sectarian vision for Ireland’s future. In 1791, they created the United Irishmen inspired by the assertion of their leader Theobald Wolf Tone that it would only be possible for Ireland to overcome its difficulties if Catholics, Protestants and Non-Conformist Protestants united and broke the connection with England.
The United Irishmen formed an alliance with the Catholic Defenders who gathered weapons in anticipation of an Irish republican revolution. Wolfe Tone, under threat of arrest for treason, left Ireland in 1794 and fled to the US and then France. He convinced the French government to support the United Irishmen. A French invasion fleet was unable to land at Bantry Bay in December 1796 because of bad weather. The British government got wind of an impending rising and started to crack down on the United Irishmen. Their principal leaders, including its military leader Edward Fitzgerald, were arrested in March 1798. Rebellion finally broke out in May 1798, but it was fragmented. Armed with pikes and pitchforks, Irish peasant rebels were butchered in set-piece battles by the British Army, which included significant numbers of Irish soldiers. To extract information, rebel suspects were publicly tortured. Some were flogged and others subjected to half-hanging, which involved suspending the victim by a rope tied around the throat. On occasions, pitch was pasted on a victim’s head and set alight. But Ireland was divided. Many Irish Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy itself condemned the rebellion.
A French force was landed near Sligo in August 1798. But it arrived too late and was too small to affect the course of the rising. The French were quickly taken prisoner. Any Irish found with them were summarily hanged. Another expedition carried on French ships landed in west Donegal in September but left a few days later. Wolf Tone was intercepted off the coast of Donegal before he could land in October. After a botched suicide attempt, he died in prison (nationalists say he was murdered by the British). It is estimated that about 100,000 Irish people, mainly civilians, died violently during the rising. The first large-scale deportation of Irish political prisoners to Australia began.
But there was little satisfaction in London about the course of Irish events. The British government persuaded the Irish parliament, comprising houses of commons and lords, to vote itself out of existence, which it did in 1800 in the Act of Union. This created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland which came into existence the following January. The act stipulated that 28 Irish peers and four bishops would sit in the House of Lords and provided for 100 Irish MPs in the House of Commons. The British government under William Pitt the younger secured the support of leading Catholic families for the abolition of the Irish parliament by promising political and religious concessions. But these were blocked by Protestant conservatives in Ireland and the mainland. Ireland remained an unsettled place. Robert Emmet led a second failed republican rebellion in July 1803. He was sentenced to death for treason, executed and his body quartered.
Following the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Irish discontent about being ruled from London by a parliament in which Catholics were not allowed to sit produced a new political movement. The Catholic Association, led by the Irish Catholic lawyer Daniel O’Connell, was founded in 1823. In the parliamentary general elections of 1826, Catholic voters returned sympathetic MPs. O’Connell himself won a Clare by-election in 1828.
The law forbade Catholics sitting in parliament. But the new Conservative parliamentary majority produced by general elections earlier that year recognised that concessions had to be made. The Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo who had been born in Meath, was made prime minister. He realised that a militant mood was gripping the Irish majority and convinced King George IV to concede the right to sit in parliament to Catholics. The Catholic Emancipation Act, which also allowed Catholics to become judges and take commissions in the armed forces, was passed in 1829.
O’Connell’s next target was the law that obliged Catholics to pay a tithe to the Protestant Church of Ireland. He co-operated with the reforming Whig government, formed after further elections in 1835, to curb the worst excesses of the tithing system. Elementary education and a system of poor relief, established in England in 1834, were extended to Ireland. O’Connell remained dissatisfied. In 1840, he formed the Repeal Association to campaign for the end to Catholic grievances by scrapping the Act of Union and restoring an Irish parliament, which would (with Catholics voting) be dominated by native Irish. The
Tories were re-elected in 1841. O’Connell’s co-operation with London ended. He adopted innovative tactics and started a campaign that appealed to the Irish people directly. A series of huge open-air meetings were held across Ireland in 1843 to apply popular pressure on London. Alarmed, the British government banned a meeting planned for Clontarf. O’Connell and his principal supporters were prosecuted for treason and sentenced to a year in prison. Without O’Connell’s energetic leadership, the Catholic Association foundered, but the demand for self-government had become the dominant factor in Irish politics.
Strong Irish economic growth in the 18th century and the improved diet brought by the extensive planting of the potato encouraged an Irish population boom. In 1821, Ireland had almost 7 million people, more than the population of England. A successful linen industry had been established in the north, but the majority of the Irish people were labourers with no land or small plots. The economy was weak and the majority depended on the potato for food. In 1800-1845, there were 18 Irish food crises. In 1845, Phytopththera Infestens, an incurable fungal disease, destroyed much of the Irish potato harvest. It struck again in three of the four subsequent years. The impact was disastrous. Weakened by hunger, tens of thousands of Irish families were unable to pay rent and were evicted. The system of relief which forced the destitute into workhouses to secure financial assistance collapsed as hundreds of thousands of rural Irish left the land to seek aid in towns.
It is estimated that about 1 million people died from starvation and hunger-related diseases in Ireland in the second-half of the 1840s. The west and south-west were most heavily affected. About 300,000 people died in Munster, which had an estimated population of 3 million people before the famine. A further 1 million left Ireland. Hundreds of thousands of migrants sailed for the US. The largest number, however, headed for the British mainland, adding to the already substantial numbers that had left Ireland in previous generations.
Liverpool was the principal port used by Irish migrants fleeing starvation, but large communities developed in Manchester, Glasgow and London. The famine’s impact is indicated by the fact that the population of Ireland in 1851 had fallen to little more than 6 million from 8.5 million in 1845. It remains the most controversial topic in Irish history.
The charge that Britain deliberately allowed famine and disease to devastate Catholic Ireland for selfish political and economic reasons has been repeated by Irish nationalists. There are compelling arguments in the charge sheet. The enfranchisement of Irish Catholics in 1829 could eventually have led to their representatives becoming a dominant factor in the Houses of Parliament or, even, caused the distintegration of the UK. English landlords wanted to increase the profitability of their Irish estates by clearing people out and replacing them with grain and livestock, a process applied in England, Scotland and Wales in previous centuries.
The British government was then in the grip of the pessimistic thinking of Thomas Malthus, author of the Principle of Population published in 1798. He forecast that the poor and uneducated masses would always reproduce up to the point of starvation. If that was the case, the Malthus argument went, the best policy was to let nature take its course and allow death to bring stability back to the social system. Government action would be pointless, in the long-term.
Defenders of British government policy at the time say there was no conspiracy. Once the scale of the catastrophe was recognised, efforts were made to alleviate its effects. The neutral view is that the potato blight and politics lethally coalesced to deal a crushing blow to Ireland. But it is undeniable that -- lacking political representation, considered an obstruction to Irish rural improvement and viewed with a mixture of fear and contempt by Protestant England -- the Catholic Irish were without effective defenders when disaster struck.
The potato famines of 1845-49 depopulated large areas of Ireland. The greatest impact was in the far west and south-west where figures show that at least 60 per cent of the population was dependent on soup kitchens and food handouts in 1847. But the figures show that practically the whole of Ireland was affected by the disaster. The famine and aspirations associated with O’Connell’s failed attempt to repeal the Act of Union by constitutional means produced the Young Ireland movement of nationalist radicals. It formulated a coherent demand for Irish self-government and launched a small-scale rebellion in the summer of 1848 led by Thomas Meagher, John Mitchel and William Smith O’Brien. It was easily repressed. The rebels were caught and convicted to transportation to Australia. Meagher subsequently escaped to the US where he played a prominent role in politics and organised the Union Army’s Irish Brigade. A new movement called the Fenian Brotherhood was formed in 1858 to organise rebellion against British rule. Following the end of the American Civil War, Irish migrants in the US financed and supported the Fenians who attempted to invade Canada from the US in 1866.
Another Irish rising launched in March 1867 was again easily repressed. Four Fenians were caught and hanged for shooting a police guard in a failed attempt to free their comrades as they were being taken to court in Manchester. In December 1867, Fenians used explosives and caused 12 deaths in an attempted Fenian break-out from Clerkenwell prison. The Fenian rising failed but the events of 1867 started a new trend in British politics. Leader of the British Liberal Party William Gladstone concluded that the violence was a product of legitimate Irish grievances. His party fought and won the parliamentary elections of 1868 with reform in Ireland as a key element of its platform. Irish MPs also began to act with growing coherence in the final decades of the 19th century.
The Irish Parliamentary Party was formed and it won concessions from the British government, most notably in the area of land reform. The Church of Ireland was disestablished, all its lands except places of worship were taken away and tithes were abolished. The land taken from the church was distributed to tenants using a system of long-term government finance. But many of Gladstone’s most radical Irish reforms were blocked by the House of Lords. In 1870, Isaac Butt, an Irish MP and barrister from Dublin, founded the Home Government Association, better known as the Home Rule League, to campaign for the restoration of an Irish parliament. He advocated co-operation with London.
More militant Home Rule supporters were elected to parliament in 1874. They pressed for confrontational tactics. The following year, Charles Edward Parnell was elected MP for Meath and he took over the leadership of the Home Rule Party when Butt died in 1879. By then, conditions in Ireland had deteriorated.
The collapse in farm prices due to cheap American grain imports and a further outbreak of potato blight led to emigration, death and evictions. A populist movement called the Land League was founded by the Fenian Michael Davitt to block evictions. There were attacks against landlords and their agents in what is called the Irish Land War. In October 1879, Parnell was invited to become the League’s president and establish a link between the parliamentary and non-parliamentary campaign for Irish reforms.
By the end of 1880, large parts of Ireland were ungovernable. Gladstone introduced a new Land Law which addressed most of the Land League’s demands. Parnell was temporarily imprisoned for agitation but order had been restored to Ireland by the time of the 1885 elections.
The Home Rule Party won most Irish seats outside Ulster. But Gladstone and the Liberals had a slim parliamentary majority. Under pressure from Irish MPs, he submitted the 1886 Home Rule Bill which aimed to bestow limited powers to a restored all-Ireland parliament. The Conservatives opposed the bill and the
The bill failed to get through the House of Commons. Liberals opposing Home Rule founded their own party which supported the Conservatives on Irish policy. Irish MPs then divided when it emerged that Parnell had had a longstanding extra-marital relationship with Katherine O’Shea, the wife of an Irish Home Rule MP. Liberal support for Parnell also collapsed. The parliamentary environment for Irish Home Rule hopes worsened with the election of a Conservative government in 1886.
The Liberals were returned to office in 1892. Gladstone submitted a second Home Rule bill the following year. It was vetoed by the House of Lords, which was dominated by Conservatives. The Conservatives and its Liberal Unionist allies won the elections later that year. The Liberal Party was to be out of office and Home Rule off the agenda for 14 years.
The Irish Parliamentary Party reunited under the leadership of John Redmond in 1900. Irish Republicans created Sinn Fein, which means Ourselves Alone, in 1905 to secure complete Irish independence. The rising demand for Irish autonomy produced the opposite effect among Ireland’s Protestant minority. They saw Home Rule as the instrument by which the Catholic Church, which was seen as repressive and backward, would dominate their lives.
The Conservatives won the 1901 general election amid patriotic fervour about the 2nd Boer War. The British political pendulum swung again as the Conservatives split over a proposal for Dominion and Imperial territories to become a single market protected by a common system of tariffs. The Liberal Party, promising far-reaching economic and political reform, won the 1906 general election in a landslide. In 1910, the Liberal majority was demolished in two elections. UK Prime Minister Herbert Asquith secured his position by promising a new Home Rule bill which was put before parliament in 1912. Opposition to Home Rule among Northern Irish Protestants rose to boiling point. Hundreds of thousands signed a Solemn League & Covenant against the measure. The Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) militia was created and supplied with smuggled weapons. In March 1914, British Army officers based at the Curragh in county Kildare threatened to resign their commissions rather than suppress a unionist rebellion. The bill was passed by parliament in 1914 and became law in September but its implementation was suspended for the duration of the 1st World War which began in August that year.
Redmond, a moderate nationalist, had shown willingness to concede the temporary exclusion of Irish counties where Protestants were numerous to allow the passage of the bill as a whole. He also called on his supporters to back the war. More than 270,000 Irishmen served in the British Army during the conflict. They included Irish nationalists who believed their service would guarantee Home Rule for Ireland, and unionists who believed that fighting Germany would prevent it happening. Many in the UVF joined the 36th Ulster Division which was decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.
An Irish minority hoped for British defeat. Former British diplomat Roger Casement was arrested, tried and executed for treason after trying to smuggle German weapons into Ireland. Festering discontent among nationalists erupted in the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising which was put down amid enormous carnage in Ireland’s capital. Scepticism about the rising among the Irish majority was replaced by dismay when 14 of its leaders were almost immediately tried, sentenced and shot. They included the poet Padraig Pearse and the socialist revolutionary James Connolly. The poet W B Yeats captured the mood of the time with A Terrible Beauty is Born, a hymn to the executed rebels.
Irish disaffection increased when an attempt was made in 1918 to extend conscription to Ireland. The war ended in November 1918. In parliamentary elections in December, Sinn Fein won 73 seats, practically every one in Ireland outside the Protestant areas of Ulster. In January 1919, Sinn Fein MPs, who had refused to take their seats in Westminster, created the Dail Eireann, a republican assembly which sat in Dublin. Later that month, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), reorganised after the losses suffered in the Easter Rising, began a guerilla war. The government responded by forming specially-recruited units, including the notorious Black & Tans, to beat the rebels. The IRA retaliated by assassinating informers and members of the security forces.
By the summer of 1921, however, the British Army was winning the war against the IRA. But it was losing international support, particularly in the US. A truce was called in July 1921. The rebels were invited to send a team to London to agree a permanent settlement. Its negotiating team, including IRA commander Michael Collins and Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith, signed in December 1921 a treaty that accepted the exclusion of six of the nine Ulster countries from self-government and maintained the Irish Free State as part of the British Commonwealth.
The terms of the treaty split republicans. They were rejected by Eamon de Valera, the leader of the underground government during the independence war who had been spared following the Easter Rising because he had been born in the US. A referendum, nevertheless, produced overwhelming support for the terms of the treaty, but radical republicans refused to accept partition. In June 1922, dissidents seized the Four Courts area of Dublin. It was recovered by the provisional government amid heavy fighting. The ensuing Irish civil war lasted for about a year and led to the death of prominent figures on both sides including Michael Collins.
The Irish Free State delivered by the 1921 treaty was a poor country that had been stripped by partition of the industrialised north, the richest part of Ireland. The border between the 26 counties and Northern Ireland, which arbitrarily divided communities and trade routes, was ratified in 1925. It was rejected by republicans and nationalists on both sides of the frontier, but they did little to persuade the Protestant majority in the north that their rights and living standards would be protected if a united Ireland was created.
The Northern Irish parliament at Stormont was opened in 1921. It discriminated against Catholic and nationalist populations who were regarded as actually or potentially disloyal. There were outbreaks of sectarian intercommunal violence. A State of Emergency was declared that lasted until the 1960s.
In the Free State, De Valera, who had played no role in the civil war, founded Fianna Fail in 1926. The party was able to form a minority government following the 1932 general election. De Valera’s protectionist vision of Irish development led to economic conflict with Britain. In 1937, a new Irish constitution was approved that maintained the claim on the whole island of Ireland. Eire was neutral throughout the course of the 2nd World War, though it co-operated with the Allies in many areas. The IRA was banned, but it continued to secure support from many Irish people. A by-product of the division was that conscription was not extended to Northern Ireland. After Belfast was bombed in May 1941, plans for conscription in the six counties were revived, but were again blocked as a result of the opposition by the Catholic hierarchy and the nationalist community. The British government realised that a larger number of Northern Irish Protestants were in reserved occupations and conscription would have fallen mainly on Catholics. The consequences might have been civil disobedience in a part of the UK that was vital for British defence. The conscription plan was dropped.
The Republic of Ireland was declared in 1949, but the post-war era saw a continuation of the economic difficulties experienced before 1939. Emigration rose to levels not seen for more than 60 years. But a generation of politicians that came to power in the late 1950s set Ireland on a new path that would lead to its membership of the EU in 1973 and radical changes Ireland’s economic and social condition.
The biggest issue of the post-war period was the unsettled nature of Northern Ireland. In the early 1960s, a civil rights movement pressed for fairness in housing and votes for Northern Irish Catholics. The first killings in what are known as the troubles took place after Easter 1966 when a UVF gang shot two Catholics dead in Belfast. There was an angry response among Nationalists and demonstrations that led to clashes with the police. The tensions erupted into serious street violence in Belfast and Derry in the summer of 1969. The British Army was deployed to keep the peace. The IRA resumed its war against the Northern Ireland security forces.
Seeking to neutralise the militants, the British government authorized the reintroduction of internment without trial in the summer of 1971. In January 1972, 13 civilians were killed by British soldiers during an anti-internment rally in Londonderry. Disillusioned young Northern Irish Catholics flocked to join the IRA which had by then split into two: the Official IRA, which was mainly Marxist in orientation, and the Provisional IRA, which drew its strength from working class Northern Irish communities. The majority Protestant Northern Ireland population formed their own paramilitary groups. republican and loyalist gunmen fought each other, the British Army and Northern Irish security forces.
The British government lost faith in the Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland government, abolished the province’s Stormont parliament and introduced direct rule in 1972. A long war punctuated by bombings and killings ensued. Following hunger strikes by republican prisoners in which 10 starved themselves to death in 1981, a new mood developed in the Northern Irish nationalist community which led to the re-establishment of Sinn Fein, a party connected to the Provisional IRA that sought to win local and national elections. The interest of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Irish affairs was formally accepted by British government in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. It echoed some of the themes of an earlier, failed attempt to involve the republic agreed in Sunningdale in 1973.
A new turning point was reached on 31 August 1994 when republican and loyalist groups declared temporary ceasefires. They were eventually made permanent. On 10 April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement set a new benchmark for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It called for the creation of a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly which would be based on the principles of power sharing and representation for all the main parties, including Sinn Fein. The agreement, for which Official Unionist Party leader David Trimble and the leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) John Hume were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was never implemented as planned. There followed almost a decade of wrangling as loyalists demanded the IRA give up all its weapons and baulked at sharing power with Sinn Fein.
The process went into hibernation in 2002 following a high-profile bank raid in Northern Ireland blamed on the IRA, the murder in Belfast of a young father by men believed to be in the Provisionals and charges that Sinn Fein, which had by then emerged as the largest party supported by Catholics, was using its position in the power-sharing executive to secure confidential information.
The British government made a new effort to restore the executive. At the start of 2007, Sinn Fein’s annual conference in Dublin voted to accept the conditions set by the British government for restored devolved government. On 26 March, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), announced they would work together in a new power-sharing executive. The DUP had benefited from Protestant disillusionment with the 1998 Northern Ireland agreement and had replaced the Ulster Unionist Party as the largest loyalist party. Some believe that the decision of the two most hardline Northern Irish parties to work together signals the troubles mat be finally over, though violent incidents during 2010 associated with extremists on both sides of a community that remains divided suggest that it there needs to be cautious optimism about the future.
Ireland today has emerged from the setbacks and disasters of its long history. Its economy has boomed in the last two decades due to the enterprise of its people, remittances from Irish diaspora communities, government policies that have attracted investment and promoted trade, a tourism boom and the benefits accruing from membership of the EU. Dublin became a financial centre. Ryanair is one of Europe’s best-known airlines. U2, Boyzone and West Life have transformed Ireland’s image. Anti-poverty campaigners Bono and Sir Bob Geldof are global celebrities. The Irish football team in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups were a source of national pride. The Irish rugby team came within a whisker of winning the 2007 Six Nation’s Championship. In a symbolic affirmation that new Ireland was willing to forget past grievances, Ireland for the first time played England at rugby at Croke Park, the hallowed national stadium for the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) where the British Army gunned down players and spectators in 1921. Ireland won comfortably. The Irish team famously beat Pakistan in the 2007 cricket World Cup.
Peace in Northern Ireland and a new sense of national identity has inspired confidence in Ireland’s future. Time will tell whether it will endure the social transformation being wrought by globalisation and the communications revolution. Irish church attendance, once almost mandatory, has declined in the past quarter century. In the Republic of Ireland, divorce is no longer unusual and abortion is legal under highly restricted circumstances. Ireland, for the first time in over two centuries, has recently attracted more people than it loses. Most Irish cities now have significant communities of new arrivals from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. A new Ireland is being born.
And yet, history is embedded in a culture that has shown a remarkable capacity to adapt to changing economic and social conditions. The sense of being the underdog that has prevailed is perhaps the steel in the Irish soul. This may explain why the Irish and their descendants so resolutely adhere to their nationality wherever they live. Today, more than 80 million people describe themselves as being of Irish descent. On 17 March each year, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated in practically every city on earth. The Irish have settled everywhere and have left their mark among many people. Che Guevera was of part-Irish descent and Irish blood flows in the veins of former World Heavyweight boxing champion Mohammad Ali. Chileans still celebrate Bernado O’Higgins, the son of an Irish immigrant who led the 19th century war of independence from Spain.
But London has a special place in Irish history. It remains the one of the first places the people of Ireland choose when leaving their homeland. Today, it is journey of hope. Not long ago, it was invariably a flight from despair.
One of the many who made it was Daniel O’Sullivan, the great grandfather of Ted O’Sullivan.
 

Chapter 3
From Limerick to London
 
 
The People’s Flag is deepest red
It’s shrouded oft our martyred dead
And ’ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their hearts’ blood’s dyed in every fold
 
Then raise the scarlet standard high
And in its shade we’ll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here
 
The Red Flag, written by London Irishman Jim Connell
during the Great Dockers’ Strike of 1889.
 
Limerick in June 1815 was the busiest city on Ireland’s long Atlantic coast.
Its heart was King’s Island where a Viking band settled about 900 years earlier at the first fordable spot across the Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles. King John’s Castle, built by Norman invaders, and St Mary’s Cathedral dominated the skyline. In the previous century, prosperous landlords and merchants, benefiting from the booming trade in beef and pork, had demolished Limerick’s medieval walls and built fine houses and a theatre.
The city’s economy was lifted by the introduction of free trade in 1780 which allowed Irish grain and livestock to be sold to England without duty. A lace-making industry had been established and was starting to flourish.
But there was only a veneer of prosperity. Across the Abbey River to the south was Irishtown, a squalid slum mainly inhabited by Catholic Irish where disease jostled with despair. To the west, Thomond Bridge crossed the Shannon. For more than 200 miles to the mountains of Cavan, the river defined the border between the territories of the Protestant Ascendancy and the boglands of Clare and Connacht reserved for Catholic Irish dispossessed by the wars of the 17th century.
Limerick was a frontier town between the new civilisation brought by the victors and their allies and what they saw as the superstitions and savagery of old Ireland. It was also the scene of the greatest of Catholic Irish disasters. They had loyally rallied behind King James II after he fled London in 1689 following the coup that brought William of Orange to the British throne. But at the Boyne in 1690 and at Aughrim in Galway in 1691, James’ army had been decisively beaten. Limerick had held out against a siege in 1690 but when William’s army returned the following autumn, the will to fight had evaporated. James’ army surrendered in October on the condition that Catholicism would be tolerated and there would be no further confiscations of the lands held by Jacobite supporters. About 10,000 soldiers and 4,000 civilians went into exile to France. But the promise of tolerance was broken.
Among those that joined the Wild Geese was the Catholic 1st Earl of Limerick William Dongan. He was to die without heir and the title passed to his brother Thomas who was also to die without a successor. The Catholic line of the Earls of Limerick ended with him.
King’s Island was essentially a Protestant reserve. At the top of Limerick’s social pyramid sat the descendants of the first of the Protestant Earls of Limerick, Edmund Henry Pery, the son of the Church of Ireland Archbishop. The Perys originated from the southwest of England and were rewarded for their support for English policies with land and titles. After serving as speaker of the Irish parliament in Dublin, Pery was made an earl for voting for its abolition and the end of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1800. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was created the following year. Pery in 1815 spent most of his time in Westminster where he sat in the House of Lords, one of 28 Irish peers created as compensation for the end of the Dublin parliament.
The Protestant minority controlled the town and owned the countryside. Catholic men with the qualifying property credentials had been granted the right to vote in 1776 and most of the penalties imposed on Catholics had been removed. But professing Catholics were banned from sitting in the houses of parliament. Political rights were probably of little consequence for the majority of Catholic Irish who were peasant smallholders or unskilled labourers. Schools for Catholics were disallowed and illiteracy was widespread.
The Catholic Church, nevertheless, was in the ascendant. There were an increasing number of priests due to the work of Maynooth Seminary, which had been opened 20 years earlier. New churches were being built in stone and brick to replace the wood structures allowed by the penal laws. The church aimed to bring order to the anarchic Irish. What were considered to be uncivilised Irish customs were discouraged, including irreverent wakes around the open coffins of the recently deceased. The clergy also tried to prevent the use of Irish.
Ireland in the summer of 1815, like the whole of the UK, was effectively under martial law. Britain had been at war with France almost continuously for 22 years. There were special factors making Ireland’s rulers wary. The memory of the 1798 rising was still fresh. The rebellion had been repressed and its leaders killed, executed or imprisoned. But it shook London’s confidence in the ability of the Protestant Irish establishment to keep order in Britain’s most troublesome possession. The abolition of Ireland’s parliament followed.
The British government said full Catholic emancipation would be the reward for
the support it got from the Catholic Church for the abolition of Ireland's parliament. Almost 15 years later, Catholics were still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. Conscious of hostility just beneath the surface of society, garrisons across Ireland were ready to snuff out any fresh revolt.
But a new era was about to begin. On 18 June 1815, the French army was decisively defeated by the combined forces of Britain, the Netherlands and Prussia on rolling farmland close to the town of Waterloo south of Brussels. The British Army, up to one-quarter of which may have been born in Ireland, was commanded by the Duke of Wellington Arthur Wellesley, a scion of a Protestant landowning family with estates in Meath. Defeat at Waterloo ended Napoleon’s challenge to the established European order. The French monarchy was restored. But the end of the war raised expectations of political reform in Britain. Now that the threat of Napoleon had been eliminated, was it not time for the people to have more say in the way they were governed? This question was the change the face of British politics in the subsequent decades and was to find an echo across the island of Ireland.
The records show that Daniel O’Sullivan, Ted O’Sullivan’s great-grandfather was born in Limerick three years after the end of the Napoleonic wars, sometime in 1818. The details of his parentage and where he lived and worked are not yet known. But it is apparent he was literate, which would have put him in a small minority among his Catholic compatriots. As a young man, he would have been aware of the campaign for Catholic Emancipation led by Daniel O’Connell, a lawyer who founded, in 1823, the Catholic Association, effectively Ireland’s first civil rights movement. O’Connell’s election to the House of Commons in 1828 as MP for a constituency in Clare just across the Shannon would have excited Daniel’s household.
The following year, the Duke of Wellington, then British prime minister, persuaded King George IV to grant Catholic emancipation. It would have been a red letter day for Daniel O’Sullivan and his family, though it is unlikely his father was wealthy enough to qualify to vote. O’Connell, Catholic, moderate and known to Irish history as The Liberator, immediately launched a campaign to repeal the act of union and restore Ireland’s parliament. For a period, he co-operated with a reforming Whig government. But when the Tories were re-elected in 1841, he turned to more militant tactics. Mass gatherings in support of repeal of the union were organised across Ireland, some attracting up to 100,000 people. One of the Monster Meetings, as they were called, was held near Limerick in 1843. Daniel O’Sullivan, then aged 25 and politically conscious as his subsequent behaviour demonstrated, was probably there.
The government banned a meeting scheduled for October that year and O’Connell was imprisoned on charges of sedition. His younger and more radical supporters were disappointed with O’Connell’s moderation, but the demand for political reform paled into insignificance as the great potato famine started to sweep Ireland less than two years later. Daniel O’Sullivan would have seen sick and starving people flooding into Limerick from the countryside as the blight that destroyed the crop in 1845 struck again in three of the subsequent four summers. The sickening stench of rotting tubers polluted the air throughout rural Ireland. The starving headed for Limerick because it was the site of one of the two main depots (the other was Cork) where the British government stored American maize that was sold cheaply to relieve the famine. It was also one of the main ports of exit for those leaving Ireland.
People who could afford the fare sailed for America. Many landed in Canada, New York and other east coast American cities after a journey during which tens of thousands were fatally-infected with typhus carried by the lice that infested their bodies. The more impecunious sailed for Scotland, Wales and England. The poorer refugees from the countryside queued outside Limerick’s workhouses, where the destitute were admitted and food was distributed. You never saw the most desperate cases. Weak with hunger and stricken with typhus and tuberculosis, they died, sometimes a whole family at time, in stinking crofts in Ireland’s hinterlands.
The devastation in the countryside would have affected life in Limerick. Farm production collapsed as the rural labour force died or migrated. Every trade would have been hit by a slump in demand. Government relief measures, including job-creating public projects, failed to offset the famine’s economic impact. By August 1847, soup kitchens opened under an act of parliament were feeding 3 million men, women and children a day. People stopped dying of hunger, but began to expire due to typhus, then incurable, and other diseases.
More than 250,000 Irish tenant farmers were evicted across Ireland for failing to pay rent. The highways to Dublin, the main port of exit for Irish leaving their homeland during the famine, were filled with thousands of people walking east. Thousands died beside Ireland’s roads. By 1850, the population of County Limerick had fallen due to premature death by almost 30 per cent from the figure 10 years earlier.
About 1 million Irish people died in no more than four years. The majority of migrants leaving Ireland during the famine headed for Liverpool. From there in little more than a decade, 1 million set sail for America. The mortality rate on Irish migrant vessels sailing to the New World was so high they were called coffin ships. Some figures suggest almost 20 per cent of famine emigrants to North America died soon after they arrived.
The feeble Young Ireland rising of July 1848 alienated the British government and diluted sympathy in England for the Irish tragedy. The potato crop that year failed again. The exit from the land resumed. Some charitable bodies suspended their activities because the scale of the disaster was beyond their capacities. The potato crop failed in the west of Ireland in 1849. In August that year, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert visited Cork and Dublin in an attempt to raise Irish morale. By then, nature and the law had had their effects. The weakest and most vulnerable had died or emigrated.
Landlords enclosed land previously farmed by their tenants and increased the production of cattle and sheep. By the summer of 1850, the famine was largely over. But Ireland was a broken country.
Limerick in late 1840s would have been a terrible place to be. There was a constant stream of funeral processions for those dying in workhouses. In the graveyards for paupers, the dead were buried in layers. The consumption houses created to care for thousands suffering from tuberculosis became mass mortuaries. People were found dead from starvation in Limerick’s streets. In Limerick port, thousands waited for a ship to take them away from the nightmare that the west of Ireland had become. Some saw the famine as a punishment from God. The churches were packed with supplicants.
Daniel O’Sullivan, then in his early 30s, joined more than 1 million Irish people who fled Ireland in the famine years. There are no details of exactly when he left or how he made the journey. It is likely he either went directly from Limerick to London or crossed to Dublin and sailed from there to Liverpool. There are three family stories about why Daniel left Ireland. None of them are substantiated. One claims that Daniel was an official in Limerick and that he protested against English merchants adding water to corn brought to the city for distribution in soup kitchens. This tale has Daniel travelling to London to testify against them and not returning. His wife and two children were transported to Australia for unspecified reasons.
A second family tale is that Daniel had a dispute with a magistrate who seized his house. This led to a trial with Daniel being convicted to imprisonment while his wife and children were transported to Australia. Daniel was brought to London as a prisoner where he was detained in one of the hulks of former Royal Navy vessels that were used as prisons at the time. Daniel was eventually released and remained in London. The possibility that Daniel was a victim of the courts and may have been involved in politics is credible, but there is no substance to the claim his family would have been deported without him. British justice at the time was harsh, but not brutal.
A third story is less dramatic. It is said that Daniel had been promised a job in London, but why and by whom remains a mystery. Like other families that arrived at this time, the O'Sullivans have many myths. But it seems clear that Daniel O'Sullivan was an unwilling exile.
The first evidence of Daniel’s life in London is furnished by the census of 1851 which shows he was a lodger, perhaps with his sister Ellen who had been born in 1816, at Ladds Court in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. Ladds Court has disappeared, but it was near the Anglican Cathedral Church of St Saviour’s close to the southern end of London Bridge. It was less than 400 yards from the Borough Market, London’s oldest market, which was redeveloped in 1851. Ladds Court was also close to London Bridge station.
With little evidence, it is difficult to construct the kind of life Daniel had in his first years in London. But there can be little doubt that he shared at least some of the hardships suffered by the hundreds of thousands of Irish people in the city, most of whom were living in dire poverty. Frederick Engels, the German revolutionary, wrote about the state of the labouring classes of the great cities of England in Condition of the Working Class, which was published in 1848. His descriptions capture the anti-Irish prejudices which were commonplace among the middle classes of the time.
“Filth and drunkenness, too, they have brought with them. The lack of cleanliness, which is not so injurious in the country, where population is scattered and which is the Irishman’s second nature, becomes terrifying and gravely dangerous through its concentration here in the great cities. The Milesian (archaic word for Irish) deposits all garbage and filth before his house door here, as he was accustomed to do at home, and so accumulates the pools and dirt-heaps which disfigure the working people’s quarters and poison the air. He builds a pig-sty against the house wall as he did at home, and if he is prevented from doing this, he lets the pig sleep in the room himself…The Irishman loves his pig as the Arab loves his horse, with the difference that he sells it when it is fit enough to kill. Otherwise, he eats and sleeps with it, his children play with it, ride upon it, roll in the dirt with it, as one may see a thousand times repeated in all the great towns of England.”
It says something when a writer sympathetic to the downtrodden expressed such disdain about the state of its poorest layer: Irish men, women and children driven from their homes by starvation and landlords, many with no money or even possessions. Living in the docklands of London, where many of the most destitute Irish were to congregate in the search for work, Daniel O’Sullivan would have seen with his own eyes the dreadful existence endured by his countrymen and co-religionists.
Some time in the early 1850s, Daniel married Dinah Pearson, a Protestant born in Belfast in 1822, though, since he may have been previously married, this might have been a common law union. New information shows that Dinah was a widow when she came to London to find work. Her children were left in the care of her mother, also named Dinah. No record of the marriage between Daniel and Dinah has yet been found. In 1854, when his first son William was born, Daniel was living in Woolwich. William’s birth certificate shows his father was an Arsenal labourer, which suggests he was then working in the great munitions factory in east London. When his second son Daniel was born in 1860, Daniel gave his profession as wharf labourer, or docker.
In 1861 and 1871, Daniel and Dinah were recorded as living in St Margaret’s Court in Southwark, about 400 yards from London Bridge. Unlike Ladds Court, St Margaret’s Court still exists. According to the Charles Booth Poverty Map of London drawn in 1899, the street was then inhabited by the second-poorest class of Londoner with an estimated income of 18 shillings (90p) a week. Today, St Margaret’s Court is a narrow alley that leads to a dead-end. Some of the original building remains, but is difficult to imagine it as it was when Daniel lived there with several other poor families.
In 1881, Daniel and Dinah’s home was in Globe Street off Great Dover Street in the Borough area of south London. By this date, neither was fit. Dinah in 1881 was reported to have been suffering from a disease of the heart. Daniel had pleurisy, probably a derivative of tuberculosis that was endemic to Irish migrants of the famine years. Charles Booth’s Poverty Map for London of 1899 shows that Globe Street was inhabited mainly by poor and very poor families. Today, Globe Street mainly comprises modern housing blocks built since 1945.
Dinah died in 1886 aged 64. Daniel died in 1891. He is said to have spent part of his last years in a nursing home. It was probably a workhouse.
Daniel would have witnessed the start of great projects designed to modernise and improve Britain’s capital. He may have visited in 1851 the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park which included a demonstration of a water closet (WC). After the River Thames was polluted by effluent in 1858, work was started on a sewage network which still serves London.
By stopping the contamination of London’s groundwater, the new sewers at a stroke made the largest contribution to the health of its inhabitants in the city’s history. Before the 1850s, the death rate almost equalled the numbers who arrived. After, life expectancy started to rise and the population of London boomed until it was, by 1900, the most populous city on earth.
The first Liberal prime minister was appointed in June 1859. It was the start of an era of political reform that was to lead to an enormous expansion in the number of men allowed to vote. London in mid-century was a place of intellectual and artistic ferment. The comparatively high degree of political freedom attracted foreign exiles including European revolutionaries like Karl Marx who lived in the city from 1849. Charles Dickens created a new reading culture with popular serialised novels about the life of the city such as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Presiding over the booming metropolis was the benign figure of Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837 until 1901.
Life in London, however, was difficult for Irish Catholics. They were doubly discriminated against: once on the grounds of their race, which was widely regarded in English society as backward and barbarous, and again on religious grounds. Daniel’s solution entailed becoming more English. He dropped the O’ from his name and became Sullivan. But his education and skills seem to have kept him out of the extreme poverty that enveloped so many of his countrymen.
Daniel and Dinah had three children that lived beyond infancy: William, Daniel and Eliza, who was born in 1858. She may have died young since her name disappears from the census records after 1871. Their second son Daniel was born in Southwark on 20 September 1860, probably in St Margaret’s Court. The principal drama of Daniel the elder’s life was his involvement in the Great Dockers’ Strike of 1889.
London’s docks were booming but the bulk of the men who worked there were employed casually and paid starvation wages. The majority of London’s dockers were Irish or of Irish descent, occupants of the lowest rung of the city’s social ladder. Working in London’s docks was hard and dangerous, there was no compensation for injuries, no holidays and no job security. Dockers were hired on a casual basis and queued each morning outside dock gates in the hope they would get a day’s work.
The Dockers’ Union launched a campaign to establish a minimum rate for an hour’s work at six pence, or 2.5 pence in today’s decimal system, and some form of employment contract. The dockowners rejected the claim and more than 20,000 dockers went on strike in August 1889.
The dockers’ leaders went to great lengths to demonstrate the claim was justified and discouraged violence. The head of the Catholic Church in England Cardinal Manning was approached by Irish dockers’ leaders. He sympathised with them and sat on the committee created to negotiate a settlement which met most of the strikers’ demands after a five-week stoppage. It was a seminal moment in the history of British trade unionism. It was the first time unskilled workers were organised effectively.
During the strike, Jim Connell, an Irishman from Meath, wrote the words for the Red Flag. It became the anthem of the Labour Party which was founded in London 12 years later. The hymn is still sung at the end of Labour Party conferences. Few of its members will know the extraordinary circumstances that inspired its composer.
The strike was a political epiphany for the London Irish. In the coming decades, they were to play an increasing role in London politics and produced many community leaders, councillors and, eventually, members of parliament. Generally poor and employed in some of London’s worst jobs, the London Irish were to become one of the bulwarks of the political machine that helped make the docklands a Labour Party stronghold.
Manning’s sympathy for the strikers may have influenced an encyclical published two years later by Pope Leo XIII. It addressed “the condition of the working classes” and supported the right of labour to form unions. Daniel O’Sullivan, living in the heart of docklands, would have been an eyewitness of the events of that summer and seems to have played a role in them. In return for a service rendered to the cardinal during the strike, he is said to have been given Manning’s silver-topped cane. It is now in the possession of his great-great-grandson Anthony O’Sullivan.
William and Daniel were pupils at St Joseph’s Academy in Kennington Lane. The school, which was fee-paying, had been founded by the Catholic De La Salle order to educate low-income London Catholics. Later, it was to be divided into St Joseph’s College, Beaulah Hill, and St Joseph’s Academy, Blackheath. At the age of 18, William left and joined the order’s college in Pondicherry in India. There, he studied for the priesthood but stopped at taking minor orders. He became a De La Salle brother and a teacher. He is said to have worked in French Indo-China, now Viet Nam.
William moved to Paris where he taught in the order’s schools and colleges. At the turn of the century, he was promoted to headmaster. Due to France’s anti-clerical laws of 1907, William was given a choice: leave France or laicise himself. He chose the second option, became the lay head of the same college and married a French woman named Marie, although there is a family tale that he was married twice.
During the 1914-18 war, William did liaison work for the French and British, for which he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. He always wore the rosette in his buttonhole and, as a result, was given special treatment when he traveled.
The education of William and Daniel by the De La Salles had been financed, according to a family story, by a rich, titled family that Dinah wet-nursed for. The money was supplied so long as neither boy joined the order. When it became known that William was in breach of this commitment, the finance for Daniel’s education was terminated and he entered the London job market.
Henry Wayte in around 1910
In September 1879, then aged just 18, Daniel married Frances Wayte, who had been born in the same year as him in Stepney, east London. Her mother, also called Frances, was born in Deptford in south-east London in 1837 and her father, Henry, was a former Royal Navy seaman and Crimean War veteran from Norfolk, though the location of the wedding suggests the whole family may have been living in London by then. The census records suggest that Henry Wayte was a widower when he married Frances. They had five children.
Henry Wayte is the only one of Ted O’Sullivan’s great grandparents whose image is known. A photograph taken when he was probably 60 was recently found posted on an internet website. It shows him as a dapper gentleman with a full head of dark hair streaked with grey and a beard. On his chest are two medals: one a general service Crimean War service medal and the other a medal awarded to those who served in the battle of the Sea of Azov during the Crimean War.
Their wedding certificate shows Daniel and Frances were married in St Jude’s in Bethnal Green. This is an Anglican church which suggests Daniel had either abandoned his faith or that he could not persuade Frances to convert to Catholicism, the condition required for a Catholic marriage. Another explanation is that there were no Catholic churches in the area and St Jude’s was used instead.
Their wedding certificate says that Frances was a dressmaker. She was probably working in one of the tailoring sweat-shops in east London. According to the 1881 census, Daniel and Frances were living at Suez Terrace in Camberwell. This is an address that has now disappeared from London maps. It was probably a section of the southern end of Rotherhithe New Road. In the 1891 census, Daniel and Frances gave their address as Rotherhithe New Road, which may have been, in fact, the same as 10 years earlier.
The Booth 1899 Poverty Map shows Rotherhithe New Road was then a mixed area with some poor people and some better-off residents. The records show that there was speculative building in that locality at the time. All this suggests that the home Daniel and Frances shared was almost new. Today, the Rotherhithe New Road still contains some of the original buildings. It is close to The Den, the home ground of Millwall Football Club, a team that originally drew its support from London’s dockers.
Daniel and Frances were recorded in the 1901 census as living in Camden Grove. The road appears to have been renamed as Cronin Road before the 1st World War. It was about 400 yards west of Rotherhithe New Road and ran north towards the Grand Surrey Canal, a waterway built in the early 19th century to connect Guilford with the Thames. The canal has since been drained and filled in. This whole area of Peckham was rebuilt after 1945 and now mainly comprises local authority housing.
Frances was rarely well. There is a tale that her ill-health was inherited from her father. It is said that Henry an unnamed disease during his service in Crimea, which is entirely possible. Frances’ infirmities may explain why so many of her children died at birth or in infancy. She had 14 pregnancies, but only four boys lived to maturity.
Daniel, who was known as Henry, was born in 1880. Edmund, who was known throughout his life as Mick, arrived in March 1892. Leo, who was perhaps named after Pope Leo XIII, was born in 1894, and Thomas in August 1896.
Soon after the birth of her youngest child, Frances became paralysed and blind. As a consequence, young Mick had the task of dressing and looking after his mother. She died in 1920 at the age of 60. Her husband Daniel was robustly healthy and lived to 91.
The 1881 census records that Daniel, then 20, was a clerk, possibly working for an insurance firm in the docks. A family tale has it that he was briefly employed in a bank owned by Jews and that he camouflaged his origins by calling himself Daniels. According to this account, Daniel’s true identity was exposed when he was spotted by a bank customer coming out of Mass and sacked. Jobless, Daniel was walking past a livery stable where a cab driver was having difficulties controlling a horse. He calmed the animal and was offered a job as a hansom cab driver. This story seems to have some substance since Daniel was registered in the 1891 census as a Hackney carriage driver.
Daniel was nicknamed “Dapper Dan” because of his smart appearance and there are stories that, after his wife's death, he was a ladies’ man. His grandchildren remember him visiting and gruffly asking them who they were. When they answered, he would sometimes stick a sixpenny piece on their foreheads using spittle. It was interpreted in hindsight as a sign of affection. Daniel’s final years were spent in the home of his son Mick and their family.
Daniel’s four sons were educated at St Joseph’s, which suggests he had enough money to pay school fees. They all left school at 14, the age to which education was then compulsory. Mick applied for the position of van boy on the Great Western Railway (GWR). He put weights in his pockets to bring his weight up to the minimum level. Unlike the other applicants, Mick went to the GWR interview wearing a collar and tie. The competition was attired in the convention of the working class of the time in collarless shirts with wool scarves wrapped around their necks and tucked into their jackets. Mick got the job. He was to work for the GWR for 51 years.
Mick’s elder brother Daniel married and had one daughter named Gladys. Leo, who also got a job as a GWR van boy, married Ann Norah and had four children: Leo, Kathleen, Patrick and Maureen. Tom, who got a job at GWR thanks to Mick’s intervention, married Florence Maud and had four children: Francis (born May 1921), Ernest (born November 1922), Marie (born November 1926) and Olive (born April 1930).
Frank, the 1935 London schools 800-yard foot race champion, served in the RAF in the 2nd World War and was ordained as a priest in 1956. He rose to the position of cannon and is now retired. Ernest was in the Royal Artillery in the conflict.
When he was 14, Mick was struck down by rheumatic fever, a killer of poor Londoners of all ages. It left him with a heart defect. Mick was expected to be an invalid for the rest of his life.
“With determination and a pair of Sandhows grip developers, he transformed himself into a fit young man,” his son Ted reported in his memoirs. Mick was a voracious reader, particularly of non-fiction classics including Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin and Das Kapital by Karl Marx. He became a left-wing socialist and trade union activist, remaining a member of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) throughout his working life. Mick was also a devoted Catholic who wore with pride the green silk sash of his faith in church processions through the streets of south London. He was a Pioneer, a Catholic who had sworn to abstain from alcohol.
“He was a Catholic communist, but never a party member (and) believed in evolution which was contrary to the tenets of his religion to which he was devoted,” Ted wrote in his memoirs.
The years before the start of the 1st World War were a time of political ferment and social change. The Liberal Party defeated the Conservatives in a landslide in elections in January 1906 and pushed ahead with reforms that have lasted to this day. The People’s Budget of 1909 called for a national system of old age pensions and sickness and unemployment benefits. The House of Lords tried to block the measures. British politics polarised sharply and the Liberals lost their commanding parliamentary majority in the January 1910 general election.
Industrial unrest increased and Britain was divided by the government’s determination to grant home rule to Ireland. Mick, the idealist trade union militant and socialist, would have been in his element as Europe headed towards war in the summer of 1914. It was during a Catholic outing one summer weekend in 1913 that Mick met Elizabeth (Lizzie) Hanlon, a beautiful young Catholic Londoner from Camberwell, then aged 19, who worked in service. Lizzie said she and Mick cuddled in a carriage on the way home. It was a love match that was to last 66 years. They started to court. Mick, his watch in hand, would insist Lizzie did not return to the house where she worked until the moment her employer required. “This is your time, not theirs,” she recalled him saying.
Lizzie was one of at least 12 children born to John Hanlon and his wife Mary Anne Maloney. John was born in 1849 in Rock Street, Tralee, the county town of Kerry. His date of departure to England is not known. When he married Mary Maloney at Camberwell’s Sacred Heart Church on 9 March 1874, John Hanlon was a private in the 12th Regiment of Foot which was renamed as the East Suffolk Regiment seven years later.
Where John Hanlon joined the regiment is not yet clear. It was serving on garrison duty in Ireland from 1872 and he might have joined then or when the regiment was based in England in 1867-72. From 1876, the regiment was on duty in India and participated in the second Afghan War which began in 1878. But it is likely John was already out of the army by then. The marriage certificate gives John Hanlon's address as 9 Nelson Street, Camberwell, the same as that of his father Edward, who was a labourer.
John is recorded in the 1881 census as working as a brick labourer. But it seems he had some sort of classical education and was able to speak Irish, Latin and Greek. “He maintained his friendships with many professional Irishmen and was a member of the Gaelic Society,” Ted wrote. “Lizzie often spoke of their calling at their house and greeting each other in their native tongue.”
How a man living in one of the poorest areas of south London could have acquired such a range of skills remains a mystery. But his learning may have been the result of the hedge schools of Ireland where teachers and priests would share a rich diet of scholarship with poor rural children denied even the most basic education.
Mary Maloney was born in 1853 in Camberwell. Before she married, she was a domestic servant and, in 1871, was working for Henry F Bussey, a parliamentary reporter who lived in Camberwell. At the time of her marriage, she cited her address as 12 Nelson Street, just across the road from the Hanlon household. Nelson Street was renamed and then demolished.
According to census records, John and Mary Hanlon were living in Sultan Street in Camberwell in 1881. This was classified in 1899 by Charles Booth as one of the poorest areas of south London. John and Mary Hanlon were recorded then to have been living in Hollington Street, also classified by Booth as inhabited by London’s poorest people. Practically all the buildings John and Mary would have known have been demolished either as part of a slum clearance programme or after 1945 due to bomb damage during the 2nd World War. John died prematurely in tragic but unspecified circumstances. Mary, a saintly woman devoted to her many children, lived until 1927.
In May 1914, Mick married Lizzie at Camberwell’s Sacred Heart Church which ran a school that Lizzie attended until she was 14. Less than three months later, Britain declared war against Germany and its allies. Many young Londoners volunteered and became part of Kitchener’s army. It was given this name because the recruits responded to an emotive message delivered in a celebrated poster showing Lord Kitchener, a former general born in Ireland who was then British Minister of War, pointing and the words “Your Country Needs You!”.
The Labour Party refused to support the war and Mick was ambivalent about the conflict, though he tried to join up in 1915. He was rejected because railway workers were in a reserved occupation. Later in the war, he said that his employers, irritated by Mick’s trade union activity, would threaten to release him to the army. “So, sentence me to death would you,” Mick responded. By this point, reports of mass death at the front and the constant sight of wounded soldiers had exhausted the enthusiasm for the war. Mick bitterly remembered the hardships on the home front caused by food shortages.
Mick’s brothers all saw action. Henry and Leo were in the Army Service Corps as driver-mechanics. Tom served in the King’s Royal Rifles in France and Italy. The war also dramatically affected Lizzie’s family. Her elder brother John Hanlon, born in 1877, was a regular in the South Wales Borderers before and during the 1st World War where he saw action in the 1915 Dardanelles campaign. He died not long after being released from the army in 1919 and was given a funeral with military honours because of his distinguished service. Edward (Ted) Hanlon, born in 1885, was in a trench unit team in the Royal Artillery. He was permanently disabled by gas poisoning. He never worked after the war. Ted Hanlon married Bella and lived until the early 1940s.
Ted told a story, which is perhaps apocryphal, that he was awarded field punishment for a misdemeanour. It involved being tied to the wheels of a gun carriage. He was released when he appealed to an officer, a fellow Catholic, by declaring: “This is what they did to Christ.”
Joseph, born in 1889, served in the Royal Army Medical Corps on the Western Front despite being partially sighted. After the war, he worked as a commissionaire at the Tivoli cinema in the Strand. Daniel, born 1898, also joined up aged 15. He later re-enlisted in the Royal Navy, where he was a stoker. Lizzie’s eldest sister Mary, born in 1880, was in service in Greenwich in 1901 as a cook-housekeeper and married a master cobbler who was prosperous enough to own a horse and trap.
Bridget, who was born in 1882, married a regular soldier in the 17th Lancers named Percy Thurston. He served in India and Persia before the 1st World War, rising to the rank of sergeant. Thurston then transferred to the Northumberland Fusiliers, was given a field commission and ended the war as town major in occupied Germany. Catherine, born in 1893, married Harry Easter, a print compositor who was well-paid and exempt from military service.
Like other poor London families, the Hanlons were stricken by many tragedies. Four of Lizzie’s siblings were dead by 1914 and another had disappeared. Her eldest brother Edmund, born in 1875, was a regular soldier and died of a tropical disease in India before the start of the war. Thomas, born in 1883, also joined the British Army, served in India and died of disease the week before Lizzie’s wedding in 1914. Michael, born in 1879, could not find work. Lizzie said he stowed away on a ship to America in the 1900s and she never heard of him again. Another brother, Patrick, died aged 4 in 1901. Lizzie vividly remembered the moment her elder brothers brought the boy’s body down for the funeral. A sister, Joanna, died of tuberculosis aged 15 or 16 in 1913 or 1914. These terrible experiences were not unusual for poor London families living in overcrowded slums.
Children came quickly for Mick and Lizzie. Daniel was born in 1915 and Ellen in August 1917. Lizzie managed somehow to work between births in a munitions factory and saw German Zeppelins on bombing raids over London. In the summer of 1918, she found she was pregnant again. It was clear that the war was drawing to a close. In September, German defences on the Western Front were breached. In October, the German armed forces started to mutiny. There were food riots in German cities. The Kaiser fled and, in the political vacuum this create, a new, republican government was formed headed by Social Democrats to make peace. The war finally ended at 11am on 11 November 1918.
There is no record of how Mick and Lizzie celebrated armistice day. Mick did not drink much and Lizzie was unlikely to have indulged in the fourth month of her third pregnancy. But London exploded into a frenzy of celebration.
Almost 1 million Britons had died during the war. Amazingly, Lizzie and Mick, then living in a two-room flat in Cronin Road in Peckham, had lost no one. Lizzie had four brothers on active service. Mick had three. They all returned. Providence, which had decimated their families before the war, spared them further grief during the conflict and in the first year of peace when more people died in a global influenza epidemic than were killed in 1914-18.
There were, nevertheless, mixed emotions. Mick had a steady job, but it was poorly-paid. There would soon be another mouth to feed. They were already overcrowded and Mick feared millions of returning soldiers would put additional pressure on London’s limited housing stock. Competition for jobs was bound to increase. If he got ill, it would be a disaster. There was no national health service or social welfare system. For the average Londoner, life was precarious in the winter of 1918.
Mick would encounter disappointment in December when the coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Lloyd George but dominated by Conservatives, won in a landslide in the first post-war election. Mick voted for the first time and cast it, as he was to do for the rest of his life, for the Labour Party, the socialist champions of the working class.
There were no divided feelings on 11 November for an Austrian less than three years older than Mick who had served in the German army on the Western Front since the war started. He was recovering from being gassed on the Western Front in a Munich hospital when the news came of the armistice. A corporal who had won an Iron Cross for valour, he buried his face in his pillow and wept bitterly over Germany’s humiliation. Parentless and jobless, the soldier had invested all his hopes in his adopted country’s victory.
There were parallels in his immediate family’s experiences and those of Mick and Lizzie. He had been baptised a Catholic though he was effectively an atheist. His elder half-sister had married an Irish man. An elder half-brother who had died in infancy had been named Edmund. Like Mick, the Austrian was a teetotaller. The future looked bleak, but the soldier was determined to make his mark. He did and was to cause many complications for Mick, Lizzie and their expanding family just over 20 years later.
His name was Adolph Hitler.
 

Chapter 4
The making of a London Irishman
 Back to contents 
 
Any time you’re Lambeth way
Any evening, any day
You’ll find us all
Doing the Lambeth walk!
 
Every little Lambeth gal
With her little Lambeth pal
You’ll find them all
Doing the Lambeth walk!
 
Everything’s free and easy
Do as you darn well pleasy
Why don’t you make your way there?
Go there? Stay there?
 
Once you get down Lambeth way
Every evening, every day
You’ll find them all
Doing the Lambeth walk. Hey!
 
Lambeth Walk, from the hit musical Me and My Girl which was
first performed in London’s Victoria Palace Theatre in 1937
 
Friday 28 February 1919 was a bright, cold day in south London.
Dawn had just broken as Edmund (Mick) O’Sullivan, 26 and the father of two, prepared for work. It was a moment his third child imagined more than 70 years later.
“He brushed his great coat and polished the patent leather peak of his cap, above which were embroidered the letters GWR: the initials of the Great Western Railway where he had worked since he was 14. Using a button stick and a bluebell rag, he buffed up his buttons. Elizabeth, his wife, said: ‘I’m not feeling too grand and I’m getting some odd pains. I believe the baby is coming!’ Mick replied: ‘That’s impossible! You’re only about seven months. I’ll get Mrs Baker.’”
 “He ran down the stairs to his landlady’s rooms and breathlessly poured out the news. ‘Now, what’s your trouble, Sullivan?,’ the lady asked. Mrs Baker always appeared to be stern and distant and, although a friend of many years, had never addressed Liz and Mick by their Christian or nicknames. Lizzie described the symptoms. Mrs Baker said immediately: ‘I’d better go and fetch Mrs Goater.’ Hurriedly, the landlady put on her coat and hat and bustled out of the front door. Mrs Goater lived in the next street and was the midwife who looked after the pregnancies in the area. Before district nurse services were established, expectant mothers paid weekly to cover the costs of a home birth. Mrs Goater wasted no time and, gathering up her little black bag, she hurried to the Cronin Road flat. In the meantime Mrs Baker knocked at the house, a few doors along the street, where Lizzie’s mother Mary had rented a room, and quickly told her of her daughter’s probable confinement. Mrs Goater arrived at the same time as Mrs Baker and together they went in to see Lizzie. After a few questions and a quick examination she said: ‘I believe you are right, the baby will be born today but I think we’ll have to call in the doctor, as it is so premature!’ Turning to Mick, who was waiting anxiously, she said. ‘I think you’d better get off to your work, as you will only be in the way here.’”
“Mick finished dressing and started his long walk to work at the south Lambeth goods depot, where he was a shunter. This took him along Peckham Road across Camberwell Green and up Camberwell New Road to the Oval, Kennington. Using the back-doubles, he crossed Brixton Road, Clapham Road and Wandsworth Road and paced up New Road to Battersea Park Road where the depot was. Meanwhile, Lizzie had been joined by two of her sisters: Bridget and Catherine. They were both married, but so far had no children. The labour was long and difficult. The doctor was summoned. Finally, a tiny scrap of mortality weighing just four and a half pounds was born. His chances of survival were slim. Lizzie was still in pain, as no afterbirth had been delivered, and she was getting much weaker. At about 1am on 1 March, a second, stillborn child emerged. The mother and the undersized survivor had been fortunate. The urgent task was to ensure that the little boy was given the chance to live. The mother was unable to feed the baby and a wet nurse was not available, so he was immediately fed on the bottle. To Mick, the cost of food for the baby would be crippling, with milk at 11 pence a quart. He did not thrive and few thought he could possibly live.”
In this account of his entrance into the world, Mick’s son Edmund (Ted) O’Sullivan captures some of the anxiety that surrounded birth among the London working class in 1919. Infant mortality was still in excess of 5 per cent of those born. Many mothers died in childbirth or soon after. Birth defects were common. Ailments that are now quickly remedied were left untreated. There was no effective antiseptic. It would another 30 years before penicillin was widely available. Most births took place at home. Hospitals for the poor were seen as a step to the graveyard. There was no pain relief for the mother and no father was expected to be present at a birth, let alone witness one. Unless there was one in the family, a midwife cost money.
Home deliveries in the poorest families involved no professional help. Unsurprisingly, a healthy birth was a cause for genuine celebration and relief. Lizzie was to give birth seven times in 16 years. There was only one loss: the unnamed twin who died in the womb. The survivor was weak and listless. The prognosis was poor. Lizzie’s brother Dan Hanlon, a navy veteran demobilized soon after the birth, was unimpressed when he first saw Lizzie’s new baby and exclaimed, to his sister’s disgust: “What a skinny dick.” That name was adopted almost immediately by the child’s family and Dickie he was called, for his whole life by his younger sister Lilian.
In Brixton, little more than two miles to the west, another couple were waiting the birth of their first child. The father, William Webb, the son of a Royal Navy able seaman, had been in Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War. He had suffered lasting damage to his health when he was gassed during the first German chemical attack on the Allied lines on Vimy Ridge in 1915. William Webb had risen to be a sergeant and served with distinction and valour. But there was a dark shadow in his past. Born in London in 1882, he and an elder half-brother had fled Britain for Canada at the turn of the century. There were rumours that their departure followed a criminal incident, even a shooting in which a policeman died.
William had worked in Canada’s forests before volunteering for the Canadian armed forces when the Great War began. He was on leave in London when he met Lily Ann Halligan, a red-headed London girl then aged 34. She was a member of a middle-class family of Irish descent that had lived in Manchester until the turn of the century. They married at St Anne’s Catholic Church in Upper Kennington Lane on 8 October 1917. William was one of the first soldiers demobilised with the end of the war in the autumn of 1918. Lily Ann found she was pregnant at the start of 1919. On 28 July 1919, she gave birth to a girl named Patricia May. Destiny had plans for the two children, among the first of the post-1st World War baby boom. Their fates were to be inextricably entwined.
The O’Sullivan boy had to wait for an official Christian name, as neither mother nor child were well enough to go out. After more than a month, the family braved the weather and walked to Sacred Heart Church in Camberwell New Road where Mick and Lizzie had married five years before. Mick suggested the baby should be called Edward after the officiating priest at the baptism. His father Daniel corrected him and said the canon was in fact Edmund Murnane. As a result, the boy was given the single first name Edmund. In adulthood, he was called Ted though he collected a further name during the 2nd World War.
Baby Ted was to take a long time to regain his meagre birth weight. Sickly and puny, he lay in his cot with a vacant look. “He’s looking at the angels,” the honest but insensitive Mrs Baker once declared. “You’ll never rear him!” The long winter eventually passed. When the finer weather arrived, Ted’s parents decided that the time of danger had passed. But the boy immediately developed a nasty cough. The doctor diagnosed pneumonia. Too ill to be moved, baby Ted was put in a tent. A steam kettle was played upon him. Eventually. The crisis passed and Ted started to recover.
He was a slow developer and was still only crawling when he was well over one. Ted was forever picking up things and putting them into his mouth. One day, Lizzie heard him coughing and saw that he was turning blue. Responding to Lizzie’s shouts, the landlady Mrs Baker ran up the stairs, grasped the boy by his legs and shook the obstruction from the back of his throat. As it was dislodged, she shouted: “It’s gone!” Lizzie screamed. She thought that Mrs Baker had said: “He’s gone!” On the floor lay a small piece of coal which Ted taken out of the coal scuttle. It was the first of Ted’s many close shaves.
The first years of Ted’s life were marked by constant crises. Childhood complaints like measles, chicken pox and whooping cough always made him more seriously ill than his siblings, but he survived without residual complications. Ted was small for his age and his fair skin tended to burn in the sun.
The O’Sullivan family kept on growing. A fourth child and third son named Thomas was born in March 1921. Mick, meanwhile, had been promoted to head shunter. His pay was increased to £2.19.6d (£2.98) a week. The family was more comfortable financially.
The growing O'Sulllvan family in 1922.
In the September 1922, Ted, aged three-and-a-half, was enrolled in St Francis’s nursery school in Peckham where Danny and Nellie were already pupils. The school, which still exists, was run by Capuchin Franciscans but most of the teachers were Christian Brothers or nuns. He was able to play with Danny and Nellie in breaks in the large open playground across the road from the school. At dinner times, Italian ice cream vendors parked their stalls along the road. Ted looked but never could buy as he lacked the halfpenny needed. His family was still very poor. Marist brothers supervised the boys and were always kind to the fair-headed little boy.
William, Mick and Lizzie’s fifth child, was born in July 1923. Things were getting desperate in the Cronin Road flat. Early in 1924, Lizzie’s brother Dan told them of a future vacancy in the house next door to where he lived with his family. The address was 125a Shakespeare Road, and the building still exists. It was on Herne Hill, a better area than Peckham. Its three rooms were quite spacious and it had a scullery with a copper. There was a back garden, which looked out on to the large houses of Loughborough Park where there was even a tennis and bowls’ club. Mick negotiated a rent of 12/6d (63p) per week.
The O’Sullivan’s accommodation was the bottom floor of a terraced house which had a total of five rooms, a kitchen, an attic, a scullery and an outside WC shared by all the house’s occupants. There was no division between the two flats and the downstairs part was open to any person from upstairs. This was occupied by Mr and Mrs Frearson, their three grown-up boys and one girl aged about 11.
Mr Frearson had fought in the 1st World War in the Royal Fusiliers and was, at heart, contemptuous of Mick, who had never served. Frearson was a window cleaner and kept a barrow which carried his ladders in the frontyard. Frearson plied his trade spasmodically around the big houses in the Herne Hill area. He regaled the O’Sullivan children with anecdotes of fighting in France and the key part he played in it.
The whole house was bug-ridden. Mick, Lizzie and the children began a war against vermin. It was initially successful but infestations soon returned. Among the O’Sullivan children, there was a constant fear that bugs might be seen upon them. Houses did not have bathrooms, so bathing was done in a large tin bath in the scullery where the water was heated in the copper. The water was not changed for each bather but just topped up.
Mick was a keen gardener and had previously maintained an allotment alongside the railway lines at the South Lambeth depot. He grew vegetables which, in season, were sufficient for his large family. As soon as he moved into Shakespeare Road, he set to work on the neglected garden. On the other side of Shakespeare Road were railway sidings that were used mainly for goods and coal trucks. Coal was unloaded there from 20-ton wagons, weighed and put into sacks.
All the coal vans were drawn by large shire horses. Horses to Mick meant manure. The children were dispatched to fill buckets from the horses’ favourite depository: Porters Hill, a short sharp rise in Shakespeare Road. But the back garden in Shakespeare Road was not to add much to Mick’s vegetable production, apart from runner beans and marrows, as he devoted it to flowers. Mick built a chicken coop and run in which were housed as many as 20 birds of various ages that he raised for eggs. The children never slept late. They had an alarm clock in the form of a cock that crowed at the first sign of dawn. New-laid eggs were often on the table and a chicken was killed on special occasions - two at Christmas. There were two tasks Mick hated: having to kill one of his chickens and repairing the children’s shoes.
As soon as they had moved into their new home, the young O’Sullivans were enrolled in the nearest Catholic primary. Corpus Christi school was located in Trent Road off Brixton Hill. It was a walking distance of two miles. Danny was very bright, so he was put into a senior class immediately. Nellie went in at standard three. Ted joined Miss Crilley in the infants. There was no way of getting a midday meal, except at the Robsart Street centre which was for the poor and unemployed and was, anyway, about a mile away. So they returned home at lunchtime. The children were as a result compelled to make the journey to and from school four times a day involving a total distance of nearly eight miles. School hours were 9am to 12 noon and 2pm to 430pm.
Ted recalls with affection his early days at primary school.
“I enrolled with Nellie and Danny in Corpus Christi school and was taken immediately into a small reception class where, after a few days of familiarisation, it was discovered that my father’s claim as to my brightness was no exaggeration. Although just past my 5th birthday, I was well able to read and write. After all, I had spent almost two years at Saint Francis’s in Peckham. I was immediately transferred to Miss Crilly’s in classes one and two. Miss Crilly, soon to be Mrs Beggs, was a beautiful, blue-eyed, dark-haired Irish lady, so vivacious and different from the kindly but stern nuns. I could have stayed in her class for ever.”
“I remember how well I read. I had a properly-bound small book which I had received as a prize, or gift, on leaving St Francis’s. The name of the book was Mr Velvet Pile, a story of a mole. I had never seen a mole and don’t remember ever seeing one. This book, probably my first personal possession, I was to keep for a long time. I was considered a bookworm, as I seldom played with my brothers, probably because of my poor physique, and preferred to bury myself in a book. It was in Miss Crilly’s class that I was to first fall in love. The object of my affections was a small blonde girl named Angela Scriven. I adored her from afar but seldom had the courage to speak to her. This affair did not last long. As I progressed through the school, I would fall for a succession of beautiful ladies: the next was to be Monica Parkinson, followed by Eileen Geraghty and Gwen Boyle.”
The school holidays in the summer of 1924 were spent by Ted in Buckinghamshire. His uncle Percy Thurston had been an officer in India after the war but resigned his commission and returned to England. He had attempted the impossible in those days: to live on a subaltern’s pay. With his wife Bridget, Lizzie’s sister, and his two children Percy and Sheila, he established himself as the landlord and host of the Rose & Crown Hotel at Haddenham in Buckinghamshire.
Ted’s parents thought the country air would set him up for the winter. For the fiveyear-old, the village with its duck pond was a paradise. One lasting memory was a trip to Princess Risborough in a horse-drawn Hackney carriage. Ted tried to be friendly with his slightly younger cousins. But they had not recovered from the shock of coming to England with its weather, lack of servants, strange language (they were more used to speaking Hindi) and the odd hours and atmosphere of a village pub.
Percy Thurston was used to commanding soldiers and the atmosphere of the officers’ mess and tended to treat his customers as underlings. He was also addicted to abusive and blasphemous language. He frightened Ted who had had rarely been exposed to bad language. The worst he had heard was his father calling the Frearsons’ tallyman a “buggerbones” for disturbing his sleep after he had done a night shift by knocking on the door during the day. Ted was never to return to Haddenham. Percy lost his licence and moved back to London to live in two rooms in Milkwood Road, Herne Hill. He ultimately took a job with WH Smith’s wholesale newsagency delivering newspapers in the early mornings. Thurston was to return to the army in 1939 and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the war.
Ted’s education was progressing.
“I was promoted to Miss Gilling’s class at standard three after the school holidays in 1924. Miss Gilling was a lady who must have been approaching 60. Her teaching methods were remarkable in their effectiveness. My love of geography and history came from her. Around her classroom were coloured pictures of famous events in history. Miss Gilling would pin up one of the pictures and tell the class the story of some event or place that was to remain with me all my life. These stories would not only be historical, told as if she had been present at the time, but also would be geographical and topical. She was an enthusiastic traveller during the summer holiday and she would bring back postcards and snaps of her travels and use them as aids to describe these far-away places in detail. Thus I learnt about Venice and the Bridge of Sighs, St Marks, gondolas and canals and about Grenada, the Alhambra and many other places which gave me the desire to travel. But holidays abroad were completely out of the question for us.”
“Miss Gilling tried to help us to learn real prayer. We would be invited to close our eyes. ‘Do you see a bright light? Watch it grow. Now raise your hearts and minds to God.’ There would be quiet sniggering but the dear lady persevered with her own prayer. One of the wags opened his eyes and alleged he saw Miss Gilling lifting her dress to warm her bottom at the fire. I never saw the bright light and never have, although I have tried to pray all my life.”
“I remember the coal monitor, Teddy Massey, who was about 13 and incorrigible. To my knowledge, he never progressed beyond about standard five and was in his element, making his round with the coal bucket and stoking the fires in each classroom. He left school and went into the building industry where he found his niche. Keeping me protected from any extreme of temperature was a constant worry for my mother. In the autumn of 1924, whilst I was in Miss Crilly’s, I was given a green velvet coat. It was the cast-off from a relative. I wore it once only, as I declared it to be a girl’s garment.”
“Because I had been promoted to standard three, I was in the class where every child was prepared for their first holy communion which was normally when they were seven, an age defined by the church as marking the start of the age of reason. I had just turned six and their thinking must have been that I had the intelligence of a seven year old. Uncle Joe Hanlon crocheted a white collarless shirt for me to wear for the occasion. I said it was designed for a girl and hated it. My mother was in a dilemma. Joe had spent hours on this labour of love and she did not wish to offend him, so I was compelled to wear it. And because of our poverty, gifts of clothing were always appreciated. At the age of six, I started to serve Mass which was then said in Latin. I was keen to join my big brother Danny, who was in the choir and being groomed to take over as solo-boy.”
British politics were in turmoil in the disillusioning years that followed the Great War. There was a general election in December 1923 from which no party emerged with an overall parliamentary majority. When the Conservative government was defeated in parliament, King George V asked Labour leader Ramsey MacDonald to form a minority government. James Wheatley, a Catholic of Irish descent, was made Housing Minister and he pushed through an act that accelerated house building. The first Labour government lost a vote of confidence in the autumn of 1924. The Conservatives won the subsequent general election amid a frenzy about a Communist conspiracy inspired by the publication of the Zinoviev letter, a forged document attributed to the Russian Bolshevik leader of that name that called for revolution in Britain. Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin became prime minister for the second time.
In the spring of 1925, Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill restored the gold standard. The British economy immediately went into recession. The market was swamped by exports of German coal which was being sold cheap to pay reparations, financial penalties imposed on Germany as part of the treaty that ended the war. To deal with the coal price slump, colliery owners announced pay cuts and an extension in working hours. The National Union of Miners (NUM) refused the new terms and the employers locked out the miners. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represented most British unions, declared a general strike in sympathy with the miners from 3 May 1926. On that day, the railways ceased to operate. Ted remembered lorries, buses and trams being driven by strikebreakers with steelhelmeted soldiers sometimes sitting alongside. The general strike was called off on 10 May. The miners continued to hold out amid scenes of increasing desperation until the winter.
Ted saw Welsh miners singing in the street and collecting money to continue their struggle. Most returned to work on the employers’ terms. Mick said they had been betrayed and was critical of the role played in ending the strike by NUR leader Jimmy Thomas, a man he came to dislike. Percy Thurston incurred the contempt of the Hanlons and the O’Sullivans for joining the specials, a force of temporary policemen, during the general strike. If ever Thurston was to visit Shakespeare Road and his brother-in-law Dan Hanlon appeared, it was made certain they did not meet.
The summer of 1926, however, was a happy time for seven-year-old Ted. He had his first school trip to the seaside, to Herne Bay.
“It rained for most of the day. The beach was shingle, not sand, and the only shelter available was under the pier, which leaked. Coming home in the train, newspaper was stuffed between my body and my saturated clothing. I arrived home like an undersized drowned rat after being collected from the station by my worried mother. This was to be the last outing by train, as in the future, we would go by orange luxury coaches to resorts like Bognor, although (possibly due to the depression) the destination in 1929 was Oxshott Woods. Here, a party of six including myself got lost in the woods and held up the return journey by over half-an-hour. Even good Teddy received a ticking-off.”
The start of the 20th century saw an enormous expansion in education. Under the 1870 Education Act, attending government schools was free for all until the age of 14 and funded by taxation. Within the state system, voluntary bodies, including the Catholic Church, founded their own schools which could teach religion according to their own tenets.
The church had its own elementary, central, secondary and private schools as well as teachers’ training colleges. The buildings, their maintenance and any extensions were paid for from loans. It was said that the church built one establishment for itself and one for the banks. Day-to-day charges, like for salaries and equipment, would be borne by the local authority, which was funded by local taxes and central government. Grammar schools, which specialised in academic subjects, opened their doors to students who were considered clever enough to undertake study up to 16 and beyond. Admission to schools was secured by success at an examination taken at 11. But working-class parents were often unwilling to accept the financial burden of keeping their children out of the labour market once they reached the school leaving age.
The solution was a system of central schools geared to vocational subjects including shorthand, typing, bookkeeping and handicrafts. Subject to a strict means test, poorer students could win an exhibition award, which was a grant of £1.1.8d (£1.08) per month, to support them after the age of 14. There were also trade schools such as the Beaufoy Institute of Engineering and the London School of Building. Entrance to trade schools was won by success in a supplementary examination at the age of 13.
A central school for Catholics was opened in Brompton, west London. It was called the Oratory after the church to which it was attached. The problem for Catholics in south London was the shortage of Catholic grammar schools. The only one was Clapham Xaverian College. The next best option was Oratory Central School.
“In 1927, Danny, who did quite well at his exam, was interviewed with a fellow pupil George Scarfe and they were the first pupils from Corpus Christi to win places at the Oratory, the only Catholic central school in the whole of London. They progressed rapidly. At 13, they were awarded supplementary scholarships with direct entry into trade school with the consequent grant, which was more generous than the exhibition. George went to Beaufoy and Danny to the School of Building in Ferndale Road, Brixton.”
“Danny worked well at his trade which was plastering and decorating and remained there until he was 18. Danny was academically successful and an all-round sportsman. He represented his school and later his county at soccer, cricket, athletics, tennis and badminton. In some sports, he was so good he should have been a professional. Danny was also very musical. He played the piano and had a very fine soprano voice, which never broke but dropped to become a pure alto. Danny was a gifted boy who would have risen to the heights had he had the right advice and opportunities.”
Music was to be an important part of the O’Sullivans’ early years.
“In 1927, at the age of eight, I was accepted after a voice test as a member of the church choir. Danny, then 12, shared the position of solo boy with Henry Phipps, a pupil at Corpus Christi. Nearly everything we sang was in Latin, which held no difficulties for me as I had been serving Latin Mass for almost two years. We humble, poor boys beautified the great Masses and motets of Gounod, Mozart, Perosi and many others with our clear soprano voices backed by the men’s tenors, baritones and basses and accompanied by an organist who made his living on the professional stage playing a piano. The whole ensemble was directed by the talented Mrs Hart.”
“The two large families of near neighbours -- the O’Sullivans and the Phipps – at one time, provided eight singers: a tenor, a baritone, an alto and five sopranos. People would come to hear a particular Mass. Tenebrae on Good Friday was a great attraction later.
Father Milton joined us a curate in 1930 and introduced compline and vespers and the choir and servers sang alternately. He disliked the more ornate works of the famous composers. This once prompted him to leave the altar in the middle of a sung Mass in protest at the length of the Gloria, which had pages of amens.”
“There seemed to be no boundary between church and home. I spent Sundays at two or more Masses where I served or sang and came back in the evening for benediction and compline. We were a close bunch and were linked by our mutual interests: the school, the choir, the gym club and comics. One of our group Alf Elgee had enough money to buy the Magnet, Gem and other periodicals. The adventures of Harry Wharton and Billy Bunter filled the lives of little cockney boys with an interest in a boys’ public school as the dogeared magazines were passed around. My group comprised Alf, Tom Phipps, Billy Bristow, John Turner and me. We thought of ourselves as the Famous Five of Greyfriars.”
The O’Sullivans’ sixth child Lilian Catherine was born in August 1927. Soon afterwards the Frearsons moved out and the O’Sullivans rented the whole house for £1.2.6d (£1.125) a week, about half Mick’s weekly wage and more than he could afford. As a temporary expedient, he decided to let out two rooms. The first task was to clean the rooms vacated by the Frearsons.
The attic became the bedroom for the four boys. Billy and Danny shared one double bed. Ted and Tom had the other. Pyjamas were unknown and they slept in their shirts. In the winter, they covered their bedclothes with overcoats. There was no floor covering and Ted’s Saturday task was to scrub the bare boards. There were no wardrobes or drawers and the children had few clothes to put in them anyway. Sheets were to be luxuries for the future. Cleanliness was paramount. Regular baths and changes of shirts and underclothes were insisted upon. Another strictly-observed ritual was a weekly, compulsory dosing with opening medicine. There were several possibilities: syrup of figs, liquorice powder, senna pods and, in emergencies, Epsom Salts. All were unpleasant.
There were now two sinks for the family; one in the scullery and one in the room. Nellie shared with Lilian. Mick took advantage of the free pass system for GWR workers and the family had holidays in Weymouth and Weston Super Mare, the nearest seaside resorts on the GWR network. These were replaced, following the birth of William, by day trips to places like Maidenhead and Monkey Island where Mick fished while the children helped the lock keeper with his massive gates. There is no record of a single fish ever being caught.
Economy in every activity was important. Home shoe-repairing saved money but not Mick’s temper. He had purchased a shoe foot with three sizes of lasts, a sharp knife, a hammer and a supply of nails. Buying leather meant an expedition to East Lane, Walworth. He always took a couple of his sons with him as company and spent a long time choosing the leather. On boot repairing days, the children all kept out of Mick’s way while Lizzie stood by with a supply of first-aid equipment because it was a bloody business. When times got hard, Mick used rubber from discarded lorry tyres. The result made the children look taller but they resented the advertisement of family poverty.
A humiliating Saturday ritual involved one volunteer from among the O’Sullivan children walking to Kingston’s fruiterers on Herne Hill. The unfortunate child would ask tremulously for ‘two pennyworth’ of damaged fruit. In a loud voice, the boss would shout:
‘Twopennorth of specks here.’ The shop staff were generous and they would fill a shopping bag with a variety of apples, oranges and other fruit in season. The O’Sullivans would cut out the damaged portion and gorge on the beneficial fruit. Ted believed the children’s clear and glowing skins were due to Kingston’s generosity. When times were really hard, the children would go to Brixton market to pick up fruit discarded from the stalls as the barrows were pulled away.
Technology was changing the world. The BBC started radio services in 1928. The age of voting for women was reduced that year from 30 to 21 in line with what applied to men. But the number of unemployed continued to rise and hit 1.3 million by the middle of 1928. In the 1929 general election, the Labour Party won a majority of the seats in parliament for the first time and formed its second government.
In October, the month that the seventh O’Sullivan Bernard was born, the Wall Street crash triggered a worldwide recession. The British economy went into deep depression as world trade slumped. By the summer of 1931, almost 2.7 million people were registered as jobless. Almost half the Labour cabinet rejected a proposal for unemployment benefit to be cut to cover the soaring cost of the dole. MacDonald resigned as prime minister and formed a coalition government in August comprising Conservatives, Liberals and only four Labour ministers, one of them the former NUR leader Jimmy Thomas. A general election in October produced a landslide for the Conservatives who provided the majority of the members of the new National government.
Mick regarded MacDonald’s decision to form a coalition government as another betrayal. His old union adversary Thomas became a minister in the National government and was expelled from the Labour Party. He was subsequently suspended from the House of Commons for financial shenanigans. Thomas’ large chauffeur-driven Austin car was sometimes seen passing through Shakespeare Road. Mick wondered whether the Labour apostate was making some kind of point to him personally. There would have been little surprise in the O’Sullivan household when his son turned coat completely and became a Conservative MP.
They were difficult years for poor Londoners, but Ted was enjoying life. “In my last summer at Corpus Christi school in 1929, Nellie and I were given an opportunity to go with the country holiday fund on a fortnight’s holiday. Nellie went to West Moors in Dorset whilst I went to Whitstable in Kent. It was not completely free, but it gave children a holiday away from London. The food was not up to my mother’s standard but I had the opportunity to explore. I often went off alone and made friends with the fishermen in the huts on the sea front. Here I feasted on shell-fish which they cooked in their huts. I also played in the hulks (old wooden warships) which were moored in the old harbour. It was a most enjoyable holiday and helped to build up my love for things maritime.”
“An early innovation due to Father Milton was the creation of a boy scout troop. The 41st Lambeth Group was started, with him as group scoutmaster. His scoutmaster was Peter Cuming. The assistant scoutmaster was a Mr Pedder, whom we called Ped. I was selected to be a member of the first eight, the Otter patrol, which was to launch the troop. I was the youngest, smallest and the poorest. My parents scraped up enough money to buy my uniform which was the probable reason for the lack of school uniform when I started at the Oratory. I loved the scouts and they were very good to me. But once again, money prevented me from taking a full part. The troop helped to pay for me at our first camp at St George’s, Woburn Park. I must have been a penance as my inherent weakness resulted in my being ill for almost the whole week. I stuck the scouts for about two years and they endured me but I always remembered with gratitude their kindness. Peter Cuming left his job and became a Cistercian monk, a vocation in which he rose to be the superior at Mount St Bernard’s.”
Ted made excellent progress at school and an opportunity for a much better education emerged.
“I continued into Mrs Healy’s and, aged nine, was transferred into Miss O’Meara’s, who had the top three classes in one large room. Teaching such a variety of children must have been impossible and one became self-taught. Unsurprisingly, the brightest progressed rapidly. Three stood out: Patrick McGee, Gwen Boyle and Teddy O’Sullivan.”
“In 1928, we sat the preliminary of the junior county exam. Passing the first hurdle, we sat the second exam during the winter of 1929/30. As expected, we had all done well but there was only one place at Clapham Xaverian College and it went to Pat McGee. Gwen Boyle and I were interviewed and we were both awarded places at the Oratory Central girls’ and boys’ school respectively.”
“In those days, the school year started after the Easter holiday in the state system. Gwen and I started making our long journeys daily by bus and foot to the Oratory. But poverty soon separated us. She took the 37 bus at the top of Spencer Road, where she lived. I walked or ran to Acre Lane and caught the bus from there. Both of us alighted from the 19 or 49 bus at Chelsea Town Hall and then walked. The difference was due to the fact that, often, my mother could afford only three pence and not the full four pence fare from Dulwich Road. The fare would be sixpence in total.”
“Another difference was the school uniform. Gwen wore the full uniform of her school. I was dressed in a cheap, royal blue blazer, donated by one of my cousins, and silver grey trousers. I took sandwiches whilst the other boys had school lunch in the dining hall. There was a class distinction caused by poverty and you could almost smell the difference. My sandwiches were almost invariably made with hard boiled eggs provided by our hens. The majority of the other boys were obviously middle class. Nevertheless, with very few exceptions, I got on well with them.”
There were further surprises in store at the new school for the Brixton boy.
“When I first entered the classroom, I sat next to the boy who was behind me in the queue. My partner and friend for the next two years was Tedros, the son of a chauffeur at the Abyssinian embassy. This was how I was fortunate enough to accept persons of other races for what they were and not for how they looked. A clever boy, Tedros was to leave us when he passed the trade scholarship and went off to secondary school.”
“Tedros was occasionally untidy. Our English teacher Mr Crowley ringed grease marks on Tedros’ homework books in vivid red pencil and wrote: ‘Fish and chips’ and ‘Eggs and bacon.’ Part of his examination for the secondary school was a viva voce where school books were examined. With trepidation, Tedros handed over his English work. The panel of distinguished academics collapsed with laughter at the sight of the English teacher’s comments. Tedros thought that this had swayed the panel in his favour. Up to that point, he was not doing well.”
Apart from Corpus Christi, there were few Catholic elementary schools for children in the area that provided an education that made them acceptable to the Oratory. Consequently, in Ted’s year of two classes of about 45 boys each, there were only two from south of the Thames: one from Battersea and himself. The majority of Oratory schoolboys appeared to come from Highgate, Hampstead and the prosperous new areas of north and north-west London.
Ted’s secondary school memories often revolve around unforgettable teachers. His experiences echoed those of generations before and since.
 
“My first form master entered our classroom with us and introduced himself as Burns, JC. We all knew that since he was a well-known footballer. He played left-half for Queen’s Park Rangers and England’s amateur 11. Later, he would transfer to Brentford and play, as an amateur, for the full English team. Standing in front of us, he bent a cane in his hand. ‘I like the cane,’ he said. ‘It helps my muscles when I wield it which I will do if you step out of line.’ Actually, it was all bluff and he was a kind and generous man and an excellent teacher of mathematics.”
Life in a Catholic secondary school designed for the middle classes was a world away from the reality of the O’Sullivan household where money was always short.
“Mum was often at her wits’ end and would say: ‘I can only give you threepence this morning.’ This would mean walking half-way or even all the way home across Chelsea, through Battersea Park, where often the only company were the deer, through Wandsworth, Stockwell and Brixton to Herne Hill. This was a distance of seven or eight miles. Never once was I accosted or even spoken to, although, for a great part of the year, I arrived home in the dark. Often, because of early closing of the park, I would have to climb the gates at the Queenstown end to get out.
“If I had a penny left, I would occasionally buy a stale sausage roll from Lawrence’s in Wandsworth Road as a treat for my mother. I would pause at Brixton market to hear the auctioneers and barrow boys selling off their wares of fruit and vegetables, china, clothing and rugs. I sometimes could not tear myself away, despite an evening’s homework in front of me.”
“The only alternative to the kitchen table in the warm, upon which to do my homework, was the cold, bleak front-room. So I was compelled to struggle amid the noises and odd missiles being thrown by my brothers. I received many a punishment for my poor homework. The work was hard but I managed to cope. At the exam at the end of my first year before Easter 1931, I was second in the class of over 40 and about 8th in the whole form. The next year was to see a good number of boys and girls from Corpus Christ joining Gwen Boyle and me at the Oratory schools.”
“With so much of the family’s single income going into rent, there was no provision for pocket-money. Working to earn a few pence during the week was out of the question as school, the journey, homework, choir and scouts filled my spare time. This left Saturday afternoons when, for a pittance, I helped the Co-op milkman. Driving a horsed milk float, his round was widespread, finishing up in the Herne Hill area. I had to be back for scouts at two o’clock. All went well until I fell over carrying a crate of milk, which caused a cut head and a permanent scar. Jobs were out, so I made the subscription for the scouts by doing housework which included the hated scrubbing of the attic. After about two years, I had to give up scouting as a new uniform was required. This was unaffordable so I made some excuse.”
“Before leaving the parish, Father Milton arranged a fortnight’s camp at an estate in Uckfield. From there, we hiked to Parkminster Abbey, a gigantic Carthusian monastery sited in the middle of Sussex. Here, each monk lived in his own cottage off the cloisters. We also went to Piltdown Pond where the skeleton of a primitive man had been found. It would be much later in the century when it was discovered that the two finders had perpetrated a vast hoax. But they had been honoured at the time, one with a knighthood. Piltdown man changed research and ideas about archaeological development for the next half century. The longest hike was through Lewes and down to the coast at Seaford, probably over 20 miles.”
“I owe scouting my life. I became a competent reader of ordnance maps and won, whilst an unpaid lance-corporal during the war, a company inter-section orienteering and map-reading competition. As a result, I was appointed a battalion instructor and, ultimately, company quartermaster sergeant rather than a line NCO. I survived the war. Most NCOs were casualties.”
“In the second year, our class teacher Mr O’Neill was a giant who was quite sadistic. The head Mr Summerbell did not discourage this as he had similar ideas. For this year, he was to be our maths teacher. After submitting our homework, after hours of toil, we would see him approach our classroom. If he came in a suit, all was well. If he was wearing his gown, we knew that in its sleeve were secreted a bundle of canes. These he used with enjoyment and gusto on almost the whole class.”
“One Monday morning, I returned to school after a bout of ‘flu. O’Neill collected the school building fund of two pence per boy, which was a voluntary subscription. The head later came to the class in a temper and asked why the class subscriptions were light. Picking on me, he asked, ‘Why?’ In desperation, I burbled out: ‘I didn’t hear.’ The head said to Mr O’Neill : ‘You know what to do!’ He then left the room. O’Neill collected the two pence I had kept to pay my fare home and went to his drawer where he kept a pair of size 12, thick-soled slippers and gave me six on my bottom for inattention. I cried all day and the bruises were seen by my parents after my long walk home. My mother wanted my father to go to the school. She had not enough money to give me the two pence and I thought that no one could miss it. It was just pride that had prevented me from telling the truth: that mother did not have twopence. My attitude to work and the school changed as a result of the teacher’s brutality. I was to be punished unjustly again but never would I cry or complain.”
“Not all the teachers were the same as O’Neill and Summerbell. JC Burns, despite his protestations when we first joined his class, turned out to be a just, kind and excellent teacher. He was a popular hero throughout the school and we considered being in his class to be an honour. He seldom lost his temper and never used the cane he loved. Mr Siddie Kerr, who took singing and history, was very kind, as was Mr Murray, a new teacher who took us in our third year. This was called the floating class as our assembly place was in the dining hall and we floated into different classes and areas for the rest of the day. When they had built the extensions in 1929/30, the governors were only interested in the school’s immediate needs. By the time we reached our third year following Easter 1932, many of our class had left, They were a year older than me and had reached the statutory age of compulsory education at 14.”
Ted’s thoughts began to turn to a life outside the Oratory.
“When I was in the third year, a notice appeared on the school board inviting pupils to apply for vacancies at the Rotherhithe Nautical School. There, they could be trained and educated for entry into the merchant service or into the Royal Navy. I had read every Percy Westerman novel I could borrow from the Chelsea library. They told the tales of the apprentices on the Golden Dawn and other ships. The idea of leaving the Oratory appealed to me so I went home to ask my parents if they could give their approval. My mother immediately vetoed this because she still regarded me as the weakling of the family. So I carried on but was not always happy.”
“One of the pleasures of joining the third year and the floaters was being taught mathematics by Billy Blight, the senior Maths master. Between him and Murray, who taught English, French and Religion, life became bearable again. Mr Todd taught History and Mr Kelly, Geography. The bullies were at last at a distance. These people taught because they liked their subjects, both those they taught and those they were teaching. They did not knock-in, they tried to lead out. Did the others realise the damage they had done to countless frightened boys? Had they been happy, many more would be in the third year, poised to complete the five-year course.”
The family’s finances took a sharp turn for the worse. Mick had started a loan club where his colleagues would pay a regular subscription of sixpence (2.5p) a share and borrow money up to their contributions at a low interest rate when they were in need. It generated fee income for the family. It was so successful that at the end of 50 weeks, a sixpenny share produced £1.9.6d (£1.47) for a £1.5 shilling (£1.25) contribution. By the summer of 1932, practically every penny in the fund was loaned out. In September, Mick, then aged 40, developed appendicitis which became peritonitis. No-one collected what was owing. Lizzie was obliged to go to the South Lambeth depot to chase the amounts due but only received a part of what was owed. Mick recovered slowly. He dealt with the deficit in the fund from his own pocket. It was a disillusioning moment for the life-long trade unionist to discover his work colleagues were prepared to see him and his family suffer so much rather than repay what they owed. Inevitably, this had an impact on 13-year-old Ted.
“I will always remember the kindness of Father Leech, who was there to comfort my father as he was taken off by ambulance to King’s College Hospital. He visited Dad regularly, taking with him great quantities of fruit. In the next bed to my father was Billy Blight, my Maths teacher, who had been involved in a motor cycle accident. While they were in hospital, they became firm friends. Since there was no sick pay for a GWR employee at my father’s grade, the family income descended to 10 shillings (50p) a week, paid from a sick club, during his long stay in hospital. My sister Nellie was at Jeffcoats in London earning a pittance, most of which she willingly put into the kitty. Dan, still at school, had his grant and earnings from Bristow, most of which he surrendered. We had many chickens, but there was no one to kill them.”
“Our Christmas dinner in 1932 was a joint of flank of beef. Dad recovered and recuperated with a long stay at the GWR convalescence home at Par in Cornwall. We had nearly lost him. Mum must have thought that history was repeating itself. Her own father had died, leaving his wife to bring up a large family with little income.”
“Dad returned to work in the early spring of 1933 and the men who owed him money started to avoid him. He began to lose his faith in his fellow workers, for whom he had sacrificed much of his free time. He had jeopardised his own prospects by being ever-willing to back them, even though there were sometimes doubts of their innocence. He had led strikes, voluntarily collected union dues and many had rewarded him by cheating him. Management recognised he was a changed man. Mick was promoted to sub-inspector with undreamt of benefits: sick pay and a pension scheme. He got a uniform cap with gold braid on the peak and the word inspector embroidered above it. His superintendent said that the promotion was well-earned and long overdue.”
Mick continued to demonstrate his sense of social obligation. He had been a member of St John’s Ambulance Corps all his adult life and was a team leader for his depot. They entered many competitions, winning most, for which they were often awarded pieces of silver plate. These were displayed proudly in the front room.
Now a teenager, Ted started to deal with the challenges of maturity which came at an early age in the 1930s. Money, however, was still a preoccupation.
“In February 1933, I turned 14 (the age when education stopped being compulsory and free) and qualified for the £1.1.8d (£1.08) per month exhibition. At last, I had money of my own, although I gave it all to my mother who provided me some when I needed it. After Easter 1933, I joined the 4th year. I had the only soprano voice in class but deliberately sang in my boots at assemblies, which strained my voice. I told Mrs Hart my voice was breaking and left the choir. I joined the altar guild instead which involved serving Sunday Mass at 8am, 1030am and 12 noon.”
“Not having scouts to fill Saturday afternoons, I took a job delivering meat for Hammetts of Herne Hill but not for long. It was both arduous and dangerous, so I was happy to give it up, particularly now I had a grant and Dad was back to normal. My friends and I started playing football on the cinder pitch at Brockwell Park in Brixton on Saturday afternoons and this developed into a sort of club. At about the same time, Father Leech suggested that the boys should meet together at the school to play games.”
“At his club there was no equipment; it was just a meeting place, as many of the members were at different schools and some were already working. He did the same with the girls. He called a meeting where he outlined his ideas of a proper club outside the confines of the school. He told us that he had been approached by Pat Glover, who had started a dancing school at 19 Brixton Hill. He was willing to let his premises at a nominal rent for a Sunday evening weekly social club meeting. He would provide a gramophone and we could use his premises to serve light refreshments. Glover would also let the premises for a boy’s club one evening a week and one for the girls. Father Leech asked for suggestions about the running of the clubs and I volunteered my services as honorary secretary. At school, I had been introduced to shorthand as a kind of vocational subject in the 2nd year. In the 3rd year, we learned elementary bookkeeping. In our 4th year, there were compulsory typewriting classes for two hours, one evening a week. By the time I left school, I had been taught enough to enable me to take down shorthand at normal conversational speeds, to prepare and keep accounts up to trial balance and simple balance sheets, touch type and have a general idea of the workings of an office.”
“Father Leech often visited Shakespeare Road. He invited Tom Phipps, Pete Chesterman and me to visit places like Chilworth Abbey. He had inherited a sum of money and liked to give pleasure. There was no motive other than kindness, unless he recognised some quality in us that he wished to develop. The biggest treat was when he took us to camp at Wonersh seminary for a week, during my last summer holiday from school in 1934. We walked all over Surrey and, by train, visited the Benedictine monastery at south Farnborough for vespers. In the adjacent tomb were the catafalques of Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie and their son, the Prince Imperial, who had been killed in the Zulu war while serving in a British cavalry regiment. Another trip was to Quarr Abbey in the Isle of Wight. “
“I started having my sandwiches at the museums at South Kensington and visited the Science Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial Institute and the Imperial War Museum. My favourite was the Imperial Institute where every day a film about a part of the empire was shown. Entry was free.”
Ted was beginning to find school an increasing headache. After Easter 1934 aged 15, he started another academic year.
“I now entered my fifth year, grandly called the sixth form. The class was reduced to about a dozen pupils out of the 80 which had started. The head’s dream of raising the Oratory to the standard of a grammar school had not succeeded. Cambridge senior passes (equivalent to GCSEs now) had been his goal, but the chance of a job during the great depression had tempted many boys. The exams were preparation for university but only a tiny percentage had that goal in mind.”
“I had to pass in five groups: English Language and Literature; Mathematics; French; Geography and History. Out went chemistry, Religious Education and Art. I hated the work. We once more had no classroom and were floating again. One fine morning, our class could find no place to study and we agreed to go up to the roof flat which was marked out for games. Most were studying but a couple were skylarking. The head stormed in and made us all stand on benches in the playground during the whole of the recreation period. Then, we were called in one by one, made to lean over his ornamental fireplace and were beaten six times across the buttocks. Summerbell was beside himself with rage. We were flogged mainly because that morning he had a bad temper. Most of us had done nothing more than study. Not for the first time, the head had killed any interest left in many of us.”
“The time arrived when my examination fees were due. I procrastinated and the worry made me quite ill. My father went to see Summerbell and it was agreed that I should postpone my Cambridge Senior test until the second sitting in December 1934. Returning to school in September, I found that I was even more isolated. Only a few of my contemporaries were left. A couple who had done well were talking about higher schools and some were to re-sit part of the exam. Sometime in October, Father Kelly called me to the presbytery where he told me of an opportunity to be employed in a famous company with excellent prospects. The firm was Hawkes & Company of 1 Savile Row, London W1. He wrote for me a flamboyant letter of application for the position of junior clerk. My parents agreed that it would be a golden opportunity. Many of my friends were pushing bikes as delivery boys.”
“Knowing how much I now hated school and my fear of the coming exams and the headmaster, my parents encouraged me to copy the letter with its beautiful Victorian English and sign my name after: ‘I have the honour to be, Sir, your most devoted servant.’ I posted it.
Early the following week, I reported for interview by Philip B White, the company secretary. I was satisfactory and was engaged to start as an office boy the following Monday at 9am at the princely salary of 12/6d (62.5 pence) a week. I was given no credit for my abilities in shorthand, typing and book-keeping. I was glad to escape school. I told Summerbell the next morning that I was leaving for a good job with Hawkes. He questioned me about the salary and I lied. I said it was being negotiated. I knew that I had sold myself short.”
Ted started at Hawkes in October 1934. The company was already 163 years old. He began at the main office. It was a journey back in time.
“The atmosphere was Dickensian. Around the walls were stands on which were placed massive 900-page ledgers covered in canvas. There were ‘A’ ledgers for military customers and ‘B’ ledgers for civilians. Trade ledgers mainly dealt with export business including orders for Hawkes’ famous tropical helmets. Others were for Canadian military clients. The ledgers filled two sides of the large office. On a third side beyond the door and the telephone box, with its upright phone, was a long stand on which were placed the indexes for the ledgers.”
“The staff were seated on high, backless stools at sloping desks which were large enough to hold a ledger. Each desk was long enough to accommodate three clerks. The fourth wall had a fireplace which had been superseded by central heating. Seven people including me worked in the office. My duties were various but not difficult. The first was to deal with letters and look up the customer’s ledger reference and write it on the corner. I would then file, in alphabetical order, all the letters which had been dealt with and answered. Then, I would go to the cutting room with letters for the cutters, order book clerks, directors and others. The whole system, even then, was antiquated.”
“I was a dogsbody. I realised that I had jumped from the frying pan of school into the fire of mundane, lowly-paid work. In the private office was a large magnificent table at which the Mr White sat with two ladies who acted as private secretaries and assistants to the directors. My duty at about 4 pm was to collect all the post, correctly stamp it and post it at the post office at Herron Street.”
“A great number of the staff were Catholics. The Whites, who were almost the proprietors, were Catholics and many of the employees came personally recommended by another member of staff. An old Oratorian named Albert Quirke managed the boot department and was the senior salesman. During the football season, Albert would dash away at the stroke of 1 o’clock on Saturdays to watch Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Monday morning would see a morose man. ‘Lost again, Quirkie?,’ we would ask. Yet, Chelsea always managed to stay in the 1st Division. There were other oddballs. Hawkes was full of the strangest characters in every department.”
The Whites had entered the business through a relationship with Thomas Hawkes, the founder. It was originally a maker of harnesses, helmets and accoutrements. Thomas Hawkes made a name for himself by refusing to serve the Prince Regent. He is alleged to have said: ‘Six days do I serve my king, on the seventh, I serve my maker.’ In a loft above the counting house were books and ledgers going back to the 18th century.
One account was that of the Duke of Wellington, as colonel of his own regiment. Hawkes’ name was made as inventors of the cork tropical helmet with which they outfitted the whole of the British Army in the wide-flung empire. Tailoring seemed to develop during the middle of the 19th century. Due to firms like Hawkes and Pooles, Savile Row became synonymous with gentlemen’s tailoring. A hand-made suit sold at 11 guineas (£11.55) in 1934. The price had not risen much by the outbreak of war.
The Hawkes’ building was divided according to function. In the basement, goods were stored for customers who were suddenly whisked overseas. There was an enormous safe where the books with client measurements were kept. The backbone of Hawkes’ business was civil and military tailoring. The measurements were like gold dust.
There was a staff mess room where the caretaker’s wife served tea on a weekly payment basis. The largest room in the Hawkes’ premises was the packing room with an antiquated hoist to the cutting room. The foreman was Percy, a very short-tempered man who ruled his kingdom with a rod of iron. His staff of packers and messengers included a well educated and gentlemanly man suffering from dwarfism who was about four feet tall. Charlie, a cockney who whistled through his ill-fitting dentures when he spoke, was packer, cleaner, messenger, and odd job man. The fourth member of the team was a junior aged about 18.
“Before Hawkes moved from 14 Piccadilly before the 1914/18 war, the premises in Savile Row were a geographical museum. The embalmed body of missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone who died in Ilaia in Africa in 1873 had lain in state in what became the cutting room. This was the hub of the business and accommodated the massive boards used by the cutters, a team of highly-skilled men who scissored cloth to the required size and shape. The head cutter was Mr George Ballingall, the managing director. When not cutting, he would sit reading a newspaper in a fitting room that he would instantly leave if the room was required. Ballingall, then aged about 60, had been born a son of a crofter in the Scottish Highlands. His son Ian was also a director. Ian travelled to Canada during the winter months and Hawkes became the main outfitters for officers in the Canadian army. George was the cutter for all full dress tunics, diplomatic wear and mess jackets and waistcoats. Among the other Hawkes’ characters was Mr Kilby, who was blind in one eye, hunchbacked and with a permanently dripping nose. Like Quasimodo, whom he resembled, Mr Kilby was a campanologist and one of the country’s leading exponents of bell-ringing.”
“There were a great many others: salesmen, travellers, shirt cutters, cloth buyers and trimmers. I loved them all. The tailors worked both on or off the premises. The indoor tailors occupied the top floors and sat cross legged on their benches. All were of the old school of craftsmen. Many were repair tailors and they were all proud of their title as journeymen tailors. Their wages were often as low as £3 a week, whereas outside workers, in small and large workshops on the other side of Regent’s Street, would have bulging bags with as much as £40 in them. Some of them worked for a number of tailors: Flights, Pooles and Hawkes and their ilk. Not one Jewish person was employed on Hawkes’ staff but a percentage of the outside tailors were known by names like Pepper, a common name for Russian Jews.”
The outside workers sent their kippers (delivery boys who always worked in pairs) to deliver or collect garments after fitting. Tailors had their own language: if they had been paid for a garment it was dead. A bad garment was pig or pork. Ted remembered the atmosphere created for visiting customers.
“The shop had a large door opening on to Savile Row. Here presided the sergeant. The carpeted entrance presented a quiet and dignified approach to what it was: a temple of tailoring. A large showcase reached from floor to ceiling in which were displayed flags, banners, helmets, accoutrements and uniforms, mainly from the time of the Napoleonic wars. Around the walls and in the window were displayed royal warrants awarded by the crowned heads of England and Europe. The large window was usually empty but, occasionally, contained a dressed dummy. In racks were displayed suit lengths of cloth. A large round table dominated the centre. It was surrounded by four massively-upholstered leather and mahogany chairs. The directors’ desks were placed discreetly on one side.”
“The end of the shop was blocked off by showcases of hosiery, boots and ready-to-wear items. These effectively sealed the shop from the hubbub of the cutting room. The final group of employees were the travelers. They were a mixed group of men who dealt with customers in their homes or messes. George Horsborough, who played for the London Scottish rugby team and later managed the Camberley branch, was a giant and always warm and friendly. Jimmy Spencer was fussy, impatient and a veritable curmudgeon. He had the territorials of the northern counties as regular Hawkes’ customers as well as the actual makers of the cloth from which we made their suits. Mr Harris, who lived in Brixton, took over Canada from Ian. There was Mr Westley, a born salesman of about 30. Another charming and gracious gentleman was Eric Fletcher, who was a salesman and manager of the hosiery department. He had as an assistant Walter Halliday, who joined Hawkes at about the same time as I did.”
“After about six months, I was called to the secretary’s office where I was told by Philip White that he had an important job for me. I would be given a smart uniform and my duties would be to greet customers as they arrived and show them to the fitting rooms or call a salesman. He more or less implied that my job would be essential to the smooth running of the business. It appeared to me that, not for the first time, I was to be very cheap labour. The old sergeant on the door had been paid a man’s wage. I got a rise to 17/6d (88p) a week.”
“Mr White said that he understood that I had a 14-year-old brother (Tom) who had left school. Would he like to take over my job? Tom said that he would be delighted. My parents were pleased. Working in Savile Row carried prestige but not much money. Tom settled in his job very quickly and he became a walking index due to his incredible memory. He could not be called O’Sullivan, as it was a Hawkes’ rule that no work names could be duplicated. He was to be called Henry, his second name, as there was already a Mr Thomas, whose real name was Phillips.”
“I hated being a doorman, hated the uniform and refused to wear my hand-made cap with its magnificent Hawkes logo. But since nobody was ever dismissed by Hawkes, I was eventually transferred to work in the ready-to-wear department. My place in uniform was taken by the packers’ assistant who appreciated the rise in status.”
Mick had for many years been in communication with his uncle William, his father’s elder brother and former De La Salle brother who was then living in Paris. Due to bad investments and inflation, William’s pension and savings were depleted. Mick invited him to come to London and live with the O’Sullivans.
“William, then aged 80, moved in during 1934. Both parties were shocked. My father had painted a very rosy picture of our home and surroundings, which to him were luxury. William, on the other hand, had rather exaggerated his poverty and the bleakness of his future. He was quite shaken at our poverty. We had prepared a room for him but he had no facilities, like a bathroom, only an outside toilet.”
“There was a consolation for William. He had Brockwell Park at the top of the long road. He would spend days there; the quintessential Frenchman in his spotless blue gabardine suit and a black beret, worn at a rakish angle. He had a handsome, pure white sweeping beard with a magnificent moustache which he would stroke when he spoke to a woman. William still had an eye for the ladies. He would lose his temper with my mother for failing to understand him when he unconsciously reverted to French. I would speak to him in my hesitant French. William encouraged me to try to go further than my school lessons.”
“William was to stay with us for almost two years and then moved to a private hotel in Streatham. As far as I know, there had been no formal charge by my parents but he made a voluntary contribution. Before he left, he gave my father £400, a fortune in those days and equivalent to two years of my father’s wages. He extracted a promise that he would find a home for Daniel my grandfather, then 75 and ailing, for the remainder of his life, free of charge.”
“William was taken ill and removed to the French hospital, which I visited several times. He died aged 88. His estate was in the hands of his French lawyers and any papers he had left were handed over to them. After a delay of many months, a meagre amount was handed to my father as a final settlement. My father, attracted by a promise of high interest, invested the £400 in a friend’s business. The man died within a year and left no record of the debt. Everything, including dad’s money, was left to his estranged wife.”
The pressure on family finances eased as the 1930s developed. Those in work got better off as prices fell. The elder children were working.
“Danny left the School of Building to enter a world that was still in the throes of the depression. Danny was a fully qualified tradesman - a plasterer - and was recommended to the Xelite plastering company, who employed him as an improver on one of their contracts. He was to work on the new Mayday hospital in Croydon. Our mother purchased him a bicycle at the Co-op and he cycled the seven to eight miles each way daily. The Saturday knockabout football team continued to meet, often challenging other groups to a game. During the summer of 1935, we met often at swimming baths and, when Brockwell Park lido opened, we met there. I suggested that we should become more regulated. We applied to join the South London Press junior Sunday football league. Placed in the lowest division, we were given a list of fixtures in mainly local venues. We discussed a proper strip. After a heated debate, my suggestion was accepted for green and yellow quarters, (reflecting the Irish flag) with white shorts and green and white-hooped socks. The team was called the Corpus Christi Juniors Football Club.”
“To raise money, and with the help of my brothers, we held a raffle that raised enough for the kit. We paid for the pitches as we used them. The kit was kept at Shakespeare Road and my mother voluntarily washed it weekly. I helped design a green, gold and white tie, which was sold at a profit for the club to its members. Cyril Tonkin, a Corpus Christi parishioner, agreed to manage the team, referee home matches and generally help the team out. My brother Dan, an excellent centre forward, joined the team. We recruited some good footballers and allowed older boys to join. We started to climb the league and found ourselves playing as far away as Hackney Marshes.”
“I was an early casualty of our success. I was compelled to drop myself for not being good enough. Simultaneously, I was running the club where dance classes had been started. As we became more proficient, members gradually dropped out of the dancing classes. We required extra evenings for additional activities. Brixton Conservative Association had a temporary building as an annex to the big house which was their headquarters and club. They let it to the church for three evenings a week. Sunday evenings were devoted to a social/dance. Tuesdays were for an adult whist drive. The entrance fees paid the rent for a whole week. The third night was a youth club.”
Corpus Christi presbytery had been housed in a large manor type house close to the church. In the 1860s, Corpus Christi was a mission parish, one of the first set up in London. It was run by Father Van Doorn, a Dutch priest, who promised the bishop he would build a church. Brixton at that time was the most prosperous suburb of London. Along both sides of Brixton Hill, Effra Road and Water Lane and, slightly further afield, Loughborough Park, there were a great number of large houses, with stables and driveways for their carriages.
Brixton was a popular residential area for actors and music hall stars who lived in the large houses which abounded in Wiltshire Avenue and neighbouring areas and the many roads running into Brixton Hill. Transport was good. There were cabs, the railway from Father Van Doorn engaged John Bentley, who was later to design Westminster Cathedral, as his architect. He planned a massive, Gothic structure which he started to build in front of the presbytery, leaving at least 30 or 40 yards of trees and grass in the front. The plan was for a cruciform building with massive transepts. He finished what were to be the High Altar and Our Lady’s and St Joseph’s altars. Either the money ran out or that was considered sufficient for its purposes at that time. The building stopped. A massive temporary rear wall was built across the back of the transept and room was left for a modest porch.
“Father Leech, the curate who was so loved by the young people of the parish, was moved to Strood as parish priest. Father Matthew Walsh, who was from Drogheda in Ireland, took over. Tall and aesthetic looking, he wore clipped on pince-nez which added to his studious appearance. On his first Sunday at Corpus Christi, Father Walsh asked each person his name as they walked into the Sacristy. We gave our names but not our nicknames. After meeting the last O’Sullivan, Bernard, aged about seven, he said ‘Who and where is Dickie, the chap who runs the clubs?’ Shortly before, Father Kelly announced he was going to move out of the presbytery which was too large, antiquated and inconvenient. He had bought a smaller house on Trent Road and said that he wanted the youth of the parish to take over the house and to use it as they wished throughout the week. There would be no rent. The club would, however, be responsible for the rates. We had already gathered around us older parishioners as an ad hoc committee. My father was treasurer. I continued as secretary. Membership was restricted to Catholics aged 15 and over.”
“We painted each room in turn and augmented our meagre equipment with two quarter-size billiard tales and two table tennis tables. We also obtained a large radiogram on hire purchase. Books and playing-cards arrived. There was a quiet room, but no gambling. As secretary to the club, I kept exact records of all money collected and spent, although my father was nominally treasurer. At first, I submitted handwritten accounts to the committee. In 1938, Kathleen Stamp, Danny’s girlfriend and future wife, suggested that she could copy my accounts and type copies for the committee’s approval. She also placed them in paper files. The chairman praised the work and said the only difference from a professional accountant’s work was that the vouchers had not been saved and numbered. I learned a lesson which I was to apply later in the army."
“Father Walsh soon settled in. On Sunday afternoons, London playing fields saw a figure with pince-nez dressed in full clerical garb of black suit and Roman collar running up and down the touch-line and shouting encouragement to the players. We finished the 1936/37 season at the top of the senior Sunday division of the South London Press League. At the start of the next season, I passed on the reins of responsibility for the team to Tom Phipps. Danny, now in his twenties, dropped out. But we had plenty of rising stars to fill team vacancies.”
“I had other interests: hiking, dramatics and cycling. A longstanding friend Pat Newbery accompanied me on exploratory walks through the Surrey hills. On bank holidays, we boarded trains at Clapham Junction or Herne Hill for stations like Guildford and then hiked in a circle for about 15 or more miles. Our favourite route was that introduced to us by Father Leech: Guildford, Shere, Blackheath, Chilworth, Wonersh for Benediction and then back to Guildford. The Corpus Christi club attracted people of many nationalities. There were Irish, Scots, Welsh, French and Italians. The only specifications were they had to be Catholic and over 15.”
“One evening, Father Walsh came into the club with three young, black men who were studying at colleges in London University. They wanted to join our club but only two were Catholics. We accepted them, but only one remained a regular. Ellis Clarke, from St Mary’s College in Trinidad, was reading law at University College and was a member of Lincoln’s Inn. He became a staunch member and accompanied us on our hikes. At first, the young ladies were reluctant to dance with Ellis but he was so expert they soon enjoyed his company. After being called to the bar, Ellis returned to Trinidad and later was appointed the finance minister of the West Indies federation. At the break-up of the federation, he was appointed governor-general of Trinidad and Tobago and awarded a knighthood. When the islands declared themselves a republic in 1976, he was their first president.”
“Time was found for cycling. Tom and I bought Raleigh bicycles for £4.19.6d each. Most Sunday afternoons, we would ride out. One Easter Sunday evening, John Turner, Tom Phipps and I cycled to Hove. We were wearing khaki shorts but all carried yellow ponchos. As we left, the weather was fine but, as we approached Mitcham, it started to snow. When we arrived at Reigate, we were in a blizzard. We did not give up and carried on to Hove, where we were virtually lifted off our bikes and put to bed at about 10.30pm. The next morning was a Bank Holiday. It was a sunny day which developed into a veritable scorcher. I was burned so badly, it was painful to wear trousers for the next few days. Other journeys I made, but with different companions, were to Uckfield to see Father Milton and to the Devil’s Dyke, Hindhead, Brighton and Minster (Sheppey) to join the family on holiday and many other places.”
At Hawkes, Ted was taking time to upgrade his own skills.
“The ready-to-wear department grew with a range of evening, morning and lounge suits. I was appointed manager and assisted in the buying. During 1936 and 1937, I did an evening course in tailoring and cutting at the Borough Polytechnic. I became quite proficient but, foolishly, never told Hawkes. I remember walking home one evening in November 1936 and seeing a brightness in the sky over Sydenham. It was caused by the flames engulfing the mighty Crystal Palace. With my brother Tom, I was given responsibility for members of the Honourable Corps of the Gentlemen at Arms. We prepared their ornate uniforms for courts, levees and investitures. I was also called upon to prepare other senior officers: Air Force Marshal Portal and field marshals Allenby and Birdwood.”
“I was now a salesman and had become expert in dress, military ranks and decorations. I even waited upon the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VIII in 1936, and his brother the Duke of York, who replaced Edward to become King George VI at the end of that year. When the Alexander Corda classic The Four Feathers was being made in 1938, I assisted Albert Quirke, who advised the producers, and chose from our redundant store the badge for the fictional North Surrey regiment depicted in the film.”
“Hawkes made the full dress and civilian clothes for the film’s stars including Ralph Richardson. He was wonderful man who would sit on a stool in the cutting room and chat with all and sundry. At Hawkes, we met many great men of the times including Field Marshal Mannenheim, President of Finland, the Maharajah of Kashmir and most of the Indian potentates. They bought their uniforms from Hawkes who were then probably the greatest military tailors in the world.”
Ted and Tom found a quicker way of getting to work each morning.
“Henry (Tom) and I were fed up queuing for a bus on Brixton Hill, so we hit upon the idea of catching a train to Victoria and from there taking the 26b bus to Bond Street. The problem was getting up after a long night at the club. We aimed to catch the 853am train from Brixton station. We would leave home at 845am, run to Mayall Road and down the length of the long road and then along Atlantic Road, encouraged by the cheers of the shopkeepers, who were betting we would miss the train. If lucky, we would be at Hawkes just after 910am and pretend that we had been there for hours. Not many people were early at Hawkes since you could be there after 7pm the evening before. We seldom came home together, as I walked to Lambeth Baths. Henry, now an order book clerk, used the bus. The morning training turned me into an athlete.”
World events were about to turn the O’Sullivans’ world upside down. Adolph Hitler was made German chancellor in January 1933. That summer, German democracy was abolished. In August the following year, Hitler assumed absolute power in the German Reich as Fuehrer. In March 1935, he ordered the German army to re-occupy the Saar, which had been under League of Nations control since the end of the war, after its people voted in a plebiscite for reunification with Germany. A German rearmament programme was launched. In June 1935, Stanley Baldwin replaced Ramsey MacDonald as prime minister of the coalition National government. Elections in November produced a massive Conservative majority in the House of Commons. Labour gained seats and were clearly the second largest party in parliament.
British politics were thrown into turmoil when King Edward VIII decided to marry Wallis Simpson, an American who had been divorced twice before. This led to his abdication at the end of 1936 and the succession of his younger brother Albert as King George VI. The start of the Spanish Civil War pitted the supporters of a left-wing government elected in July 1936 against most of the Spanish army led by General Franco who was backed by the Catholic Church. The government started to increase military spending.
“During the period from the time I left school in 1934 and the autumn of 1939, my life was too full for worries about the outside world. The depression was creeping away but the rise of the spectres of both Fascism and Communism filled the papers. I had been affected even before I left school. My sister Nellie’s firm Jeffcoats printed the Blackshirt, the weekly newspaper of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, and she brought copies home. Innocently, I took a copy to school where it was pounced upon by my Italian classmates. I gave the paper to them each week.”
“The Spanish Civil War left me with divided loyalties. I supported the church but did not support Franco. I kept clear of politics. I had but three interests, my work, my home and my club and church (these last two were one to me). The Munich crisis of September 1938 showed Hitler to be a real threat. The War Minister Hore-Belisha’s changes at the War Office influenced Hawkes’ business. Re-armament, which was to brush away the last of the depression, was felt by Hawkes as early as 1937. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was expanded and short service commissions were introduced the following year. Hawkes lost its prominent position in the flood of orders due to a variety of reasons: price, service (we were too antiquated) and shortage of staff. Burberry’s, Alkits and Moss were breaking into the market. We refused to lower our standards. Everything was handmade, we still claimed.”
“The next branch of the armed forces to be expanded was the territorial army. Our travellers covered the country picking up orders. New cutters were engaged and the civilian ones were compelled to help out. In 1939, the Royal Academy at Woolwich and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst were expanded. Members of Hawkes’ staff joined the territorials.”
“The Military Training Act passed in April 1939, just over a month after Hitler seized what remained of independent Czechoslovakia, required all men aged 20-21 to do six months’ military training. I had celebrated my 20th birthday in February 1939 and was expecting to be called up.”
“I had a summer holiday in July 1939 with my friend Noakes, a squire in the Knights of Columba who enrolled me in his group in Bow. This enabled me to qualify to join their annual camp in Jersey. It was a halcyon time in which I saw all of that lovely island. The rest of the family went to Broadstairs. While working at a desk one evening after my holiday, we were discussing the international situation. My colleague Mr Harris said something like: ‘Just mark my words, you will see Germany sign a pact with Russia.’ We laughed at him. He was right. The German-Soviet pact was signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939.”
The consequence was war within a few weeks. Mid-August saw many of Hawkes' young men go off to territorial summer camp. Among these were Walter Halliday, Leonard Pannario and Edward White. They were not to return at the end of a fortnight. Two of them never did. About this time, Ted was summoned for a medical examination at the Labour Exchange in Coldharbour Lane in preparation for call-up to the territorials. After seeing a team of doctors and male orderlies, who all examined a different part of his body, he was interviewed by an elderly, military gentleman with a white, walrus moustache. He asked Ted personal questions including one about his work. The Hawkes connection triggered an enthusiastic reponse:
“He said: ‘My tailors. Give my regards to Mr Ballingall. What regiment do you wish to join?’ I said: ‘The Royal Corps of Signals, Sir. I would like to be a despatch rider.’
‘Excellent,’ said the colonel: ‘Signals, it shall be!’ I was worried about my medical grade since I was convinced that I was not fit. I had prayed for much of the previous night that I would pass. ‘What grade am I, Sir?,’ I asked. ‘Why, my boy!, The very best. You are A1. “I was overjoyed.”
There seemed to be nothing that could prevent the war. On the first day of the organised evacuation of children from London on Friday 1 September, 9,500 young people were moved from London. They included Lilian O’Sullivan, aged 12, and her younger brother Bernard, aged 10, who were dispatched to Horsham. Here they were separated and billeted in different houses. Bernard was moved three times before he settled semi-permanently in a Catholic presbytery. In London, the blackout was imposed and anti-aircraft guns appeared.
War was imminent.
 

Chapter 5
Warrior on the home front
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…We shall go on to the end.
We shall fight in France.
We shall fight on the seas and oceans.
We shall fight with growing confidence
and growing strength in the air.
We shall defend our island,
whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches.
We shall fight on the landing grounds.
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets
We shall fight in the hills.
We shall never surrender…
 
From a speech to the House of Commons by
UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill MP on 4 June 1940
 
As Lilian and Bernard O’Sullivan and other young Londoners were being evacuated, the first acts were taking place in humanity’s cruellest conflict.
On the morning of 1 September, the German army crossed the border into Poland on the pretext of responding to Polish attacks. The British government had a collective defence agreement with the Polish government. Its ambassador to Berlin handed a note to the German government that said if it did not announce its troops would withdraw from Poland by 11am on 3 September a state of war would exist between the two countries. The hours passed and it was obvious the ultimatum would be ignored.
Ted, like tens of millions of others, remembered well the last minutes of peace. At 1115am, UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke to the British people by BBC radio. War had been declared.
“It was Sunday 3 September, 1939, and I was at the 1030am Mass, one of about 12 servers. After the gospel, Father Kelly mounted the pulpit to give his usual long, inaudible but very interesting sermon, at least for those of us who could hear him. Slightly louder than usual, he read to us the announcement that Mr Chamberlain had made over the radio that morning. During the service, we had heard the wail of a siren but had thought it was a practice. He continued Mass, as usual and we left the church at just after half past 11. We were at war but it felt no different than the day before.”
“Hawkes was so busy during the next weeks that we were working to eight and nine o’clock in the evening. One Sunday morning, I served the 8am, 1030am and 12 o’clock Masses. I was in the sacristy putting on my cassock and cotta, when I heard marching and shouting outside. I looked out and saw a large party of soldiers paraded in front of the church. They were wearing strange hats with a bunch of green feathers above their badge. Officers wearing green hats and blue feathers stood in front of them. They were the London Irish Rifles who were stationed at Brixton. Returning to the sacristy, I was surprised when one of the officers wearing a Roman collar came in.
‘Hallo Dickie,’ he said.
‘Hallo Father,’ I replied. Father McKenna was a friend and an old boy of Beaulah Hill school whose parents were Corpus Christi parishioners.
I asked: ‘Are you in the London Irish?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you join us? You could be my batman, a nice cushy number.’
‘No, thank you, Father. I am going to the signals as a dispatch rider.’
At the end of Mass, Father McKenna shook my hand and wished me luck. I never saw him again.”
“On the first night of the war, I could swear that I could smell gas. We had been issued gas masks and were thoroughly frightened of being gassed as we slept. We also had an Anderson shelter (a basic unit comprising corrugated iron built over a dug-out) in the back garden. To our surprise, nothing happened. The main noticeable difference was to see guns and searchlights in the parks, on bridges and in open places. The nights, however, were dark and every chink of light was greeted by a shout from an air raid warden.”
“The club carried on as usual with dances on Sundays and club nights during the week. Members who had been territorials were missing, but the others carried on as usual. Early in October, I received my official call-up letter. It was not for the signals but the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles. Despite the assurance of the former director of music of the Royal Horse Guards, I was not to be a dashing dispatch rider but a foot-slogging rifleman.”
“Tuesday 17 October was my last night as a civilian. I worked late as we were so busy. The other salesmen suggested packing up and going for a drink at the local pub. I excused myself after a couple of halves of light ale which was about my capacity. I walked to the bus stop and rode home. I had a small snack and walked to the club which was very crowded. All the committee were there. They were surprised that I had not arrived earlier and could not understand why I would work so late on my last night as a civilian. The club chairman Mr Madden called order and made a speech of thanks for my services. Miss Levey then presented me with a gold wrist watch engraved ‘Dickie, Corpus Christi Club’ with that day’s date. I was genuinely surprised. I had already handed over the accounts and funds to my cousin Frank, who was a couple of years younger. He continued running the club for about another year until he was called up into the RAF in which he served as an observer in Sunderland flying boats.”
“The next morning, I was up early. After a good breakfast, I dressed in a Harris tweed jacket, sports shirt with club tie and brown brogue shoes and set off to Liverpool Street station where I was to report to the officer commanding the London Irish Rifles. I carried a small attaché case with a few personal items, including my missal. I arrived well before the stated time.”
“Captain Gibbs, who was in charge of the reception party, was ready to receive me at his desk which was a blanket-covered table. He was very tall and correct but very pleasant, particularly as I meticulously addressed him as: ‘Sir.’ He questioned me about my background and my work. I told him I worked for Hawkes of Savile Row. ‘The regimental tailors!,’ he declared. I had never seen Gibbs’ name on any order so I assumed that he, like so many others, could not afford our high prices.”
“Not all the 96 recruits were as eager as I to become a soldier. It was well into the afternoon before the final stragglers turned up. Meanwhile, we were given one shilling (5p) which we spent in the railway restaurant. When it was time to move off, we were assembled into three ranks and, to our surprise, marched to the tube station. Here, we were packed into an ordinary service train. We travelled on the District Line to Southfields south of the River Thames where we assembled into four platoons before marching off. We still had no idea of our destination. I had spent almost the whole of my first day in the army travelling from south-east London to south-west London via north-east London. We made our first route march, which was about two miles, to Barker’s sports ground on Church Road, Wimbledon.”
“We were directed into a large hall. The first platoon of 24 men was spaced out on the far side. My platoon was given the side where we had entered. A third platoon filed down the centre and the fourth one was positioned at the far end. There were no seats, so we were told to put our cases down and squat. Each platoon was commanded by a sergeant assisted by a corporal.”
“The platoon sergeant introduced himself. ‘My name is Wigger and these stripes indicate that I am a sergeant. If I speak to you, you will stand to attention and say, ‘Yes, Sergeant.’ I am in charge of you and you are in my squad - Ypres squad. Do you understand?’
He gave the impression that we had been accorded a singular honour to be serving in his London Irish Rifles. He told us that Ypres was the name of a famous 1st World War battle. It was to be pronounced Eaper not Wypers. The other squads were Loos, Somme and Festoubert, names of the regiment’s Great War battle honours.”
“A squad at a time, we were marched to a store where we were issued two blankets and a paliasse (a mattress bag that was to be filled with straw), a D-shaped mess tin, a metal bowl, two metal plates, a knife, fork and spoon, a holdall, a small bag called a housewife containing needles and cotton and a shaving brush and razor. We were shown how to pile them neatly in our three feet of space and told that we would sleep there. I looked around at my comrades. They were of all sizes and dressed in a variety of clothing, some wearing overcoats, some suits, others working-type clothes. They certainly did not look like soldiers.
“We were very hungry and were pleased to be called, again a squad at a time, for our first army meal which was not memorable except for its poor quality. Hot tea was poured into the metal bowl. By the time it was cool enough to touch with our lips, the tea it contained was too cold to drink and it was not very sweet. We were then called to carry our paliasses to a stack of bales of straw where we were to pack sufficient into the linen sack to make a comfortable bed. ‘Pack plenty in,’ said Wigger. ‘There’s no second helping.’ Those who did not suffered for the next two months. A sort of canteen was open where soap, toothpaste and confectionery could be bought.”
“It was by then early evening. Wigger told us there was nothing more to do and we could prepare our beds. Lights out would be 10pm after which there would be absolute silence. Reveille would be at 6am. I started to get to know my neighbours. On my left was a small, dark man named Vic Blake who had worked in the sample shoe shop in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. He told me a tale about his pregnant girl friend and I was not sorry when the chap the other side took his attention. On my right was Basil Creasey, son of an army officer.
Next to him was Pip (Charles) Ward, a Dartford printer who I liked.”
“My eyes caught sight of a quartet opposite me by the side of the cookhouse door. The only characteristic they shared was that they were all about six feet tall. Barney Colquhoun, a roughly-spoken and dominant person, was a transport driver. Wearing a long, black, square-shouldered overcoat and a rakish black Homburg hat was a man named Shannon. Tommy Finn was slighter, soberly-dressed and spoke with a stammer. The fourth member of the group was a well built, quietly-dressed man with perfectly-groomed almost platinum-blonde hair who you could see would be the leader. He was Eddie Mayo. The four appeared to be already acquainted. They all came from Dagenham in east London where they worked in the Ford factory. Most recruits seemed to be east Londoners.”
“Whether by accident or design, the squads appeared to reflect the physical and other characteristics of their sergeants. Wigger of Ypres was quiet but authoritative and meticulously dressed. He wore his caubeen absolutely correctly with the badge over his right eye. Wigger was well-spoken and knowledgeable. All his squad, like him, were on the small side with just the odd taller one standing out such as Terry O’Keefe.”
“Somme had Sergeant Jigger. Tall and bespectacled, Jigger was educated and very dominant. He wore his caubeen with the badge and hackle straight up and inclining to the right ear. Everyone in his platoon appeared to be tall.”
“Sergeant Kavanagh, red haired and quite rough, was about medium height. He wore his caubeen pulled down on his head, well tucked in at the back. Consequently the badge and hackle lay flat on top of his head. He was noisier than the other sergeants but seemed to lack confidence. His squad was Loos, named after the most famous London Irish battle honour. The final squad was Festoubert. It was commanded by Sergeant Jack Allen, an actor who had been in the film The Four Feathers. I recognised him but didn’t have the courage to introduce myself. Despite his fame, he appeared to be completely anonymous. His squad appeared to share his quietness. He wore his caubeen with the hackle and badge leaning slightly forward and not pulled down. Of all the squads, his one was to be seldom heard. I cannot remember the name of a single member.Characters immediately appeared. In Loos, a red-haired man carried a large suitcase on our route march. He was Syd Nathan who had run a business, possibly off a barrow, in the East End. After we had settled down, the portmanteau was opened to display his wares: razor blades, writing pads and envelopes, sweets and chocolates and mysterious packets of three. He was simply continuing his work as a general trader. Close to him was Cohen, a barber who would soon start to make a fortune trying to cure the regimental hair-cuts. He was quickly appointed regimental barber, a position he held until his release in 1946. At least 10 of the recruits were Jews. These men of varying characters were to enrich the regiment with their contrasting qualities.”
“Another character was French who spoke very little English. He had been working in a West End restaurant when he had been caught up in the draft. At inspection the next day, the officer demanded: ‘Name?’
‘Macey,’ was his reply.
Sergeant Wigger, roared: ‘Macey what?’
Nervously the lad replied: ‘Macey, George.’
He was of course expected to say: ‘Sir.’ It broke the ice. The officer roared with laughter, the sergeant smiled and Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) Reid’s permanent frown lifted slightly. We were all human beings again. After all, we were still the same men dressed in our civvies trying to recover from our first 24 hours in the army.”
“Notwithstanding the sergeant’s warning, lights out on the first night was delayed to 1030pm. By that time, most had prepared for their first night’s sleep on our lumpy straw beds. Despite constant shouts of ‘Silence!’, talking and laughter continued well into the night. Reveille was marked by a bugle call at 6am. Even after a poor night’s sleep, I was glad to get out of bed. I joined the melee at ablutions, washed in cold water and shaved. It was no hardship as very few people had running hot water in their homes. Breakfast was served: lumpy porridge and a sausage with a couple of doorsteps (thick slices of bread and margarine). Inspection followed and names taken. ‘Unshaven. Stand closer to your razor. Filthy ears,’ were the remarks made by the inspecting officer. A squad at a time, we were marched to the stores and given an assortment of webbing: packs, haversacks, belts and straps. We carried our bundles back to our places.”
“Sergeant Wigger stood in front of us with a webbing belt and pack: ‘This is your equipment. It is called 08 pattern, because it was first designed in 1908. I will show you how to fit it together. Copy me.’ We put it over our civvies. The NCOs adjusted it.”
“We then went back to the stores where the armourer sergeant gave each of us a rifle covered in thick grease and a pull-through rope and rags for cleaning the inside of the rifle’s barrel. We sat down and were told to clean off the grease. At the same time, Wigger told us that we were riflemen and we had just been issued with our best friend: the 303 short Lee Enfield rifle and bayonet. It was never to leave our side and was to be cleaned and cherished at all times. The exteriors were examined meticulously. We were told how to pull the cloth from the breech to the muzzle using the pull-through. The NCOs were soon peering down the barrels of the rifles.”
“We were told that we would never carry our rifles at the slope on our shoulders, like lesser mortals in other parts of the British Army. The corporal demonstrated the two ways riflemen held their weapons. The shoulder entailed holding the rifle vertically by the right side. This involved supporting the weapon by the trigger guard. That was painful. The second position was the trail. It involved holding the rifle horizontally at its point of balance. That was almost impossible. The next order was issued. ‘We will form up and march next door to get used to carrying our rifles at the trail.’ Next door was the All England Tennis Club, the headquarters of world tennis. We set off, almost in step, with the occasional dropped rifle. The entrance to the club was the next driveway. On the firm concrete surface, we were given our first foot and arms drill lessons. It was here that I regretted wearing my highly polished brown brogues. I started to hack a hole just below my right ankle in my endeavour to snap to attention. This would not heal until we were issued boots.”
“At the end of the week, we paraded at the stores to be confronted by a line of soldiers presided over by a thick-set man wearing a green caubeen. We were the last squad to be dealt with. Each man was issued with Long John underclothes, shirts, two pairs of grey socks, a cap comforter and brown woollen overalls called battledress. We were asked our height and chest size.A blouse and trousers were thrown on the counter. My battledress jacket and trousers were marked with a large figure 9.”
‘Excuse me,’ I said politely. ‘Corporal!,’ yelled the man.
‘Excuse me corporal, but this suit is the wrong size.’
‘Trouble?,’ asked the warrant officer.
‘This is too large, Sir.,’ I replied
‘Smallest we’ve got,’ the officer said. ‘Next.’
I found out later that this was Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant (RQMS) Wallie James, the second most senior warrant office below RSM Reid.”
“Next we were issued with puttees and a ‘fore and aft’ cap. There were two sizes only: Too small and too large. Then came the caubeens. Our next stop was at a great array
of boots.
‘Size?,’ Shouted the sergeant.
‘Six, Sergeant.,’ I replied.
A pair of large unpolished boots were thrust at me.
‘Excuse me Sergeant, these are the wrong size. I take size 6,’ I said.
‘Best we can do.’
‘Trouble?,’ shouted the RQMS. ‘What you again?’
‘These boots are too large, Sir.’
‘Take them, you are lucky to have them. What’s your name?’
‘Rifleman O’Sullivan, Sir.,’ I replied.
‘I will remember that!,’ He did.”
“We went back to our places where we dressed in our uniforms. I was 5 feet 5 inches tall, with about a 35-inch chest. My uniform was for a man at of least 5 feet 9 inches with a 40-inch chest. My puttees held up my trousers which were supported by braces made as short as they would go. The blouse was enormous. The webbing belt acted as a corset. My forage cap was supported by my ears.”
“We were shown how to clean our boots and equipment using materials we were forced to buy. Next morning, we marched to Putney Heath to church. This was a long and painful march as my feet floated about in my huge boots. The Mass was celebrated by the battalion Catholic padre. I will always remember on the march watching the highly polished boots of Sergeant Dickie Bird. He was a former Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) regular, a cockney and a gentleman who became a true friend. We met members of the other companies.
The 2nd Battalion of the London Irish comprised four fighting companies, each made up of four platoons, plus support personnel. Each company numbered just over 100 men. The four companies were named E, F, G and H. The Headquarters (HQ) Company completed the battalion.”
“Each company was unique. E Company included a great number of Irish and London based Irishmen. Many had served in the Irish army. Some said that they had been rebels in the 1919-21 independence war. F Company catered for West End actors and the staff of theatres. They often acted a part. When digging air raid trenches on Putney Heath, they tied rope round their calves, turned their caubeens around and wore them like cloth caps in imitation of a building labourer. As they worked, their language became more lurid. Among their ranks were names already known in their profession. In addition to Jack Allen, there were some lesser-known actors including William Edward Hodge and Nigel Stock, who became a post-war film and television personality.”
“Some recruits were residents or worked in the locality. They included employees of Chelsea Borough Council. These gravitated to G Company, where the CSM, a platoon sergeant major and several NCOs had all worked for the council. Some claimed they were crew of the same dust-cart.”
“The most famous Church of England teachers’ training college in London was St Mark’s and St John’s, known as Marjons. Before the war began, its principal contacted the London Irish and marched the whole college along King’s Road to the Duke of York’s barracks where the regiment had its headquarters. Here, they had special drills to fit in with their studies. They became H Company and were commanded by Captain Fritz Lane, an ex-Guard and a stern disciplinarian who had won an MC and other medals in the 1st World War. By enlisting in the Territorial Army, the Marjons students avoided the six months of service demanded by the Military Training Act. This allowed the majority of H Company to qualify as teachers before they went off to summer camp in 1939. Because it had so many educated men, the London Irish became an officer-producing regiment. Its ranks included titled persons and wealthy businessmen.”
“HQ Company comprised specialist platoons. Many of them had been transferred from the 1st Battalion, as had most of the 2nd Battalion’s NCOs and officers. They included pioneers, mortar-specialists, drivers of the troop carrying vehicles (TCVs), signals, transport and anti-tank platoons. HQ Company also had the intelligence officer, the regimental quartermaster, the armourers, the pipe band, the buglers and the drummers, the battle patrol and the battalion headquarters (BHQ). At full strength, HQ Company numbered about 400 men. It would be divided later into two: HQ Company and Support (S) Company.”
“After church parade and lunch on 22 October, we were told that the rest of the day was for ‘interior economy’. This was free time for cleaning kit and polishing boots. ‘Will we be allowed out?,’ we asked. ‘Not until you look something like soldiers,’ was the reply. It was approaching mid-afternoon when the corporal in charge of the picket asked for me by name. He said that my father was at the gate with a parcel. I went to see him. Dad asked me how I was getting along. I was very abrupt, as I did not want people to think I was a mummy’s boy. Dad asked me what the food was like. I told him it was bad but we were all inthe same boat. He then said: ‘Your mother cooked this little fruit cake especially for you.’ I said: ‘I can’t take that. What will the other chaps think?’ Corporal Grandison saw my father leave dispiritedly and asked me what was wrong. I told him about the cake. ‘You sent back a home-made cake! You must be mad. You could have given it to me. Don’t for Lord’s sake tell your mates. They’ll murder you.’ When I told my group, they were not at all pleased.”
“We paraded the next morning for the first time as soldiers dressed in our new uniforms. On the smooth road surface outside Wimbledon and on the level concrete paths surrounding the tennis courts, we were put through our rifle drill. We marched confidently until we were given the order to about-turn. At that point, nearly all the field service caps flew into the air. At the end of each stretch of marching came the order: ‘Pick up caps.’
For many, the exercise on the parade ground and the physical education (PE) was the firstthey had since school. Supervised by corporals David Peel and Grandison, actors from F Company and gentlemen who treated us well, we got very fit.”
“At last, we were given an evening pass from 5pm until 11pm. Most could only go as far as Wimbledon but I was able to get home by tube and bus. I remember arriving to be greeted at the door by my mother. She did not know whether to laugh or cry. I was kitted out in an over-large battle dress held together by a webbing belt, which was almost hidden by the fold of the blouse, and a side cap which threatened to fall off my head. The last time she had seen me, I had been wearing a well-cut Harris tweed jacket and flannels. In the wardrobe hung two hand-made Savile Row suits. I apologised about the cake. She clearly understood that I was endeavouring to stand on my own feet and did not want to appear any different from my new mates. About this time, my family moved to 31 Arodene Road, a large house with six rooms, a kitchen, a scullery and a bathroom. It was still rented but there were four earners in the family: my father, Danny, Nellie and Tom. I was in the army and no charge on the family.”
“Our first pay-day arrived. We were summoned in alphabetical order to the pay table. Here, we were to receive our money. The first one was called. ‘701597 rifleman Adams. Seven shillings stoppages. Seven shillings pay.’
‘What stoppages?,’ said Adams. ‘Sir,’ prompted the colour sergeant. He turned to the officer commanding (OC) Captain Gibbs. ‘Barrack damages, Sir.’
‘What barracks, Sir?’ asked Adams.
‘Quiet!’ roared the sergeant major.
‘Rifleman Allinson,’ shouted the colour sergeant, completely unperturbed and turning to the next victim.”
“We were to be systematically robbed of seven shillings (35p) each week for the whole training period and beyond. The damages were alleged to have been caused to requisitioned buildings we occupied. In fact, the system of pay and mess rolls was so complicated that practically the whole British Army was at odds with the Army Paymaster. (The basic pay for a private was 3 shillings a day but there were more than 200 differential wage rates in the British armed forces). The damages were a way the battalion balanced its books.”
“Late in the second week, Sergeant Wigger announced that there would be a company concert. ‘It will be given by you.’ He moved along the ranks of his squad and said in turn: ‘Rifleman, you will sing.’ To the next he might suggest a recital or dance.
‘Rifleman O’Sullivan, you will sing and dance.’
I said: ‘I can’t dance, Sergeant.’
‘Good!,’ He said. ‘You will sing!’ The following Saturday, in front of the whole company, our officers and others, I sang the only song that I really knew. It was the Rose of Tralee, taught to me by my mother. I was assisted by a backing group who contrived to hum in harmony. I received thunderous applause. On the bill with me were some professionals from F Company including Hodge, Peel and Stock, who impersonated Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh in the film Mutiny on the Bounty. He improvised and declared: ‘An officer is an officer, a sergeant is a sergeant; a corporal is a corporal but the lowest form of animal life in the British Army is a b*****d conscript.’ This did not go down well with the men. They had been conscripted into the army, but many territorials had joined to avoid the call up, as, indeed, the actors in F and trainee teachers in H companies had done. A result of my singing came a few days later when I offended someone by my strict adherence to orders. He called me: ‘Bloody Rosie.’ The name spread throughout the battalion and then the brigade. It stuck until I was to become a civilian again almost seven years later.”
“My greatest joy was the pipes and drums band. The bagpipes were under the command of Pipe Major Archibald (Archie) Evans. He had a Welsh surname, a Scottish Christian name and spoke with an accent that he thought was Scottish. He had been the pipe major of a battalion of the RUR but he was born of English parents. He looked extremely fierce in his green doublet worn above a saffron kilt and green socks with the whole covered by his green cloak. His headdress was a green caubeen with a St Patrick’s blue hackle above the London Irish badge, in my opinion, the most beautiful in the British Army. The bugle major commanded the drummers, who were also buglers when required. He wore a highly polished (or patent leather) cross belt that bore the regimental battle honours and a whistle in silver.
The bugle major carried a silver-headed walking stick which acted as a mace. We were not to see the dress uniform of the band again until after the war. I loved pipe music, particularly Irish war pipes.”
“Our quarters were only adequate for sleeping and eating. Our training, for the main part, was in the All England Club. I can truthfully say that I learned to fire and aim a rifle on the centre court at Wimbledon. We learned to use a bayonet. In rifle regiments, there is no drill for fixing bayonets. That is probably because the rifleman was a soldier trained to act alone, originally in the American colonies, so they seldom fought as a regiment. I was given the task, with a couple of others, to set up the dummies for bayonet practice under the direction of 2nd Lieutenant Savage, a charming man who treated us with much more respect than the NCOs. I hated the thought of using a bayonet on a fellow human being and I thank God that I never had to. Training in Wimbledon lasted eight weeks. Around the middle of December, we were posted to our companies. Before this happened, the champion recruit was selected. It was no surprise to anyone that Eddie Mayo was unanimously chosen.”
“Ward, Creasey and O’Keefe were all posted with me to G Company, which was commanded by Captain Gibbs, and placed in 15 Platoon. We were stationed in an old house, which had been requisitioned. Our beds were the floors. There was no hot water. Our task was to guard, together with 13 and 14 platoons, the records’ office and the maintenance unit of the RAF. These two very large establishments were across the road from our billet and separated from each other by the District railway. We mounted guard every other day on the maintenance unit.”
“We saw how the other half lived. The majority were clerks and mechanics, yet few were apparently below the rank of leading aircraftsman and NCOs abounded. They lived in spacious quarters with beds, sprung mattresses, sheets and pillowcases and individual lockers. Our comforts were confined to two blankets and a palliase. Most of us were still without greatcoats. I was paid a measly allowance for wearing my grey, Melton double-breasted overcoat, over which I buckled my webbing. It was completely ruined and I dumped it when a greatcoat was finally issued. The greatest difference was in the well-appointed mess hall. We ate at the records’ office mess. Food was served immediately we arrived. Tea was unlimited. There were four meals daily including supper. When on guard, a supper meal we paid for was to us Cordon Bleu. Barrack damages continued at seven shillings a week. I concluded that the army was the poor relation when provision for the armed forces was made.”
“On my very first guard duty at the maintenance unit, a sergeant was guard commander. After inspecting us, he said: ‘Any person with a watch?’
Innocently, I said: ‘I have, Sergeant.’
He replied: ‘Let me borrow it for this guard.’
I took off my gold presentation watch and handed it to him. Strapping it on his wrist, he remarked: ‘Nice little watch.’ At the end of our 24-hour duty, I expected it to be returned, but he retained it for over a week. In the end, I summoned up enough courage to ask for it back, at which point he took it off and handed it back to me, but with no word of thanks. I had a 48 hour pass that weekend, so I left my watch at home, where it remained for a year or more. The corporals and sergeants were, generally, not very pleasant. They often took advantage of the genuine fear that the young soldiers had of them. Soon, they would be replaced or transferred.”
“Guard duty was unpleasant but being on patrolling picket was much worse. One was alone, whereas sentries were in pairs. Armed with a pick-handle, the picket patrolled the perimeter of the unit and in a two-hour duty would only have time for a couple of circuits. When a blizzard came, I patrolled in deep snow which drifted in places to a depth of about two feet or more. We had only our civilian overcoats. As a result of our privations on guard and in the sub-standard billets, we were vulnerable to influenza. As with many other soldiers, I was taken into the station hospital where I was kept for about three days. At the end of this, the billet was so overcrowded that I was sent home on sick leave of 72 hours.”
“An amusing incident occurred while I was on guard. I was the mobile picket and, at about 3am, I discovered a couple of bent railings at the side of the railway which formed a gap large enough for a man to get through. I immediately blew my whistle. A fighting picket of about six men led by Corporal Gerry Teague ran to me. He asked breathlessly what the trouble was. I pointed to the fence. He laughed and suggested it must have been like it for years. The whole company had stood to. The incident was not referred to, but I think that G Company commander Captain Gibbs was pleased at the reaction to the alarm and my powers of observation.”
“At the end of February 1940, the regiment moved to St Alban’s and into more comfortable billets though we still had floorboards as beds. We stayed in a large detached house towards the outskirts of the city and on the road to London Colney, near St Mimms. I nicknamed our new platoon leader Sergeant Brown as ‘Tapper’ because he would quite unashamedly tap us for a loan half way through the week. We were a battalion in the same brigade as two Royal Fusilier territorial battalions and part of the 47th London Division. Training consisted of lots of route marching. On these, we were encouraged to sing as we marched along the country roads. Corporal Belding, a very large NCO with red hair, led the singing of often ribald parodies of popular songs, much to my disgust and that of any passing pedestrian. A favourite was McNamara’s band, which was directed at the commander of 15 Platoon Captain Hennessy. He used to join in with gusto and secretly enjoyed his nickname ‘Tootle Hennessy’ from the verse: ‘Hennessy, Hennessy. Tootle your flute’.”
“We were then packed off to Purfleet marshes to fire our rifles at targets and have our weapons zeroed-in. Over about three days, we trudged daily to the windswept, open marshes to fire, if we were lucky, about a clip of five rounds. I developed a raging toothache.
We were allowed out in the evening, so I went to the nearest dentist to have it removed. He protested violently as I possessed a full set. I demanded removal because the suffering was unbearable. Reluctantly, he removed the offending item. I continued to suffer for a week with neuralgia.”
“St. Alban’s was a very pleasant city and we enjoyed our stay. One evening, Sergeant Tapper Brown came to our room where Bas Creasey, Pip Ward and I were buffing up our boots.
‘Good,’ said the sergeant. ‘The right number and the right chaps. Get your kits together in 30 minutes, as a truck will be collecting you.’
‘Why Sarge,’ we chorused.
‘You have volunteered for the RPs.’
‘What’s RPs?,’ we asked.
‘The regimental police,’ he replied.”
“We were above normal intelligence but sub-standard physically. Bas was decidedly corpulent and, despite army food, had managed to put on weight. He could be described as lethargic. Less polite persons would consider him to be bone idle or even bloody lazy. Pip, on the other hand, was a vital person, but not a policeman. I was keen but, in my overlarge battle dress, was the antithesis of a smart policeman. We reported to the provost sergeant who was responsible for the regimental police. Sergeant Floyd was a kindly, very smart man in his late thirties. He obviously was not too impressed by his latest volunteers. He issued us with green armbands upon which were the letters RP. Our station was the battalion quartermaster’s stores.”
“Next morning, immediately after breakfast, Sergeant Floyd inspected us and detailed our duties. I was paired with a very tall, smart, lance-corporal and our task was to patrol the main roads in the centre of the city. We strolled in a policeman-like manner, callin into various establishments like Battalion HQ. At one point, our attention was drawn to the pipe band which was leading HQ Company on a route march. I was thrilled and stood with my hands behind my back, admiring the military phalanx as it passed. Suddenly, there was a roar: ‘That RP there. Stand to attention as we pass!’ I sheepishly drew my feet together.”
“A sergeant came dashing out, shouting: ‘You are under close arrest for failing to stand to attention when an armed party passes. Fall in at the rear of the company!’ I was compelled to march behind the company until we reached their first 50-minute halt. Captain John Lofting sent for me and asked for an explanation. I told him that I was so impressed by the music and the solemnity of the occasion that I had forgotten to bring my feet together. I added that I intended no insult to his company. ‘You can rejoin your comrade. I think you have learnt your lesson. Fall out!’ I saluted and started marching the two and a half miles back to St Alban's. As a probationary RP, I had few privileges, no stripes and only the authority of the armband as protection. RPs were always on duty patrolling the city until midnight. A bonus, however, was to be able to have a 30-minute break in the canteen run by the good ladies of the city. Here we were regaled with a mighty fry-up of egg and bacon, the like of which I have never tasted since. The charge was about sixpence (2.5p). Each night, we mounted a picket over the stores and patrolled alone for two hour stints. I remember watching, with infinite pleasure, dawn breaking and hearing in the crystal late-April air the preliminary warblings of the birds. This gradually developed into a completely deafening chorus of such beauty that it assailed every sense with its splendour. During my short military career up to that point, I had been on many guard duties at dawn, but such experiences had never before been manifest.”
The period of Ted’s basic training and early assignments encompassed the first nine months of the conflict. This period was called the Phoney War because there was no fighting involving Britain and its allies. France’s Maginot Line was considered to be strong enough to deter any German attack in the form of the assault that began the 1st World War 25 years earlier.
The Phoney War came to an end on 9 April 1940 when Hitler ordered the invasion of Denmark and Norway, which was swiftly completed. A British expeditionary force to Norway was quickly withdrawn. Parliament lost patience with Neville Chamberlain and he resigned as prime minister on 10 May. Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill, who had been in the cabinet as 1st Lord of the Admiralty since September 1939. Later that day, the Germans began to invade Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, all neutral states, as part of a campaign to defeat France and win the war in the West. The British Army in the UK was mobilised.
“We were immediately put on alert and moved by a curious variety of vehicles to Sandy in Bedfordshire. Our convoy included superannuated buses and pantechnicons. We disembussed in a wooded glade where I immediately proceeded to relieve myself behind a tree. I was interrupted by a roar: ‘Put that man under arrest!’ It was the medical officer accompanied by the provost sergeant. Brought before the company commander, I was admonished and returned to duty. Practically the whole regiment had emulated me, but I had broken the 11th commandment: never get caught. The sergeant, with relief, returned his temporary RPs to their company. Was it a record? I had been placed under close arrest on my first and last days as an upholder of regimental law.”
“Nothing happened for a couple of days except our rifles were exchanged. Evidently, they were meant to be for drill purposes only. We were issued with P14 and Ross rifles, which came from stocks held in Canada since the 1st World War. They were so thick around the point of balance that my small hands had difficulty grasping one. Rumour was lurid and rife. But there was one common thread. The British Army in France and Belgium was having a hard time. We were moved to the coast to join our division and to guard the English coastline at Lowestoft in Suffolk. We debussed at a deserted flat area and erected bell tents. Towards evening, we were marched in full battle array to the beach where we were fenced in by coils of wire. Captain Gibbs told us that we had to dig slit trenches. We were reassured that, if an invasion occurred from the sea, we only had to hold on for 10 minutes or so because six-inch naval guns were ranged upon our position. ‘What about us?,’ asked an NCO. ‘Oh! Just take cover in your slit trenches,’ was the reply.”
“We had been supplied with empty bottles, pieces of rag and large cans of petrol and were let into the secret of how to manufacture Molotov cocktails, an anti-tank weapon used by the Republicans in the Spanish civil war. No one reminded our trainer that the Republicans lost.”
“Standing-to all night in full battle order was followed at full daylight by building work. There was a small, antiquated concrete mixing machine close by. This was started up and we used sand and gravel mixed with bags of Portland cement to make our first dragon’s tooth anti-tank barriers. We were then marched back to camp for breakfast. But instead of a rest after the labours of the night and morning, we were trained. This included our itinerary of drill, marching and weapon training. That evening, we were not marched to the beach but dressed in full battle order and rested in our tents. We lay on our haversacks with mess tins pressing into our backs and our respirators on our chests restricting our breathing. At dusk and dawn, we on our feet and looking for the invaders.”
“At dusk, I was posted in the thickening gloom on guard away from my fellows. I heard what I thought was the word: ‘Gas!’. My greatest fear had come to pass: a gas attack. Following well-taught rules, I held my breath and covered my face with the mask. Standing there with bayonet fixed, I was confronted by a massive figure, obviously proof against gas, as he was not wearing a gas mask.
‘Halt!,’ I commanded in a much muffled voice. ‘Who goes there?’
A clear voice said: ‘Take that bloody thing off so I can hear you.’ It was Captain Gibbs. He asked me why I had put on my respirator. I told him that I thought I heard that terrifying word. Once again, I was not condemned but applauded for being alert.”
“A few days later, there was an invasion; not by bloodthirsty Germans but gangs of navvies with a massive machine which they proceeded to erect on a kind of stage. Wooden buildings appeared with notices on them. One read Advances. We, grossly underpaid and overworked on a maximum of two bob a day, were to see men who had not yet done a stroke of work lining up for fists full of money.”
“It would be some days before a block-house and more dragon’s teeth would enrich the landscape of that seaside resort. We were receiving more authentic news which was backed up by the appearance of small craft with men in blue navy uniforms and peaked caps. They were some of those who had played such a crucial part in the evacuation of more than 300,000 British Expeditionary Force and other Allied troops from Dunkirk over 10 days ending 4 June 1940. We also heard how the Queen Victoria’s Rifles (QVR) had been liquidated at Calais.
Originally, our battalion had been selected to go to Calais with the other two rifle regiments in the 47th Division, but the QVR had claimed the honour. They had paid a terrible price.” The news from France got worse. On 14 June, Paris was abandoned. On 22 June, the French government signed an armistice treaty at Compiegne in the same railway carriage used when Germany surrendered nearly 21 years before. Hitler was filmed almost dancing with joy at his triumph. France was out of the war. Italy had declared war on 10 June when it was clear that Germany was winning. Britain stood on its own.
At this critical juncture, some argued that Britain should itself sue for peace rather than continue with a war it could not possibly win. The defeatists were not all closet Nazi sympathisers. They included realists who believed continuing with the war would lead to national bankruptcy. At best, Britain and Germany would be fatally weakened to the advantage of the Soviet Union. Churchill rejected the peace option and called for total war. After rallying his wavering cabinet, he delivered some of the most powerful speeches ever heard in the House of Commons. ‘We shall fight on the beaches...We shall never surrender,’ he declared in a speech on 4 June, the day the last British troops were taken from Dunkirk. Some thought his rhetoric was misplaced. The majority, however, rallied. It had become a People’s War. More mundane matters, however, were preoccupying Rifleman O’Sullivan.
“It was at Lowestoft that I got my first promotion and was given the longest title in the British Army: local acting unpaid lance-corporal. Also honoured were Pip Ward, Terry O’Keefe and six others. I was immediately rebuked for being improperly dressed and was compelled to purchase from my ‘unpay’ four pairs of black and green chevrons. For many hours, I squatted sewing them on my various uniforms. These had been augmented by a pre-war, other-ranks tunic and a pair of knee crackers, very tight trousers, the bottoms of which were folded over long puttees. This was a walking-out dress that took hours to adjust correctly. I had, of course, also been compelled to buy a set of regimental black buttons to go with my new uniform.”
“The invasion crisis ended and our division became a mobile reserve. Even greener troops took our place on the coast. We were moved in our fleet of assorted vehicles to the grounds of Eaton Hall, the Duke of Westminster’s palatial home near Knutsford in Cheshire. An army camp had been built using lines of camouflaged bell tents. There was no flooring and about a dozen men had to sleep in each tent with their feet towards the centre pole. After a few days, it appeared that the tent walls were moving. It immediately transpired that we were infested with lice. The previous occupants had been evacuees from Europe who had left us a legacy.”
“Company by company, we were to be disinfested. E Company was first. F Company followed. The treatment involved putting all clothing and equipment in an apparatus which baked the animals. Unfortunately, every crease was baked into the uniforms as well. Those creases were completely irremovable, remaining until the next uniform exchange. It was also rumoured that the lice were cooked but still alive. The regiment’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Randle Starkey, was incensed. He made representations for the process to change by the time it was G Company’s turn. On the day, we were ordered to strip naked and to wrap all our belongings carefully inside a clean blanket. These bundles were put across a hedge into a field near to which were parked vehicles with massive pipes playing into their interiors. The clothes and equipment were put into the machinery and gas was pumped in. Meanwhile, the orderly sergeant, Corporal Belding, called on parade about 100 stark-naked men who were formed up in their platoons wearing boots and steel helmets only. Belding was more dressed than we: he wore a webbing belt and bayonet as well. Calling us to attention, he reported to G Company second-in-command Captain Bartlett who was dressed. He solemnly returned his salute and proceeded to inspect the company, occasionally adjusting the angle of the men’s helmets. Bartlett had a record as an eccentric. He had allegedly compelled his former company to clear snow from the front of their billet in St Alban's, even from the grass with their hands, in preparation for inspection by the commanding officer.”
“We proceeded, by platoon, to a gap in the hedge leading to the clean field. Here, each one was examined by an MO and our feet and boots were dipped in disinfectant, as were our helmets. Our bodies were sprayed by an orderly. Fortunately it was a beautiful sunny day, so it was no hardship to do nothing but lay on the grass and talk. Finally, it was decided that our visitors were dead. We collected our kits and after examining them for damage were happy to get dressed and pack the remainder away. We were marched to a new camp in another part of the estate. Our former home was burnt.”
“After about a month in Knutsford, we were moved suddenly to another great estate near Birmingham. We remained there for just a few days and then entrained again for Pembroke, ‘Little England Beyond Wales’ as it was then known. The suddenness of the move seemed to confirm that the army was unsure of what it was doing. We were transported on a single-track line which ran through central England and into Wales. The stations we passed through had their identities removed. Arriving in the darkness of early morning, our company was marched to a group of empty shops in the main street of an old town. We were to occupy the semi-ruined top floors. When daylight came, the mystery had not been solved as we were confined to barracks to give us time to settle in. Mealtime arrived and we were marched to the market hall in the centre of this old town. Here, we learnt its name for the first time: Haverfordwest.”
“About this time, we received a pay rise. Proficiency pay was to be awarded and my magnificent salary was raised to three shillings and three pence (about 16p) a day less stoppages. There was nothing yet for my lance-corporal’s stripe. The 2nd Battalion was still part of a mobile reserve formation. We had been selected to do intensive company and battalion training. Colonel Starkey was an eccentric, as the way he wore his caubeen illustrated. His hackle hung forward and appeared to point and you had to be prepared to answer immediately any question asked. ‘What would you do if a German parachutist, landed here?’ was an example of the question he put. He praised and promoted a sentry who marched him with his hands upraised to the guard commander. ‘I did not recognise you in the dark, Sir!’, he claimed. A man before his time, Starkey’s methods were to capture the attention of London daily newspapers. Our stay at Haverfordwest started with drill, spit and polish and guard duty. The RSM now was our old friend Buff Reid. Each of the four companies was encouraged to compete with each other by sending two representatives as HQ Guard which comprised a commander -- a corporal -- and six men. A stick orderly was selected from the eight to wait upon the commanding officer as his orderly for the day which gave him the privilege of carrying a swagger stick.”
“I managed to avoid being a member of the guard, but my size seven boots and my bayonet appeared on parade most days. They had been adjudged by no less an expert than G Company CSM Danny Long as the best in our company. Feet were squeezed into my boots almost daily to be returned to the company office as soon as the orderly had been chosen. My boots were spotless because they had seldom been worn. I had been issued with a second pair of the right size.”
“One thing had not changed. Few people could understand any command given by RSM Reid. I saw men charged with inattention because they failed to respond to his incomprehensible commands. This was completely unfair since it could lead to the soldier being a marked man. Competition between companies for the privilege of being stick orderly was fierce. It became difficult to choose between the men on parade. Extreme measures were used to make the decision. Boots were removed to see if socks were correctly darned and that the soles of boots were highly polished. Rifleman Nugent, who was so poor when doing basic training at the Barker’s ground, never did a guard as he was always chosen to be the orderly because he was so smart.”
“H Company commander Captain Lane recognised the difficulty with Reid when he was preparing a programme of battalion drill. He chose sergeant majors Billy Allen and Danny Long to take over the task. Both were ultra-smart men and it was almost always a pleasure to be on battalion parades with them in charge. Billy, an RUR rifleman but English, was the son of the RUR bandsmaster. Danny, an Irishman, claimed he had been a boy messenger for the rebels during the Irish wars. After the drill came the intensive training. One day, Danny called me to the company office. He showed me the duty roster and other books and asked me if I could improve them. Captain Gibbs bought new books, billed as cleaning materials, and I painstakingly rewrote his duty roster in my best handwriting and script. He showed my work to the company commander with pride. Not literate himself, Danny loved literacy in others.”
“While I was given this extra task, normal training continued unabated. A competition was arranged between the nine sections in G Company in map-reading and leadership, something which is now termed orienteering. I was given responsibility for eight men, two of them really unfit. With the help of Rifleman Andy Gardiner, and using the skill learned in Lambeth Scouts, I guided this mixed band to victory by a wide margin. As a result, I was praised by Captain Gibbs when he presented the first prize. A few days later, battalion asked for a nominee from each company to become a map-reading instructor. My name was forwarded and I found myself in the company mainly of sergeants. After a period teaching the skills of reading maps, I returned to G Company. I was confronted by an enraged Danny who was almost speechless with anger about the state of the company’s books. ‘Look at this, after only a few weeks.’ Illiteracy was common among NCOs and my work of art was ruined. Danny asked me if I would start yet another. He did this so humbly, I was almost embarrassed.”
“Company training followed. We were bussed to Newgale Sands for a fortnight’s intensive battle preparation. This involved forced marches and long runs that culminated in nude bathing in the cold sea, watched appreciatively from a distance by local ladies. Route marches with full packs, stalking and crawling and field-firing using live ammunition were among the pleasures we endured under Captain Geoffrey Phillips, our temporary company commander. On the final Friday evening, he treated the whole company in the local hostelry as a mark of his appreciation for our efforts.”
“There were occasional moments of ill-discipline. Rifleman Waddy Weir, worse for drink, attempted on three occasions to swim home to his wife in Ireland. After pulling him out of the shallow sea twice, I said on his third attempt: ‘Drown then.’ He did not, as the next day he was once more asking to borrow ‘fippence’ for a drink. We returned to Haverfordwest feeling more like soldiers, tough and prepared for anything.”
“The old mess and payroll system of company accounting had been replaced by a simple system of accounts but even this would prove too complicated for the company quartermaster sergeants, in particular ‘Twinkletoes’ Bevan who had promoted from corporal to colour sergeant. A solicitor by profession, Bevan was completely unsuited for dealing with the intricacies of the quartermaster account .A very big puzzle was the vexing problem of the men’s pay. There appeared to be no reason why some soldiers were always in debt. Captain Gibbs, now back in command of G Company, asked me about my experience with book-keeping. I told him that I was not an accountant, but that, through my schooling, my work and the club, I had acquired a fair knowledge of the simple type of accounts which were epitomised by the men’s pay. This involved a weekly wage less deductions and any accrued debt. Captain Gibbs asked me to open an account with the regimental paymaster for every other rank and to keep these accounts in a ledger. I started by writing in copper plate the name of each soldier on separate double pages in the ledger. I sent away for a statement of accounts for each man. I entered each week’s pay on the credit side. When I agreed the balance with the soldier, I entered that. I deducted his insurance and any charge for clothing. When the regimental paymaster discovered our company was taking interest, his queries mysteriously disappeared. Captain Gibbs was delighted.”
While the London Irish were training in Wales, the focus of the war shifted to the skies over south-east England. Commander of the Luftwaffe Hermann Goerring declared that the German airforce could defeat Britain on its own. Attacks against British air bases in south-east England were ordered. In the middle of August, a month also remembered for cloudless skies and warm sun, the RAF and Luftwaffe fought deadly battles above the Home Counties of England. RAF air bases were bombed. The attrition rate among pilots was terrifying. If the RAF had been broken, Germany would have been able to turn its attention to Britain’s factories, transport system and cities. Coincidentally, Ted returned to London to attend the marriage of his brother Daniel and Kathleen Stamp. The wedding took place at Corpus Christi Church on a beautiful late August day. The family photograph shows Ted, the first in his family in uniform. Their father Mick is suntanned, evidence of days spent in his garden. No one would imagine from their smiles that Britain’s fate was being determined that day above Kent.
“In August, we were granted our first seven days leave. I managed to time mine to attend Danny’s marriage. Danny now worked as a rigger in radio location, the forerunner of radar, and was in a reserved occupation. Kathleen’s father was the chief officer at Brixton prison. He would soon be promoted to governor at Shrewsbury. We were fortunate that my leave was during the first part of the Battle of Britain so we missed the first phase of the Blitz in the autumn which was to mar many others’ leaves. The time in London was called privilege leave as it was not an entitlement. For some it would be no privilege but frightening due to bombing.”
The Battle of Britain was to be a close but decisive victory for the RAF and Britain. It ensured that Hitler would make no attempt to invade. In September, the Luftwaffe shifted its attentions away from RAF airbases to London. Eventually, bombing attacks were conducted exclusively at night. For Londoners, there followed two months of nightly terror. Hundreds of thousands sought shelter in London’s underground stations. After Dan’s wedding, Ted returned to Wales and a resumption of hard training. He recalled one exercise vividly.
“The alarm was raised just after dusk and we were bussed in a fleet of efficient and comfortable coaches. We were in full battle order and the vehicles careered around the Welsh countryside. There was no clue as to our whereabouts until we came to a halt in what appeared to be a small village. As the light came with the dawn, we noticed that nearby was a large church and some ruins. The village was the tiny city of St David’s in the far west of Pembrokeshire. At its centre was a magnificent cathedral after which the city is named. We could not leave our coaches and soon orders were given to depart. Whatever the object of the night-long exercise, it was considered a success. But it would be 22 years before I would have a chance to visit this lovely and historic relic of the early middle ages.”
Ted affectionately remembered Haverfordwest for its weekly concerts by the London Irish which included professional actors who were originally in F Company but had been spread through the battalion. For these, the county cinema’s vast stage was used. The battalion’s weekly magazine Caubeen was produced by its many journalists. They included Rodney Cockburn, who commanded the TCV Platoon, and Cyril James, a corporal in the quartermasters’ department and a Daily Mirror journalist before the war. These happy times coincided with the worst weeks of the Blitz. For 57 consecutive nights from 7 September, London was the target of heavy bombing which started in the docklands and then expanded to encompass much of its built-up area. The Luftwaffe extended its bombing campaign to Birmingham and other major British cities. On 29 December, one of the heaviest raids of the war set the City of London ablaze. After, raids on London became less frequent, but more damaging. The worst of the war on the night of 11 May 1941 killed more than 3,000. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless. Perversely, the Londoners in the London Irish were safer than their families and friends at home. After almost six months in Wales, the London Irish were transported in a series of moves during a period of almost two years that took them to Worcestershire, West Sussex, Hampshire, Norfolk and, finally, Scotland.
“The London Irish moved once more, this time to Hardwicke House, an old mansion in Malvern in Worcestershire where we spent the winter of 1940/41. The towns of the Midlands had been hit by heavy bombing, but the war seemed far, far away to us.”
“We had many long and exhausting route marches. Captain Gibbs would then put us through arms drill. We cursed him but learned from his batman Doug Brewer that Gibbs’ boots were often filled with blood. We realised that his sole purpose was to train us so that we would not be cannon fodder when our time to fight came. The company participated in exercises which often involved staying in bivouacs overnight. Two days after one, I was put on a charge for having a dirty greatcoat. I expected to lose my stripes, but Captain Gibbs listened to my excuse, which was completely unique. I said that I was obeying his order to keep the men’s accounts up to date. This kept me working all the week, yet I still had to join exercises and route marches. Once again, I was just admonished.”
“While we were at Malvern, Coventry was Blitzed. The 2nd Battalion sent parties to help clear the chaos. Waddy Weir had been appointed assistant storeman by Colour Sergeant Bevan. One evening, after consuming a cocktail of paraffin, rifle oil and other liquids, he piled up ammunition and mortar bombs and threatened to blow up the company billets. Shortly afterwards, he was charged in a civilian court and he was heard of no more.”
“I was given my second stripe and received another seven days leave which I spent in London. Every night, I slept in the cellar under 31 Arodene Road. One evening, after escorting a friend back to her home on Brixton Hill, bombs fell close by. I dived into the gutter and felt very foolish when I saw civilians around me had not. I was glad to return to the peace of Malvern.”
“Training was punctuated by amusing incidents. Sergeant Sullivan was battalion orderly sergeant one Sunday when I was orderly corporal. The Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians and the other principal Christian denominations had marched off to church. All that remained was one man. ‘Religion?,’ Sullivan asked. ‘Swedenborgian, sergeant,’ the man replied. The soldier said he would like to attend a small chapel about a mile away. Without further ado, Sullivan called the man to attention with the command ‘church parade’ and marched him to the chapel. Perhaps, hitherto, he just had a free morning but he had not reckoned with Sergeant Sullivan’s zeal. Shortly afterwards, Sullivan and another efficient sergeant called Bunny Guinness of the brewery family were gazetted officers in the Irish Guards.”
“Colour Sergeant Bevan had acquired an assistant in the form of a corporal. He was a very pleasant Ulsterman with almost completely white hair and pale blue eyes. His official  title was pay corporal, but as I was the one wrestling with the pay as well as being a section leader, I wondered what he actually did. He had one failing. Every now and again, he would go on a bender and be a thorough nuisance, particularly to me, as he wandered drunk around the billet. Early in 1941, he was posted for officer training. He was replaced as pay corporal by Corporal Rines Green.”
The tide of war which had flowed so strongly in Germany’s favour in 1940 began to swing Britain’s way. Despite the fall of Greece and Crete, the easy German victories were becoming harder to find. British, Commonwealth and Imperial troops defeated the Italian army in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and in Libya in the winter of 1940. On the home front in early spring 1941, the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish moved with the 47th London division to West Sussex where it was in reserve with its brigade. Ted was allocated to 13 platoon, “to spread the intelligentsia,” according to 13 Platoon commander 2nd Lieutenant Fitzgerald. Its billets were in a complex called Westergate Wood House.
“The remainder of the battalion was tactically spread around villages in the area. We had barely settled in when I was called into company headquarters. Always fearing the worst, I reported to the CSM who greeted me cordially and said I was to go in to see Captain Gibbs. He knocked and I marched in and saluted. The OC looked up and smiled. “Stand easy corporal,” he said.”
“Captain Gibbs had studied my battle with the regimental paymaster over the men’s pay and congratulated me on my good work, but the company still had the problem of the imprest account. ‘Do you think you could help me in bringing down the ridiculous number of observations each month?,’ he asked. ‘I’ll do my best, Sir.’ I replied. ‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘You will move immediately into headquarters here and set about the imprest account which has to be rendered at the end of the month. Sergeant major, see to that.’ I marched out with my head in a whirl. Making my way back to 13 platoon, I reported to Lieutenant Fitzgerald what had transpired. He said airily: ‘I already knew. You’ll be a colour sergeant soon.’ I was allocated a comfortable room, which I was to share with two others. There were two double bunks.”
“This was luxury, but I had to share it for a while with Gordon who was on the point of leaving. Corporal Green was the antithesis of Gordon. Like many others who were kicking their heels in Malvern, he had volunteered for transfer to the RAF as aircrew. I had filled in the papers myself but had second thoughts. I had volunteered for nothing. I was in God’s hands, so why stick my neck out?”
“I was orderly corporal. At the crack of dawn, I abstracted my application from about 10 in the company office. No mention was ever made of it. I know that Gibbs was sorry that so many of his “brains” were leaving. He may have been relieved I was staying since he had other plans for me.”
“Green and I became boon companions. At mealtimes, we walked together to the mess hall and we appeared to be inseparable. I do not think we were too popular with the senior NCOs. But in Danny’s eyes, we could do no wrong. I believe that Rines was a sort of permanent orderly sergeant, as he seemed to keep himself busy. Probably the others envied us our apparently cushy numbers, although mine was not. With Colour Sergeant Bevan’s approval, I set about analysing the imprest account and quickly came to the conclusion that we should beat the paymaster at his own game by anticipating and giving an explanation before it was demanded. Sitting down at the typewriter, I wrote brief notes referring to each observation the paymaster had made. I finished every letter with something like ‘I have the honour to be etc’ I persuaded Captain Gibbs to sign each one which he did with a grin. ‘This should keep them busy!’ The imprest account that month was sent off as a bulky parcel. Meanwhile, I started to assist Bevan in other duties: collecting rations from the quartermaster at Fontwell Park, gathering clothing from the quartermaster clothing store, handling laundry and boot repairs and undertaking any of the numerous tasks that Bevan could no longer bear.”
“The weather was improving and we were moved to Atherington in Sussex, a large house and estate owned by Lord Moyne. He was another member of the Guinness family and was a government minister in the Middle East. The estate and the attached golf course occupied the sea front from the mouth of the Arun to a group of buildings at Atherington itself. The company headquarters where I worked was in Moyne’s beach house which was a sail-less windmill with outbuildings called Climping. I was allocated a room with Green. After a couple of weeks, Gibbs summoned me to his office.
He almost shouted: ‘We’ve done it! We have beaten them.’
‘But sir’, I said. ‘There’s still one observation.’
‘That’s only the balance,’ he replied.
‘Thank you Corporal. I think I am the first one to do it. It’ll be free drinks tonight.’
Secretly, he called Danny Long and gave him some money for the evening. That afternoon, Long said: ‘Do you drink corporal?’
‘A little, Sir!’
‘Perhaps you would like to join me for a couple this evening?’
‘But, Sir. You are a warrant officer and I am just a corporal.’
‘That’s all right. The captain knows.’
That evening, he and I walked together companionably to the Railway Tavern, just across the bridge over the Arun.
 ‘What’s yours,’ he asked.
‘A half pint of light ale, please Sir.’
He’d gentrified me.”
“I smoked, seldom drank and never used bad language. Despite their backgrounds, men like Green would swear like troopers. He tried his best to annoy me, and cause me to swear, as he thought my gentle speech reinforced the Rosie nickname. I was unaware that some suspected the origin of the name. One day, Green so frustrated me that I replied with a mouthful of the juiciest army expletives. He was so proud of his achievement, he openly boasted of it to the others. I, at last, had become one of them.”
“Green was finally rewarded as he was transferred to the RAF to be trained, he hoped, as a pilot. One day I was in my room when I heard cries coming from Sergeant Dann’s room. He was formerly a battalion weapons training instructor. He had worked with Corporal Terry Leahy under Captain Brett. Leahy had been one of the earlier candidates for air crew training and was sent to Canada for flying instruction. Dann clutched a letter. Tears ran down his cheeks: ‘Terry’s dead,’ he cried. ‘He was killed when he tried to land his plane after his first solo flight.’ This was to happen to many who had volunteered for the RAF and the Army Air Corps as glider pilots. I later heard that Rines had achieved his ambition and had qualified as a pilot but I heard nothing further.”
On 22 June 1941, nearly 200 divisions invaded the Soviet Union in an operation codenamed Barbarossa. The Axis armies quickly scored enormous victories, destroying Soviet divisions, killing hundreds of thousands and taking prisoner more than 3 million. The ghastliness of total war brought a new horror. SS murder squads embarked on a programme of mass shootings of Jews, Communists and any other enemies of the Reich.
But for the London Irish, the start of the war on the Eastern Front was a distant echo. There seemed no way that Britain could win, but there was now little chance it would lose. Ted enjoyed the delights of guarding England’s south coast.

Goodwood House with G Company in the summer of 1941 with OC Colin Gibbs.

L/Cpl O'Sullivan is 2nd from the right in the third row. Charles "Pip" Ward, who joined the London Irish Rifles on the same day as Edmund is sitting on the ground at the front on the right hand side.

“The summer of 1941 was beautiful. I enjoyed the wonderful weather and the sparkling sea off the Sussex coast. We occasionally bathed but were extremely wary because of the mine danger. Our billets were close to three airfields including Ford and Tangmere. At night, there was a great amount of aerial activity. Some bombing was heard but that was often the result of the jettisoning of bombs which could not be dropped on target. The nearest railway station was at Ford junction three miles from our billet.”
“Lane, commander of F Company, was about to leave the regiment and return to his family business. He was attached to our company where was in his element. Dressed in fatigues and soft shoes, he supervised our latest project which involved erecting with tubular scaffolding a vast barrier against landing craft that stretched from the Arun to Middleton and beyond. This required working in the sea at low tide, but Lane never presented anything less than an ultra-smart appearance. When reporting to G Company commander Captain Gibbs, technically his junior, Lane would meticulously snap to attention and throw up a smart salute. We now knew why Gibbs loved him so much. I was sorry when he finally left.”
“Early in our stay at the windmill, Colour Sergeant Bevan packed his bags and was off. He had reverted to his former rank and had applied for officer’s training. Part II orders were published giving details of the changes. A Sergeant Jones had been promoted to company quartermaster sergeant and posted to G Company. Corporal E O’Sullivan was promoted to acting unpaid lance sergeant. I was elated until the company commander called me in. He said he was sorry, but he had done his best. I was mystified.
He explained: ‘I wanted you to be my colour sergeant to succeed Bevan. You are doing all the work. You have mastered the accounts. You are the only man for the job.’
He told me the commanding officer was adamant after the failure of Bevan and others who had been promoted out of turn.
‘The colonel said you look too young and you were too inexperienced. Have you thought of growing a moustache. What about this ridiculous nickname. They call you Rosie, don’t they?’
I explained how I first got the name. Then I said, mischievously:
‘You ought to hear what they call you?’
‘What’s that?,’ asked Gibbs. ‘Spider,’ I replied.
He accepted this as a joke.”
“Gibbs told me that the regimental quartermaster and the commanding officer had agreed that I should remain and instruct Sergeant Jones in the mysteries of the job. Jones, a former territorial, was a thick set man of medium height in his early thirties with a heavy moustache. We became firm friends but addressed each other formally. A printer by trade, Jones was well-educated. He had been a very efficient platoon sergeant in F Company and he missed them. After about three weeks, he said ‘I did not join the terriers to become a glorified clerk.’ He would find out much later that it was in fact probably the most exacting job in an infantry regiment.”
“At about this time, Lance-Corporal Baker, the company clerk and former Barker’s employee, showed me a little book. In it were listed the NCOs and against each one personal observations had been made. There were about 10 qualities listed. Most of the NCOs apparently lacked many qualities, except two: Baker and myself. He lacked one whereas I scored full marks except the quality leader, and this was written in pencil. I was astounded. Baker was to be awarded a field commission in Tunisia. I tried hard to live up to the Gibbs’ ideals.
He was probably the best officer I served under and the most memorable. Once again, G Company had no ranking quartermaster sergeant, only a locum almost universally known as Rosie. Gibbs tried to get me promoted again but to no avail. He asked how my moustache was getting along and said that I looked like a 17-year old with a little down on his upper lip.”
“An alternative was found, none other than the redoubtable Pipe Major Evans. The duties of the pipe major in a situation enjoyed by the London Irish in Sussex were far from onerous. The band took part in various parades and appeared singly at guard mounting and on company route marches, but this was nothing compared to the work of the rifle companies that summer. They slaved to erect scaffolding which guarded our front at low water mark, patrolled the area night and day, put up barbed wire entanglements and trained. On gas days, we were compelled to wear our respirators for hours. This was difficult in an office, but absolute hell for those digging and building.”
“Our predecessors the Canadians had laid minefields during the emergency after Dunkirk in the summer of 1940, but in their enthusiasm had not plotted the mines’ positions. They had also placed many in the sand dunes. One morning, I was walking across the golf course to 15 Platoon when I heard a loud bang. The head of a red setter landed on the path immediately in front of me. It belonged to Lady Grania Guinness, Lord Moyne’s daughter who, with her friend Princess Obelinsky, ran a Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) tea van which supplied the soldiers with tea and sandwiches in their breaks. We adored them both. Lady Grania was heartbroken. The dog had been her companion and pet. A couple of days later, two gunners from a local coastal battery were killed crossing the dunes on their way back to their emplacements after a swim.”
“For the first weeks, Archie was quite content to twirl his moustache and let me do all the work, apart from collecting rations. I always accompanied him on this duty as he would retreat to the nearby sergeants’ mess. But we became friends and on nickname terms.
Captain Gibbs knew what was going on and was quite annoyed. On 24 May, I went into see Archie, who was enjoying a break, about an overdue document he had.
‘The quartermaster’s asking for the G1098 to be completed and returned,’ I said.
Archie replied: ‘Don’t worry about G1098, it’s battleships you should be thinking about.’
With that, a soldier came in and said: ‘HMS Hood has been sunk!’
Archie was speechless and never forgot it. Whenever we met afterwards, he would greet me with one word: ‘Battleships.’”
“I was granted leave. I arranged for it to coincide with my sister Nellie’s wedding to Laurie Eacott. I surprised everyone by turning up with sergeant’s stripes, earned after less than two years in the army, on my service jacket now worn with widened trousers. I also wore my bayonet and webbing belt which was theoretically the correct dress for a sergeant. At the wedding, all the services were represented: my brother Tom was in the RAF; my brother Bill was in the Royal Navy; my cousin Dennis Hanlon was in the Royal Navy and the groom’s brother Charlie Eacott was in the Royal Marines. At evening service that Sunday, the canopy over the Blessed Scrament was carried by my brothers, my cousin and I to represent the three armed services. Father Kelly was delighted.”
“I returned to Atherington and continued my work. It was now full summer and our role was changed. We were relieved on the coast and moved to camp in the grounds of Goodwood House below Trundle Hill. The battalion went back to training from the bottom up: section to division. Archie still relied on me to do his work and even the quartermaster called me colour sergeant.”
“In G Company, I was still a section leader as well with eight men to command. To my section was added as second in command none other than Corporal Stock, who was waiting to go to officer training. Sergeant Major Danny Long, however, had different ideas. He said to me: ‘I want that man’s bloody stripes.’ The implication was that somehow I would set him up. Stock was not a smart soldier and, I believe, bored with his longest continuous role as a corporal in the London Irish. I warned Nigel. He became a friend and he shortly left to be transferred to the Indian Army where he rose to be a major in the Gurkha Rifles.”
“Despite the workload, the only normal duty I was excused was that of guard commander. I was paid for the extra stripe but I was earning every penny. We were now doing joint exercises with the Canadians and the Home Guard, unpaid civilian volunteers with regular jobs. The Guard were keen and showed us up towards the end of one exercise when an umpire caught our platoon laying down on a bank resting. He remarked: ‘Drunk with success’ and promptly wrote the lot of us off as casualties.”
“Archie was occasionally called upon to lead the pipe band and it was obvious that he would not remain in his position as quartermaster. In fact, I think he had tried to revoke but was told by the commanding officer to stay put for the moment. I, too, was not pleased. After seeing Stock leave for officers’ training, I spoke to Major Gibbs who said he would recommend me too and would be happy if I were to be one of his subalterns. But he said the sad thing was that I was a natural colour sergeant and he considered it the most crucial position in a company. After discussing it with my parents and Philip White during leave, I persuaded myself with the excuse: ‘Never volunteer.’
“Towards the end of our camp in Goodwood Park, Archie packed his bags and went back to his pipes. He had never forsaken them and had spent hours in his tent playing a chanter. An ultra-smart regular soldier sporting a north west frontier ribbon and the badges of a quartermaster sergeant replaced Evans. James McKee was a Presbyterian Ulsterman and we did not get along. He was new to his rank and seemed to object to the key position I had made for myself.”
“Once more we were moved, this time to Chichester and into the ecclesiastical college of the Chichester diocese. We were out of tents but back on the floor. I remember with pride one Sunday morning when the London Irish Catholics were on parade for Mass. I was the senior person on parade and I marched them to the local church. After, I called a marker and fell them in outside the church. It must have appeared strange to the crowd of onlookers to see 30 large men being drilled by a boy sergeant. I was so pleased with them that I halted them outside a cafe close to our billets for tea and sandwiches. I only wished there had been a piper present. One on parade was my friend Bill Nagle, our transport corporal whose wife had lodgings nearby. We liked Chichester. In some ways, it reminded us of Haverfordwest. Despite my quartermaster work, I was still a duty sergeant and was sent off with a lance-corporal, four men, and a driver in a truck to guard a crashed Royal Navy Seal aircraft. We guarded it for three days until the navy came. There was a sudden change in the company. CSM Danny Long was transferred to the 2nd Battalion of the RUR. He was replaced by CSM Pierrotti, a former London Irishman who was being returned by the Ulsters. Dutchy Dalton, a popular regular, was sent to the depot. We were blessed with the return of Sergeant Simmonds from the RAF. Simmonds had failed air crew training and had been retained at Blackpool as a sort of drill sergeant. They were a perfect match; Pierrotti was a natural bully who treated his company, including his sergeants, with contempt. Simmonds was a toady and became a boon companion of the new CSM.”
“But the reputation of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish had spread. We were moved to join the 38th (Irish) brigade, together with the 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, under the command of Brigadier The O’Donovan. Our new location was a Nissen hut camp on two sites in the Norfolk heath land. G Company was separated from the other companies by rough land and a mile in distance. At first, the walk was pleasant. But, as the weather deteriorated in the winter of 1941, it became a thrice daily penance. Our brigade was now in the 1st Infantry Division, the top infantry unit. Our new home was in Didlington. It was isolated from all but small villages: Northwold, Methwold, Feltwell and Mundford. I was thrilled however to see Oxburgh Hall, the home of the recusant Bellingham family.”
On 6 December 1941, the Japanese air force devastated the US Pacific fleet at anchor at Pearl Harbour. The surprise attack was in preparation for a vast Japanese invasion across the Pacific Basin. The war in the Pacific opened a new chapter of brutality. But it paved the way for victory for Britain and its allies. The US immediately declared war against the Empire of Japan. Germany, honouring a pre-war promise, in turn declared war against the US. Britain, alone six months earlier, was now in partnership with the Soviets and the Americans. It was the turning point. In Norfolk, Lance-Sergeant O’Sullivan had other matters on his mind.
“My relationship with McKee did not improve. One day coming into the office, he saw me working on the men’s accounts. He wanted me to do something he considered more urgent, so he picked up the book and threw it into a corner. Gibbs was away at the time. I left the ledger, almost thankfully, as there were one or two problems I could not solve. Gibbs returned about a month later and asked to see the books. When he saw that they were well out of date, he asked for an explanation. I gave it. Gibbs told McKee that I would be returned to duty.”
“I was sent back to 14 Platoon as a section leader. Two persons joined the unit who saved my sanity and, probably, my stripes, which appeared to be a target for CSM Pierotti. They were 2nd Lieutenant Noel Dorrity and Sergeant Patrick Daly. The former was a product of Ballymena who had acquired his education at Campbell’s, a college in Belfast, and had been sent to the Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU). Daly, a regular, had been a sergeant in the 2nd Battalion of the RUR.”
“One was a Protestant northerner, the other a southern Catholic. They were both efficient, effective, generous and friendly. The only unpleasant thing was that we had to share the sergeants’ hut with Pierrotti and Simmonds. Pierrotti was loud, bullying but inefficient. At company drill, he did not stand at attention but gave his orders with his hands behind his back. He called everyone -- men and NCOs including sergeants -- a lazy shower of bastards and any form of abuse his small mind and large mouth could produce.”
The news continued to be gloomy. Hong Kong fell. The Japanese army surged into Indo-China and then into Malaysia. In February 1942, it had reached the north side of the narrow channel separating the mainland from Singapore, the principal remaining British fortress in the Far East. Despite being reinforced, Singapore’s commander General Percival surrendered to the Imperial Army on 15 February 1942. About 80,000 men and women went into captivity to add to the 50,000 that had already been taken prisoner by the Japanese. Many were to die of starvation, disease and brutal treatment. The remnants of the British Army retreated north into Burma and eventually established a defensive line just within the territory of British India. The War for the Atlantic was coming to climax. German U-boats sank increasing numbers of ships taking fuel and food to Britain. If the Atlantic route was shut down, Britain would be starved into submission. While these dramas were taking place, Ted was suffering at the hands of Pierroti and Simmonds in Didlington.
“Release came. The battalion sergeants’ mess caterer, who had held that position since 1939, had asked to be returned to duty. I was appointed to take over. Moving to the sergeant’ mess, I had my own pleasant room and a staff to look after my wants. There was no more Pierrotti. It appeared heavenly. Branch, my predecessor, had worked out an order of priority for the members of the sergeant’s mess and lance-sergeants like me were not very high on the list. I was junior to practically everyone in the mess. They all wanted special treatment. To the usual request for ‘Caterer!’ And the demand: ‘What’s this?’ My standard reply was ‘That’s your ration, Sir (or Sergeant)’. I did, however, arrange a weekly trip to King’s Lynn or Wisbech.”
“I developed my own circle of friends. I endured this form of purgatory in the mess for about three months until the officers were invited to a mess night dinner. After a few drinks, most of our guests left, but many of the junior officers carried on with their celebration, which culminated in a rugger scrum between the officers and sergeants who had remained. The mess was wrecked, the stove and chimney were pulled down and there was much superficial damage.”
“Disturbed by the commotion, HQ CSM Billy Girvin looked in and brought the adjutant. The next morning, I cleared up the mess with the aid of a fatigue party. Afterwards, I was dressed down by the RSM. I asked him: ‘What could I do?’ The damage was caused by officers including captains and sergeants senior to me. All I had was the authority of my rank and five riflemen. It was decided I should return to duty. The officers were carpeted by the second in command and the sergeants by the RSM.”
“I was back in G Company when my new commanding officer Captain Grant sent for me. He told me that I was to go on a fortnight’s battle training course run by the division. It was obvious that I was being set up. I reported to the camp with Corporal Howard, a gentle but efficient corporal from F Company. My stripes were on the line. The students were a mixed bag of officers, sergeants and corporals from all the nine battalions in the 1st Division. It was run on commando lines. Howard and I shook everyone when we were called on parade. As riflemen, we marched at 140 paces to the minute and would be standing at ease on the parade ground while the others were just about sloping arms. We were told to cut down our speed. We did all sorts of work, which resembled my scout training. Howard often appeared tremulous, as did many others, but I was in my element.”
“Among our students was young Captain John Coldwell-Horsfall of the Royal Irish Fusiliers (he was subsequently to become Ted’s battalion commander). On the final day, there was an exercise. The platoon in attack was commanded by me. The runner was Captain Horsfall. I gave the section leaders their orders clearly and the attack by sections began. Finally, the school commander shouted: ‘Enemy in retreat. Pursue your enemy.’ I led the platoon as it ran in a line with bayonets fixed. Before us was a river. ‘What do we do?’, shouted an officer who was a section leader. ‘Follow me’, I shouted and jumped into the fast stream. The water came up to my neck. The course commander shouted from the bank:
‘Come back! I’m only allowed 5 per cent casualties.’ I had almost 30 soldiers in the water in hot pursuit. We had a post mortem. There was no criticism, but there was no praise.”
“Packing my kit, I returned to my unit with trepidation. About three days later, Captain Grant told me to get dressed in my best uniform with my belt and sidearm and see Colonel Starkey. We walked together to the orderly room. I waited outside with the miscreants but not as one of them. Captain Grant entered and, about three minutes later, the RSM marched me in. Captain Grant stood alongside Colonel Starkey who was seated. Still expecting the worst, I clenched my teeth. Instead, Starkey said: ‘I have in front of me probably the finest report I have ever had of an NCO’s conduct on a divisional course. They have requested that you be returned as an instructor. I am afraid that this will not be possible, as you will soon learn. Congratulations, your effort has been a credit to the battalion.’ Joining me outside, Captain Grant added his praise. I said that I had not realised I had done well. Putting it down to false modesty, he brushed it off with a smile.”
“I will also never forget a game of rugby football played at Didlington. The battalion team, one of the best in the army, was to play as the probables against the possibles, a scratch team of mainly sergeants. I played on the wing for the possibles. The other team had Irish, Scottish and Welsh internationals as well as many other army representative players. About mid-way through the first half, I was literally picked up and thrown by Lieutenant Charles Reidy, an Irish international of 6ft 6 inches known as Elephant Man (Reidy, educated at Stonyhurst, was one of four brothers who played for the London Irish rugby team before the war. Wounded in in action in Tunisia in 1943, Reidy lost an eye and his sense of smell, but he returned to first-class sport after the war and became the Irish hammer-throwing champion in 1953. He died in 2004). I discovered all my top front teeth were loose. I reported to the medical officer. His treatment was a quick brush with iodine. Another result was the loss to our platoon of Noel Dorrity who was so badly injured he had not recovered sufficiently to go abroad when the call came in November. There was never another battalion rugby trial played, as so many were injured.”
On 4 June, the London Irish received secret orders to be ready for active service in 23 days. They were moved from the 1st Infantry Division to the 6th Armoured Division. On 7 June, the 2nd Battalion headed by road to Scotland.
“It was early summer 1942 and we were on our way again. The Irish Brigade had been chosen as the lorry-borne infantry in the 6th Armoured Division, a new type of formation created from the cream of the army, so we were told. Our new home was in the grounds of yet another titled potentate. Our host this time was the Marquess of Bute who gave over part of his vast demesne at Auchinlech in Ayrshire to the 6th Division.”
“A divisional display was conducted in a beautiful Scottish glen amidst the rolling hills of Ayrshire. I was one of the representatives of the London Irish. Our new divisional badge was a white clenched fist on a black square background. In turn, the units did their piece starting with the Royal Horse Artillery, the oldest regiment in the army. ‘We always gallop into battle,’ said the colonel. They did. Three trucks drawing 25 pound artillery pieces and limbers sped into the arena across the rolling landscape. Up went the first 25 pounder and rolled over. We were to have been treated to the spectacle of some rapid fire. Fortunately, this idea was abandoned”
“Then came 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Beaufort anti-aircraft weapons. The Royal Engineers followed with a collection of vehicles, including a bulldozer. The Royal Corps of Signals were next with vehicles bristling with antennae. Next were representatives of the division’s three cavalry units, the 16/5th Lancers, the 17/21st Lancers and the Lothian & Border Horse. A Valentine tank came trundling in, followed by a Matilda at under 10mph. These were followed by a Crusader, which bounced along at about 30mph. I was impressed at the speed but the tank did look flimsy. Next came several types of armoured car. Following these, came the battalion of motorised infantry in their jeeps, carriers, armoured cars and trucks. Then came the Rifle Brigade. The Irish brigade was represented by one TCV containing a platoon of the 6th Inniskillings in full battle order with the platoon bicycle on the back.”
“The support regiment was next and it gave a demonstration of three-inch mortar fire. So the mortar bursts could be seen, incendiary bombs were used which accidentally ignited sheep grazing on the hill. Medics, dentists, the RASC and a RAOC bath unit brought the display to a close. The climax was a battle bomber and a fighter which flew over to end the occasion. It was impressive, but would it have frightened the Germans? It frightened me, some of the gunners and the sheep who were never the same.”
“We suffered the loss of Colonel Starkey at the end of June. He was obliged to leave, as he had completed three years as commanding officer. We always presumed that Starkey, who was born in 1899, would lead us in the battle we knew was coming. He was snapped up as commanding officer of a reconnaissance regiment. Starkey’s achievement was to bring a second line territorial regiment to the top of the British Army.”
“His successor was Lieutenant Colonel Jeffreys, a regular from the 1st Battalion of the RUR.We were engaged on very large and often long exercises over days. On one of these, because of my ability in map-reading, I was number two in the sector control team which managed the traffic of a divisional exercise. The largest and longest exercise was Dryshod. It involved all the troops in south Scotland. It was the dry run for an invasion. But where?”
The answer was then being provided by the leaders of the UK and the US. The American priority was to get the war over as quickly as possible. That meant taking the shortest route across the channel and into Germany. Churchill and his commanders initially agreed with this strategy, but the experience of withdrawal from Greece and Crete raised doubts about the policy. After months of debate, President Roosevelt told his top military advisers that French North Africa would be the principal objective, not France, and that an invasion should take place as soon as possible.
On 13 August 1942, General Dwight D Eisenhower was named commander-inchief of the operation, which was code-named Torch. The impetus increased following the appointment in August 1942 of General Montgomery as commander of the British 8th Army in North Africa. It had just been driven back more 1,000 miles by the Afrika Corps led by General Erwin Rommel. There was fear that Cairo would fall and the way would be open for the Germans to capture Middle East oil fields. Montgomery restored morale, rebuilt the army and prepared to go on the offensive. In October 1942, he ordered a massive attack against German positions at El Alamein, 50 miles west of Cairo. After a week of hard pounding, the German line was broken and the Afrika Corps retreated towards Libya. They were never to re-enter Egypt. It was the first decisive victory by the British Army over the Germans. The cost in lives was terrible, but it was the first piece of good news most Britons had had for more than three years. Churchill put it well in his memoirs: ‘Before it, there were no victories; after it, there were no defeats.’ The die had been cast for the Irish Brigade. They had been selected to be part of the Torch campaign. The London Irish, ignorant of what was in store, stepped up their preparations as the summer of 1942 turned into autumn.
“The nights were getting longer and we spent a couple of them out on the high moors. One was the coldest in my life. The hospitality of the Scottish housewives was incredible. While in TCVs and in convoy, we were plied with tea and I believe they lost many cups as a result. After a bleak and cold night, I knocked on the door of a cottage where I was able to wash myself and was given a hot breakfast. As well as exercises, we took part in 100 mile marches and five day marches. One in which I led my platoon took us from Auchinlech, through Ayr, Irvine, Ardrossan and Largs and in a great circle through Strathaven and back. When we arrived at Strathaven, the company commander discovered that we had already completed the 100 miles and transport conveyed us back. We concluded this was preparation not training. We believed we were to be the assault troops for the second front in Europe.”
“I was sent off on another 14-day course based on commando type training which was held at Irvine. It was designed to test NCOs to the limit. Ninety per cent of sergeants and corporals had never taken a course in anything, yet I was embarking on my second within six months after a distinction on my first. Was someone still trying to get me, I wondered? We went through the usual nonsense of crossing slippery board bridges over fast-flowing streams and jumping off cliffs through smoke and flame. Assault courses with ever increasing hazards were tackled. My philosophy was: ‘They can’t or won’t want to kill or injure us, so just go for it.’”
“The timid and tremulous were bullied and cajoled. I cut fear out of my mind and carried on. The last day was at the commando depot and involved negotiating the most heinous assault course that man could devise. Live bullets were fired over and around us and we were pelted with plastic but very explosive grenades. The finale was to wade in the River Irvine against the current up to our chests in cold water, avoiding at the same time the many obstacles left for us. I awaited with trepidation the results of the course and possible failure and demotion.”
“After about three days, I was summoned once more to the commanding officer. I was marched in. Captain Grant stood beside the seated Jeffreys. Both smiled as I stood to attention. Jeffreys said: ‘Stand at ease.’ He then told me that my report from the battle school was excellent and what a credit I had been to the battalion. He actually stood up and shook my hand. My London Irish companion on the course was marched in, given a thorough dressing down and sent back to the regiment’s Ballymena depot. He was no fool. He had probably saved his own life as the future would show.”
“There had been many changes in the family. My sister Nellie was seriously ill. During the Blitz, she had spent many nights in air raid shelters. This experience, coupled with a weakness caused by pneumonia and pleurisy during her late teens, had developed into tuberculosis, then a killer. As a result, she was in a sanatorium at Milford. On leave, I visited her in the bleak ward that was open to the cold air and meant to be beneficial. My brother Tom, an armourer in the RAF, had been moved around Britain like me. Billy and his friend Denis Webb, Pat Webb’s younger brother, had together volunteered for the Royal Navy where they both qualified for training as wireless operators. Denis contracted a minor ailment and, as a consequence, they were separated.”
“My youngest brother Bernard had left Horsham, where he had been billetted as an evacuee with Father Cassidy. He was a pupil at the Rotherhithe Nautical School, which was now located in Newquay, in west Wales. My sister Lily, also an evacuee, did not remain in Horsham for long after Bernard’s transfer and returned home. Danny was feeling out of it, being the only one of his brethren remaining in civvies in his reserved occupation in radar. He enlisted in the RAF for flying duties. Because the training would be brief, he opted to be a wireless operator and air gunner.”
Four of the five O’Sullivan brothers would be involved in the war on land, on the high seas and in the air all over the world. But there would never be a photograph of them together in uniform. At one time, there had been a desire for them all to join the London Irish. The consequences could have been terrible. Five Sullivan brothers from Iowa in the US were allowed to serve together on the USS Juneau. They all died when the Juneau was sunk during the battle for Guadacanal on 13 November 1942. The US government subsequently banned family members serving together. The tragedy of brothers dying in the war inspired the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. The Ryan family was fictional. The Sullivan and O’Sullivan brothers were not.
As the prospect of going overseas increased, there were changes in the London Irish.
“The personnel of the battalion were always being changed, although we kept climbing the efficiency ladder. While we were at Didlington and already in the Irish Brigade, a draft of about 200 NCOs and men were taken for posting to a Highland division. The commanding officer insisted that only the best should go. We were topped up with a draft from the London Irish depot in Ballymena and from the 70th Battalion. We also received a large draft of fusiliers. Those in charge, even when they knew we were headed overseas, sent trained men away. The largest intake of all came at the start of the autumn 1942. They comprised about 250 men and NCOs from the Liverpool Irish. The teams and co-ordinated sections of the battalion that had been painstakingly created in three years of training were to be broken up time and time again.”
“Before the big draft of new recruits arrived, I was finally promoted to paid full sergeant. At the same time, Ian Brooks and Hammy Hamilton were made company quartermaster sergeants and transferred to R Company which existed only as a cadre. When the draft with their red hackles and caubeens marched in, I was attached to R Company to assist the company’s colour sergeants. I had to instruct the two in the intricacies of a quartermaster sergeant’s job and then return to my platoon. Ian, a product of Marjons, was quick and attentive. Hammy, on the other hand, was not interested.”
“After about three weeks, I spoke to R Company commander Rodney Cockburn and told him that I wished to be returned to my platoon as I would shortly be leading them into battle and did not know many of them. Cockburn went to see the commanding officer. I started to pack. He came back and said ‘Stay. Look at part II tomorrow.’ The next morning I was promoted to colour sergeant and transferred to R Company. Before leaving G Company for the last time, I shared my bell tent with the recently transferred provost sergeant Denis Griffin, who had been acting as an unofficial regimental policeman. He represented the battalion as a light heavyweight and occasionally heavyweight boxer and had been champion in both weights in every command the battalion served with. He was Anglo-Irish, something over six feet in height and, despite his years as an amateur pugilist, completely unmarked. Paradoxically, he was quiet and unassuming and a very good friend. His place as police sergeant had been filled by my old friend Corporal Anderson, who had, as a rifleman, helped to carry me and my section to our orienteering victory at Haverfordwest in 1940. I was lucky in having such wonderful friends. When I went to R, Griffin took over my platoon. A subaltern was in command but it was the sergeant that was the real platoon leader if he was any good.”
“The battalion moved out of the tented camp and the companies were spread around in billets in the mainly mining villages and towns of Ayrshire, close to Auchinlech. R Company was placed a distance from the other companies in Muirkirk, a small mining town. We were the first troops stationed there since World War I and the local people welcomed us with open arms and tables. They put on ceildh dances for us and seemed to be trying to prove that Scottish meanness was a myth. But I already was aware of this after about six months of enjoying their generosity. I became friendly with the young assistant manager of the local colliery. He conducted me around the mine and underground up to the coal face itself.”
“After about a month, R Company was moved back to Auchinlech but this time into the big house itself. I was to stay as the Marquess of Bute’s guest for only a short period. On 10 November 1942, a signal arrived from battalion which tersely announced that Colour Sergeant O’Sullivan, E was transferred to E Company where I would report before 1200 hours. I said goodbye to my new friends and, particularly, to Ian Brooks. He had had a dispiriting premonition. About a month earlier, we were talking about palmistry and I rubbished it. He on the other hand appeared to believe what he saw in his palm which suggested the future did not look good.”
“My truck dumped me and my kit in New Cumnock. I reported to Major Gibbs, E Company commander who shook me by the hand. ‘You are my colour sergeant at last,’ he said. ‘Don’t unpack as we will be off this evening.’ Of all the company quartermaster sergeants, I was the only one unable to put comforts in the company transport before it had been dispatched a week before. I, therefore, had to dump some of my belongings because I was restricted to what I could pack in my kitbag. I met the other sergeants, most of whom I was acquainted with. The sergeant major was the massive Billy Allen, the drill sergeant who trained us with Danny Long. I had exchanged many words with him about the size of his ration in the mess.”
“It was dark when I paraded in the street with my new company wearing full marching order and carrying my rifle. All I had in my pack were a change of socks and underwear, a greatcoat, a spare shirt, a groundsheet, my missal and a book of poems called Multum in Parva (Much in Little). An anti-gas cape, a respirator and a steel helmet were strapped on my pack. The rest was in my kitbag, which originally had written upon it, in white capitals: Rifleman. O’Sullivan, E. The initials spelt ROSE. We marched to the station and then boarded a train and steamed into the night. The big question was ‘Where to?’”
Ted was about to embark on an extraordinary and dangerous journey that was to last two-and-a-half years.
He was 23 years and eight months old
 

Chapter 6
Into the cauldron
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“At the sight of the city utterly perishing amidst the flames, Scipio burst into tears, and stood long reflecting on the inevitable change which awaits cities, nations, and dynasties, one and all, as it does every one of us men. This, he thought, had befallen Ilium, once a

powerful city, and the once mighty empires of the Assyrians, Medes, Persians, and that of Macedonia lately so splendid.”
 
The description of Roman general Scipio Africanus’ reaction to the fall and destruction of Carthage in 146BC from The 3rd Punic War by the Roman historian Polybius Warrior at war.
 
Allied leaders had decided that the French territories of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were to be where the first American blow would fall against the Axis.
Algeria had been invaded by France in 1830, subdued in a brutal war and declared to be part of metropolitan France. Tunisia was seized in 1881. French control over Morocco had been secured by 1912. More than 1 million French settlers, known as Colons -- and Pieds Noirs (Black Feet) -- in Algeria, were living in North Africa when war began in 1939. Following France’s surrender in July 1940, control over the three countries was maintained by the new French government based in Vichy in central France.
Among the motives for the Allies’ decision to invade North Africa was the belief that the French garrison would quickly surrender and that the loss of these territories might even prompt Vichy to change sides. But there was little love between France and the UK. The withdrawal of British troops from France in May 1940 was seen as a betrayal. British forces had seized the French overseas possessions of Syria, Lebanon and Madagascar. The RAF had killed more than 500 French civilians in a bomb attack on the Renault factory outside Paris.
In July 1940, the Vichy fleet at anchor at Mers el-Kebir, near Oran in Algeria, was told by the Royal Navy to sail to Britain or a neutral port. When it refused, it was immediately bombarded by British ships. More than 1,000 French sailors were killed. The anger about the attack persists in France to this day. The pessimists argued that Vichy’s 10 North African divisions might resist an Allied invasion. They were to be proved right.
After more wrangling between Washington and London, it was decided that the expeditionary force should be split into two. American troops under General George S Patton would land at sites on Morocco’s Atlantic coast and there would be separate landings in Algeria. The date for the invasion was fixed for Sunday, 8 November 1942. The American expedition destined for Morocco set sail from Hampton Roads on the Virginia coast at dawn on 24 October. Two days earlier, the deputy commander of Operation Torch, General Mark Clark, had been taken by submarine to the port of Cherchel west of Algiers for a secret meeting with a top Vichy commander. He was assured that there would be little French resistance. This promise proved to be inaccurate.
At the start of November, a second invasion fleet departed from the River Clyde with more than 70,000 British and American troops. At sunset on 5 November, the fleet entered the Straits of Gibraltar and split into two parts. One headed for Oran close to Algeria’s border with Morocco. The other sailed for Algiers. The landings at both ports took place before dawn on 8 November.
In Morocco, American troops brought directly from the US were landed the same day to take Casablanca, Safi and Mehdia. Algiers fell quickly, but Vichy resistance continued for three more days in other parts of North Africa. It was only ended when Admiral Darlan, Vichy’s most senior commander who had by coincidence been in Algiers when Torch started, ordered the French armed forces to switch sides following Germany’s invasion of Vichy France on 11 November. About 2,000 Americans and more than 3,000 French soldiers had been killed or wounded in the fighting. The fact that the first US action in the war against the axis involved fighting the French army is frequently forgotten. It was a expression of the political contradictions that were to dog the Allied campaigns in the Mediterranean until the end of the war.
The Allies hoped the French garrison in Tunisia would quickly surrender to allow the easy capture of the city. But it was already too late. On 9 November, the first German troops started to arrive. Within days, strong defensive positions had been established on the main routes from the west to the Tunisian capital. The Irish Brigade heard of Torch as they prepared to set sail from Scotland to join the operation on 10 November 1942.
“Dawn was breaking when our train stopped at a platform which was in a dock. Through the doorway labelled Customs we could see a mighty ship. We had arrived at Greenock. We dressed in our equipment and, wearing our greatcoats, climbed up the gangplank and into the bowels of the ship. The ranks were separated. Officers and Warrant Officers (WOs) were led off in one direction, sergeants in another while the men were led below deck by their corporals. I was allocated a cabin on the boat deck which I shared with three others. Double bunks almost filled the space.”
“Our ship was RMS The Duchess of York, a vessel of 22,000 tons deadweight. I knew it as one of the Canadian Pacific Railways’ liners which Mr Harris, the Hawkes’ traveller, used on one of his Canadian trips. On the dock, we bought a copy of the Daily Express which had headlines telling of an Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. We were to sail that evening and we guessed where. The date was 11 November 1942, the twenty-fourth anniversary of Armistice Day 1918.”
“The sergeants were called down to the mess decks where the men were quartered. It was hot and crowded. The men’s kits, hammocks and life jackets were kept on long tables. A demonstration was being given of how to rig hammocks and how to stow them afterwards. I was glad I was on the boat deck. The saloon where the officers and WOs were to eat was luxurious and had been used by first class passengers. The officers’ cabins were in the 1st and 2nd class accommodation. The WOs were more closely packed. Our cabins were former third class and tourist accommodation and our mess was their former saloon. There were 3,000 people aboard. The majority, all below sergeant’s rank, had been packed into what had been the hold space which had been converted into navy-style mess decks.”
“The Come to the Cookhouse bugle call was sounded over the tannoy and I went to the mess. Here, I was served the best meal I’d had for years. The WOs and officers had a peace-time menu. The men’s fare, though good, had to be eaten in the furnace below. We pulled away from the quay in the late afternoon, steamed into the Clyde estuary and down into the Firth of Clyde where we were joined by other vessels. We had lifebelt and boat drill and went to bed. As darkness fell, everything was closed up. We could use the boat deck but dare not show a light. I slept badly. I felt queasy though the sea was like a millpond.”
“Next day, I could see from the boat deck the extent of our vast armada. It comprised about 80 vessels and spread over many square miles of ocean. I was able to identify the Orient Liner's Orion, the CPR’s Empress of Britain and many other great vessels as we steamed out into the Atlantic. We did not zig-zag a great deal as we were a fast convoy. Destroyers and other naval vessels moved around us sounding their sirens.”
“Among the fleetwatchers was a major dressed in service dress with riding breeches and puttees. I was able to recognise his badge as the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. What was a vet doing with an armoured division, I wondered? I would soon find out (the British Army in Tunisia and Italy was to depend on mules). Just prior to our embarkation, The O’Donovan had left the brigade and had been succeeded by an Irish Fusilier, Brigadier Nelson Russell, DSO. After sailing for almost a week, elements of our convoy seemed to peel off. I believe we went through the Gibraltar Straits at night as I cannot remember seeing the rock. I remember, however, seeing the vivid white houses and the towns of the North African shore. I was ordered to arrange a pay parade. It was held on the mess deck. It was hot and crowded. I had barely started when I had to run to be sick. The foetid air was too much. The men were paid in a strange currency: Allied Military Francs, which could be used in French North Africa.”
“I attended an Orders (O) Group where our destination was confirmed as North Africa. I was issued with maps that filled two bren gun magazine cases. I was ordered to issue every person with a 48-hour emergency pack. Our part of the convoy separated. We entered Algiers Harbour and berthed at the quay without tugs. It was Thursday 22 November 1942 and a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly. We speedily disembarked. The great liner pulled away. On the quay was a great stack of kitbags which we would not see for months. Some would be permanently mislaid.”
“While we were waiting, we were attacked by aircraft which were chased by some of ours. Bombs were dropped but not on us. We were formed up in companies in full marching order with a blanket on top of our other equipment. All the men also carried two filled bren magazines or a case of three two-inch mortar bombs. I carried two cases of maps of the whole of Algeria and Tunisia in large and small scale. The officers carried almost as much as the men.”
“Led by our sensible commanding officer, who wore only skeleton equipment of belt and shoulder straps, we climbed out of Algiers in thick service dress carrying everything in the hot midday sun. The pipers carried only their pipes. The first mile out of Algiers was a steady climb up a road that wound in a semi circle. Gradually men collapsed from heat and exhaustion. At first, stretcher bearers went to attend to them. Eventually, we left them where they fell. Gradually, my load increased. At one time, I was carrying a bren gun and a two-inch mortar but I had farmed out the case of maps. We finally arrived at an open space which was large enough for the whole battalion. We were told to take off our equipment and make ourselves comfortable. Stragglers appeared and joined us. We were allowed to open our emergency rations and have a meal, but were warned that it would have to last the full 48 hours. A water tanker appeared. We filled our bottles and brewed up in our mess tins.”
“There was no twilight and, suddenly, the light went, although it was early evening, probably about 6pm. As soon as the sun had gone, the cold set in. We were allowed no lights and no fires. Putting on every scrap of clothing, including our greatcoats and anti-gas capes, we huddled together and tried to sleep. It was said the commanding officer went around begging for a share of a blanket.”
“Canvas buckets had been left which the men used to wash and shave the following morning. After eating a breakfast from their packs of biscuit, margarine, jam and potted meat, they washed it down with a powdered tea mixture brewed up in their mess tins. The battalion was paraded by companies, inspected and then led by the pipers on a route march wearing skeleton equipment but carrying all weapons. The only persons excused were the sick and the strong picket left to guard the mounds of equipment. We marched in a great circle, returning to the camp after about two hours.”
“In the early afternoon, transport arrived with the quartermaster and regimental quartermaster in charge. Colour sergeants reported with fatigue parties and were issued their first 14 men packs of composition (compo) rations. E company strength was about 116. I drew nine boxes and was told I owed two rations. Going back to the company, I distributed the packs. This was awkward because each platoon’s strength was not divisible by 14, being about 32 men. The juggling of ration numbers was to become a nightmare, particularly when a whole box of rations was deducted as owings. The next meal was cooked, somehow, on a platoon basis. Two-man sand bivouac tents were erected in lines on the flat ground.”
“We were told that each platoon would leave a strong picket but the rest could go to Maison Carre, the nearest town, which was less than a mile away. We made up our beds. Billy Allen and I walked to the estaminet in the town to find it packed. The French proprietor was having a field day. I tried to attract him with my schoolboy French. Having finally been served, we obtained refills for our wine glasses by Billy shouting: ‘Encore pour le chemin.’ This worked when I added ‘s’il vous plait’ at the top of my voice. We rolled back to the camp and, with difficulty, found our tent. Without bothering to more than take off our boots, we rolled into our beds and slept. I was awakened by running water. It was raining a tropical downpour. We were no longer in a field but in what appeared to be a lake. The land had been baked the whole summer and it was as absorbent as concrete. The only dry place was Billy. I climbed on top of him while the water swirled around.”
“A bugle sounded reveille. Putting on our boots, we crawled out of our tents and beheld the desolation. Water lay everywhere. No one had been prepared for rain. Had we dug drainage channels with our entrenching tools, the gulleys could have dealt with the deluge. I remembered, too late, my teacher Jo Kelly’s drone about the Mediterranean climate: winter rains and summer drought. We spent the day draining the water and drying our clothes.”
“After about three days in tents, we were moved into billets. Ours was the local brickworks which was dry and warm from the fires at night. After about a week in the brickworks, we entrained at the nearest station in wagons on which was written: huit chevaux, trente hommes (eight horses, 30 men). We rolled along the railway for more than 100 miles to the port of Bougie. Why? After the organisation and planning for one of the greatest exploits in naval and military history and the logistical details, why on earth did not the Duchess of York travel further east to Bougie? The ships carrying the transport and other stores unloaded there. Perhaps the port was too small? We billetted near the port. That day, I tried to speak to a little Berber boy who replied to my French with a stream of the most violent military invective. Our troops had only been there a week or so, yet had taught the young lad to swear. He thought he was speaking English. Late in the evening, the battalion transport rolled in. Our transport and TCVs were led by Corporal Allen, the company transport corporal. I saw Vic Blake careering around on a motor cycle which had been issued to him. He had never driven before, yet he was to be a dispatch rider on our 400-mile journey to Tunisia.”
“We were up and dressed, breakfasted and embussed long before dawn the next day. I boarded a three-ton truck. My driver was Billy Bennett from Portadown. Into the back went Bob Doonan, my storeman, where he was joined by the company cook and his assistant. As we drove out of Bougie, dawn broke over the Mediterranean. It was so beautiful that even the enigmatic Billy Bennett declared: ‘It’s a cracker!’”
“Our route was to take us into the Atlas mountains following a road built by the French after their army had battled their way through the mountains to subdue the Berbers. It wound its way up narrow gorges which had been carved through the rocks by a mighty torrent. The first town the convoy passed through was Setif, which was about 3,000 feet above sea level. I remember the barracks of the Foreign Legion with its tricolour and sentries in their long blue tunics, white trousers and kepis. The Berbers wore brown burnoses with the hoods raised so their faces were almost hidden. We passed the occasional family group. The father rode his donkey. The wife and children walked behind carrying great bundles. The faces of some women were completely veiled.”
“Continuing the journey, we saw a great flat rock in the middle of the gorge and on this was carved the name of the regiment and its commander that had fought their way through these mountains. Finally, we burst out of the towering mountains. Before us was the city of Constantine glistening in the sunshine. It appeared to be a leisurely place. The people did not appear to heed our convoy. Most were drinking coffee while others placidly sat smoking their hookahs. I saw many in pure white garments. There was an air of prosperity. We bivouacked that night in the open. Rations and petrol were distributed. I was surprised how flimsy the two gallon containers were as they needed only a quick puncture through their thin metal skins to broach them. We were to see later that the Germans used stout jerry cans, a design that was soon to be copied by the Americans.”
“We breakfasted early next day and progressed through the lower mountains, passing through Guelma where we were saw an equestrian statue of General McMahon (descendant of one of the Wild Geese), who was to become President of France. We approached the border with Tunisia and entered Soukh Arras in the mountains in eastern Algeria. This was where St Augustine had founded his monastery in the 5th century and from which he was said to have been dragged to become bishop of Hippo, now called Bone. During the 4th and 5th centuries, the Roman province of Africa, in which we now were, was an important cultural centre for the empire and the Christian Church. Finally, we arrived at Teboursouk, a market town in Tunisia. Here we, the lorry-borne infantry of the 6th Armoured Division, had most of our transport removed, including the platoon bicycles. We were left with two trucks a company and would have to carry anything else we required. I surrendered all my maps except two large-scale ones of Tunisia. We had become foot soldiers.”
The Allies had experienced their first serious encounters with the German line defending Tunis at the end of November. Hopes of taking Tunisia quickly were dashed when a badly co-ordinated offensive was repulsed with heavy loss of life. The Irish Brigade started to arrive at the front in the first week of December. The German-Italian line ran from north to south about 30 miles west of the Tunisian capital. Medjez el-Bab, 30 miles from Tunis, was the key in the northern part. It sat on the junction between the main highway into Tunisia from the Algerian border and a north-south road that ran for about 20 miles to Bou Arada.
From there, a road ran west to El-Aroussa and into the mountains. Medjez el-Bab also straddled the Medjerda River which ran from the Algerian highlands for 125 miles in a north-east direction to enter the Mediterranean between Tunis and Bizerte. Carthaginian general Hannibal is reputed to have said the town was the key to Tunisia. The Allies had tried and failed to take Medjez el-Bab on 18 November. It was to remain an obstacle to their ambitions for almost six months. The road from Medjez el-Bab to Bou Arada rose through a ridge of hills rising to about 1,000 feet on the south bank of the Medjerda. It then descended to cross an east-west valley with the village of Goubellat at its centre. The road then ascended again to cut through another east-west ridge where high points on both sides were to be the setting for fierce battles involving the London Irish in January and February 1943. The final stretch of the road descended to Bou Arada which is obstructed to the south by mountains. The London Irish were given responsibility for a section of front from Goubellat to Bou Arada. They were spread over a large, largely treeless area with scattered farm buildings and there were no clear enemy lines. Both sides held strong points on the hills during the day and moved across the low land at night.
Normally, the Allies were to the west of the Medjez el-Bab to Bou Arada road and the Germans were to the east, but they often used the same roads during darkness. The distance from German positions was up to three miles in the Goubellat valley. The London Irish were to be in this area for more than five months.
“Winter rains had replaced summer drought with a vengeance. We were part of the 1st Army under General Anderson. This army was, in reality, barely a division in strength and comprised two battalions of the Irish Brigade, one independent Guards brigade, a couple of regiments of tanks and one of armoured cars, a brigade of paratroopers, a motorised battalion and some ancilliaries. The Skins were the first Irish Brigade unit in the line. We followed and the quartermaster set up the supply base in a wooded area close to El-Aroussa to the west of the front that was to be used for the next three months. When we arrived, we found boxes of rations had been broached and the more attractive items of food and cigarettes replaced by a half brick. This felony was compounded by the thought that sailors had risked their lives to bring half-bricks thousands of miles to be dumped in the hills of Tunisia. The absence of comforts was to be a trial and it would be months before fresh food and bread would replace the eternal hard tack.”
“E Company was detached and used as a standing patrol on a feature named Baldy. At the supply base, I was given a six-figure map reference for the company. In the middle of the night in pouring rain, I set off in our three-tonne truck with just the driver and Billie Allen. He was nervous. Half way along the road towards Medjez el-Bab, he thought I’d fallen asleep. Billie swore very violently but he need not have worried as I was occupied looking for a track on the right side of the road. I knew that if we missed the turn, we could easily finish up as prisoners. We were driving without lights and every instinct prompted me to turn back. But we found the track and moved carefully in the direction of Baldy. Arriving at our destination, I got out clutching my loaded rifle to look for signs of life. A figure appeared and challenged me. It was our guide to the company. I unloaded food and water and returned to base. This adventure emphasised the importance of spot map reading, a skill that was often lacking even among the officers. The company remained on Baldy for days without relief. I had the nightly task of locating them.”
Sharp battles were fought along the line in December, but there were few incidents involving the Irish Brigade which was finally brought up to full-strength with the arrival of the Faughs. As the Tunisian winter closed in, some of the battalion may have heard that a report had just been published by the Social Insurance Committee, a civil service body chaired by William Beveridge, the former director of the London School of Economics (LSE). The Beveridge report, as it is known, proposed a complete change in the national welfare programme to provide every citizen with a guaranteed income despite old age and sickness in return for a national insurance contribution. The Labour Party immediately accepted its findings and said it would implement them as soon as the war was over. The commitment laid the foundations for the party’s landslide victory in general elections in July 1945.
The Irish Brigade was more concerned with the challenge of surviving in the field and mainly in the open in winter. They had a cold and wet Christmas season.
“Christmas 1942 arrived and the menu was, as usual, compo rations. The haggle over the indivisible 14-man packs continued daily and the quartermaster knew the latest figure down to the last man. E Company moved from time to time to new locations that were just map references. Changes occurred and Major Gibbs was succeeded as company commander by Captain Costello. Subalterns also seemed to change but the sergeants remained. Lieutenant Reidy, the Irish rugby star who almost knocked all my teeth out, had an accident and was evacuated to a hospital at Thiba. I was ordered to deliver his kit, which I did in a truck. I drove over the hills into a beautiful and peaceful valley with a White Fathers monastery at its centre that had been requisitioned as a general hospital. The setting was like Shangri-la. After completing our task, we were entertained royally and given, or sold, the most delicate vintages.”
“But conditions on the front were very uncomfortable because of the continuous rain and associated mud which made driving difficult and walking almost impossible. Enemy patrols were often active. Vic Blake, the shoe-shop worker from Brixton, was taken prisoner while taking a dispatch at night on a main road. Our first casualty was a rifleman who was found shot. He obviously could not stand the privation, tension and lack of sleep. Our chaplain Father Hayes visited the companies regularly.”
“The battalion’s first real action involving casualties was on 11 January. H Company was given the task of covering the recovery of tanks that had bogged down in the Goubellat valley. This involved attacks on farm buildings and several casualties were sustained, including two sergeants who were killed. Both were friends, and I was called upon, much later, to help in the identification of H Company Sergeant John Hogan, 37 from Croydon. He was to remain unburied on the plain for five months. A lesson was learnt from this action. The wireless sets worn by platoon sergeants carried an aerial which could be seen by snipers. The large black and green chevrons of sergeants were much too obvious. I was to seldom wear these insignia when in or near action.”
The winter of 1942/43 was a pivotal moment in the war. The German army and its Italian and Romanian allies reached the outskirts of Stalingrad on the River Volga and some elements got as far as the Caucasus mountains. Determined to break the Soviet Army, Hitler ordered the assault on Stalingrad to continue into the winter. But the tables were turned when the Soviets counterattacked and encircled the German Army. At the end of January, what was left surrendered and was marched off to captivity where they were starved and generally badly treated. Few survived. Stalingrad was a massive setback for Hitler and the Axis powers never again went consistently on the offensive.
President Roosevelt arrived in Casablanca on 14 January 1943 for talks about the next step in the Mediterranean theatre. They were to continue for almost two weeks. There was no rest on the front in Tunisia. Stuka attacks and shelling caused a steady trickle of casualties. Movement was almost impossible during the day. Supplies had to be delivered at night.
“Information seldom trickled down to quartermaster sergeants and all I could do was to try to discover the location of my company wherever they then were. In the middle of January, E Company was in position close to the Bou Arada-Medjez el-Bab road. French troops were occupying a nearby village. By a little bartering of bully beef, I obtained from them supplies of sourdough bread, the excellence of which I never encountered before or since. I seldom slept, as my nights were spent supplying my company and the days involved scrounging anything that was needed for my lads. It was like a continuous dream. I remember on the night of 18 January 1943 falling asleep from complete exhaustion while visiting the company and attending an O group. When I awoke, I discovered my bed had been a sack of sharp pick heads. I left for supply base before dawn and promised to return at first dark that evening.”
Ted’s exhaustion had been caused by a programme of night patrols by the London Irish designed to drive the Germans out of the Goubellat valley which started from El-Aroussa after dark on 16 January. On the evening of 19 January, the battalion was on the move for the fourth consecutive night. It advanced in extended line southeast across the Medjez el-Bab to Bou Arada road, which was the Irish Brigade’s principal supply line. The objective was Point 286 (286 metres), a hill on the east side of the road in the highland area between Goubellat and Bou Arada. It was being used by the Germans to shell traffic.
The London Irish attack started at 330am. Point 279, the first objective, was taken. Just after dawn, the London Irish advanced under fire up Point 286 which was briefly held. In a pattern that was repeated during the Irish Brigade campaign in Tunisia and Italy, a German counterattack supported by tanks and armoured cars was launched. The London Irish were driven off the hill. E Company took over the attack and charged up Point 286, but was repulsed. F Company was ordered to resume the assault and advanced up the hill under machine gun fire and Stuka bombers. The Germans withdrew and, by nightfall, Point 286 was in the hands of the London Irish again. But they had suffered heavy casualties and were exhausted.
Ted, back at the supply base, had no idea what was happening as he prepared to set off with fresh supplies that evening. He was shocked by the condition the battalion was in when he arrived at the battle field.
“Our normal convoy was prepared and we made our way to where the battalion was situated. I discovered what remained of my company on Point 279. There was no company commander and the second in command, Captain Joseph Carrigan aged 31, had been killed. Lieutenant Rawlings and Billie Allen, a sergeant and two lance-sergeants had been wounded and evacuated. An officer had refused to advance and was under arrest as was a senior NCO. It was a shambles. There seemed to be no order or discipline. I was called upon to identify the body of Rifleman Trotter of intelligence, an old Barker’s friend. The colour sergeants were called to the commanding officer where we received a dressing down for not bringing prepared food instead of cold rations. This was complete nonsense as we had been unaware of the situation. We left immediately for the supply base to rouse the cooks and make a stew. This was put in large dixies which were packed in insulated containers. The supply convoy reassembled and proceeded to Bou Arada and back to the scene of the battle.”
Things were about to get much worse for the London Irish. Soon after midnight, a runner from E Company reported that German tanks with infantry in support were climbing Point 279. The hill was overrun and the attackers poured fire into the battalion headquarters which was in a wadi on the north side of the hill. It was chaos. Suddenly, the Germans withdrew.
The London Irish still held Point 286. But further damage had been done. Ted got the news of the German attack as he was returning with hot food.
“A very muddy and breathless Colour Sergeant Flood halted us at the El-Aroussa crossroads in Bou Arada where he poured out a story of yet another setback. The Germans had counter-attacked using tanks and half tracks and had driven off the demoralised and officer-less remnants of our companies who had broken and fled. Once again, we had received no information. But for Flood, we would have motored innocently into captivity or worse. Flood later was to receive a DCM and promotion to CSM. He guided us to where the battalion had been gathered in a wadi.”
“We fed the survivors. Including drivers, E company comprised 27 men compared with a starting strength of about 120. We had no officers but shared a subaltern from HQ Company with F Company which itself had been reduced to a total of 17 under Colour Sergeant Jones. Apart from myself, the only surviving E Company NCOs were Sergeant Leo McRory and Corporal Hammersley.”
“The next morning, Colonel Jeffreys summoned all colour sergeants whom he rebuked twice: first, for not promoting NCOs from the survivors and, second, for not requisitioning weapons from the quartermaster for those that had been lost. I dealt with the weapons first. But how could I replace a sergeant major, two full sergeants, two lance sergeants, six corporals and 10 lance-corporals? That was a total of 21 NCOs from the original 24 in E Company, many of whom who had dropped their weapons and ran.”
The total loss for the battalion was six officers and 20 other ranks killed and eight officers and 78 other ranks wounded. No less than six officers and 130 other ranks were missing. The official London Irish record of the Battle for Point 286 says: “Many of the latter were confirmed later as having been wounded and taken prisoner.” Ted’s analysis is more penetrating. He described the two-night attack on points 279 and 286 as a disaster. In hindsight, it is perhaps fairer to say that it was the result of a combination of factors. This was the battalion’s first serious engagement. It was exhausted by operations on the previous three nights. The tactics were questionable: all four companies were used instead of one being held in reserve. The attack in full daylight on the morning of 20 January was insufficiently supported and exposed to Stuka bombing. There was no effective system of early warning of German counterattacks. Finally, the London Irish had encountered some of the German army’s best troops.
“I went around offering stripes. Most who accepted them reverted as soon as they could. Hammersley was promoted full sergeant but Leo McRory refused to be nominated as CSM. The whole exercise was a nonsense and the three colour sergeants had been used as scapegoats. Both the commanding officer and the quartermaster had been failures. Jeffreys had wasted one of the finest infantry battalions in the army, leaving it leaderless. The quartermaster had done nothing to ensure communications between his echelon and battalion. He only worried about numbers of rations. The commanding officer had engaged his battalion in a battle which was not properly planned and in which he had committed all its strength. No rifle company personnel had been reserved or left out of battle. He compounded this mistake by failing to place his troop carriers in a position where they would have prevented or warned of a counterattack.”
“George Charnick, who had previously served in the carriers, was appointed E Company CSM. We were reinforced, although not to full strength, from R Company and from other units. Corporal Jimmy White was promoted to Sergeant. Captain Costello took over as company commander. The next few days were among the hardest in my life as I never had time for sleep. One night, I went with the company to their position on the wadi rim. I climbed into a slit trench and fell soundly asleep without a blanket. I woke the next morning in full daylight to find myself completely alone. Because I was in full view of possible enemies, I crawled to the wadi edge and rejoined my company.”
While the London Irish were on the rack in Tunisia, in Casablanca Roosevelt had been joined by Churchill and General Charles De Gaulle who had been recognised as leader of the Free French. On 24 January, Roosevelt with his two allies by his side declared at a press conference that the Allied objective was Germany’s unconditional surrender. Churchill had already secured cabinet approval for the policy, but Roosevelt’s public announcement that day took him by surprise. The Allies were now committed to fight to the bitter end. Ted’s fate for two more years had been decided.
The Irish Brigade spent the next three weeks in the area they had so bloodily taken. It was now part of what was called Y Division, a scratch force that also included paratroopers, a French battalion and artillery. The key feature of the area was the Djebel Rihane a huge wooded mountain west of the Medjez el-Bab-Bou Arada road. The companies and platoons of the London Irish occupied high points which they fortified with wire and mines.
“The battalion was spread over a wide area. Between each company and even platoons were large areas of dead ground and wadis. F Company was centred on Stuka Farm, a group of buildings on a hilltop to the south of the line. G Company, now under Major Gibbs, was in the centre on Castle Hill and the surrounding features of Booby Hill and Steep Hill. E Company was on the left near Djebel Rihane. H Company was away from the battalion.
There was little or nothing between E Company, which was the reserve company, and the other three. We in turn were widely dispersed: 8 platoon, commanded by a subaltern aged 18, was on Mosque Hill, on the left and overlooking the thick woodland to the east. 9 Platoon was on Flat Top, on the right, overlooking Goubellat plain. 7 Platoon was in the centre on a feature called Hadj. Company headquarters was positioned at the rear of Hadj.”
“It was an impossible arrangement. To reach 8 Platoon on Mosque Hill by track from company headquarters took over 20 minutes. To climb took even longer. Flat Top and 9 Platoon were a good 15 minutes up a steep track. The immediate problem was the shortage of water and we relied on the infrequent calls of our small tanker. The water was brackish and loaded with chemicals.”
“E Company commander Captain Costello, who had distinguished himself in the battle for points 279 and 286 and was subsequently awarded the MC, summoned regular O groups (O Group is an operational planning meeting), which comprised himself, E Company CSM Charnick and myself. He detailed our duties: ‘I will be duty officer from 1800 to 2200, the sergeant major from 2200 to 0200 and the colour sergeant (me) from 0200 to 0600. This will ensure that I am available during the crucial hours and will give the colour sergeant plenty of time to collect and distribute rations and other supplies.’ It actually meant that he would get a full night’s sleep while I would get very little as I had to collect rations at dusk and distribute them among the platoons in the late evening and then take over as duty officer for the rest of the night. When I was going off to take supplies to the outlying platoons, Costello said: ‘While you are at 8 or 9 platoon, make those lads take you round their positions and just check their fields of fire. Keep an eye on that other chap, I am so afraid he might do some damage to himself.’ Costello was referring to a lieutenant who was under close arrest and awaiting trial by court martial. He later became a town major in Italy.”
“The men who now comprised most of E Company were poorly trained and not a patch on their predecessors. One early morning, I inspected the forward position of 7 platoon on Hadj hill. It was dark and raining and I searched for the two sentries of one section. Finally, I saw a bren gun muzzle poking out from a pile of blankets and groundsheets. After removing a couple of layers, a voice shouted: ‘Halt! Who goes there!’ I rebuked him and said: ‘If I’d been a Ted, you’d be dead!’ (a Ted was short for Tedeschi, Italian for German). I did not report him but had a quiet word with Jimmy White (who was the platoon’s sergeant) about his sentries.”
“It had been decided that 24 February was to be a no transport day when any vehicle seen on the road would be strafed. There were no defined lines and both sides often used stretches of the same roads and tracks. As I could not use transport and had NAAFI rations for 9 platoon, I commandeered a donkey.”
“Riding without a saddle, I rode to Flat Top hill carrying a box of cigarettes, confectionery and other comforts that I would sell to the men. I had no thought of enemy patrols. A few days later, we would find evidence of a German patrol in the area. They had probably seen me on my donkey but resisted the lure of a haul of about a couple of thousand cigarettes and 30 assorted bars of confectionery. I had been very lucky.”
The Germans had already started a general attack against Allied lines. On 19-25 February, the American army was badly mauled when the Germans under General Rommel launched deep thrusts into the Kasserine pass. The London Irish themselves were about to be put to the test once more. On 26 February, the Germans advanced on the Bou Arada Front, crossing the north-south road and pushing into the left of the battalion’s positions. The assault against the London Irish positions was carried out by paratroopers in the Hermann Goering Division, an elite German unit, and 10 Panzer tanks. The riflemen the night before sensed an attack was pending. Ted was to be at the heart of the action over the next 24 hours.
“On the evening of 25 February, I collected rations from the wadi near battalion headquarters, in complete darkness as usual. Captain Diarmid Conroy was there and he made the company quartermaster sergeants keep absolute silence as he said there appeared to be some enemy activity. I reached E Company where I was told to remain on Hadj and not distribute the outlying platoons’ rations until first light. We stood to for most of the night.”
“As dawn broke, I prepared to go out to the platoons. Captain Costello called Corporal Davies, Pop Eatwell, Percy Ford, a driver, and me and detailed his supply plan. Davies would go to 9 Platoon on Flat Top in the carrier driven by Pop, drop the rations and return immediately. Percy and I would go to 8 Platoon on Mosque Hill and do likewise. I did not like it. Flat Top was closer and the carrier was well protected. Our truck had open sides and a flimsy canvas hood. The journey was up a precipitous tree-covered track. But I kept my mouth shut.”
“We set off at the same time in opposite directions. The wire around E Company headquarters was pulled back and closed behind. Davies, in the carrier driven by a last-minute volunteer, wended its noisy way up the path to Flat Top that I had negotiated two days before on my mule. They stopped at the top, shouted and dumped the rations. As they returned to company headquarters, they came under fire. Nobody was there to open the wire to let them back into the base. The driver jumped out, started pulling back the wire and was killed. Davies managed to open the wire but was wounded and taken prisoner. Pop drove through the gap, jumped out and scurried to the nearest slit trench. The Germans took advantage of the gap in the wire and poured through. The fighting on Hadj hill was to go on for three hours.”
“Percy and I, meanwhile, had driven down the main track from headquarters and out on to the road past a 25-pounder battery which was firing. We turned right and took the winding path up to Mosque Hill. There was shooting and tracer flashed before us. We arrived at the bottom of the steep hill, surmounted by the mosque, and shouted, ‘Your rations are here!’ We dumped them on the ground. Percy turned the truck smartly and hurried back towards Hadj hill. More tracer was flying about. I ordered Percy to stop and, armed with a couple of grenades and our rifles, we prepared to sell ourselves dearly.”
“We did not have a clear field of fire and could see little more than the bushes about 50 yards to our front. I was going to move forward when the undergrowth in front of us started to shake violently. I shouted a warning to Percy and we were preparing to open fire when a goat’s head followed by about 20 others broke through the shrubs followed by a young lad. I tried to speak to him but he understood only Arabic. It was evidence that we were safe and we decided to head back to Hadj. On our way, we stopped close to a battery of 25-pounders. I tried to obtain information from them but they had none. There was a lot of firing from the direction of Hadj, evidence that E Company headquarters was under attack. I told Percy to wait while I went up the back way to Portee Hill. I started to climb the slight rise and was immediately fired upon. I took cover, slid down the slope and walked back. When I arrived at where Percy had been parked, I found that he had gone. I asked the gunners what had happened and they said that I had been so long Percy had turned the truck and driven in the direction of El-Aroussa.”
“I started to walk to the wadi where the BHQ was located, A dispatch rider approached. I flagged him down and he gave me a lift. I reported to the adjutant, who took me to the commanding officer. I described my morning. He said that it was very confused and he had no information about E Company or its transport. Noting that I was armed, he told me to join the thin line of cooks, clerks and provost sergeants who were manning the headquarters’ defences. I fired a few rounds in the direction of the enemy but I was out of range of the Germans and probably did no damage.”
The German assault developed. G Company in the centre was attacked around the same time as E Company. They lost two hills but held Castle Hill amid heavy fighting. F Company held positions around Stuka Farm for the whole day. Desperate measures were taken in BHQ where Ted now was.
“Conroy formed a fighting party consisting of himself as section leader, CSM Billy Girvin, Colour Sergeant Dann, Provost Sergeant Andy Gardiner, the cook sergeant, a couple of clerks and myself. We were to advance well spread out and endeavour to help G Company on Castle Hill in the battalion’s centre. It was hard pressed and in danger of being overrun. I had started to move off when RSM Reid roared. ‘Colour Sergeant O’Sullivan, you are wanted by the commanding officer.’ Conroy said: ‘You’d better go.’ Thankfully, I ran to the commanding officer’s truck where he told me that he had contacted E Company at last and that they had withdrawn a couple of miles from Hadj and were dug in on a hill. They needed ammunition and I was to go with the RSM to find them as he was not certain of the position.”
“I went back down the track, past the guns once more. I suggested that E Company had probably withdrawn to the west from Hadj. I might find them by going cross-country while Reid carried on by the track. This worked until I reached a steep cliff. On the top, I could see movement. I clambered up, feeling terribly exposed, and there was E Company. ‘I thought you were dead.’ was the greeting. Some time later, Reid turned up with the guide sent to find him. What was left of E Company was a motley collection: survivors of 7 Platoon who had several casualties, company headquarters personnel and the drivers. Later, we were joined by Corporal Butler of intelligence, who had been on Flat Top, with two prisoners. As the light failed, Captain Costello said: ‘Rosie and Donnelly follow me. We are going to the guns where you were this morning.’ Most unusual form of address, I thought, as he had hitherto used only my rank. The three of us walked once more down the familiar track towards the scene of the day’s fighting. The guns were not firing and the darkness was impenetrable. Costello kept saying: ‘You’re lost, boy. Admit it.’ I refuted these suggestions and walked on steadily. We were close to our goal when he turned and said: ‘You’re lost,’and walked back the way we had just come.”
“As soon as Costello arrived at the company’s new position, he called an O Group where he announced that we would advance to Dejeilla station and there take up defensive positions. It was in fact more accurate to say we were going to retire as the station was miles away from the fighting and on the Bou Arada to El-Aroussa road to the west. By this time, it was pouring with rain and we trudged along unhappily, hungry and soaked to the skin. Upon arrival at the station, Costello ordered the NCOs to take up defensive positions with their men.”
Hadj had fallen to the Germans during the fighting on 26 February. At first light on 27 February, the hill was heavily shelled and a counterattack begun. E Company advanced.
“At dawn the next morning, an officer from battalion ordered Lieutenant Lyness, who had commanded the transport detachment, to march E Company back to Hadj and there to counter attack and retake the hill which never should have been evacuated. Once more I trudged the familiar track. How many miles had I walked in the last 24 hours? The company formed up, attacked and re-took the hill but found it was occupied by only the dead, both German and British. The 25-pounders had blasted the hill with open sights and driven the enemy off.”
“For many weeks after the battle, you could smell Hadj from almost a mile away. The stench of death was all pervading. Using an old towel, I cleaned the pieces of flesh which clung to the branches of the trees. We buried our dead with honour but not the enemy who were interred without ceremony.”
“F Company at Stuka Farm and G Company on Castle Hill had gallantly clung to their precarious positions while a detachment of Irish Fusiliers had protected the guns. I heard what happened to the section led by Captain Conroy which I almost joined. Sergeant Andy Gardiner and one other had been killed. CSM Girvin, Conroy, Colour Sergeant Dann and two others had been wounded. Dann’s condition was so serious he was later discharged. Conroy never returned. Later he would be Sir Diarmid Conroy, a famous judge. Billy Girvin was to come back to the battalion later.”
Ted counted the personal cost of the two Bou Arada battles. He had lost some close friends and valued colleagues.
“Two wonderful provost sergeants who had been my friends had been lost. Dennis Griffin, the boxing champion who took over my platoon when I transferred to R Company before we left Scotland, had been killed on Point 286. Andy Gardiner died on 26 February. George Rock -- the indomitable, ever faithful, perfect soldier, adversary yet friend -- died leading his platoon. G Company Sergeant Gerry Teague distinguished himself yet was never decorated. He spoke of George’s heroism with tears in his eyes.”
The senior NCO who had reverted to corporal after Point 286 had been transferred to HQ Company to be reduced to the rank of rifleman and despatched from the regiment after another loss of nerve on 26 February. Ted was stingingly critical of the small number who had broken under pressure. In hindsight, it is fairer to examine the circumstances the battalion was in. The London Irish had been at the centre of a big German push. Two German battalions supported by tanks had broken through to the right of the battalion’s line and threatened Y Division’s headquarters at El-Aroussa. They were eventually repulsed. The Germans withdrew on 27 February. They were completely expelled 36 hours later.
“Captain Curry of the Toronto Scottish took over as E Company commander and we were moved to Stuka Farm where F Company had held the Hermann Goerring Division on 26 February. We encountered a smell similar to that on Hadj. I looked around and found a badly-interred body that was partly exposed. I discovered it was the decomposed remains of my old friend Ian Brooks who had been promoted F Company CSM after the battle for Point 286. We rolled his corpse in a blanket and tied the remains into a tidy bundle before reburying him in a marked grave. I remembered vividly his words the previous November when he read our palms: ‘If I live beyond my early 20s, I will live to an old age.’ Ian had wished me luck as he thought my chances of survival were slim. He left a young wife in Wales and a baby he had never seen. ”
“On 15 March, we were relieved by the Duke of Wellington’s regiment and moved to a pleasant position on a hillside. There were some tents. A few reinforcements arrived from an assortment of regiments, and I interviewed each man with the company clerk Flavell. I overheard one new man say: ‘Who’s the little bloke. He seems to have a lot to say.’ Flavell replied: ‘That’s our colour sergeant. Never wears his stripes.’”
At the end of March, the London Irish were withdrawn to a rest area to lick its many wounds. Having lost so many officers, NCOs and riflemen, the London Irish was a pale shadow of what it had been at the start of 1943. But a suggestion that the battalion should be disbanded was dismissed. New officers were introduced. On 18 March, Lieutenant Colonel T P D (Thomas) Scott of the Faughs took over as battalion commander from Jefferys. Major A P K (Kevin) O’Connor, a graduate of Jesus College Cambridge, was made second in command. A new RSM replaced Buff Reid.
“To our surprise, it was George Irish, who had been CSM of R Company when I had been its CQMS. He had remained in Scotland when we embarked and came out with reinforcements. He visited me and when he approached I stood to attention and said: ‘Good morning, Sir.’ He immediately turned on me and said: ‘I don’t like the way you said, Sir, colour sergeant.’ I was nonplussed. We had been friends a long time and had always addressed the other by nicknames. Now he was RSM, I could not presume on a former friendship. Irish was eventually replaced as RSM by Billy Girvin, the E Company CSM who had been wounded in the February fighting and probably should have had the job in the first place.”
“We were moved to a place we called Happy Valley which was located behind the lines in the mountains north of Tebourba. A sergeants’ mess took over a semi-ruined building. I hardly knew anyone except a few colour sergeants and some HQ types. The companies were spread across the valley and were living in camouflaged tents.”
“Early in our stay, I went with Percy Ford to collect the company’s rations. Coming back along the road, our way was blocked by a carrier that had lost a track. I had to get back to supervise the preparation of meals. Percy said: ‘There’s a way across the hills.’ I asked, ‘Do you know it?’ He said something like: ‘I think so.’ I was in his hands. We turned round and made our way across the hills. He stopped because a deep valley was in front of us. I alighted and was on the point of saying: ‘Go back.’ Ford got out but failed to apply the brakes. The truck slithered down the hill and turned turtle at the bottom.”
“The next morning, I was marched before Colonel Scott escorted by two sergeants. I believe the transport officer read the charge: ‘While on active service and in charge of an army vehicle, you allowed it to be in a hazardous situation, whereby it crashed and was destroyed’, or words to that effect. I stated my case which was that I was not a driver. Scott gave me a severe reprimand and I was marched out. Percy was punished by being returned to duty as a rifleman, which, in his case, was a sentence of death (he was killed on 5 August 1943 during the assault on German positions around Mount Etna in Sicily). I was unhappy for us both, as it had been just bad luck, although Percy had been careless. I heard that field commissions were being awarded. Sergeant of 7 Platoon Jimmy White said he and I were on the list of candidates. I immediately saw E Company commander Captain Curry and told him that if my name was on the list to remove it. Jimmy, Jack Suffolk, Jimmy Baker and Eddie Hogan MM were gazetted as subalterns. Bill Nagle was sent home for officer’s training and was commissioned to the Middlesex Regiment. Jimmy was killed leading his platoon in their first action in Italy.”
The battle for Tunisia shifted to the south. Britain’s 8th Army attacked the Mareth Line which blocked the approach to Tunis from Libya. The offensive started on 16 March and the line was finally breached 10 days later. The American army at the same time pounded the north-south German line around its centre in an offensive that lasted until early April. By the start of the second week of the month, the German-Italian defensive line had contracted to a ring around Tunisia.
Plans were laid for the final Allied attack. The Irish Brigade returned to the front to join the offensive that was planned to make a decisive breakthrough. E Company, rested and reinforced, was now under the command of Major Lofting.
“During March, we were told that the brigade had been transferred to the 78th Infantry Division. It included men from all over the UK and Eire and became, according to military historian General Horrockes, the finest infantry division in the British Army. Its symbol was the golden battleaxe of Stirling. We would fight in battle with tanks driven by Irish, Canadians, South Africans, Scots, Welsh and English.”
“The brigade once more entered the line refreshed from its rest and captured Djebel Mahdi with little loss. From there, we took over positions around Bettiour, a rocky hill about five miles north of Medjez el-Bab. As usual, I brought up supplies but, unusually, was required to do so during the day. On my first trip, I left the cooks and their kitchen equipment well below the skyline. After about two days, I discovered that they had moved and had built a cookhouse just below the crest of the hill.”
“I sent a runner to E Company Commander Major Lofting to tell him I was reluctant to bring my string of mules carrying supplies over the skyline. The runner came back with a message that more or less suggested that I was chicken. I argued no more and led the mules as directed. We had no sooner neared the approach to our cookhouse when a salvo of shells was dropped on us. I shouted: ‘Duck,’ and threw myself on the ground, where a shallow trench had been started. The six inches of cover it offered saved me. Most of the mules were killed or wounded. The Rifleman, who I was escorting, was dead and half my muleteers were wounded. The shelling was seen from BHQ and they said: ‘Rosie’s bought it.’ Lofting later had the grace to admit he was wrong and had the cooks moved back out of sight. I think BHQ put it all down to my carelessness, rather than an order. After that close shave, I became much more wary.”
The London Irish were ordered to advance on the night of 15 April. They took up positions on Bettiour and Madouna, hills north of Medjez el-Bab, and held them for several days under spasmodic mortar and artillery fire. The plan called for attacks along the entire Allied 100-mile front. The 78th Division was to make the final push into the mountains west of Tunis in preparation for an armoured breakthrough along the Medjez el-Bab road to the Tunisian capital. The Irish Brigade was ordered to take the hills of Tanngoucha and Kefs and the village of Heidous. The London Irish were allocated the task of attacking Heidous. The attack was planned for the evening of 22 April.
“At 545pm, an enormous barrage, which was the most concentrated I had experienced, was laid down on the targets. F Company and G Company made their way down the rocky rear slope of Bettiour. F Company formed up around the outskirts of Heidous and advanced towards the village under murderous machine gun and sniper fire. The forward platoons were held up and the reserve platoon under Sergeant Norman attacked from the right. There was utter confusion. E Company was ordered to support F. Meanwhile, G Company had experienced a setback and their commander was wounded. They had gained their objective but retired at dawn as they had received no support.”
“The remnants of F Company laid low until dawn and then withdrew. E Company returned to Bettiour. The Faughs and Skins had with difficulty and great bravery attained their objectives. The following night, E Company scrambled down from Bettiour and I followed immediately with my mules. It was eerie making our way by the light of the fires still burning in Heidous. As we entered it, all was silent and we passed lines of three or four dead London Irishmen led by an NCO with their weapons in front of them. I saw a sergeant leaning back against the wall of a hut. I did not recognise him. He had no head. We had taken Heidous, home to the villagers who had scratched a living from the bare soil. It could not have been strategically important as it was only a small mound on the rear slope of Bettiour. Tanngoucha and Le Kefs had also all been taken. Longstop Hill, which commanded the road from Medjez el-Bab to Tebourda was captured after a hard fight.”
The Irish Brigade had helped break what was called the Siegfried Line of Tunisia. But there was still work to be done.
“We now set about clearing the last few hills. I went up to the company with a string of mules. Once more, Lofting refused to return the animals. I made my way back to the mule-point on my own. As I was crossing a stream in a valley, I was caught in a salvo of shells. My first instinct was to get down, but I took shelter in a hollow behind a group of rocks where I joined the illustrious company of the battalion’s commanding officer Colonel Scott, Brigadier Russell and the Divisional Commander (General Evelegh). I felt safe but was very demoralised as I had a narrow escape. In a lull in the shellfire, two more soldiers rushed into our ‘funk-hole’. One was wounded and the commanding officer had to prompt me into using my field dressing on him. The brass left us. After recovering a little more courage, I made my way back to mule-point where I received my usual dressing down for leaving my mules. The brigadier’s driver Rifleman Harry McRory had been killed sheltering by his jeep which he had halted by the stream.”
“Young officers had the power of life and death over the men they commanded. Although I genuinely liked Major Lofting, I found that he could be very arrogant. If he had allowed the mules to return, I might have been in the valley with them and the result would have been disastrous. Probably, however, I would not have been anywhere near the place. He had endangered me in the skyline incident and a few days earlier had called an O group alongside a mountain path in full view of the enemy and we were shelled. The first round was either a dud or armour piercing. It landed a yard from us but failed to explode. If it had gone off, there would have been three officers, a sergeant major, a colour sergeant and a sergeant, all dead or wounded. Lofting always said ‘Sorry’ after.”
“For the next few days, I followed closely behind E Company as it advanced. Our water problem was alleviated when I discovered a cistern in a fold of the hills used for watering cattle that we never saw. I was filling a jerry can there when two large, bareheaded Germans approached with their hands up and shouting: ‘kamerad.’ Using soldier’s language, I told them to go away which they reluctantly did. Since neither my truck driver nor I were armed as our weapons were in the truck, they could have easily captured or shot us. Probably, they were just tired or hungry. I hope that they managed to surrender before any of their compatriots caught up with them (desertion from the Germany Army was always punished by death by shooting). The brigade had cleared all the accessible areas in the mountains west of Tunis. They were withdrawn from the line for rest and reinforcement. The 78th Division continued the push towards Tunis. By the evening of 7 May, its armour reached the city’s outskirts.”
“The Irish Brigade was given the distinction of being the first marching troops into Tunis. The London Irish entered the town in buses through the crossroads at La Mornaghia. A senior officer in immaculate uniform stood beside his jeep. It was the ‘boss’, General Sir Harold Alexander. Debussing at the entrance of the city, the battalion marched in single file along both sides of the road. I remained in my three-tonner, which soon became be-decked with flowers. The men were garlanded, kissed and cheered by the French colons, who were relieved the war was over for them with little damage to their home.”
“Tunis was a beautiful French colonial city with a native quarter, the kasbah. The latter would remain out of bounds to British soldiers. The London Irish had the task of clearing the docks. When this was finished, E Company assembled at a caravanseri just outside Tunis. Here we bivouacked. The camels had left but their fleas had not. A few cans of AL63 insecticide were shared among the men. Some who were too enthusiastic in their use of it discovered to their cost the effect it had on parts where they perspired. We were soon moved to billets in the suburbs which to us were the height of luxury. One platoon was in a house that was the terminus of the undersea cable to southern France and Italy. As I arrived to issue rations, I was greeted with an explosion from within. A man was brought out covered in blood. The apparatus had been booby-trapped. I immediately took him to hospital where I handed him over to the nuns and left him to their care.”
“Very close to our billet was a lovely little Catholic Church whose parishioners welcomed ‘Les Irlandais’. Tunis had large Italian and Maltese populations as well as French and Berbers. We subsequently moved into bivouacs outside the town and it was pleasant as the weather was quite warm. The enemy had been cleared from the Cap Bon area and parties of enemy prisoners were seen marching in good order followed by a truck containing a military policeman with a rifle. You could easily distinguish between the Italians and the Germans. The Italians seemed to have their personal possessions in small attache cases.”
“We spent a few days at Hammamet, a beautiful but deserted seaside village, but had to move because of the shortage of food. The army had a quarter of a million prisoners to feed. Our rations had been reduced and we received just one slice of bread in the morning plus one other. The rest of the ration was meagre.”
The British Army had learned many bitter lessons from the 1st World including about the fact that every man has a breaking point. In the Great War, desertion in the face of the enemy was treated harshly and many were executed by firing squad. It was, however, slowly learned that even the bravest men can lose their nerve after being exposed repeatedly to danger and seeing others die horribly and in agony. The concept of Shell Shock was developed to encompass cases of soldiers who had suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of coming under bombardment. As a result, desertion was treated more leniently in the 2nd World War and no soldier was sentenced to death during the conflict. Nevertheless, military discipline, at least initially, was firm and sometimes inhumane and Ted was to see with his own eyes.
“Close to headquarters was a camp enclosed by barbed wire. It held men who were awaiting trial by Field General Court Martial. It included those who had been wounded and returned too quickly. Others had been brave and good leaders and had just cracked. One Liverpool Irishman had been wounded in the head at Point 286, hospitalised and sent back as ‘cured’. All he did was to try to report sick because no one had taken any notice of his headache. I gave evidence in his favour at his subsequent court martial but he still was sentenced to a year in a detention barracks. Another, Ginger Poynter, was formerly in my section. One of the smartest men in the company, he was made sanitation orderly, a responsible job in England but more so in sub-tropical weather. After Point 286, he was promoted to full corporal for his heroism in battle when he led his platoon out of a dangerous situation. He also distinguished himself on 26 February on Castle Hill. There were few survivors from the battles in which the battalion had taken part. The four rifle companies bore the brunt. Poynter had reverted to rifleman from corporal and, when called for more front line duty, had just walked to the rear areas. Unfortunately, the rest of his section, mainly reinforcements, copied him. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment which he served in Dalwinnie jail and then compelled to finish another two years army service.”
On 12 May 1943, Mussolini had authorised the surrender of Italy’s 1st Army. Those Germans that had not left Tunisia for Sicily laid down their arms. The Axis as a result lost more men in Tunisia than they did at Stalingrad at the start of 1943. This was a tremendous victory that lifted the spirits of the Allies and caused consternation among their enemies. For Mussolini, dictator of the kingdom of Italy, it was a blow from which he was not to recover. His army had suffered another defeat after the disasters in Abyssinia, Egypt and Libya. About 200,000 Italian soldiers had already been killed fighting on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. Powerful people in Italy began to plot Mussolini’s downfall. In Tunis, a victory parade was held at on Thursday 20 May 1943. Ted was there.
“I insisted on joining it as I was one of the few survivors of the company that had landed at Algiers the previous November and was the only colour sergeant on parade. As we approached the saluting stand, we could see Eisenhower, Alexander, Montgomery and the Free French Commander General Giraud. An American film cameraman shouted: ‘Getta load of this!’ as he saw our saffron kilted pipers and the caubeens with their green and blue hackles. The detachment of London Irish wore the only hackles that could be found among the few hundred survivors from the Tunisian campaign.”
“High above the city of Tunis, and dominating the skyline, were the twin white towers of one of the oldest basilicas of the Catholic Church. Close by were the ruins of a great Roman city. It had been built on the site of Carthage, Hannibal’s capital, which had been destroyed after the 2nd Punic war. The Catholics of the 78th Division marched to a Mass of thanksgiving and remembrance. Leading the division were the pipes and drums of the Skins, the Faughs and the London Irish Rifles. I again was the only colour sergeant from the battalion. To me, these parades were a duty I never avoided. It was both a pleasure and a privilege to march behind the pipes.”
“My main prayers, apart from thanksgiving for survival, were for the repose of the souls of my many comrades and friends: Denis Griffin and Andy Gardiner, the gentle provost sergeants; George Rock and Ian Brooks; Captain Carrigan; Snootch McDowell, whom I escorted to his death, and Harry McRory. I thought of the hundreds of others from the battalion who had died, were missing or had been wounded. I also remembered those I had helped to bury, without due prayer, both friend and foe. What a waste. I also thought of myself and my constant terror which I had successfully hidden, except once when it showed in my eyes. I was with Doc Samuels, our beloved medical officer, who grasped my wrist and reassured me. My biggest fear was to show that fear to others. I had tried to serve my fellows and to act as their mother: feeding them, clothing them, finding them somewhere to rest, giving them comfort and often listening to their worries and fears for their families. From them, I received affection which was close to love.”
“I was proud of them and, at times, I think they were proud of me. A company quartermaster’s job was no sinecure, nor was it a safe, secure little number in the stores, somewhere behind the line. It was physically and mentally exhausting. It was dangerous.Often, the company would make an assault and I would have to negotiate the same route and undertake the same hazards for several days. Apart from the perils of being the target for guns, mortars and small arms, it involved sheer hard work, lack of sleep and no form of comfort. When the company rested, my work continued and often increased.”
Ted’s entire family was now at war.
“We moved back into the Atlas Mountains to Guelma through which we had passed months before. Here we encamped in proper tents.  Letters from home were the main comfort and I was kept abreast of the news. I learnt from one that Nellie, although seriously ill from tuberculosis, had in desperation discharged herself from the sanatorium and was improving in her own home. Danny, now qualified as an RAF gunner, had been posted to India. Tom was an armourer in the RAF. Billy was serving on aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy and Bernard was settled in Newquay at the Rotherhithe Nautical School where he was living at the headmaster’s house. Other news was supplied by a friend, Joan Wyatt, who lived in Branksome Road and on whom I had a long-distance crush. Maggie Levey from the club had the Catholic weekly newspaper The Universe sent to me all the time I was overseas. My other comfort was reading my multum in parva, the anthology of verse I always carried with my missal in my small kit.”
“I wrote often to a variety of people. I was unable to tell anyone where I was. My mother had her first clue when I asked for Mass to be said for my dead friends, but I unexpectedly met a relation while I was in Tunis. A motor cyclist jumped off his machine and ran to me. He took off his crash helmet and I recognised him as my cousin Mike Hanlon. He was a sergeant in the reconnaissance regiment of the 46th Division which had joined the 1st Army in March. He realised that we had both experienced a rough time and was overjoyed to see me intact.”
“During rest periods, I initiated company concerts which were camp fires at which the men drank NAAFI beer to which was added hot grog made from rum that I had ‘fiddled’ from the rations made more palatable with sugar and hot water. The officers and NCOs attended. Rifleman Swift kept things moving. He composed songs and parodies which included in their verses impolite references to officers and others in our formation. One verse in the favourite parody was aimed at me and went like this: ‘If Rosie did his deed and gave the chaps a ******* feed etc’. The men would get gloriously drunk and be put to bed by the officers and NCOs. The concerts lifted morale and blunted the memory. They provided temporary relief. Swift, our master of ceremonies during our sing-a-longs, died fighting in Italy in November.”
Rosie (seated far left) and comrades - Tunisia May 1943
“We bivouacked in a field outside Sousse on the coast south of Tunis while we waited for our next task. The weather was beautiful and we slept on the ground. I used a company stretcher for comfort. After a heavy night at the mess, I rolled into my stretcher after removing my boots and shorts. The next morning, I drew on my shorts and immediately felt an excruciating pain in my buttocks. I jumped up, pulled off my shorts and shook them. Out jumped a large scorpion. I jumped on it and killed it. The pain by now was intense. I called the transport corporal and asked him to drive me to the medical officer. I could not sit on the seat of the jeep, so lay on my stomach. I was taken straight into Doc Samuels who lanced the sting and put in some antiseptic crystals. He uttered some comforting words like: ‘You won’t die but you’ll be very sore for a few days.’ The week following, we had many O groups where Major Lofting invited all to squat on the grass: ‘Except the colour sergeant, who prefers to stand.’”
“One sunny day, the battalion was paraded on the beach in company formation. We were to be inspected. A jeep drove up and, standing in its front, was the small but commanding figure of General Montgomery. The jeep halted some way away and Monty remained standing. Beckoning us with his hands, he said in his slightly shrill voice: ‘Gather round chaps.’ Bemused, we encircled his jeep. ‘Take your caubeens off. That’s better, I can see what you look like. Where do the best soldiers come from?’ There were many replies but the majority shouted Ireland. ‘That’s right, Ireland!. What part?’. ‘Derry’ was the reply from some. ‘You’re right.’ He then gave us a pep talk about us invading Sicily and ‘…meeting your old friends, the Hermann Goering Regiment.’ He obviously was cognisant with our brushes with that formation. He drove off to deafening cheers. Without doubt, he was a master of public relations and morale building.”
“I then made a new acquaintance that was to last the rest of the war. A morose corporal with white stripes and wearing an ACC badge reported to me. He said: ‘I am to be your corporal cook.’ I asked him his name. ‘James Sadler,’ he replied. He told me that he had been in charge of the divisional headquarters’ mess where he had cooked for officers up to general. Mystified, I asked him why he had been posted to a rifle company. He explained that he had been engaged in a long-running duel with the divisional catering officer. The culmination was when the officer discovered grit had penetrated the divisional commander’s food during a Sirocco. Sadler’s punishment was to be sent to the point of most danger: the front line. James had been a chef for the GWR’s excellent restaurant car service and had been the chef at the 48th divisional mess in France in 1939 and 1940. He had fed a French president and other notables. Jim and I were to become intimates and firm friends. He was the finest infantry cook in the British Army. He soon wore his caubeen with pride. Invariably, all attached personnel would ask permission to wear our badge and headdress.”
“The Sirocco was very troublesome and the cooks had problems keeping food covered when high winds blew over equipment in their open-air kitchens. The canopies of the assembled motor vehicles, often securely tied down, would fly away in the wind. Jim coped and showed what he could do with army rations for a company of over 100 men. I could not eat with the men. I had to take food at the sergeants’ mess and often looked with envy at the men’s portions. One thing was sacrosanct in Sadler’s running of the company kitchen: there must be no interference with the men’s rations. That included no extra cups of tea for anyone. I broke the rule once when I gave one to a priest who had fasted from midnight.”
“When there was a change in company commander, I had to explain why there would be no ‘Just a cup of tea for the company commander.’ As a result of Jim’s efforts, E Company was well-fed and watered with four pints of tea each day. Meals of roast meat with Yorkshire pudding were common. Morale was lifted. The company commander boasted that he had the best-fed company in the army. I basked in the respect of both officers and men for declaring that rations were sacrosanct. I used every wile to maximise and ‘wangle’ extras for my boys. But there was still a war to fight. We would be soon shaking the sand of Africa off our feet for good and returning to Europe, but not England.”
 

Chapter 7
Storming Etna
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A spreading bay is there, impregnable
to all invading storms; and Aetna's throat
with roar of frightful ruin thunders nigh.
Now to the realm of light it lifts a cloud
of pitch-black, whirling smoke, and fiery dust,
shooting out globes of flame, with monster tongues
that lick the stars; now huge crags of itself,
out of the bowels of the mountain torn,
its maw disgorges, while the molten rock
rolls screaming skyward; from the nether deep
the fathomless abyss makes ebb and flow.
 
Description of a volcanic eruption at Etna in Virgil’s Aenead
 
As the Tunisian campaign was coming to a close, Allied leaders met in the Trident Conference in Washington DC.
Chief of the General Imperial Staff Sir Alan Brooke again pressed the case for the attack to continue in the Mediterranean and argued that Italy would be much more difficult for Germany to reinforce than the coast of France.
Churchill made the political argument. Taking Sicily to ease the passage of shipping through the Mediterranean was a logical extension of the North African campaign. But invading Italy would knock Germany’s principal ally out of the war and force Berlin to take over garrison duties from the Italians in the Balkans and Aegean area. The British Mediterranean fleet would be free for the Pacific war against Japan. The conference ended in a compromise. General Eisenhower was told to draft plans for the invasion of Sardinia and Corsica as well as south Italy. There was consensus that Sicily should be attacked. If this was successful, a decision would then be made about the next step.
Sicily was separated from Tunisia by a 100-mile channel that had, through history, been an invasion route between Africa and Italy. To the east of the channel lies the island of Malta which had held out against continuous bombing and served as a key way-station serving the war effort in Egypt and Libya. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. It had been invaded and settled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Muslim Saracens who were eventually expelled by Norman fighters in the 11th century. Control over the island fluctuated with the changing balance of European power for almost 800 years until Sicily was absorbed into the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860. A rebellion six years later was brutally repressed.
Like Italy, Sicily is dominated by mountains. Mount Etna, at more than 10,000 feet, is Europe’s highest active volcano. The landscape encouraged a tight-knit clan system resistant to outside intervention. The Vendetta (revenge) culture gave a further edge to a society where the Mafia, a system based on kinship, attracted greater loyalty than government. Migrants to the US in the late 19th century and early 20th century brought Sicilian practices to New York and other American cities. Unfairly, Sicilians and Italians generally were associated with organised crime. The Sicilian-American connection was to help the Allied campaign in Italy.
The invasion of Sicily was called Operation Husky and it began on the night of 8 July 1943. It called for the 8th Army taking the south-east of the island while the US 7th Army under General Patton landed on the south coast. The Americans swiftly headed northwest and captured Palermo on 22 July. Montgomery had a more measured plan to drive north from the 8th Army’s beachhead and capture Messina on the north-east tip of the island.
The first British troops waded ashore at Pachino Beach south of Syracuse at first light on 10 July. The Irish Brigade landed at Syracuse on 26 July to join the 8th Army’s developing advance.
“We embarked in the early morning into the various vessels awaiting us in Sousse harbour. Companies were packed in pairs into infantry landing ships. With the company transport, I boarded a tank landing ship, a very roomy vessel with bunks and other luxuries.
E company commander was Major APK (Kevin) O’Connor. We were chatting on the upper deck when we were approached by a desert warrior dressed in a blue flannel shirt, immaculate shorts and stockings and wearing what we called brothel creepers (brown suede half-boots). He threw up an impeccable salute and said: ’Sir, I have three priests and crews with me, where shall I put them?’ O’Connor returned the salute. ’Put the men on the mess decks and the priests into the officers’ mess.’ The desert warrior looked bemused. I interpolated: ‘Sir, priests are mobile, tracked 25 pounders.’ To the major, who was a Catholic, a priest was a chaplain. Like many of our officers, he was unfamiliar with the names of our weapons.”
“As we left the shelter of the harbour, we were met with mountainous seas. Our large ship was heavily buffetted but the infantry landing ships were tossed about like cockle shells. We knew that the first assault landings had encountered heavy weather and that commandos and air-borne troops had suffered casualties. Many parachutists finished up in the sea, and some were dropped as far away as Malta. I remembered that both St Paul and St Anthony had been wrecked in storms in the Mediterranean. ”
“I took to my bunk, occasionally going aloft to be greeted by howling winds and spindrift. Finally, we entered the port of Syracuse. The companies literally crawled off their ships. Most had been seasick during the voyage and had had nothing hot to eat or drink as the galley fires could not be lit. They were speedily boarded onto TCVs and we made our way towards the centre of Sicily.”
 
Map showing the route of attack of the three battalions of the Irish Brigade against Centuripe. The London Irish were on the left and the Skins on the right. The most challenging task was accepted by the Faughs who had to advance up a steeply terraced hill at night and under fire.
The Irish Brigade headed for Catenanuova for the start of the assault against Centuripe. This was a mountain village in the centre of the Sicily which was at the heart of the defensive line built by the Germans and their Italian allies.
“As we moved through the countryside, we were struck by its natural beauty but appalled by the poverty of the villages and towns. Our welcome was subdued, as the people were obviously uncertain whether we were friend or foe. The Irish Brigade advanced steadily, passing through the town of Catenanuova. Here we became infantry once more and prepared for our attack on the centre of enemy line at Centuripe. I served the company by jeep.”
“One evening, I was being driven by Corporal Allen when we were hit by heavy shellfire. We jumped out of the vehicle into the roadside ditch. It was so shallow that, despite crouching, our heads and chests were exposed. We clung to each other, shivering. The fire was coming from our rear. The bursts lifted and through the smoke emerged a figure with his face masked by blood. ‘Stop these bloody shells. They are killing my boys.’ It was a sergeant major of the East Surreys. Our 25-pounders had been firing continuously for more than six months. Their barrels were so worn their shells were unable to clear the mountain peaks. Supporting fire for our attacking troops was falling on resting and reserve battalions. In mountainous terrains and isolated positions, such tragedies would not be unusual.”
The Irish Brigade was ordered to take Centuripe, a village high in the Sicilian mountains that was the centrepiece of the first of three German defensive lines that curved in a convex line from Sicily’s north coast to the island’s east coast north and south of Catania. The strategy was to work around the western perimeter of Mount Etna. But first, the Centuripe stronghold had to be taken.
On the evening of 1 August, the London Irish moved to an area in the valley below the foothills of Centuripe while the Skins and the Faughs pressed home a night attack by scaling the steep terraced southern face of the hill under machine gun fire, mortars and shells in one of the most brilliant assaults in the history of the British Army. The following day, the London Irish were sent to take hills behind the town. With the assistance of the rest of the brigade, the objectives were seized just before dawn on 3 August.
The battalion pushed forward and made a fresh attack with the Faughs in the afternoon the following day to get across the shallow Salso river. It crossed the River Simeto, which ran north-south along the foot of Mount Etna, on 5 August. By the end of that day, the Irish Brigade had advanced 25 miles and fought in three bloody engagements since the attack began.
“When we took Centuripe, I followed closely behind and entered the town in the early morning of its capture. I was not allowed to progress beyond the town walls as the battalion had to clear up pockets of resistance. Dysentery had me in its grip and I was in desperate need of a latrine. I knocked at the nearest house and stumbled out: ‘Scusati, il gabinetto?’ The lady went into the house and brought out a brown earthenware pot and held it out to me. I shook my head, saying: ‘Grazie.’ I saw a young man and approaching him I said: ‘Dove si trove il gabbinetto.’ Looking puzzled, he motioned me to follow him. We went to the town wall and climbed down steps and a steep path. There before us under the walls was a vast culvert lined with metal. With municipal pride he pointed to it and said: ‘Il gabbinetto.’ I thankfully made use of it despite the terrible smell. Hygiene and sanitation were primitive in central Sicily. Most people had only the earthenware pot which was emptied into the vast dump under the town walls. I suspect that the open fields were more frequently used.”
“I rejoined the company at the River Salso for the advance to the River Simeto where there was heavy resistance to the crossing. After this was cleared, E Company occupied the village of Carcaci. I was allocated a large room in a house as a cookhouse. I observed that its walls were black. As I approached, the walls moved. They were a mass of flies and mosquitoes. Both had painful bites and alarming consequences.”
The London Irish had five days rest by the Simeto. On 11 August, they moved forward to join an attack against the third defensive line which straddled three high points: Macherone, Capella and Sperina. In the middle lay the village of Maletto. The line of attack was roughly north-east around the lower slopes of Etna. The battle for Maletto began with a night march. The first attacks went in at dawn. The fighting was to take place over mountains and the foot of Mount Etna.
“We were once more operating in mountainous conditions, on the slopes of Mount Etna. It was back to mule transport as we advanced across the lava fields of the very active volcano. The new rock was in parts still hot and plastic but in most places it had cooled and hardened into sharp pumice. This cut up our boots and played havoc with the mules’ legs. We were to make a dawn attack on Sperina and the approach to the forming-up point required a compass march in the dark across the lava fields. To add to our difficulties, the terrain was criss-crossed by stone walls.”
“Compass-marching is difficult in daytime. At night, there could be only one result. Some units got lost. The attack went in with the few platoons which had arrived on time at the forming-up point. Heroically, they took their objective. When dawn broke, the rest were still floundering in the lava beds. A message came from the commanding officer. The battalion had run out of ammunition and we were to take up supplies immediately. We knew it was nonsense and we grumpily loaded up two mules with ammunition. I strapped two boxes each side of my first mule which immediately rolled over and died. Sicilian mules were not as robust as African ones.”
“We set off in the hot sun, clambering over walls and avoiding the steaming fissures of Europe’s largest volcano. Finally we passed through a small wood which was the forming-up point. In front of us was a valley in which a tank battle was progressing. Also in front of us was a mound of ammunition. RSM Girvin knew his job. It was not the shortage of bullets that was the problem but the shortage of men to fire them in the precariously-held position. The missing platoons joined their fellows during the day while we took back our burdens and reloaded our carriers. A valuable mule was dead and most of the others unfit for work after a pointless and dangerous journey. The exhausted colour sergeants rejoined their companies that evening.”
“The brigade had made excellent progress, but we were cut out by the Canadians who had advanced across our front from the west and occupied the town of Randazzo. Unfortunately, others were unaware of this movement and spent that day bombing the town. It was reported that the poor Canadians sustained heavy casualties. The planes came from North Africa and communications had broken down. We bivouacked in a pleasant little valley where the next day we buried our many dead in a multi-denominational service. Among them was Sergeant Leo McRory whose platoon had arrived on time at the start line due to his efforts. That evening, I obtained a supply of NAAFI beer and augmented it with a hot rum toddy. We held a campfire at which Corporal Howarth presided. Colonel Rogers, then commanding officer of the battalion, attended and was asked to sing. When the men were happily maudlin, officers and NCOs put them to bed. Maletto was the battalion’s last battle in Sicily.”
Patton’s Americans were the first to enter Messina, arriving on 17 August just hours after the last German troops had left. The Allied armies suffered more than 20,000 casualties in the six-week campaign. More were struck down with malaria. Ted was one of them.
“The next morning, I was unable to get out of the stretcher I used for a bed. I dressed and was taken to Doc Samuels who diagnosed malaria. I was put into an ambulance and finally arrived at a general hospital in Augusta. Here I remained for a few days, but when I heard I might be evacuated to Tripoli, I discharged myself. I swallowed a handful of tablets and made my way back to the regiment, but I managed to get to Mass in the cathedral at Augusta on the Sunday. I caught a train to Patti on Sicily’s north coast where the London Irish were stationed. The battalion was very short of men due to malaria and dysentery. The Simeto had particularly nasty mosquitoes and flies. George Charnick, who never took his mepachrine, had been immune, but many others had succumbed. I heard sad news. Corporal James Murtagh, my friend and assistant from my stint in the sergeants’ mess, had died of gangrene after sustaining a shrapnel wound earlier. He was a brave man who had been awarded the MM. Eddie Mayo rejoined us. He had been wounded three separate times. But because he had only been hospitalised twice, he was returned to his unit after being patched up. Promoted to full sergeant, Mayo became a close and valued comrade. He, George Charnick, Jock McNally and I became a tight-knit and inseparable quartet. When out of the line, we would be joined by Jim Sadler and Benny Goodman, the armourer sergeant. Benny, a fluent Italian speaker, became our interpreter.”
It was later said by E Company officers that the unit was effectively run by Charnick, Mayo and O’Sullivan.
“Patti looked out over the blue Tyrrhenian sea. In the distance, we could see smoke and steam issuing from the volcano island of Stromboli. The men trained and rested while I continued in my never-ending task of feeding, clothing, quartering and equipping my company. This necessitated making a journey to Palermo, a beautiful city.”
“We were to spend the remainder of August and most of September in this comparative paradise. I managed to bathe in the sea most days. A little way out, seemingly, was an attractive little island which always drew my eyes. One evening, I foolishly decided to swim to it. I entered the sea and made towards it with steady strokes, but the island appeared to get farther away. Tiring, I sensibly turned back and used an economical side-stroke to get to shore. I had not reckoned with the current and my evening swim became a struggle to remain afloat. As the shore finally came nearer, I repeatedly tried to find the shingle bottom with my toes but to no avail. Being the shore of a volcano, the beach was steep. Finally I found a toe hold and desperately threw myself above the water line. Here I lay panting for a quarter of an hour. It was a very narrow escape. This was confirmed the next day when two men were drowned trying to make the same short swim. The island was in fact more than two miles distant. The current was treacherous.”
The invasion of Sicily ended Italy’s patience with Mussolini, the country’s dictator since 1922. The Allies bombed Rome on 19 July. On 24 July, The Fascist Grand Council passed by a majority a vote of no-confidence in Mussolini. The next day, he was arrested. Marshall Pietro Badoglio was appointed head of a military government. But the new regime continue to reassure its allies that it would continue to fight with them. The Italian Army was urged to maintain its commitment to the war Mussolini had started. Secretly, however, Badoglio was trying to end the war. The duplicity was to provoke a furious response from the Germans and divide the Italian Army when it was discovered.
But the Allies had a second victory in the Mediterrean. After the battle of Maletto, the Irish Brigade enjoyed six blissful weeks in Sicily. Capturing it had taken just 38 days. Opposition had been moderate. The Allies had suffered just over 30,000 casualties and the Germans 37,000. The Italians had lost 130,000 of their troops, most as prisoners of war. And the invasion had knocked Italy out of the war, removing almost 1 million Italian troops from the forces at Hitler’s disposal. The victory created the illusion that taking Italy would be equally swift. The reality was that the Germans had no intention of fighting for Sicily to the last man as they had in Tunisia. Their three defensive lines served as a screen which allowed practically the whole of what was left of the German army on the island to escape across the Strait of Messina. It had resisted an Allied army totaling 450,000. About 55,000 escaped, taking with them 10,000 vehicles and 50 tanks.
Hitler was about to make life much more difficult for Ted and his comrades.
 

Chapter 8
Blood in the Sangro
contents  
 
Sul mare Luccica
L’ostro d’argento
Placida e l’onda
Prospero il vento
Venite all’agile
Barchetta mia
Santa Lucia !
Santa Lucia !
Santa Lucia, an Italian ode
dedicated to the city of Naples
 
In the 40 days following Mussolini’s arrest, an opportunity was lost to end the war in Italy.
The price was to be enormous. In the next 22 months, more than 1 million soldiers and civilians were to be killed and wounded in bitter fighting in Sicily and Italy. The Badoglio government indicated through intermediaries that it was prepared to accept a conditional surrender which did not involve the complete loss of all Italy’s colonies. The proposal was viewed positively by the Americans but rejected out of hand by Anthony Eden, then Britain’s Foreign Minister, before there was time to present it to Churchill. Hitler, meanwhile, prepared to take control of Italy should the new government formally abandon its alliance with Germany.
On 3 September, the Italian government accepted the Allies’ terms. The armistice was announced to the Italian people on 8 September by General Eisenhower, taking the Italian regime by surprise. A plan for American troops to land at an airport near Rome and seize the capital was cancelled at the last minute. Hitler ordered longstanding plans for the occupation of Italy to be put into effect. With the German army flooding into Italy, King Vittorio Emanuele II panicked and fled his capital with Badoglio. The Italian army, which outnumbered the Germans, was not ordered to fight and started to disarm piecemeal.
The new Italian government failed to honour its promise to hand over Mussolini to the Allies. He was freed by German paratroopers on 12 September and immediately set up a new Fascist government in the north of Italy. Although powerless, Mussolini claimed that his was the sole legitimate goverment of Italy. This ensured Italians continued to fight with the Germans and many continued to express loyalty to Mussolini's regime. A growing number, however, backed the allies. Thousands took up arms against the German occupiers and their Italian partners. A savage civil war began to erupt in parts of Italy controlled by the German Army and Mussolini's regime.
Meanwhile, Italy's massive army -- lacking leadership or any clear idea of what it should do -- disintegrated or was easily disarmed. On 14 September, the German High Command reported it had captured 700,000 Italian soldiers, many of whom were dispatched to prison camps in the Reich. There was local resistance but this was brutally repressed. About 5,000 Italian soldiers on the occupied Greek island of Cephalonia were massacred after they surrendered, an atrocity recorded in the Booker Prize winning novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It was a terrible beginning to the saddest period in Italian history.
Ted and his Irish Brigade comrades learned that Italy was no longer an enemy, but not yet an ally, while they were preparing for the next phase of the campaign in Sicily.
"We were evidently no longer at war with Italy. No longer enemies, nor Allies apparently but co-belligerents. Soon we would be off once more, this time to the mainland of Italy. More ‘soft underbelly?’ We sang: ‘When this bloody war is over, just how happy we would be. . . . .’ But when? The war seemed to stretch ahead for ever.”
Allied leaders were preparing to deal a decisive blow against the German Army in italy. Their strategy for capturing Italy called for the British 8th Army, which included the Irish Brigade, to advance up the eastern Adriatic coast. The US 5th Army was to move up the narrow plain on the west coast of the Italian peninsula to seize Naples and then Rome.
The first units of the 8th Army landed on the heel and toe of Italy on 3 September. They encountered practically no resistance from the Italian army. The 5th Army under US General Mark Clark and other Allied units landed at Salerno south of Naples on 9 September, the day after the Italian government's decision to change sides had been announced. German resistance there was resolute and the Allied beachhead was almost engulfed. The Germans decided as a result to resist the Allies the whole length of the Italian peninsula instead of retreating to a line in the north.
The Irish Brigade was transported on 24 September by sea from Messina to the ancient city of Taranto, a sea port based on an inland lagoon that was connected to the Mediterranean by a short channel. It had been the principal base of the Italian navy. Taranto, an ancient city, had been in ancient times the largest settlement in what was known as Magna Gracae (Large Greece), a vast area extending from the Black Sea to the Straits of Gibraltar where Greek speaking people had set up colonies.
After five days preparation, it was moved by train to Barletta on the Adriatic. On 5 October, the brigade was on the move again and transported by landing craft to Termoli, further up the coast, in a move designed to evade German lines by getting behind them. It landed a couple of days behind the first wave of commandos and elements of the 36th Brigade which had taken the town. It was expected that German resistance would be light and easily overcome. These expectations were dashed and the Irish Brigade were given their first taste of the determination of their enemies to hold land.
“Although the initial crossing of the Strait of Messina was on 3 September, we were not to cross to Italy until 20 days later. We sailed through the Strait of Messina and up to the vast Gulf of Taranto. It was a smooth crossing but getting into the harbour at Taranto seemed to take ages. I was struck by the great numbers of large jellyfish which floated lazily in the sea. We disembarked and were taken to bivouac areas where we waited for about five days. We entrained for the small port of Barletta where we were allowed to enter the town and introduced to vermouth at ridiculously low prices. This was remedied, I understand, the very next day. So far it had been soft. This was amended that same night.”
Termoli is a picturesque, walled medieval town on the Adriatic coast with a small harbour. To the north of the walls, a quay used for fishing boats was identified as the best place for the Irish Brigade to land. Practically all the main features of the town in 1943 are still intact, including the hotel on the quay front that Ted O’Sullivan used as a base.
“The transport had already been left at Taranto to make its own way to our destination by road when it had been cleared of Germans. We embarked into landing craft in battle order and were carried around the Cape formed by Mount Gargano to Termoli. Here, we were dumped on an inhospitable quay with 205mm shells exploding around us. The reception was so warm, the navy did not bother to unload a medical unit complete with stretchers. They just backed out and left. We ran quickly up the cobbled streets carrying everything. The platoons were hurriedly deployed and we dashed into a large hotel building which was occupied by the remains of a commando troop that had taken the port a few hours before.”
The Irish Brigade had landed during a strong panzer counterattack that came close to driving the 8th Army back into the sea. The London Irish were immediately sent on a mission to capture a hill and cemetery north of the town. After a brief engagement, they settled down for a stay of 12 days. Ted was based in Termoli, while E Company held positions north of the port and prepared to push north.
“Our trucks had caught us up. My staff joined me and were delighted with the luxurious accommodation we had in Termoli. As soon as I was given the location of the farm where the company was, I made my way in a TCV with a hot meal inside six gallon containers. I could not go across country but followed the roundabout route by road. On the way, I was shelled and shot at. At the farm, I started to feed the men when we became the target of shellfire from some heavy guns. In a lull, I packed my stuff to return to my cooks and storeman. The return journey was even more fraught and I dashed into the hotel out of harm’s way. I was greeted with: ‘What was it like?’ I replied with a vivid description in violent army language. A gentle voice from the back of the room said chidingly: ‘Rosie.’ It was Father Hayes, our padre. I had served Mass for him on many occasions. I stammered an apology and he never mentioned my verbosity ever.”
“It was still considered to be too dangerous to set up the cooks in the farm so I took prepared food and ammunition the next day. The company were not really interested in the meal and soon I discovered why. The farm had a large flock of turkeys, allegedly 96, as well as an array of other poultry and a few pigs. When E Company left, the only moving creatures were the farmer and his wife who had just returned. The excuse was: ‘Il Tedeschi portari tutto.’ (‘The Germans have taken everything‘). I took a killed and dressed turkey back for Jimmy Sadler. Roast pork appeared on our menu for several days. This was looting, but it would not compare with that perpetrated by those following close behind the front line who never heard a shot fired in anger. I later saw beautiful furniture cut up to make a trailer in which was loaded magnificent silver servers and cutlery from the hotel we were in.”
Looting and other forms of criminality in territory liberated from the Germans were to become a huge issue during the entire Italian campaign. Although brutally cruel in suppressing any form of resistance among the Italian people, the German Army was the nevertheless very effective in discouraging theft by its soldiers. This changed once the Germans were driven out. With most of its army imprisoned and the authority of the previous regimed shattered, the Italian people were effectively defenceless. Some within the Allied forces viewed Italy as a conquered country where property was a legitimate spoil of war. It is one reason why Italians of a certain generation will speak of the decency of many of the ordinary German soldiers they encountered. Ted was horrified by the occasional instances of theft and corruption that he witnessed but argues that, in the main, the London Irish and the Irish Brigade were a very honest unit. Italians who live in areas the brigade passed through tend to confirm this view and will recount stories of the brigade’s kindness and decency.
“In my journeys between Termoli and the farm where the company was, I saw many burnt and knocked out German tanks with the gruesome sight of their crews who had been roasted in their vehicles. During the fighting to the north of Termoli, a troop of tanks approached and an officer leant out and shouted: ‘Any targets, Buddy?’ They were from the Canadian Three Rivers Regiment. E Company commander John Lofting was very grateful for their assistance in shelling suspect buildings.”
The next target was the village of Petacciato which was sited on high ground on the north side of the River Sinacra and a fine view over the Adriatic to the east. The attack went in following an artillery barrage just after 1am on the morning of 19 October.The town was taken with no casualties.
“I followed closely behind. Human excrement littered the street. The commanding officer called the mayor and ordered him to clear it up. It was obvious that the town had received some bombardment and the people were afraid to leave their houses. Not being able to clear their ‘gabinetti’, they just threw the contents out of the door.”
The pattern that was to repeat itself during the Irish Brigade campaign in Italy quickly established itself. North of Petacciato was a wide valley with the shallow River Trigno flowing through it to the sea. Beyond the river was a long stretch of gentley rising ground. It was an excellent position and the Germans were ready. The Trigno was about four miles north of Pettaciato. It was shallow and no more than five feet at its deepest part. There were patches of exposed ground in midstream. The main bridge across was still intact when the brigade arrived. The brigade sensed that the bridge was loaded with explosives, but the Faughs were ordered forward quickly to take it. As they approached, the explosives were detonated and the bridge was smashed. The Faughs forded the river instead and created a shallow bridgehead on the Trigno’s north side. The foundations of the bridge can still be seen.
“At that time, the Trigno was only about 20 or 30 yards wide and generally less than a foot deep. Its mighty bridge, which catered for a raging torrent, was about 600 yards long but about 50 yards was blown in the middle. E Company was sent to relieve the Faughs at the bridgehead. I followed with a string of about a dozen mules and crossed the Trigno by a ford.”
“The silence was eerie and the darkness complete. At my destination, I entered a dug-out where a Faughs officer handed over and explained the position. I was horrified when the outgoing officer lit up a cigarette. The flashing of his cigarette lighter must have been seen for miles. I still do not know whether it was relief or bravado. I sent my mules back to base as soon as we had unloaded them and remained to receive Lofting’s instructions.”
“The muleteers were immaculately accoutred Sikhs. Their mules had been spotless when they had been loaded with supplies for E Company earlier that day under the supervision of a Subadar Major with a great sweeping moustache and a beautiful beard. All wore the Pagre ritual turban. None had steel helmets. On the way back from the company’s lines that night, they stopped in the middle of the Trigno and washed their mules. They were immediately heavily shelled and some were killed. Was it the officer’s cigarette lighter or the noise they made washing the mules that brought down the fire? I waited until it was quiet and walked alone a couple of miles back to the mule point in pitch blackness. I crossed the Trigno ford in which there were now bodies.”
“E Company was to be the sole occupier of the bridgehead until the next phase of operations which were to extend and widen the bridgehead. I was pleased to hear that the Subadar Major had issued orders that mules were not to be cleaned until they had arrived back at their stables. Every night, I crossed the Trigno with my mules and was extremely nervous in the middle. It was so exposed and there was nowhere to dive. The engineers working to repair the bridge throughout the night were often shelled and many were killed. The smell of rotting flesh pervaded the Trigno and I felt I was walking on bones. But were they those of a man or a mule?”
Just over two miles north of the Trigno was the town of San Salvo, which was set on top of a long ridge running east-west parallel to the route of the Trigno in the valley. This was to be the brigade’s next target. The attack went in on the night of 27 October. The Germans were entrenched behind thick wire and dense minefields. The conditions were made worse by heavy rain. The Faughs were repulsed with heavy losses after they were subjected to a strong German counterattack. They lost their commanding officer Colonel Butler and two company commanders in a failed attack.
The London Irish, which were in reserve, nevertheless suffered casualties and its second-in-command Major O’Connor, a respected officer, was killed by a shell. The brigade retired to the Trigno bridgehead to lick its wounds.
“On the night before the attack on San Salvo, the nightly quartermaster column of jeeps was lined up behind Major O’Connor in his vehicle on the south side of the Trigno. Rodney Cockburn, company commander, came up to me in the second jeep and said: ‘Major O’Connor is ill. You’d better lead off.’ I led as directed but was stopped by a roar from O’Connor, who lambasted me for taking over. Of course, had O’Connor really been ill, Rodney should have taken charge.”
“We drove up to the bridge approach and were stopped. O’Connor alighted, approached me and told me to remain until he returned. Eventually, we negotiated the ford and on the other side were guides from each London Irish company. I was given a Tommy gun and ordered to accompany O’Connor and his batman as bodyguard to BHQ in the bridgehead where I was told to join my company. I’ll never know why I, a colour sergeant, was chosen as O’Connor’s personal guard. Perhaps he trusted me more than the others. But that was the last time I saw him. The next morning, we heard that he was returning to the battalion mule point and stopped off to chat with Geoffrey Phillips at the cookhouse dugout of G Company. A rogue shell burst among them. O’Connor was killed and Ted Simmonds, my old cook, and Phillips were badly wounded.
O’Connor was a true gentleman who would probably have become commanding officer. I could not, however, work out how he ticked. We had fallen out several times over John Lofting’s commandeering of mules. I was upset that he had misunderstood my decision to lead our convoy the night he died. He was unaware that I was only obeying Rodney’s order.”
It poured all the next day and the battalion went on to the defensive in the Trigno bridgehead under persistent German shelling. A fresh attack led by the Skins in concert with the 36th Brigade was launched that night after a massive bombardment of German positions in San Salvo. The town was taken. In a pattern that was to be repeated through the Italian campaign, the capture of San Salvo opened the way to yet another German defensive position which occupied a long, east-west ridge that overlooked the River Sangro. This was the Winter Line, a formidable band of fortifications that stretched from coast to coast and encompassed the Gustav Line around Cassino.
It was raining regularly and heavily. The Sangro had burst its banks. About 1,000 yards north of the river was a wooded ridge with three prominent strong points at the villages of Mozzagrogna on the west, Santa Maria Imbaro in the centre and Fossacesia on the east closest to the coast. Ted remembered that the Sangro itself was a formidable obstacle.
“The Sangro was in full spate with great tree trunks and other debris and filled the whole valley’s full width of about three quarters of a mile. The Germans had once again harnessed nature to hold up our advance. Two heavy cruisers, which I saw steaming majestically along the coast, joined the bombardment of the enemy line.”
“The division was billetted south of the Sangro in Cassalbordino and surrounding farms and villages. My task each evening was to take my supplies in a decrepit jeep with a faulty clutch along miles of flooded roads to cross a quagmire near the Sangro. I then followed a road parallel to the river for about 100 yards before reaching a track to the farmhouse where the company was based. My jeep was forever breaking down. One evening, it stopped dead in the quagmire. A friendly Indian driver in a jeep pushed us out at the cost of his own clutch. I was forced to leave him as we dared not stop. The jeep failed again by the side of the flooded river in full view of the enemy and under shellfire. I push-started it and reached the battalion.”
“The commanding officer sent for me. ‘You’re ill boy,’ he said. ‘You have got to rest. I order you to go back to B Echelon (the army’s term for the heavy transport depot) and have about three days complete rest.’ I was completely bewildered. I was very tired, not sick, and I did not want to leave the company. I saw E Company commander John Lofting and I told him what the colonel had said. E Company’s billet was comfortable and had a bed. I asked if I could stay there while another sergeant brought up the supplies. Lofting thought this was a good idea since this would allow me to rest and supervise my work at the same time.”
“The next day, I went to BHQ and met RSM Billy Girvin outside. As we were talking, a large staff car drew up. The little general at the back responded to our salutes and called us over. It was Monty again and he handed over a large parcel. ‘Share these among the chaps,’ he said. Billy threw up a cracking salute as Monty drove off. We discovered that the parcel contained 5,000 Gallaher’s Blue Label cigarettes which would give the men in forward positions an extra day’s ration of seven cigarettes. I used to boast: ‘The last time I spoke to Monty, he gave me 5,000 cigarettes.’” Montgomery’s presence presaged an imminent fresh attack that would involve most of the 8th Army. It called for an initial wave to dismantle the perimeter fences of wires and mines. This would prepare the ground for the main attack.
The Irish Brigade supported by tanks were allocated the right section of the ridge and the town of Fossacesia. The 8th Indian division were to storm the left of the German line. The London Irish were moved up on the night of 20 November. It was raining heavily and the soft ground on the way to the Sangro made it impossible for tanks to cross it. After a delay, the battalion was withdrawn to Cassalbordino to wait for the weather to improve. It moved up again and over the Sangro a few days later.
“The Sangro was still a raging torrent but it was imperative to pass this obstacle as it was giving the Germans time to build up the Winter Line. A precarious bridgehead was won and a bailey bridge built close to the remains of the ruined bridge. On the other side was a river cliff a few hundred yards from the Sangro’s north bank. We crossed the Sangro and sheltered beneath the precipice as the company prepared for the next advance. A hospital was erected in tents with large red crosses everywhere. One morning, aircraft flew along the cliff face. At first, we thought they were ours but they dropped bombs and machine gunned the tents and vehicles. I jumped into the nearest slit trench but found it full. I was first in the next one, safe but uncomfortable as about four others lay on top of me. The next day, a shell clipped the cliff-top and exploded not many yards from me. I was shaving at the time and removed part of my moustache as a result. I took the rest off. Nobody noticed its passing.”
The assault on the Winter Line north of the Sangro began with an attack by the 8th Indian Division. When it failed to make the scheduled progress, the Irish Brigade’s attack plan was altered. It would first take Santa Maria and a hill to its right and then sweep along to the east to capture Fossacesia. At dawn on 29 November, the Skins supported by the City of London Yeomanry advanced against Santa Maria. It took them all day to capture their objectives.
The London Irish advanced from the bridgehead to their starting line about a mile north of the river. Their objective was to take the east-west Santa Maria-Fossacesia road and to destroy German defences up to and including Fossacesia. The front they attacked was almost two miles wide and up to 800 yards deep. There were minefields, booby traps, wire entanglements, hidden machine positions and artillery pieces sunk into the ground. It was like the Western Front in the 1st World War.
The attack began at 9am on 30 November with a massive bombardment that started on the western section of the Winter Line and then moved systematically to the east. As the bombardment on each section lifted, a company of the London Irish supported with tanks attacked. The Germans, demoralised by the shelling, were expecting a frontal assault, not a lateral one.
By 1pm, all the objectives had been taken. It was pitiless work. The London Irish discovered a deep dug-out with more than 20 Germans who refused to surrender. The entrances were dynamited. ‘Later, a bulldozer was brought up to block all the exits to the dugouts, which became the Germans’ grave,’ the London Irish official history records.
The battalion moved on to Rocca, a town north of the Winter Line, and then to the River Moro, another natural defensive barrier than ran from the Appenines into the Adriatic. Ted again followed.
“I was not sorry when the company advanced away from our vulnerable position on the Sangro. We advanced and linked up with our tanks. Closely following E Company, I traveled along the road from Mozzagronia soon after the attack had been completed. I saw the preparation of funeral ghats for the many Indian dead, casualties in the attack. I continued into Fossacesia and arrived just as the company moved a piano into the street. One of the lads was playing it.”
“Surprise had been complete. The battalion had completed its task with few casualties. We advanced to Rocca. Lofting’s luck deserted him and he was wounded. Lieutenant Gentle, who himself was later wounded by shrapnel, nominally took over E Company but Lofting effectively handed command directly to CSM Charnick. The company would be run by Charnick and sergeants Mayo and McNally until we came out of the line. It was about 3 December when the Canadians of The Three Rivers Regiment caught up with us. We had a celebration and one of them played a guitar.”
The weather had become intolerable and further progress looked impossible. The Allied commanders by then had another target in their sights: Monte Cassino itself. The Irish Brigade was transferred to Campobasso in the centre of the Appenines. There it recuperated and received replacements for the hundreds of dead and wounded suffered at the battles at San Salvo and the Sangro. The brigade had lost much of its original Irish contingent. The replacements from other parts of the British Isles quickly took to the traditions and the spirit of a unit that the Germans sometimes described as “Die Irische SS (The Irish SS)” because of its fighting skills.
The challenge for the next two months was to hold the mountain area against German infiltration during the winter. After Christmas, the London Irish and the Faughs were moved further into the Appenines. They were based in the mountain village of Montenero where they were given responsibility for a line about 12 miles long. The riflemen were deployed into defensive positions at about 5,000 feet. There was one encounter with German mountain troops close to the town.
“We said good-bye to our Canadian friends and were taken south beyond Campobasso by TCV to San Marco. It was cold but we were comfortable and billets were allocated to the company. A battalion sergeants’ mess was set up. Because of the attrition caused by constant fighting, the companies were like strangers to each other and the sergeants even more so. E Company was under the temporary command of Lieutenant Wilson. Colonel Rogers had left the battalion and it was now under the command of Colonel Goff with Major Bredin, a regular from the RUR, as his second in command. We did little at San Marco except to get to know each other. New officers appeared, including Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley, the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the imprisoned leader of the British Union of Fascists.”
“On the 23 December, we moved into Campobasso and E Company were billeted in the cells of a large Franciscan convent. During the evening of Christmas Eve, the monks carried around a harmonium and sang carols at each cell. The Catholics attended midnight Mass, formed a choir and sang the Credo. Our Christmas fare included pork chops. Jim Sadler turned it into a banquet, some of which leaked to the monks.”
“We remained at Campobasso until 27 December when we were moved into the high Apennines to a location close to the headwaters of the Sangro. The journey through the snow-capped mountains was picturesque but very cold. We crossed the Sangro at the town of Castro di Sangro and finally arrived at our new base at Montenero, a small, poverty-stricken town. BHQ was set up and most of the village was commandeered. The companies were pushed out to positions high in the mountains at about 5,000 feet. Their shelters were mainly slit trenches and sangars. There were some small bivouac tents used for sleeping near to the positions held by the men. All the rest of their comforts were carried on their backs. The snow was not yet deep but the area was a white wilderness. I was not sorry when I trudged back daily to the billet allocated to the company in Montenero. The London Irish had brought 500 men into the town and posted more than 300 in the hills. This meant much of the local population had been displaced. The story was repeated across Italy. A populous and overcrowded state had two vast armies that took over nearly all the limited accommodation and were at the same time destroying most of the country’s facilities.”
“Snow descended in blizzard strength. Conditions in the line were appalling. Winter clothing was distributed on an equal basis that did not reflect needs. Even those in billets were given a share. E Company, freezing on a mountain, received its strict ration: one jerkin between six men; one duffel coat between eight; one string vest between two; one pair of boucheron boots for 10 men and white smocks for about half. In the town, there were officers, sergeants and cooks wearing jerkins or duffel coats and sometimes both. I believe the same distribution prevailed even in distant rear areas. The men in the mountains got rest on a strict rotational rest of about three days in the town. During one of E Company’s rests, we acquired a whole sheep. It was roasted in roughly hewn joints over the open fire in the billet and washed down with hot rum toddy. I remember Eddie Mayo sitting on his blankets and gnawing at a leg of lamb with blood running down his chest.”
“Conditions for the company were bad, but mine were often worse. At least once a day, I would go with mules to the forward platoons with extra clothing and other comforts. At first, I would go with just the mules and drivers. But one supply party was taken prisoner by a German patrol and it became customary to take an escort of about four men. The commanding officer and adjutant inspected the forward companies on skis. Sergeant Brown, the cook sergeant at headquarters, found that an enormous store of flour was piling up because the companies had no way of using it. He took over the local bakery and cooked bread, savouries and fruit pies. These were taken up into the mountains and distributed among the men. They were a great success.”
On the mountains, the London Irish and the Germans carried out probing patrols in an effort to deny each other control of the area. On the morning of 19 January, a more serious attack was launched against E Company positions. According to 9 Platoon commander Nicholas Mosley in his book Time of War, it began while he was briefing his platoon sergeant and section commanders in his tent. It was heralded by a shell or mortar bomb that landed next to the tent, wounding two or three of the men inside. A detachment of German ski troops swooped towards the platoon out of the trees. Mosley and most of the platoon were taken prisoner, though some only temporarily. Ted was at Montenero, but heard later what happened.
“After another night of blizzards, E Company was stood down as full daylight illuminated the snowy wilderness. Many men had removed both boots and socks and were rubbing life back into their frozen feet. Unseen German mountain troops wearing white smocks swooped over the peaks on skis. They herded most of 9 and 7 Platoons, which was commanded by Nick Mosley, into a group. Eddie Mayo, 8 Platoon sergeant, had seen what had happened. He and Charlie Neat, a bren gunner, shouted a warning to the prisoners and attacked the ski troops with rapid fir, and some of the captured men were rescued, including Mosley. We learned afterwards that some of those captured had to walk barefoot across the mountains to their prison cage. Word of the attack reached Montenero.
I was told E Company had been attacked and had suffered heavy casualties. They were cut off by deep snow and I had to rescue them. I was given an escort, a string of mules and about a dozen impressed Italians armed with picks and shovels. We took the usual path up the mountain but soon found it blocked by heavy snowdrifts. I dug down. At one point I was unable to feel the bedrock and, holding my spade above my head, could not reach the top of the drift. At last, we arrived at the company position. They were packed up and ready to leave.
The casualties were light. There were some wounded to be evacuated and about a dozen Germans had been taken prisoner. Snow was heaped over the dead, most of them enemy. We trudged back to Montenero.”
E Company had lost five dead, 15 wounded and 29 missing including the ones taken prisoner. The affair was a salutary lesson. There was little point attempting to hold positions that were so difficult for the riflemen and impossible to defend. The London Irish were ordered to evacuate the area on 25-26 January.
“The battalion abandoned Montenero without reluctance. The Germans sent us on our way with a heavy bombardment. With my jeep driver, I was the last man of my company in the town. I took shelter from the shellfire and went to see what damage had been done. The jeep was intact but the rubber tyres we had attached to the German field cooker that had been captured on the Winter Line were in ribbons and the cooker pierced with shrapnel. My driver said it would be impossible to tow. We abandoned the contraption. It would take months to live down the loss and I missed the old cooker.
The Poles, who were to take over our positions in the mountains, immediately abandoned any idea of a garrisoned stronghold while the weather remained Arctic. They maintained properly equipped ski patrols in the hills while their troops were static in a mobile yet comfortable role as the Germans had been throughout the winter so far.
Companies were told to surrender all winter clothing. I collected the pitiful assortment of duffel coats, jerkins, boucheron boots, string vests and dirty winter socks. The quartermaster called the colour sergeants and said that a court of inquiry would be convened to investigate the losses, which amounted to about fifty per cent of what had been issued. I was asked what happened to most of mine. I explained we had losses due to evacuations, casualties, deaths and prisoners. ‘Why did you allow men to go to hospitals wearing winter clothing?,’ I was asked. I was dumbfounded. It would have meant stripping men already hurt and suffering from shock and stripping the dead before burial. No court of inquiry was ever convened. I noticed that duffel coats were the normal attire of the quartermaster’s staff.”
In February, the brigade was moved west again and occupied positions behind the Cassino front. Brigadier TPD (Pat) Scott, a Faughs officer who had commanded the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish until he had been promoted to head the 12th Brigade in July 1943, was brought back to lead the Irish Brigade. He replaced Brigadier Russell who was ill with exhaustion and could not continue. Scott was to be the dominant figure in the brigade until the end of the war, becoming one of the most respected commanders in the British Army.
Preparations began for the brigade’s involvement in the developing third battle for Cassino. But for more than month, it enjoyed its pleasant country surroundings and the close proximity to Naples, about 10 miles to the south.
“We moved back and then westward where we joined Route 6, the north-south road from Naples to Rome. Here the battalion was allocated space in vast olive groves and each company had a farm building as headquarters near the village of Santa Maria. Spring was in the air. Our new home, although mainly under the stars or olive trees, was comfortable. We had a large Italian stone oven and plenty of wood. Jim Sadler was delirious with delight.”
“We could see to the west Mount Vesuvius with steam emerging from its cone. Santa Maria was small and out of bounds but we were quite close to Capua and Caserta, the site of Allied headquarters. The 78th Division, of which we were part, had been transferred out of our original army corps which had been renamed 30th Corps under General Freyberg. We heard that the other two divisions in 30th Corps were engaged at Cassino. The 78th was a reserve division and would be used after the attack went in.”
There was an important change in the company with the arrival of a new commanding officer.
“We had a new company commander: Major Mervyn Davies from the Welch regiment, with his own batman. I had not seen the company commander when his batman came to me and said: ‘Major Davies would like a mug of tea.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Officers’ tea is served at the officers’ mess.’
‘That’s what the corporal told me.’
He left to return a few minutes later. ‘The company commander wishes to see you.’
For a change, I was correctly wearing my badges of rank. I marched into the company office and saluted this rather severe young man, who stood and towered above me. ‘What’s this about I can’t have a miserable mug of tea?’
‘That is quite right, Sir. Officers’ rations are at the mess. We pride ourselves on being the best fed company in the battalion. We are able to do this only because the rations are used strictly at mealtimes and only as part of the meal.’
‘What about the cooks and the sergeant major?,’ Davies asked.
‘I promised Corporal Sadler that, if he maintained his standard and reputation, all rations would be inviolate.’”
“Davies was not happy with the cooks and with me. I could tell that he did not think I looked like a soldier, let alone a senior NCO. That evening, Jim excelled himself and produced roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast and boiled potatoes, cabbage and thick brown gravy. This was followed by a slice of baked jam roll with a sweet sauce. Davies watched Jim serving the repast in his usual serious manner. I think he was convinced that his men’s food was equal to, if not better, than that served at the officers’ mess.”
“The officers’ mess reputation suffered when statistics proved that hepatitis, which filled our hospitals, was most prevalent among officers and least so among front line troops. It was discovered that hygiene must be the cause. Officers’ eating utensils were improperly cleaned and shared. Front-line troops ate with their own utensils or fingers. Drink was discounted as a cause when it was discovered that senior NCOs were almost free of the complaint. As Davies and I became more familiar, we began to respect each other and this turned to us actually becoming friends.”
“Another incident occurred with rations. It was discovered that the compo packs held as emergency rations had been broached and sweets and cigarettes stolen. I followed a trail of wrappings to one man’s bed and discovered evidence that he was the culprit. The commanding officer was furious as he knew that our company was well-fed. He remanded the rifleman for Field General Court Martial. I had to go with the sentry, who was with me when I arrested the miscreant, to give evidence in what was a strong case. I did not reckon to have to face a professional barrister as defending lawyer. He told the court that I should have called the regimental police. He also stated that I had not given a proper warning and many other points. I left the court feeling lucky that I had escaped punishment myself. The soldier was acquitted and sent back to base. I probably saved his life by charging him. He never returned to the London Irish Rifles and dangerous front-line duties. I thought how unlucky I was at court martials. The absentees I gave evidence in mitigation for received long sentences but criminals had got off.”
“One evening in March, I could see smoke, steam and lava streaming from the crater of Vesuvius. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Vesuvius had been almost quiescent since AD79 when the caldera exploded and completely destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Since then, the new volcano had risen to a height of 2,300 feet, although that was a fraction of its former massive proportions. Its balmy slopes were the sites of convalescent homes for sick and wounded soldiers and these had to be hurriedly evacuated during the night. I thought then, and still do, that both Etna and Vesuvius had become lively after so much use of heavy explosives during the war.”
On 15 March, the 30th New Zealand Corps again attacked at the start of the third battle for Monte Cassino. The brigade was on short-notice to be sent to the front to exploit any breakthrough. Scott convinced 78th Division commander General Leese to allow his men to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in peace.
“We were warned that our time had come again but the brigade had been allowed to celebrate St Patrick’s Day out of the line. I was MC at the Brigade Mass. The celebrant was Father Dan Kelleher, a former amateur boxer who had sponsored boxing in the brigade. He and I became firm friends. Brigadier Scott was present, as were all the officers of the Irish Fusiliers, the Catholic Skins and London Irish officers. That evening we had a party in the sergeants’ mess marquee and the officers were invited. As usual, it developed into rugger scrums and a brawl. Shades of Didlington, I thought, as I went off to bed.”
On 19 March, the brigade was transported closer to Cassino. Two days later, it was moved to the front line on the Rapido opposite the fortified village of San Angelo which occupied a hill on the river’s west bank and commanded the entrance to the Liri Valley. The village had played a central role in the 1st Battle of Cassino when it was the target of an initial failed attack to break the Gustav Line.
“We were in the line once more, on the banks of the Rapido, where we relieved the New Zealanders. To our right was the monastery and, towering above, the mighty massif of Monte Cairo. Before the start of the second battle for Cassino, General Freyberg had decided that the Germans were using the ancient building as an observation post. He called down saturation bombing on 15 February, during our stay at Santa Maria. I had watched vast armadas of flying fortress bombers on route to drop their loads on Monte Cassino and many hill towns that resembled it. The result was the creation of a strongpoint which was now almost impregnable.”
“From our positions on the Rapido, we could see coloured smoke which identified Allied positions. Every now and again, there would be a lull in the fighting and ambulances with large Red Cross flags slowly drove up the track and back. The monastery was a complete ruin, stark and forbidding in the sunlight. We had just settled in behind the thick walls of a farmhouse in our positions close to the Rapido when we were treated to a heavy bombardment. The dust had barely settled, when an Italian lady walked through the door, asking ‘Lavare?’ The Italian ladies were so brave and hard working.”
“Probably the most international army in the world formed that year in Italy. There were English, Irish, Scots, Americans, French, Indians, Poles, Canadians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Brazilians, Algerians, Tunisians, Jews, Italians and, even, Japanese-Americans. There were Australian and Rhodesian air force units. Against us was an army with many members conscripted from occupied Europe. It was a vast international array and a complete waste of humanity and resources.”
The brigade was pulled out of the front line for a day spent at Mignano. It was then moved again, this time to the north of Cassino. On 29-30 March 1944, they relieved French troops on Monte Castellone, a 2,300-foot peak overlooking Monte Cassino which had been captured during the first battle in January. For almost the whole month of April, the brigade had the unpleasant task of monitoring the monastery from uncomfortable and exposed positions on the mountain tops. Supplying food and ammunition was difficult and dangerous. It could only be moved by mule and hand at night across the Rapido valley, which was a no-man’s land, and then up precipitous tracks that were subject to shelling. The starting point for Ted’s daily journey to E Company was San Michele, a village on high land about two miles east of Cassino.
“I was taken with my supplies to San Michele and here I was allocated about 30 mules which I loaded with tools, food and water and some of the men’s kit. Following immediately behind the company in pitch darkness, we climbed down the hill and came to a mysterious cavern which I was told was called the inferno. From here we continued towards the town of Cassino and crossed the Rapido by a stone bridge. When we were in the middle, a salvo of shells landed on the road. At this point, we had difficulty controlling the mules and the drivers.”
“We set off again, slowly following the overladen soldiers. After getting so close to Monte Cassino that we felt we were almost under the monastery’s walls, we started climbing a precipitous path to Monte Castellone. We had to take particular care as the nervous muleteers were attempting to ditch their loads. I finally arrived at the top with about half a dozen mules. Loads were spread along the track behind us. The whole thing was a tactical mistake. The companies should have moved in first and the mule trains followed after they settled.”
“E Company’s position was the summit of Monte Castellone, and like the monastery hill, a foothill of Monte Cairo. It was located on a salient behind Monte Cassino that had been taken by French and American troops at tremendous cost. Slit trenches could not be dug in the rock, so sangars were built from the vast amount of rubble. The place stank. Holes could not be excavated and excrement was thrown everywhere. Each sangar had a large food tin as a latrine. Major Davies set the men to work to clear up the sordid mess after they had salvaged the abandoned mule loads.”
“I had to leave as dawn was breaking. If I was not back in the village of Caira, the battalion headquarters, before sunrise, I would have to walk across the wide valley in full daylight. I made my way from there back to the mule point at San Michele in a jeep. As soon as I arrived, I had to start preparing for the next trip. Daylight disclosed the full panorama of the vast battlefield. The valley of the Rapido was covered in smoke punctured by shell bursts. Monte Cairo dominated the landscape. The next evening’s journey was carried out more efficiently and a small escort accompanied us. Taking a different route, we avoided the stone bridge and the muleteers were not so panic-stricken. We arrived at the summit and discovered that nearly all the earlier loads had been rescued intact.”
“As dawn approached, we seized the opportunity to get some sleep. We had barely settled in our blankets after a hard night’s work when we were heavily bombarded by shells. When the shelling ceased, I went around checking casualties. I sent them to the field hospital. Finally, I went down to where our two officers were still deep in their massive dugout. They enquired: ‘Anyone hurt?’ They were safe, but the truth was that the dugout was too large to offer protection from shell bursts and they were lucky that none had exploded there.”
The London Irish held positions on Monte Castellone from which they monitored developments on Monte Cassino. E Company’s sangars were the most southerly and closest to the monastery, though there was a deep ravine separating them from Monte Cassino. During the day, riflemen were obliged to sit motionless to avoid being spotted and fired upon. There was shelling and mortar fire. Inevitably, men were killed and wounded. Ted’s job involved ferrying supplies and mules from San Michele to the company every night.
The brigade was replaced on Monte Castellone on 25 April by the Polish Corps. The Poles were to play an important role in the next battle for Cassino which was being prepared. The London Irish were withdrawn to Formicola, a peaceful village 30 miles behind the front line. It was to be their last period of rest and preparation before the final Cassino onslaught. The brigade was moved to Presenzano, 10 miles south-east of Monte Cassino, on 10 May. Ted was ready for the battle, but illness intervened.
“We had a three day rest after Monte Castellone. My cousin Danny Hanlon visited us. Before we sent him on his way, he was introduced to Bob Doonan’s speciality: red Italian vino in an unwashed jerrycan. Doonan thrived on it. I had injured my knee during my nightly journeys into the mountains and it had swollen so much that my escort had to carry me to see Major Davies. He ordered me to rest and loaned me a senior NCO to make the daily run to Monte Castellone until I recovered. Soon after, we were relieved by the Poles who were going to use our hill as the start point of their attack on the monastery. We were not sorry to leave the mountain.”
“The division was taken back to train with their tank support for the impending offensive. I went down with malaria and I was taken back to a general hospital in Naples where I remained a couple of days. I was then shipped to Bari on the Adriatic. There, the hospitals were being cleared ready for the heavy casualties of the coming battle. Once more, I decided to discharge myself from hospital.”
 
E Company, Italy, 1943.

OC John Lofting, and 2-ic Pat Giles flanked by CSM Charnick, CQMS O'Sullivan and Sgt Mayo.


Chapter 9
Dodging D-Day
contents
 
We’re the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy!
Always on the vino, always on the spree!
Eighth Army skivers and the Yanks
We go to war, in ties like swanks
We are the D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy
We landed at Salerno, a holiday with pay
Jerry brought his bands out, to cheer us on our way
Showed us all the sights and gave us tea
We all sang songs and the beer was free
We are the D-Day Dodgers, the lads that D-Day dodged
 
Salerno and Cassino were taken in our stride
We did not go to fight there, we just went for the ride
Anzio and Sangro are just names
We only went to look for dames
We are the D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy
On our way to Florence, we had a lovely time
We ran a bus to Rimini through the Gothic Line
On to Bologna we did go
Then went bathing in the Po
For we are the D-Day Dodgers, over here in Italy
 
Looking round the hillsides, through the mist and rain
See the scattered crosses, some that bear no name
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone
The boys beneath, they slumber on
We are the D-Day Dodgers, who’ll stay in Italy
 
So listen all you people, over land and foam
Even though we’ve parted, our hearts are close to home
When we return we hope you’ll say
“You did your little bit, though far away
All of the D-Day Dodgers, way out there in Italy”
 
Written after UK MP Lady Nancy Astor described the
British Army in Italy as D-Day Dodgers.
 
File:ItalyDefenseLinesSouthofRome1943 4.jpg
The fourth battle for Cassino began at 11pm on 11 May with a massive bombardment of the Gustav Line.
The Germans were taken by surprise. They thought the attack would come about a month later. To the west, American and French divisions made early progress. The Polish Corps attacked through the mountains around Monte Cassino. The 78th Division prepared to join the second wave of the attack up the Liri valley. While these early dramas were taking place, Ted was trying to get back to the front.
“On the morning of 13 May, I was up and dressed and reported to the doctor. I asked for tablets so I could rejoin my unit. The doctor said I should be evacuated to Tripoli. But, as I was a senior NCO, he would allow me to find my own way back to the front. He recognised my anxiety for my lads and let me go. I walked out of the gates of the hospital, a mansion on the outskirts of Bari, with just my small kit.”
“Two GIs in a jeep pulled up and said: ‘Wanna lift, buddy?’ I asked where they were going. Upon hearing their destination was Naples, my heart jumped with joy. It was over 100 miles in the right direction and they would take me across the Appenine Mountains. I jumped in and told them that I wanted to rejoin my company which could already be involved in the battle at Cassino. Conversation was difficult because the jeep was open and they proceeded at maximum speed. At Naples, they took me up to Highway 6 and dropped me at a convenient crossroads. I had not been waiting long when a three-ton truck with the insignia of the 78th Division approached. I frantically signalled and it stopped. I told the driver I wanted to rejoin my regiment somewhere near Cassino. Glad of the company, he invited me to join him at the front of the truck. He said he thought he could find the London Irish.”
Before dawn on 14 May, the brigade had moved from Presenzano to Monte Trocchio, a hill east of the Gari which was used as a forming-up point for units preparing to join the attack on the Liri Valley. Ted arrived at Presenzano just after the London Irish had set off for the front.
“I arrived at rear echelon where people were clearing up after the battalion had left. A truck going to battalion close to the Gari gave me a lift. As we approached the river, there were the noises of battle, particularly of artillery. I found E Company, where I was greeted with hugs from George Charnick and Jock McNally and with a kiss from Eddie Mayo. They were apprehensive about going into battle without my support. The amazing thing had been that due to the co-operation of so many people -- doctors, Yanks and transport drivers -- I was able to join my friends in one of the greatest epics of World War II. But would I live to regret my efforts?”
The brigade spent most of 14 May in slit trenches behind Monte Trocchio. John Horsfall described the place that afternoon in his memoir Fling the Banner to the Wind as a “screaming madhouse”. As evening approached, the brigade was ordered forward. The London Irish crossed the Rapido (which is called the Gari along this stretch of the river) around 4pm and dug trenches in the Allied bridgehead, which then was no more than 400 yards deep. Ted followed soon after. The London Irish were due to attack on the evening of 15 May, but a German bombardment that killed the battalion’s commander while he was holding an O Group meeting forced a rethink.
“It was about 5pm on 14 May when we moved towards the river and crossed a partly-submerged Bailey bridge, which was heavily smoked, and passed into the bridgehead. The company went into reserve positions (immediately behind the front-line units) and I left them there in the middle of the night. The next day, I busied myself preparing for my evening task. I was close to the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS – the first point where wounded men were treated in battle) and a troop carrier used as an ambulance trundled in.”
“I went over and found the battalion’s commander, Colonel Goff, seriously wounded and in agony. I helped unload him. With him was what looked like a midget who was obviously dead. It took me some time to recognise the body as Goff’s driver who was more than 6ft tall. He had lost both legs. Goff had been on reconnaissance and a shell caught him and his O Group. Father Dan Kelleher called me over and asked if I would help him with some burials. The first was the badly mutilated driver. I held back the blanket while Father Dan anointed the stumps. That evening, I went up to the company in a 15cwt truck driven by Benny Goodman. I found that the attack due for the morning had been postponed while the new battalion commander John Horsfall, who was second in command, took over. Goodman crashed the vehicle and I had to walk the rest of the way. On the evening of 15 May, I rejoined E Company and stayed until dawn in a slit trench with my mate Eddie Mayo.”
The brigade had gone into action at 3am that morning. The Skins, taking their customary lead position, had pushed forward half a mile to the Cassino-Pignataro road which diagonally crossed the Liri front. The London Irish took up the baton the next day and made the decisive breakthrough by capturing the fortified hamlet of Sinagoga, on a low hill three miles to the west of the Gari/Rapido and the final defensive strongpoint in the Gustav Line.
It was the bloodiest day in the battalion’s history. More than 120 men had been killed and wounded in eight hour’s fighting. They included Eddie Mayo. The commander of 9 Platoon Nicholas Mosley was later to describe him in his book Time of War as “a good and beautiful man”.
On 17 May, all three of the brigade’s battalions were involved in an attack that advanced about one mile to the village of Piumerola. On the night of 17/18 May, the German garrison on Monte Cassino realised it was cut off by the advance of the 78th Division up the Liri valley and withdrew. The monastery was taken by the Poles on the morning of 18 May.
The London Irish rested and waited for the artillery to be brought forward. The next target would be the Senger (Hitler) Line, a second defensive position about six miles behind the Gustav which passed through Pontecorvo on the Liri to Piedemonte, a town north of the main road to the west of Monte Cassino. Its principal bulwark in the centre of the Liri was the village of Aquino, which gave its name to Thomas Aquinas who was born nearby.
On 19 May, the brigade advanced to Aceto, two miles from Piumerola and one of the first positions in the Senger line. It had been abandoned and the brigade pushed forward to cut Route 6, the Via Casilina which ran from Cassino to Rome. Here they stayed for two days as the Poles tried to capture Piedemonte on the north side of the road.
“We advanced almost to Highway 6, where we were right beneath the ever threatening Monte Cairo and the town of Piedemonte. Pat Giles, the company second-in-command, turned up and immediately organised showers, which I thought madness. A draft of reinforcements of about ten men had appeared. In my capacity as acting CSM, I questioned them and found one man very interesting. He was fine-looking soldier who had served in the Household Cavalry and was a driver as well. I marched him into the farm building we were using. As I reached the door, a salvo of shells burst on the company and the soldier became a cowering heap. Later that day, he would run away, to be picked up, it transpired, in the rear areas.”
“The consequences of Pat Giles’ concern about the cleanliness of the men were far reaching. At least three were killed in the shelling, including the recently promoted and decorated Sergeant Keegan. And the real German observation point for this great battlefield was at last revealed. It was not the ill-starred monastery but three caves near the summit of the 5,000 foot Monte Cairo which commanded the whole area south of Cassino. Artillery very neatly dropped shells in the mouths of the caves. But our reinforcements had been cancelled out by the bombardment.”
On 20 May, the London Irish pushed forward to the airport east of Aquino where an attack by the 36th Brigade had been repulsed the previous day. There they waited for further orders. Piedemonte finally fell to the Poles on the morning of 22 May. Pontecorvo, on the brigade’s left, was taken the following day. The Senger Line had been broken just seven days after the Gustav fell.
The Allied armies began to advance towards Rome and the Germans hurriedly retreated north. The brigade set off on 25 May. It was engaged with the German rearguard around Strangolagalli, about one mile north of Aquino, on 29 May and at San Giovanni and Ripi, three miles further forward, on 30 May. Dozens more riflemen became casualties. The race to catch the German Army was hindered by congestion on the Via Casilina, the most direct route north to Rome. By the time the Allied forces had sufficient men and resources in place to attack, the Germans had gone.
There was brief suspension in the brigade’s advance after Rome fell on 4 June to the 5th Army under US General Mark Clark. That night, the first airborne troops were dropped in Normandy to prepare for the Allied invasion of France which was to begin at dawn on 5 June. The Italian campaign, which was to last almost another year, slipped from the headlines as attention shifted to the Normandy beachheads and the dramas of war in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. But the fighting continued to be hard and deadly.
“We continued advancing. We were cut off from advancing into Rome by the Americans finally coming out of Anzio and being the first troops into Rome. Had they been more aggressive in the previous December, there would have been no Cassino and had they pushed harder initially at Anzio, they could have shortened the war by months. We were forced to rest at Ripi. On our last day there, a jeep ran over a booby-trapped mine killing all four of its occupants. I had used that track several times daily during our stay."
The brigade set off again on 8 June. Brigadier Scott spent that night in the former headquarters of Fieldmarshall Albert Kesselring in San Oreste, a Roman suburb set in the Tiber valley. Four days later, Ted and others in the brigade were called back to Rome for a unique occasion.
“On the 12 June, it was announced that 30 Catholics and Irish Officers and men from the London Irish, plus the pipe band, had been invited to join the first private audience for the Allies with the Pope. We were already some 30 miles or so north of Rome, so it meant that detachments of the Irish Brigade would have to go back to the city. Each company provided six men and I made sure that I was there. We were driven back in TCVs led by Brigadier Scott, an Irish Protestant, who did not intend to miss a singular honour for the brigade.”
“The audience had been arranged by the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See, the Brigade Major and Father Dan Kelleher. We arrived at Saint Peter’s Square and the detachment of about 130 soldiers, including the composite pipe band, entered the Vatican. In single file, we climbed the carpetted stairway, passing the Swiss Guards in their Michael Angelo uniforms. Papal dignitaries, both clerical and lay, were everywhere in a variety of costumes. We filed into the papal consistory chamber: a hall with walls covered in a rich red material just sufficient to accommodate us. In the front was a small dais upon which the brigadier, Father Kelleher, the brigade major and the ambassador awaited. As each person entered, they were given a rosary and a papal blessing document. I turned to my neighbours and recognised Irish sergeants who were members of the Orange Order.”
“At 9am, His Holiness Pope Pius XIII walked in with his dignitaries. He was a quite small figure dressed in a white soutain and a white skull cap. The brigadier knelt and kissed the Pope’s ring. This he did a couple of times later. Despite his Protestantism, the brigadier was obviously thrilled that his brigade was making history. Pope Pius addressed us in perfect English with but a trace of accent and declared: ‘Gentlemen of Ireland.’ I do not remember exactly what else he said, as my head was in a whirl. I was thrilled to be there.”
Pope Pius with the Irish Brigade
The Pope’s words, however, were recorded by Brigadier Scott.
“Dearly beloved sons, we bid you welcome. You belong to the nation which has ever belonged to God’s church since St Patrick. We are well aware of the good which the Irish have done in spreading the faith from the shores of their green isle…into many nations. We greet you and bless you with all our hearts’ affection and your dear ones at home. God be with you always…”
Ted’s narrative continues: “Brigadier Scott asked if the Pope would like to hear some pipe music. The massed brigade band in their saffron kilts and caubeens with the various coloured hackles and regimental badges played ‘Killaloe’ followed by the ‘Sash My Father Wore‘. This was probably the first and last time one of the signature tunes of the Orange Order was heard in the Vatican. His Holiness tapped his foot to the beat of the martial music and obviously enjoyed the alien sound. He then blessed our rosaries and other objects and each of us mounted the dais to kneel and kiss his ring. The small Orange detachment remained in place. More pipe music was played and the whole assembly was given the pontifical blessing. The Pope walked out to the sound of pipes and we filed out.”
“By arrangement, the retreat was beat on the steps of St Peter’s on the large flat surface half way to the entrance. Crowds of clergy stood around clapping and, beyond the square, a vast crowd had gathered. The Catholics in the detachment, who were in the majority, and many others went into Mass at the Blessed Sacrament altar. I was the master of ceremonies and there were about 10 other servers. I had served Mass in many strange places, but to do so in St Peter’s Cathedral was beyond belief. The basilica was enormous and I could not wait to see over it. The Pieta (a sculptural masterpiece by Michaelangelo) and the magnificent High Altar will remain in my memory.”
“At the end of the ceremony, we were dismissed to have the day free until the afternoon. With a couple of others, I toured the cathedral open-mouthed at this splendour in the middle of a war. Rome was untouched having been declared an Open City. Due to my tour, I missed the invitation to visit the Convent of the Irish Franciscan Sisters which was at the top of the Spanish Steps. Instead, I explored Rome on foot, seeing the Coliseum and other famous historical sites. We embussed in the late afternoon and made our way to the battalion which had advanced that day a further 30 miles or so.”
The brigade reached Colleno at noon on the day Ted was visiting Rome. The roads were empty, a clear sign that the Germans were lying in wait. A scout car was sent three miles further forward to the village of Civitella and was fired on. The brigade had found the new German positions which straddled the lovely north-south valley of the Tiber half way between Rome and Perugia. An attack was launched on the morning of 13 June and Civitella and the neighbouring villages were taken by the time Ted returned to his work serving E Company that evening.
The next day, the brigade leapt forward 10 more miles to capture, at little cost, German positions on a ridge around the village of Morano. On 15 June, the battalion paused for breath while the Skins and Faughs pressed forward to Lake Trasimeno at the centre of a new German defensive line that extended across the peninsula.
“Pat Giles took over company command to give Davies a rest. He was ill and it looked as if Giles had the job for good. On one day, we advanced as much as 28 miles. I sensibly stayed mainly in the jeep. I was so far forward, Pat Giles said jokingly. ‘It’s all right colour, your DCM is quite safe.’ We finished by attacking a farmhouse on a hill where we found the bodies of a grandfather, father and grandson, a mere boy, who had been shot by the Germans for, allegedly, waving at the advancing British tanks. I comforted the grieving women and conveyed the bodies to the nearest cemetery, where they were buried in the walls of the square cemetery. Giles did not last long as E Company commander and was replaced on 17 June by a regular Ulsterman, Captain Ronnie Boyd. Combat was obviously new to him and, as always with new commanders, we did not see eye to eye.”
There was some debate within the Irish Brigade after the war about whether it should have taken the mountain town of Citta delle Pieve earlier than it did. In his book, Fling Our Banner to the Wind. John Coldwell-Horsfall argues that if the town had been attacked more aggressively, the brigade would have been able to attack the German Caesar Line east and west of Lake Trasimeno before it was properly prepared. This in turn would have allowed an earlier advance through the Gothic Line to the Po Valley, which might have been taken by winter. If that had happened, the Allied armies in Italy could have reached the Austrian border before the end of 1944. The consequences might have been dramatic, shortening the war by months and saving at least 1 million lives. It is one of the many “might have beens” of the conflict.
On 20 June, the 78th Division were brought to a halt south of Lake Trasimeno which was at the heart of a new German defensive position. Initial attacks had discovered that a strong defensive position had been developed along a ridge running north-east towards the lake. The centre of the position was occupied by the village of Sanfatucchio. The brigade were ordered to take the ridge and clear the way for the division to press on.
Irish Brigade commander Pat Scott studied the German line from two hills which were to be the starting point for the attack. The walled town of Panicale occupied a commanding position overlook the ground to the lake. It was also made the brigade headquarters during the coming attack. The second viewing point was a grand  house occupying the top of Montelara. This was held by the Faughs close to the lake.
Scott developed a plan that involved a day-time attack with a twist. The London Irish were to have the lead role, but would split into two parts to take Sanfatucchio, the key to the ridge. After that it would advance along the ridge line while the Skins would come in on their right and finally the Faughs on the extreme right. Tanks were put at the brigade’s disposal.
Not long after dawn on 21 June, the London Irish were taken by truck and carrier to the village of Macchie where they went on by foot, stopping at a brickworks in Chiusi for breakfast and preparation. They advanced by foot to the railway line that ran across their axis of advance and waited for the attack to begin. When the order came, the London Irish to the south of the ridge fired on German positions in Sanfatucchio while E Company supported by tanks entered the north-west of the town under heavy fire. F Company moved around to capture high ground in the rear. Sanfatucchio fell at 1pm after bitter fighting in the town.
G and H companies were brought in to clear the town and were immediately subjected to a counterattack. Meanwhile, E and F Companies advanced along the ridge to take the church of San Felice and its adjacent cemetery. German resistance was tenacious and there were counterattacks. The London Irish took the church, the cemetery and the cross-roads further ahead and dug in.
Scott sent in the Skins who fought their way into Pucciarelli to the north and down the ridge. But the brigade’s objectives had not been reached by the time night fell. The London Irish had lost more than 70 men killed, wounded and missing. That evening, Ted brought up hot food for E Company, which had suffered heavily in the fighting for Sanfatucchio.
“It was still broad daylight when I brought up a cooked meal for the company across country following the route of the forward troops. While it was still light, I was serving it up, helped by the stretcher bearers. As the light faded, a burst of machine gun fire shattered the lintel above my head. I dived for cover behind the insulated food containers and crawled into the building for safety. Any movement brought shellfire down on our farm buildings. The Germans had our range to perfection. I persuaded a party consisting of my driver Corporal Gough and the stretcher bearers to line up and make a dash with the empty containers for the jeep parked some 20 yards away behind an outbuilding. ‘All you have to do is throw them on the ground by the jeep. I’ll pack them on,’ I said. ‘At my command, Run!’ We had started to move when a shell burst right outside the door, killing one and wounding the other of the first pair.”
“Captain Boyd was on the first floor and he shouted for me. I went to him and reported what had happened.
‘Are you off ?,’ he asked.
I replied: ‘No person will help me to carry the containers, Sir.’
‘Do it yourself, with the driver,’ he said. Already shaken, I was horrified. I saluted him and left.
‘And take the body to the RAP,’ he said. This was an unusual order. Bodies were normally buried where they had fallen, once the identity disc had been removed to be given to BHQ with a map reference.”
“I persuaded Gough to make the short journey with the containers. Wrapped in a blanket, the corpse was placed on top of the folded windscreen on the bonnet. Both back wheels were punctured and the jeep was running on its back rims. We roared down the 100-yard track from the farm and turned left on to the road. Eyewitnesses said we were followed by heavy fire. The stretch of road was about 600 yards long and forked left to the village where the quartermaster was based. We were tracked by mortar fire. After turning towards the village, we saw, about 100 yards ahead, a wrecked artillery quad that was blocking the road. There was a shallow ditch on its right and we drove along it at a steep angle with the two right hand wheels down the ditch and the other two on the road. I held containers with one hand and the body with the other as we bumped back on to the road. The mortar fire stopped when we were in the shelter of the quad and out of sight of the enemy.”
“We rattled our way into the village and stopped when we saw Joe Turvey, colour sergeant of H Company. He started to tell me of his experience with his own company with one hand on the body.
‘What’s this,’ he asked.
‘A stretcher bearer,’ I replied. ‘He was killed carrying containers to the jeep.’
Joe almost jumped with the shock. I proceeded to the RAP. There, I was rebuked by the medical officer for bringing back the body and having a corpse adjacent to food containers. A colour sergeant stood no chance against an officer in command who apparently wanted to take it out on somebody. I was always a ready victim. Perhaps he would learn.”
The Skins continued wrestling the Germans for Pucciarelli for most of the next day. The London Irish set about clearing Germans from buildings separating the positions held by its companies. After a day’s rest, the brigade was ordered forward again. It encountered more fierce resistance and suffered further casualties. Still short of the lake, the London Irish were withdrawn from the line at the end of 26 June. The cost of the battle of Trasimeno was enormous. One of the four fighting companies had been reduced to 20 men from more than 100, two had 30 survivors and G Company had 50. The battalion had lost almost as many men as in the assault on the Gustav and in the Bou Arada battles in Tunisia. The remnants returned to Sanfatucchio. Before the battle began, Ted had decided to prepare a meal for E Company rather than bring uncooked food up to the line. When he arrived, the company had already moved off hungry. He was reprimanded and believes his chance of a medal was at that moment probably lost. But Ted had survived the two biggest battles the Irish Brigade were to be involved with in mainland Italy: Cassino and Lake Trasimeno.
“We withdrew from the line to near Tivoli for what we thought would be a rest. There were all sorts of rumours about where we would go next: the second front, southern France or back up the line. The battalion transport was surrendered and I said farewell to my trusted vehicles, most painted by its driver with my name. The three Tonner was The O’Sullivan. The 1,500cwt was Little Rosie. A new CSM, Steve Kelly DCM, appeared and a complete set of new sergeants.”
“I had a few days in Rome where most of my stores had been liquidated and my only responsibilities were food and pay. Ivan Yates, the Motor Transport Officer, decided to get rid of the two large diesel lorries which were enemy loot. He sold them to an enterprising Italian and took the money proudly to Colonel Horsfall for the PRI fund. Horsfall was horrified and made him recover the lorries and return the cash. The lorries were surrendered but were probably flogged and the money put into the pockets of the vendor.”
Ted was in Rome for a further celebration of the fall of the city to the Allies.
Rome - July 1944
“There was a parade for all Catholics in the 78th Division in Saint Peter’s Square. Several thousand went up to the audience chamber above the porch of Saint Peter’s. The Pope was borne in his Sedis Gestatoria. We paraded outside to go into Mass and once more I was to be master of ceremonies.”
“The RSM, an Orangeman, came to Charlie Jones of F Company and me and said: ‘You will go to the Franciscan convent and help prepare dinner for the men.’ My disappointment was allayed somewhat when we joined the fatigue parties of the Skins and Faughs and found it comprised two RSMs. All four of us sat down with the nuns, peeled potatoes and opened tins. My distress at not serving on the High Altar at St. Peter’s and missing Mass on a Sunday in Rome was allayed by the charming company of these young Irish nuns.
What part of Ireland do you come from Mr O‘Sullivan? I was asked.
‘County Brixton,’ I would reply mischievously. This elicited a puzzled reply.
‘County Brixton! Is that North or South?’
My humour was seldom appreciated.”
The Irish Brigade's pipers in Rome
“When the men returned from Mass, about 300 sat down to the finest meal they had had in years: fluffy boiled potatoes, corned beef and hunks of bread washed down with lashings of tea. The leftovers would feed the nuns for weeks. They had not fared well during their enforced incarceration within the Vatican during the German occupation. The dinner became a party with songs and solos from those with the nerve to sing alone.”
In London, a new era of terror began on Tuesday 13 June 1944 when the first V1 flying bomb hit the south-east of England. In the next two months up to 20 V1s hit central London every day. Londoners called them doodlebugs because of the stuttering roar of their engines which would cut out at a pre-set moment to allow the V1 to fall to earth. Each one contained more than 2,000 pounds of high explosives.
There was a lull in early September, but a fresh assault on Britain was heralded on 11 September when the first V2 ballistic missiles were reported. These supersonic and unstoppable weapons carried more than a ton of explosives each. Pat Webb remembered that the V1s were tolerable since most people could tell from the sound they made whether they were safe. But no-one felt secure once the existence of V2s was confirmed.
Exhausted by almost five years of war, rationing and the Blitz, Londoners had hoped the invasion of Europe would bring the war to an end before the end of the year. Almost 9,000 people across Britain were killed by the V bombs. London suffered the most. The V bombs only stopped at the end of March 1945.
At this critical moment, Britain began to think seriously about the post-war era. In May 1944, an Education Act was passed by the houses of parliament that confirmed free education for all up to the compulsory age of 14. This was to be raised in phases to 15 and then 16. The 1944 act was the most important British social reform of the first half of the 20th century.
At a meeting at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire, the Allied nations agreed to found the World Bank and the IMF to manage the post-war world economy. Meeting in Dunbarton Oaks in Washington DC in August, the US, the UK, China and the Soviet Union reached an agreement that was to lead to the establishment of the United Nations Organisation (UN).
In Italy, a quarter of the Allied forces was withdrawn for the invasion of south France which began on 15 August 1944. After, Field Marshal Alexander had only 23 divisions at his disposal against 28 commanded by Kesselring. The brigade was reorganised with the disbandment of the 6th Battalion of the Inniskillings and the transfer of its men to the other two battalions. It was strengthened by the 2nd Battalion of the Inniskillings from the 5th Division.
Colonel Horsfall was transferred back to the Faugh as commander and Colonel Bredin, commander of the 6th Inniskillings during the assault on the Gustav Line, was put in charge of the London Irish. General Keightley, commander of the 78th Division, was promoted to lead the 5th Army. He was replaced by Major General D C Butterworth.
In mid-July, the London Irish were dispatched from Italy to Egypt for six weeks to rest, train and get reinforcements. The trip was to knock Ted out of the war for the rest of 1944.
“After the two weeks rest we entrained and proceeded south. We passed the shattered town of Cassino and the forbidding ruins of the monastery, so needlessly destroyed. Here the train stopped and the Last Post was sounded on a bugle. About 40 years later, I visited the British Cemetery and counted the graves of 66 London Irishmen including Colonel Goff. On the memorial were the names of 68 without known graves. Our destination in July 1944 was the Middle East. We detrained at Taranto and had a few days to wait for our ship. The navy were welcoming and made us honorary members of the chiefs and petty officers’ mess. The E Company party soon made friends and were introduced, not unwillingly, to Asti Spumante. After one heavy night at the mess, I challenged a large bearded chief to swim the harbour. I allowed myself to be restrained, which was just as well since I had nearly drowned at Patti in Sicily.”
“Finally, we were lined up to board our ship when down the gangway came soldiers in caubeens and hackles. It was the 1st Battalion of the London Irish who had been resting in Egypt after their Anzio ordeal. The officer on the gangway could not believe his eyes when he saw what appeared to be the same people reboarding his ship. He muttered something like: ‘The bloody army doesn’t know what they’re doing!’ I told him: ‘Same regiment, different battalions!’”
“The rotation of the two battalions of the London Irish and their deployment in Europe, Africa and the Middle East since 1940 was how a London territorial regiment won more battle honours than any other regiment, except one, in the 2nd World War. At least one battalion, in the same theatre but often in different armies, was to be in action from the end of 1942 until the end of the war. We disembarked at Port Said and were taken by carrier, truck and jeep to Quassassin near the Suez Canal. The transport was driven by Gurkhas and I was fortunate to be seated in the front of my vehicle. We passed through the outskirts of Cairo but missed seeing any sights of import.”
“Our camp in the canal zone was a peaceful tented town. The tents were large marquees and every man had his own ‘charpoy’ with a straw mattress. It was luxury for those who had survived the mud of a Tunisian winter, the heat of an Italian summer, the snow and bleakness of the icy mountains of the Appenines. We had endured the dangers of the campaign from Cassino to Trasimeno and normally slept under the stars, seldom with any cover. But there were not many left from those who had landed in Algiers in November 1942 to enjoy it. Within the battalion perimeter were a NAAFI, a central sergeants’ mess and a cinema with a frequent change of programmes. Men were given seven days leave in Cairo. The brigade’s first leave party returned to camp and told how they had been ‘rooked’ by their hosts. The second contingent decided to do something and a well-organised riot was arranged with considerable damage to vehicles and installations. There were many arrests but not of a single London Irishmen. Colonel Bredin had the battalion paraded upon their return from Cairo and officially congratulated them on staying clear of trouble.”
“It may have been because of the Cairo riot that the division was broken into brigade units. The London Irish went to Sidi Bishr to the east of Alexandria and into another tented camp. Leave was resumed. I had an excellent seven days in Alexandria but I would have dearly loved to have seen the Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza. Stealing was rife and practically everything had to be closed down or tied down. The rifles were locked around the massive tent poles. One morning, a section awoke with no canvas above them. During the night, the tent had been removed by thieves who had stolen the poles and the rifles. Rifles had an easy market, particularly in Palestine. A South African officer named Lieutenant Bruckmann had all his kit, tent and even blankets stolen as he slept.”
“We were close to Stanley Bay, a resort on the Mediterranean. The sea was attractive and I spent my off-duty time swimming. One morning, I awoke with the most awful pain in my ears. It was so intense I even contemplated shooting myself. I reported sick and was rushed to the general hospital at Ameriya where I was placed in an ear, nose and throat ward. After two days, I was transferred to a chest ward. I still had frequent treatment on my ears and was given antibiotics of some sort.”
“Rumour had it that the London Irish were to be sent to various places in the Middle East to form the 9th and 10th armies. One morning, Lieutenant Bruckmann called to see me in hospital. He told me the division was returning to Italy and asked if I was prepared to go. I was still in pain with my ears and a little groggy, but I started to dress while he went to see the sister. She dashed back and forced me back into bed and shouted to the officer, ‘Don’t you know that this man has pneumonia and is on the danger list.’ Poor Bruckmann stammered an apology and left hurriedly. My parents were shaken soon after when they received a telegram that began: ‘I regret Colour Sergeant E O’Sullivan is…’. They were relieved when it continued: ‘...seriously ill with pneumonia…’”
“Due to the seriousness of my illness, I was in a separate ward out of contact with any of the others until I was well enough to be mobile. I was treated as if I were a VIP and always addressed as Q (a polite abbreviation for quartermaster) or Mr O’Sullivan. I fell madly in love with my night sister, an Australian in her thirties. I wrote her a poem, which I handed to her diffidently. The matron visited me daily and I was often questioned about the front-line. God knows what Bruckmann had said about me. A civilian lady came round with library books when I was well enough to read. I chose Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C Douglas. It tells the story of a man who is resuscitated after a boating accident in which a doctor dies. The survivor decides to devote his life to making up for the doctor’s life and eventually becomes a doctor himself. This I read several times. It seemed to change my ideas about life.”
“After a couple of weeks, I was allowed up and reported each Monday to be weighed. My weight was seven stone thirteen pounds. I was immediately put on a special diet to build me up. For the next three weeks, I was fed and observed. But each Monday there was no change; not an ounce increase in weight. They were reluctant to discharge me. I was given the daily task in the pathology laboratory of filing and recording documents relating to patients’ illnesses and deaths. Meanwhile, I made friends with the Irish Brigade chaps in the main ward. All had pneumonia with otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear). There were over 30 there. Good old Stanley Bay, the Mediterranean resort which nearly killed us due to pollution.”
“I was finally discharged and taken to the South African convalescent home, a mansion in the leafy suburbs of Alexandria. The principal greeted our small party and apparently recognised my sense of mischief. She said in mock serious tones: ‘I’ll have no nonsense from you.’ I was popular with the staff as I was different from other senior NCOs. I still looked like a boy and treated all ranks and the native staff with courtesy. We were allowed out for much of the day and I explored Alexandria.”
“I had to be careful, however, of the garrison military police (MP). On a battalion route march earlier through Alexandria, I saw two MPs who hid behind a vehicle to avoid giving the proper acknowledgement of the battalion. I called another sergeant and challenged the two MPs, one of whom was a sergeant. I could only dress them down as our sergeant had not followed me. Many of our chaps had been charged in Alexandria with failing to salute an officer. The MPs connived at these traps by having a young subaltern walk past soldiers deliberately. The officer should have saluted the heroes who had suffered so much.”
“I was desperate to get back to the London Irish and was pleased when, after two weeks of luxury, I was posted to the training depot at Fayid on the Suez Canal. Here I received a shock. The depot was in the Middle East Force (MEF). My battalion was in the Central Mediterranean Force (CMF). Getting transferred from the MEF to the CMF was to prove a challenge. The tented depot was full of sergeants and other ranks who apparently were more than happy in the sun. But there were a couple of dozen from the Irish Brigade who wanted to get out. I pestered the officer in charge practically daily to get back to Italy with my Irishmen. Finally, my perseverance paid off and a party from the Irish Brigade and a detachment of various Scottish regiments were transferred to the CMF. We were transported to Port Suez and were embarked once more for Taranto. On the voyage, we heard that General Montgomery had been promoted to Field Marshal.”
“At Taranto, our party was allowed to leave our kit on the quay and walk out for a few hours. All the men from the Irish Brigade were paraded correctly. Some Scots were accompanying us. Suddenly, a party of the latter appeared and one, shouting imprecations, rushed at me with his rifle butt aimed at my face. Two large Skins threw him to the ground. We placed him under close arrest, put him on the train to the north and locked the compartment door. We slept on the train which arrived at Benevento east of Naples the next morning. When we unlocked the compartment, all were there except the one who had tried to injure me. He had left everything and run away. On questioning the other Scots, we discovered that my attacker had deserted before El Alamein in 1942 and had been in a military prison since. I don’t think he bore me any malice but was not too happy about the prospect of being killed. Assaulting an NCO would have put him back in prison for the rest of the war.”
“We were transported to another training depot where we were confronted by a massive barracks comprising Nissen huts. Innumerable men were being marched around in platoons to the bark of CSMs and sergeants. I was astounded to see squads of sergeants suffering the same indignities. Dinner was a revelation. I was given a ticket for the sergeants’ mess eating at the fourth sitting and thought of the forward battalions with platoons of 20 often commanded by a corporal. All were infantry sergeants.”
“Personnel below my rank were to drill each day. I was exempt and had nothing to do. I made a bee-line for the company office and fixed an appointment to see the OC. The next morning, I was marched in to see the major who informed me that I was to stay until posted. Immediate release, however, could be obtained if I volunteered to serve with the Special Boat Service in the Adriatic as a company quartermaster sergeant or, even, as a regimental quartermaster. I thanked him but said I wanted to go back to my own unit. I saluted and left the office.”
“I inquired about the location of the office which dealt with postings and thumbed a lift there. I found it in a large building in Caserta and was taken to the London Irish section. Here, I was enthusiastically greeted by ORQMS Ryan, an old friend, and his predecessor, who was now a subaltern. He roundly condemned the depot filled with sergeants and immediately set about giving a movement order for myself and my 20 or so Irish Brigade personnel. He took me to the mess for lunch. Returning to the depot, I saw a squad of sergeants from many famous regiments being chivvied on parade by an ungentlemanly sergeant major. They endured this as the alternative was to be posted up the line. I laughed to myself. My group would be out of this soon.”
“The next morning, I was sent for by the officer in command of the depot who demanded to know who gave me permission to leave the camp. But as I had been posted, I would not be charged. The next day, my little group entrained for another depot near Florence. It was unbelievable that a soldier had to surmount so many obstacles to his loyalty and how easy it was to move about the base areas with nothing but your stripes as authority. How simple it would have been to desert.”
“Christmas was approaching. I schemed my way out of the Florence depot but first took the opportunity to look round the city and saw the Ponte Vecchio and the River Arno. I found that the battalion’s B Echelon transport unit was close by and joined it. I met Billy Allen, who had been wounded at Point 286 in January 1943. He had returned to the battalion a few weeks before but there was no place for him and he was awaiting re-posting. The battalion provost sergeant was there. Unlike his predecessors, he was no gentleman. In his cups, he insulted and attempted to hit me. I retaliated by hitting him with a jerrycan and threatened to strike him with my rifle. It was the first time I had been involved in a fight. He apologised when sober.”
The Irish Brigade had returned to Italy from Egypt at the end of August. The 78th Division was transferred out of the 8th Army into the 5th Army and sent to the front which had by then advanced north of Florence. The Allies had started the assault against the Gothic Line, the last powerful German defensive position before the valley of the River Po. The Irish Brigade was deployed as part of what was planned to be the final push that would crack the Gothic Line and open the door to complete victory in Italy before the end of 1944.
But here, as elsewhere in Europe in the final year of the war, the Germans were proving to be tougher than expected. Allied airborne landings in Arnhem in the Netherlands on 17-26 September that had been designed to find an early route over the Rhine and into Germany had failed. In northern Italy, the British Army was denied new replacements and were obliged to rely on wounded men returning from hospital. Still not up to strength, the Irish Brigade was ordered to take Monte Spaduro, one of the last mountains in the central Appenines before the Po valley. The battle began on 19 October. The London Irish joined the offensive on the night of 21 October and were involved with bitter fighting in two attacks. There were further heavy losses. The killed included Major Boyd, then commander of F Company, Lieutenant Bruckmann who had tried to get Ted out of his hospital in Egypt in August and acting Sergeant Billy Farthing, probably the smallest sergeant in the Irish Brigade. Lieutenant Mosley, wounded on the morning of 16 May and out of action at the time of the battle at Lake Trasimeno, won the military cross for valour. Horsfall, commander of the Faughs, was severely wounded and was to play no further active role in the war. When London Irish were taken out of the line on 25 October, F Company was temporarily suspended as the result of its losses. Monte Spadura was eventually taken but the Germans still clung tenaciously to the final line of mountains. It was a frustrating moment for the Allies.
The 78th Division was restored to the 8th Army, now under the command of General McCreery. The London Irish returned to the Monte Spadura area in tours of duty lasting 12 days until the middle of November. It was then moved further north to the southern slopes of Monte Grande overlooking the plain of the Po.
In Europe, the Allied offensive had ground to a halt in the southern Netherlands, Belgium and the Rhine. On 16 December 1944, the Germans launched a massive attack against the American army in the Ardennes Hills in Belgium. It was Hitler’s final attempt to force America and Britain to make a compromise peace. The London Irish at Christmas 1944 were uncomfortably posted around Monte Grande when Ted finally found them. B Echelon, the battalion’s transport base, was in Firenzuola, a town 15 miles south of the front line. Supplying E company by mule from Firenzuola involved Ted making a 12-hour round trip, usually at night.
“I arrived back at E Company on Boxing Day. They were in the line near Monte Grande. I took over from Colour Sergeant Rice, a former 2nd Skins. I felt sorry and inadequate as he had performed well in my three-month absence. The company commander, who had replaced Boyd, was my former platoon commander in Haverfordwest, Major FitzGerald. We were friends and he tolerated my rustiness.”
“The conditions were appalling. Mule point was a broken down farmhouse without any heating. Each night, I had to make my way to the company with about a dozen mules. I would climb a precipitous track to the peak where the company was. The last stretch was too much for the mules. They would just lie down. The Italian drivers and I would unload the mules and carry the loads up the slippery steep incline. We would then set about coaxing the mules to their feet and persuading them up the hill. This the Italian drivers did with kicks, curses and prayers to the Blessed Virgin which they often offered on their knees. At the top, we would reload the mules and proceed.”
“The terrain was a mixture of mud, snow and ice. ‘It was worse earlier as the mules drowned in mud,’ I was told when I arrived at the front. I would send the mules back and, in pitch darkness, climb down to the road. Here it was even worse. By then, heavy frosts covered the road with black ice and I often had to resort to crawling on all fours. Back at the mule point, I would throw myself on my blankets fully clothed and slept. I should never have returned. I was too weak from my illness. But I was better off than the men on the bleak mountainside.”
“There was little enemy activity during my nightly journeys. I believe that the Germans withdrew to the warmth of the valley and the towns, leaving patrols to do the work. Our generals were obsessed with the idea of holding ground, even the bleak mountain peaks. It was a World War I mentality that was not successful then. The Poles had shown us how to do it at Montenero. A weak, half-frozen platoon on top of a mountain was no match for properly-equipped mountain troops on skis.”
“The 78th Division was described as a crack mountain division. This meant we always operated in mountains though we had never been trained in any mountaineering skills. Only a few officers could ski. Our clothing and equipment were rationed in the same proportions as those in rear areas and even the base had more winter clothing. To cap it all, we often did not issue winter clothing as we were afraid of a threat of a court of inquiry as happened the previous winter in Montenero. After a short rest, we returned to the line once more. My conditions worsened. The daily route to the company followed the course of a mountain stream which wound along a valley. The mule track was straight and cut across the stream which was covered with thin ice. Each crossing was too wide to jump and the ice too thin to bear my weight. Twenty eight times the crossing was made in frozen water that splashed up to my midriff. Then the track turned to the right and across another stream. It culminated in a climb where, once again, off-loading and reloading was necessary. When I got back to base, I just rolled into a blanket and slept in soaking clothes.”
“Our final positions were much better. The sun shone and the mule track was easy. One day, I saw a party of notables in front of me. The leader focussed his camera to take my picture with my mules, obviously for his album and possible book: ‘In the Apennine Mountains’. My feet were unco-operative. As he pressed the shutter, I performed a somersault. He introduced himself to the prostrate colour sergeant. ‘I am the divisional catering adviser. I’ll send you a copy. You are doing a fine job.’ Was he referring to my ability as a tumbler?”
On 19 January 1945, the London Irish were withdrawn to Florence to rest. F Company was re-formed. The battalion was quickly returned to the line with the 78th Division to take up positions west of Forli, an ancient city in the Po plain south-east of Bologna where Mussolini had been born.
“Withdrawn from the line, the company rested in the rear areas. But there was no rest for me. I had the task of virtually re-clothing the company, as their boots and trousers had, like them, suffered. One day, I found myself with two crucial tasks: to sell the NAAFI ration and to collect trousers from an RASC store in a distant town down south. I left instructions for Jimmy Barrett and the other two sergeants to sell the NAAFI ration to the chaps. When I returned in the evening, they handed over to me the total amount in lira.
I asked them: ‘What about my ration?’
‘Here it is. Cigarettes, sweets, soap and razor blades.’
‘But I haven’t paid.’
‘That’s alright. The money’s correct.’
I looked in the corner and there was a whole case of beer.
‘Whose is that?’ I asked.
Unblushingly, they said: ‘Ours.’
I did not know what to do. They had done me a favour but had robbed their comrades. They had no conscience about it and probably thought I did the same. I explained that I had never profited from selling the men their entitlement and generally finished with a loss, as I let them owe me small sums. I could not return the beer. But, that evening, I went to their canteen and bought drinks for everybody, saying that, owing to an error, they had been slightly overcharged. As I left, I saw Major Davies, who was visiting the battalion. He greeted me with a smile which turned to a frown. ‘Where are all your medals?’
‘What medals?’ I replied. ‘I’m wearing the Africa Star. That’s all I have had issued.’
‘But I thought...,’ and his voice trailed off. He appeared a little embarrassed. After such a poor start over a cup of tea, Davies had become a friend.”
“I was sent off to the town of Forli as an advance party. To get there, however, I had to go due south to Lake Balsano and then over the mountains to the main road which connected Pesaro with Bologna. I stopped at 5th Army Corps headquarters for the night. A good meal and comfortable quarters were given to me. I sat down in the mess and a completely bald-headed but young man sat next to me. I instantly recognised him.
‘Molloy?’ I asked . ‘Sully!’ he said.’”
“We had sat next to each other at the Oratory in the early 1930s. We chatted and I discovered that being a signal sergeant at corps headquarters had its compensations: a comfortable warm billet, a separate room with a proper spring bed, a sergeant’s mess with four meals a day and plenty of drink, although they sometimes ran out of soda water. I was told it was hard work as they occasionally worked late. I expressed commiserations.”
“The company arrived at Forli. I was called by E Company commander Major FitzGerald who told me that I was going on a two-week administration course at Benevento. I took the train to Rome and spent a pleasant day there in the spring sunshine before taking the express to my destination. Here, we were a part of British headquarters and were accommodated in a large building. The course was a doddle and I became friendly with two company quartermaster sergeants from the Jewish Brigade. It was a second convalescence.”
“FitzGerald had seen how ill I had been. One morning, I was entering the main building in Benevento when I saw the tall figure of Colonel Horsfall who had been wounded at Monte Spadura. I saluted and he greeted me with a broad smile and an inquiry as to my health. We had known each other a long time. He had been my runner on the battle course in Norfolk in 1942, my battalion second-in-command and my commanding officer from Cassino to Trasimeno.”
The Irish Brigade now held positions on the south bank of the River Senio which ran north-east out of the Appenines towards the River Po. Waiting for the weather to improve, the battalion engaged in a cat-and-mouse war with the Germans, but there were no major assaults. The landscape was flat and interrupted by artificial raised banks designed to prevent the Senio flooding. Both sides burrowed into the floodbanks and flung mortars and shells at each other.
The war was coming to a climax amid unprecedented carnage. The Rhine was crossed on 7 March 1945. The Soviet army closed in on Berlin from the east. In Italy, the London Irish were taken out of the Senio line to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in peace. Plans were being prepared for the last great offensive of the campaign which would involve a drive across the plain south of the River Po and through a series of river-based German defensive positions.
“After Benevento, I returned to Forli to find the company occupying positions on the flood banks of the River Senio. George Charnick was back as E Company CSM after 28 days leave in England. I too had qualified for leave but had missed the chance due to my absence in Benevento. Charnick was soon transferred to S Company and Doug Meighan replaced him. Major Davies had returned to the company earlier with Captain Cave as second in command.”
“St. Patrick’s Day had passed but Brigadier Scott again ensured that the brigade could celebrate it properly out of the line. It paraded in Forli town square on 29th March and shamrock was distributed. A limited supply of the sacred plant had been sent from the London Irish Welfare Officer in London. To supplement it, fatigue parties were sent out the day before the parade to pick anything vaguely green. This was mixed with the shamrock, solemnly blessed by Father Dan Kelleher and distributed to the brigade by the officers. I received a mixture of weed and grass.”
“That afternoon, the London Irish had an officers versus sergeants rugger match. I did not join in, as the last time I almost lost all my teeth. The sergeants paraded in all sorts of weird gear. Roy Prudhoe wore a dispatch rider’s crash helmet. The sergeants produced two Panther tanks stolen from the park of captured German vehicles. The officers retaliated by having our Army Co-operation Squadron dive bomb the match with smoke bombs. By this time, most clothes had been torn off and Prudhoe was left only with his boots and crash helmet. The Italian ladies watching seemed to be appreciative.”
“We had a sergeants’ mess party in the evening. I invited Father Dan who asked:
‘Is it going to be a blinder?’ I truthfully, but inaccurately, said no. The RSM asked me to provide two reliable mess waiters to serve drinks. I told them to look after the E Company sergeants. They delivered locally-produced gin and lime. The lime was thick and the gin strong. Soon people were passing out and I was one of them. I left the hall to go to the toilet. What happened after I do not know: perhaps I fell down the stone staircase. Anyway, I crawled into the party and, allegedly, my drunk companions playfully rubbed their boots on my face. I was taken home and put to bed by two officers. My face the next morning was a mass of open sores. One sergeant had walked through a plate glass window and was hospitalised. We later found out that much of the drink sold in Italy was made in a laboratory. We were lucky we were not poisoned. Two days later, an officer asked what I had done to my face.
‘Fell off a tank in the exercises, Sir.’ I replied.
‘Bloody liar. I put you to bed!’ he said.
I resolved never to touch a drink made with cordial and Italian gin.”
St Patrick’s Day once again was a final moment of relaxation before an attack on a German line which this time extended in a wide east-west band south of the Po. The plan called for the 8th Army to drive north-west to take the towns of Argenta, Ferrara and Bodeno while the 5th Army swept in from the west to cut off the German retreat.
On the night of 5 April, the 1st Battalion of the London Irish, then part of the 8th Army, forced a crossing over the River Reno from the west into Lake Comacchio to create a launchpad for the main attack. This began four days later on a front extending west from the initial bridgehead. The river Senio was crossed and the river Santero quickly reached.
On 13 April, the Irish Brigade with other units advanced out of the Santero bridgehead west of Lake Comacchio that had been seized by the 8th Indian Division in the initial assault. By nightfall, the 2nd London Irish were leading the advance and had reached the Conselice Canal. The battalion arrived at the east-west line of the River Reno in the morning of 14 April. A further drive was ordered on 18 April which involved the 8th Army pushing through the 4,000-yard Argenta gap between the Reno to the left and Lake Comacchio to the right. The London Irish entered the outskirts of Ferrara just south of the Po on 22 April. Units of the 5th Army reached the banks of the Po later that day. This was the last major battle of the war for the London Irish Rifles. For the first time, its two battalions had fought beside each other. Ted’s recollection is of a new war of movement which began when the 2nd Battalion set off across the River Senio in the early days of the Allied attack to the Po.
“We had trained with a tank brigade and were introduced to the Kangaroo, a General Grant tank with the lid removed to allow two infantry sections to be carried into battle, sheltered and speedily. The colour sergeant (me), in contrast, followed in his open-topped jeep. After all, he and his driver had steel helmets.”
“The 56th Division with the 1st Battalion of the London Irish started the assault in the east (on the night of 5 April). Our attack over the Senio began with massive air and artillery attacks. This was followed by flame tanks called wasps. Bridges across the floodbanks of the Senio were made by driving Churchill tanks with bridge attachments into the ditches. A massive column of about 100 heavily-armoured vehicles stormed across. There were Churchill flamethrowers, Sherman flail tanks for mine clearance, Sherman Arcs, Sherman Bulldozers, tracked artillery pieces and the Kangaroos.”
“The speed of the advance was phenomenal and casualties were light. Having reached our objective, the Conselice Canal, the battalion dug in for the night. I followed in a jeep, laden with a cooked meal, in the tracks left by the armour. It was comparatively peaceful as I crossed the Senio, now Bailey-bridged, on my way north behind the battalion and saw the double-banked Churchills of the early crossings. I served the meal for the company. As I finished, a corporal from a troop of recovery tanks approached. ‘Any overs left for my chaps, Dickie?,’ he asked. It was McVeigh from the Corpus Christi Football team.”
“Each day, the battalion fought and advanced rapidly while I had to return for cooked meals, haversack rations and, of course, the hot cakes. This meant I seldom had time for sleep. We crossed the canal and went on to the rivers Santerno and the Reno. At each obstacle, we would halt and stay overnight. This would give me the opportunity to catch up on a little sleep.”
“At almost the last halt, I was held up by a column of traffic. Directly behind me were trucks carrying reinforcements. I went back to speak to them, as some were returned wounded. I vaguely recognised one and asked him about his company. He claimed to have been with another company and was returning from hospital. Then I remembered. He was the young soldier so shaken by shellfire near Piedemonte the previous May that he had run away the same evening. I later learned he had spent the time since in prison. He had been afraid. So had we all. I was terrified, but had a greater fear: to be seen to be frightened. I was Rosie. It meant baring my teeth in a smile, regardless. We had arrived at the Po. During the last days of the offensive, we had passed a most distressing sight. Beautiful draught horses had been shot dead and lay bloated and stinking. The Germans had killed them rather than let them live and remain for us. Most had been commandeered from the unfortunate Italians. They had lost so much. Their beautiful country had been destroyed from Sicily to the Po and occupied by aliens from all over the world.”
The south bank of the Po was an extraordinary scene. The Germans, trapped by the river, had abandoned everything. Many had even tried to swim the Po to escape and many died as a result. The carnage of war continued relentlessly as if it were now on a form of autopilot.
“The company rested by the side of Po while the Royal Engineers set about bridging its mile width. I arranged a campfire and ‘drunk’ using Canadian beer and hot rum toddy. Corporal Howarth was, as usual, master of ceremonies. When directed, each person had to sing. We had yet another new company commander to replace Major Davies who had been wounded and transferred. The replacement was Bill Hood who had been second-in-command of G Company and a friend. Nick Mosley was second-in-command, having returned after being wounded in the autumn. The war was virtually over on our front and the Germans were suing for a separate peace in Italy. The Po bridge was completed. It was a magnificent structure with, at its entrance, the numbers of the engineer regiments and squadrons that had built it. Below that were listed the subcontractors. They included the London Irish Rifles who had contributed labour to the project.”
The German army was collapsing on all fronts. On 20 April, the Soviets entered Berlin. On 28 April, Mussolini and his mistress were shot by Italian partisans near the Italian border with Austria. News that the man who had inspired him more than 20 years earlier had died in such an undignified way appears to have convinced Hitler to make no attempt to escape. On 30 April, Hitler shot himself in his bunker in Berlin, but the successor regime again refused to surrender. German commanders in the field decided to give up piecemeal instead to end the killing and to allow the Western allies to advance further east into Germany.
The German army in Italy surrendered on 2 May 1945. On 7 May 1945, the final German surrender was announced. In these final weeks of war, the Irish Brigade changed from being an invader to an occupier responsible for keeping the peace. This involved a rapid introduction into the political realities of post-war Europe, which was to be divided for more than 40 years. The allies' immediate challenge was dealing with the enormous destruction that they had inflicted on Germany to win the war. Never in history had a country been so comprehensively wrecked. Almost 7 million Germans, most of them economically-productive males, had been killed. Millions more were prisoners of war. A nation that had once terrified and dominated Europe was in desperate economic straits and needed help.
The Irish Brigade, in action with one break since November 1942 had covered more than 2,000 miles and lost more than 1,000 men killed in action. They had killed and captured many more of their opponents and won the admiration of friend and foe. The Brigade left a glittering record of bravery and decency that still inspires. It had every reason to feel proud about what it had achieved, often against terrible odds. But the end when it came was an anti-climax. Perhaps Ted and his comrades were too tired and disillusioned by the realities of war to care any more.
“Leaving the Po behind, we moved swiftly north in TCVs and passed through Udine. E and H companies were pushed up on to the Yugoslavian border at Caporetto and Plezzo. Here, with some tanks, we hoped to persuade partisans from Tito’s Yugoslav partisan army, who had crossed into Italy, to go back. I managed to get to Mass on the Sunday. Although it was Italy, the Mass was in Serbian. We moved the next day back into Italy proper and passed into Austria by the Tarvisio Pass. It was Monday 7 May and the war in North- West Europe was in its final day. It was said that the Irish Brigade would be allowed to claim the European Star as well as the Italian Star which had already been awarded. In the event, we didn’t get it.”
 

Chapter 10
Brothers reunited
 
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God of our fathers, known of old
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine-
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget-lest we forget!
 
The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart;
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
 
Lest we forget-lest we forget!
Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget-lest we forget!
 
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
 
Lest we forget-lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard-
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
 
Recessional, by Rudyard Kipling
 
Europe was in chaos in May 1945.
Most of Germany’s major towns were ruins. Millions of displaced people, including survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps, were trying to get home. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war had been released. Hundreds of thousands were being driven from their homes in what is now called ethnic cleansing. In a storm of vengeance in Bohemia, Sudeten Germans were murdered and most were expelled. Silesian Germans were hounded from what had been allocated to Poland by the victorious Allies. In Yugoslavia, old hatreds were acted out among the national groups that make up the country.
Ted had a glimpse of the human consequences of the conflict as the London Irish took up peacetime duties in Karinthia in southern Austria close to the Yugoslav border.
“We were transported to Klagenfurt, where we met Nick Mosley, who was in charge of the advance party. We placed all the personnel in their allocated billets and separate accommodation was given to sergeants. I was quite happy about the arrangements but RSM Doug Meighan asked: ‘What about the colour sergeant and I? We are entitled to separate quarters.’ This was true for warrant officers. But I was only a staff sergeant. Nick blushed and stammered an apology. He then knocked at an auberge, A top window was opened by a woman. Nick, when he was excited, had a terrible stammer.”
“He said: ‘Ha..Haben sie eine einne ssschlaaaafe ziiimmmer fur zwei zwei Oooberfeldwebels.(Haben zie ein schlaffe zimmer fur zwei Oberfeldwebel?).’
The lady replied: ‘Bitte?.’
Nick, who had a good command of German, repeated his request but with an even worse stammer. Once again the lady said: ‘Bitte?’
I looked up and said: ‘Have you a bedroom for two Oberfeldwebels, please Madam?’
‘Certainly. How long will you be needing it for? I am English and I married my Austrian husband before the war. It is years since I spoke it, so I did not understand.’
She had not realised that we were British because of our strange headdress and thought that Nick was speaking in another language.”
“Doug and I went for our kit but were stopped by E Company Commander Major Hood. ‘It’s all changed. We have to move to a POW camp at a place called Wolfsberg.’
‘What, Germans?’ asked Doug.
 ‘No. British, French and Russians and some others,’ Hood replied.”
“The company repacked their kit and not too happily paraded for the same transport they had vacated a couple of hours before. Before we left, Hood, normally a very tolerant man, gave them a lecture about their appearance. He told them that, as soon as they had been settled into their new quarters, they would have to look like a victorious army.
‘You will not be allowed out until you have cleaned up yourselves and your equipment,’ he said. We arrived at Wolfsberg and were allocated billets which were less spacious than at Klagenfurt. One platoon was put in charge of the camp. Their quarters were large but spartan. The camp had been very short of food until two days before when the RAF had literally bombed them with food parcels. There were damaged tins of every type of food everywhere. The RAF did not use parachutes as these could have drifted into the town, then held by an enemy still at war. Low-flying aircraft tipped the food out over the camp. I don’t know if a warning had been given. If not, some people would have been injured.”
“That evening, the men spent their time cleaning uniforms and polishing boots. The next day E Company paraded and were inspected by Hood who was impressed. He told them that they would be allowed out that evening but they were not to fraternise with the population. They of course had never heard the term before. Hood explained what it meant. That evening, they walked out looking like conquering heroes but soon drifted back. Wolfsberg was small, there was nothing to do, nothing to buy and they could not talk to anyone.”
“That morning, I had driven to the POW camp to issue rations. The sergeant told me he had put the former camp commander under guard. He asked me to inspect his quarters and to be strictly regimental. I entered the room and the unfortunate man was ordered to stand rigidly to attention. The sergeant treated the prisoner harshly as he had a bad report about the commander from the former inmates. To my disgust, he had given the German a tin of bully beef but no opener.
I thought, ‘Are our people any better than they in dealing with helpless victims?’ I often said, after hearing about Belsen and other concentration camps, that one could find staff for such a place from my own home town.”
“The English prisoners were allowed relative freedom until they could be transported back to England as were the French and others. The Russian POWs were kept under close guard. They would remain so until an exchange could be effected for the many thousands of British and Commonwealth prisoners in Russian hands. A Russian commission turned up and were negotiating conditions for the swap. It was said that the Russian officers behaved abominably.”
The Irish Brigade found themselves in charge of one of the loveliest places in Europe. Carinthia straddles high mountains and unspoiled woods. Crystal clear lakes that are still popular holiday resorts clittered in early summer sunshine. The main landmark in the region the Irish Brigade held was the Ossiachersee, a large Alpine lake. The main town was Villach. an important railway centre with a huge marshalling yard that had served the German supply lines into Italy and had been heavily bombed. But most of the area’s charming villages had been untouched by the war though many of the local men had either been killed in the war or taken prisoner. Austria, which had merged with the German Reich in 1938, was to be treated more kindly than Germany. The Allies decided that it had not been a belligerent like Germany but an occupied territory. De-Nazification, which was initially thorough-going in Germany, was applied more lightly in Austria. The legacy includes complicated feelings among many Austrians about their country’s role in the 2nd World War when their countrymen were prominent figures in the SS. But there could be few better places for the warriors of the Irish Brigade to recover from the rigours of total war in the spring and summer of 1945.
“We were moved from Wolfsberg as the battalion was located close to Villach. E Company was billetted in a group of villages on the Ossiachersee and in the hills beyond. BHQ and HQ Company were at Annenheim. S Company was at Bohdensdorf. Annerheim and Bohdensdorf were very pretty places. E Company had the prize billet: a railway children’s convalescent home on the lake between the two. The large house and its smaller staff house occupied extensive grounds backing on to the Ossiachersee. The children were already being moved away and the staff were given notice to quit the smaller building.”
“The home provided ample accommodation for the company. It had five members of staff. The principal was a gracious lady in her fifties. Her assistant, whom we called, the adjutant, spoke perfect English with a slight accent. The adjutant thought that Rosie was a nickname for my rank and called me Der Rossy. At first, we dealt with them very correctly but soon spotted that the five ladies had a small cottage in the grounds. The house, which had about half a dozen rooms, became the sergeants' mess and quarters.”
“I received notification that my gong had come through, but it wasn’t a medal, merely a Mentioned in Dispatches for distinguished conduct in Italy. I was pleased but at the same time disappointed. I expected more. It meant I could wear four medal ribbons with an oakleaf on a strip of khaki in the place the Victory Medal ribbon, which had not been issued, would be pinned. But five strips of cloth seemed a paltry reward for six years in the infantry. The same medals were issued to anyone who had been at base headquarters. The Defence Medal could be earned for just six months service there. RSM Meighan missed his by just a couple of months because he had not served in England for three years, as I had done, and served only in the front line when abroad.”
Ted had been out of the UK for more than two-and-a-half years and was overdue family leave. Returning to London would involve another epic journey, this time across war-shattered Europe. It would take more than three days.
“We had barely time to settle into our new quarters when I was told that I had 28 days leave in England. I should have gone months before but had been prevented by my illness and, latterly, by my rank. I had about two days to pack and hand over to a young sergeant from another company who had some clerical experience. The job was no longer arduous and was confined to feeding, clothing, quartering and paying the men.”
“I reported to Villach transit camp. It was run by an artillery unit and reminded me of the army saying: ‘If it moves salute it, if it doesn’t, paint it.’ Whitewash had been lavishly used and it was a credit to the army. The 25-pounder guns had thick freshly-painted white ropes surrounding them As we were not leaving until the next morning, Jimmy Barrett and I went to the sergeant’s mess at Annenheim the evening before. Here, Jimmy overindulged and was driven back to the Villach transit camp. He was a little noisy as I put him to bed.”
“Early the next morning, we embussed in TCVs and were conveyed via Salzburg to the city of Ulm. Our route followed a magnificent autobahn which occasionally had breaks due to bomb damage and destroyed bridges. We passed right through the city of Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, which was relatively undamaged.”
Ted’s route passed through an Alpine valley through which the main road between Bavaria and Austria runs. Not long after entering Germany, Ted passed unknowingly through Berchtesgarden, above which stands Hitler’s Alpine retreat. Ted’s memories are mainly about destruction wrought on Germany by Allied bombers. More than 10 million Germans died during the water, about 1          million of them as a result of air raids which were often designed mainly to kill people and break Germany’s will to resist. But by destroying Germany’s cities and industries, the Allies were creating a massive post-war reconstruction challenge. In the winter of 1945, millions of Germans faced starvation and had to be saved by Allied aid, often at the expense of their own people. The Allied bombing campaign, particularly the destruction of the Saxon capital Dresden, continues to be controversial.
“After entering Germany, we passed the worst ruins I had ever seen. It was a large city and it appeared that nothing was taller than the height of a man. It was a scene of complete and utter destruction. We wondered where we were. I saw a sign that said Muenchen. This was Munich, capital of Bavaria and the birthplace of Nazism.”
“Ulm in northern Bavaria was another scene of chaos. The town was completely destroyed but, standing relatively undamaged, was the magnificent Protestant cathedral which had the tallest spire in Europe. As soon as we arrived at a transit camp, I was called to the CO’s office. I was told that the transit camp at Villach had signalled that I was suspected of causing damage to installations: ropes around the guns had been cut. I, of course, denied any responsibility. The CO asked if I could deny that Sergeant Barrett and I returned there in a drunken condition. I said that it was true that Barrett had overindulged because of his leave but that I remained sober and had put him to bed. I added that I would have been foolish to mar my reputation and endanger my overdue leave by such an escapade. I gave him brief details of my service. He believed me and told me to go home and enjoy my leave.”
“Next morning, we resumed our long journey across Europe with two overnight stays in army camps. I was thrilled to pass through towns made famous in the 1st World War and saw the Menin Gate memorial on the hillside near Ypres close by the Passchendaele battlefield of 1915 and 1917. I was saddened to pass Allied war cemeteries from three eras: the enormous cemeteries of 1914-18, the graves for the dead of 1940 and, finally, the cemeteries for soldiers killed in the European campaign of 1944-45.We arrived at Calais and sailed for Folkestone in a very stormy sea. I lay down on some foam for the whole of the short voyage and managed to control my queasiness. At an army installation on the sea front, I was issued with my railway warrants and a truck took us to the station. I arrived in London not much more than an hour later and made my journey to Brixton, for the first time in more than three-and-a-half years. My family did not know of my leave and my mother was overcome when she opened the door for me.”
“I had arrived on a Saturday. Next morning, I went to Mass and met many people that I knew, mostly elderly civilians but a few servicemen on leave. My brother Danny, who had been flying in India and Burma, had been sent home to train with new planes. But as the European war was finished and he had but a short time to serve, he had been retained at Croydon as warrant officer in charge of the officers’ mess. It was a well-deserved cushy number after hazardous service in the Far East.”
“My sister Lilian had become a young lady. She was working in the civil service. Bernard was in Newquay in west Wales completing his final year at the Rotherhithe Nautical School. Luckily, he was not old enough to have been engaged in the dreadful war at sea. Tom was with the RAF somewhere in Europe. Bill was in the Mediterranean. Ellen was living in Morden with her husband Laurie. She was very ill but managing to live almost a normal life.”
“Many of my cousins, both Hanlons and O’Sullivans, had served in the various services. All had survived though Percy Thurston had lost a leg at Arnhem with the Parachute Regiment. His father, Percy senior, had found a niche in the army and commanded a depot with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Miraculously, most of the club had survived, despite a service record of almost 100 per cent. The sole exceptions were Raymond Tuff, Nelson Smallbone and Jack Thornton. I visited Hawkes and discovered that the sole civilian fatality was Lester W Kato, a cutter who was deferred from service but killed in an air-raid. Leonard Panarrio, a shirt cutter and territorial, was killed in Egypt with his tank unit. Edward White, son of Wilfred White, had died in north Italy.”
“One of my father’s colleagues at South Lambeth depot had served with the London Irish Rifles during the 1st World War. He had asked if he could meet me, so I went to the depot on the second day of my leave on Monday morning and chatted with him. I felt a little unwell and called in at the local doctor. He told me that he could not treat me but gave me a chit for the military wing of King’s College Hospital at Denmark Hill. I was examined and told that I was probably suffering another attack of malaria. This was confirmed and I was in bed for a week. I was discharged but collapsed as I reached the door to the ward and was put to bed for another week. I was sent to a barracks at Aldershot and given a 14-day extension to my leave. I returned home with 26 days of unexpired leave in front of me. ”
The first days were occupied visiting relatives and meeting Joan Wyatt, the lady who had written to me regularly. This friendship was not to blossom. Somehow, the news of my leave had become known to officers now in England. Major Costello, who had been E Company commander during the German attack in Bou Arada in February 1943, asked me to call on him at the offices of the English Speaking Union. He was just out of the army and greeted me effusively. He said that he had an appointment but had arranged for Major Diarmid Conroy, who had been seriously wounded in the same battle, to take me out to lunch. Johnny Young, a sergeant from F Company who had been with me at Barker’s in 1939, appeared. Together, we went to Overton’s at Victoria where we were regaled with a sumptious meal. Major Conroy was to become a QC, a judge and a knight. Costello kept in touch through Hawkes, now his tailors.”
216966 Private Webb
“On Sunday morning, I went to Mass and afterwards saw a smartly-dressed young lady whom I recognised as Pat Webb, a member of Corpus Christi club. We chatted and I walked her home. I found that she was in the ATS (Royal Corps of Signals) and worked at the War Office in Whitehall. We had a lot in common. She had been at school with me at Corpus Christi and in the Oratory girls’ school. As a civilian, she had worked as a clerk at the South Lambeth depot. Her brother Denis had joined the Royal Navy with my brother Bill in 1941. They had previously served together in the Home Guard. During lunch, I told my mother of the encounter with Pat and said that I should have asked her to go to the cinema. She said: ‘Why don’t you go round now and ask her?’ This I did and that evening we went to the Astoria. We arranged a few more dates and one was with her mother and her uncle Richard Halligan at the London Palladium where we saw The Night and the Music starring Vic Oliver. Pat’s leave expired but she kept me company in the evenings. We met at a restaurant in Sloane Square near to her billets on several occasions. Pat made my leave and I was very attached to her. When it expired, I said goodbye and promised to write.”
“I returned to Austria across Europe, but by a different route. When I arrived, I was informed that I had been absent without leave for 14 days. I showed my papers issued by Aldershot which explained my extended absence was due to sickness. Returning to E Company, I took over as before and settled down to finish my service. I discovered that I had extra duties and was responsible as duty officer for mounting the company guard. I wrote often to Pat Webb. I kept her replies in a little tin.”
British politics were about to be turned upside down. Winston Churchill resigned as prime minister on 23 May to fulfill his promise of parliamentary elections as soon as the war in Europe ended. On 5 July, the British people went to the polls in the first national elections since November 1935. Ted voted for the first time and, for the last time in his life, chose the Conservative Party. Firmly anti-Communist, he had disliked what he had seen of the Red Army and Tito’s partisans in Italy and Austria. He also believed that Churchill deserved his vote because of his inspiring role as war leader. Ted was shocked to discover how many of his London Irish comrades were violently anti-Churchill. Pat Webb voted Labour. The results of the election were announced on 26 July 1945. Labour had won 393 parliamentary seats compared with 213 for Churchill’s Conservatives and 12 for the Liberals. Winston Churchill resigned as prime minister and Clement Atlee, deputy prime minister during the war and leader of the Labour Party, accepted the queen’s commission to form a new government at 730pm of the day that the results were announced.
Ted was mainly concerned with his work in the occupation of southern Austria.
“Something of a fitness fanatic, I would rise early, dress in PE kit and embark on a long run which was particularly needed after a mess night. On occasions, I would hear the clip-clop of a trotting horse on the same path and a voice would cheerily greet me, ‘Good morning colour sergeant.’. I would gasp a reply. It was the 2nd Battalion’s commanding officer Colonel Horsfall. He often would send to the central mess fish, game and stag that he had killed.”
“The fraternising rules had been relaxed and we had become very friendly with the German ladies who could not return to their homes in different parts of their homeland. I was considered something of an enigma and was asked by the adjutant why I was not an officer. She said: ‘Your name, O’Sullivan. The ‘O’ is similar to Von and it means of.’ I explained the name and the clan system of Ireland. We held a dinner and invited the officers and the ladies to the company sergeants’ mess. The ladies invited the sergeants to their cottage. I arranged a swimming test for the company and was surprised to discover how few were able to swim as much as 100 yards. Yet our company, now reinforced, comprised about 100 fit, young soldiers.”
“After about a month, I was promoted to Warrant Officer II and was posted as CSM of HQ Company. I could not believe it. George Charnick gave me my symbols of rank: a green caubeen and blue hackle with the large chromium badge and a fine, black walking stick. HQ Company Commander Rodney Cockburn greeted me warmly and told me he wanted me to smarten up the company which totalled about 250 men. This I did, focussing my attention on the billets, which were dirty and untidy. I next came down on the drivers as they were walking about with collars open and their hands in their pockets. I was not popular. I had never been this sort of person before. Rodney called me the Atomic Sergeant Major because I obtained the results that were needed at that time.”
“Horsfall wanted us to look like a conquering army of occupation. HQ Company was letting the rest down. They had been slack under an easy CSM. At the same time, I tried to improve social conditions for the men and arranged a company dance in the local auberge. It was a success but men were getting drunk and I ordered the bar to be closed. The transport sergeant refused to leave, so I put him under open arrest and sent him to his billet. I was assisted by Hugh Danbury, who was my colour sergeant, Sergeant Dickie Smith and Corporal Charlie McCombe. The latter two were members of the battalion boxing team. I closed the dance down and was invited back to the private quarters of the landlord where his family thanked me for bringing the evening to a peaceful close.”
“Danbury and the others remained outside to encourage the lads to go home and were surprised to see the transport platoon minus their sergeant approaching. ‘Where’s the little bastard?,’ they shouted, ‘We want to do him. He put our sergeant under arrest.’ Most were the worse for drink. Danbury lined up with the boxers and said: ‘All right. As he is only a little bloke and there are a lot of you, do us first, then you can have a go at him.’
They dispersed without a murmur. Next morning, I summoned the transport sergeant and told him that he deserved to be charged for his conduct and for inciting his men to assault me, but I was taking no action. If I did, he would have his demobilisation date put back. My words had immediate effect. Transport was a changed platoon. But I suspect that they still thought their name for me that night was a perfect description.”
“I was summoned to see Colonel Horsfall who asked if I would like a career in the army. He wished to recommend me for an immediate commission with the rank of lieutenant quartermaster, if, when asked, I would sign up for an extra year. I was flattered. As I loved soldiering, I agreed. He said it might take a little time to sort out. It was a great opportunity. I was only 26, roughly 10 years younger than an average regimental quartermaster.”
“A few days later, the RSM and the RQMS both went home for demobilisation. George Charnick was promoted to RSM and I to RQMS.” 
Ted heard that some quartermasters in the army managed to make considerable sums during the war by selling equipment and pocketing the proceeds. The idea horrified Ted who felt his duty above all was to the long-suffering men on the front line who were often under- equipped. He felt that the bad behaviour of some tarnished the reputation of colour sergeants in general. Not all colour sergeants were rogues.
“I soon settled down in my new position which made me responsible for the clothing, food, equipment, quartering and arms of the battalion. Delegation was the key and helping me were NCOs and men who were specialists in their skilled jobs. George Charnick also delegated many tasks to me and I started to act as RSM at battalion orders and in the HQ guard mounting. Inspecting the meticulously-turned out guard as the pipers’ wonderful tunes were being played and again as they marched off was the thrill of my life. I loved the battalion and the London Irish Rifles. My pride in its achievements and courage has never faded.”
The final horror of the 2nd World War was acted out on 6 August when the first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. A second was detonated over Nagasaki on 9 August. Five days later, Japan surrendered. There was a second day of celebration called Victory in Japan (VJ) Day. In Austria, Ted was enjoying his final months as a soldier. Life in Austria had become very comfortable.
“I lived in a large room in a nearby hotel which was a short walk from the sergeants’ and WO’s mess. CSM Byrne was now its president. We employed a Hungarian band from among the thousands of their troops that had surrendered to us. They gave their services free and we provided food, drink and transport. I had a Hungarian lieutenant as a German interpreter while I was at HQ Company. My duties at the time included commandeering woodland which was felled and dispatched to Vienna as fuel. One day, the pioneers blew down a large tree instead of felling it. I considered it was too dangerous and forbade the practice. Another day, a party felled a tree which rolled down the side of the mountain, across two roads and the railway track and plunged into the lake. It was a miracle that neither trains nor vehicles were passing.”
“Just before Christmas 1945, I was given instructions to arrange to feed hundreds of Polish soldiers returning to their homeland as they stopped each night at Villach Sation. It was a logistical nightmare. I was given my first notice of a train’s arrival time only when it passed through the Tarvisio pass which gave us less than 15 minutes to get ready. Its halt at Villach was timed for 15 minutes before it proceeded to the Czech border. I had a party of cooks from regiments in the brigade and we were all under the staff captain. They agreed with my idea that to open food, when one was not sure it would be consumed, would be a waste. I suggested a bank of soyer stoves in which we could have unopened meat and vegetable stew. We would lay out loaves of bread which would be cut during the short notice and some tinned pudding sweets.”
“The first night, the train was signalled after midnight and we were all prepared. Every Polish soldier was served with a hot meal and mugs of tea. They were very grateful. They were being conveyed in a cattle trucks and snow lay on the ground. I was complimented by the staff captain for an excellent arrangement. That week, an article was written about me in the brigade newspaper entitled ‘Villach Vapours.’ It was going so well, I asked permission to be excused after losing sleep for about four nights. My duties during the day were particularly onerous as we were preparing for disbandment. That night, General Anders, commander-in-chief of the Polish Division, turned up and, I understand, handed out decorations.”
“The handing in of battalion stores was crucial to David Aitkenhead, the captain quartermaster. No regiment had its stores absolutely correct as printed in the G1098 booklet. Many items had mysterious names and nobody knew what they actually were. I suggested that he write out a list each day and I would get the storemen to assemble what they had. I would take them to the RASC and ordnance depots and obtain a signature to certify goods had been properly returned. It worked easily. The storemen could not care less at the depots and, each day, I would report back to Aitkenhead with the pages all signed up. He thought I had worked a complicated confidence trick. I wondered afterwards how much of the army’s equipment actually went back to Britain and how much was dumped or sold.”
“Aitkenhead asked me join him as his WO1 clerk when the battalion was disbanded and he was transferred to the RASC. I refused and also asked Horsfall to release me from my undertaking to re-engage. I told him I had fallen in love and wished to go home to get married. In her letters, Pat had told me how glad she would be to get away from the army and I realised it was the army or her.”
“Charnick, however, was not ready to go home. He should have left in January and was also a year older than me. Charnick asked Horsfall if he could stay and close down the regiment with me at the end of March. This meant that I performed for a period the duties of RQMS and RSM. One day, Brigadier Scott visited the stores. He greeted me with a broad smile, put his arm round my shoulder and said: ‘Hello Rosie. Can you help me to find a good batman?’ I was amazed. He must have known my nickname from when he was battalion commander.”
“The respect shown to me by all the officers was apparent when we met. I would throw up a salute which they returned smartly. Majors and above would say: ‘Morning Rosie’. Junior officers called me RQ. The name Rosie that I had originally hated had become a badge of honour. Bugle Major Chubb later said the regiment gave two nicknames which stuck and were respected: Rosie for me and Guvnor for Sergeant Major Fraser of the Pioneer Platoon.”
“In early March, Charnick and I said goodbye to those who remained in the battalion. Most of them were to be transferred to Trieste and the 1st Battalion of the London Irish. That night we went back to the sergeants’ mess. We left by train early the next morning. Our route was across the north of Italy, through the Brenner Pass and Austria and into Germany and France. From there, we speedily progressed to Calais. A fast crossing landed us at Dover. From there, we proceeded direct to Aldershot where we were accommodated for the night. The next morning, we were issued with our civvies, our warrants, accumulated pay and our bounty (a gratuity for soldiers being demobilised).” 

Rosie's release book with a testimonial written by Lt-Col Horsfall.

"I strongly recommend him as a man of exceptional worth"

“I was still a soldier but released on leave until the end of August 1946. By that time, I would have spent six years ten months in the army instead of the six months which I was originally called up to serve in October 1939. When I joined, I had ideas of being a commissioned officer and probably could have been one. I stayed in the ranks, however, achieving a status beyond my dreams. I had been a ‘Quarter Bloke’ in size and rank. But I became a King’s Warrant Officer and the second most senior non-commissioned rank in a battalion of 1,001 men. For quite a lot of the time in Austria, I acted as number one and was treated as such. Rodney Cockburn was to argue later that the two best colour sergeants in the army were Rosie and Roy Prudhoe and that there was little to choose between us. It was my crowded hour of glorious life and I had been lucky to survive.”
London in the spring of 1946 was a place of mixed emotions. There was peace, but the city still bore the scars of war. Tens of thousands of buildings had been destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged. There was a shortage of housing for the returning troops. Some lived in tents in parks. Due to Britain’s precarious finances, rationing was even more strict than it had been during the war. The Labour government had promised sweeping improvements in the lives of ordinary people, but Britain was almost bankrupt.
Loans provided by the US to finance the war were being repaid. Hundreds of thousands of British troops were still serving in Europe, Africa and the Far East. Civil war had erupted in Greece between Communist partisans and the restored Greek government. Palestine was wracked by violence as Jewish guerrillas attacked British troops and fought their Arab rivals in a campaign to end British rule and force the creation of a Jewish state. The demand for independence in the Indian sub-continent had become irresistible and would be granted in 1947. British soldiers continued to die violently across the world.
A social revolution was taking place in Britain. The government introduced weekly allowances for every child after the first-born in March 1946. The National Health Service Bill establishing the National Health Service (NHS), which provided healthcare free at the point of use, was approved by the houses of parliament the same month. It started operating in 1948. An emergency house-building programme was launched.
The millions returning from war were determined to restore normality to their lives. That year was to see a record number of marriages that would produce in 1947 a record number of births in Britain’s post-war baby boom: more than 1 million, a figure was only matched once in British history when more than 1 million were born in 1964. Ted’s thoughts were beginning to turn to the future.
“Although now a civilian, I was unwilling to discard my uniform at once so took a fortnight’s leave of the three or four months owed to me. Dressed as a WO, I enjoyed myself and walked out with Pat. I visited people who had not seen me for many years. I negotiated my return to Hawkes. During the last months in Austria, I had received a letter from Mr Whitfield telling me that my position was open for me upon my discharge. In it, he mentioned that he would be retiring shortly. Quite mistakenly, I thought that the job might involve a position like an accountant or an administrator with some authority connected with my army experience.”
“I was surprised, therefore, when he told me that I would take up the position which I had left in 1939. Wnfield’s post had been filled by Eric Fletcher who had been released from the RAF in which he had been a bomber pilot with commissioned rank. My pay would be £5 per week, far less than I received as RQMS.”
“I had, though, burnt my boats and could not go back. I should have negotiated position and salary before leaving the army. Members of the staff who had been called up after me and had lower age and service group numbers were already back in key positions.”
The demobilisation of the British Army was completed faster than expected. The release of conscripts began on 18 June 1945. By Christmas, one-third of the 4 million Britons in the armed forces and working in war industries had been demobilised. By the time Pat and Ted returned to ‘Civvie Street’, more than 2 million people had returned to the British labour force.
“I thought that I was showing originality when I chose my civilian clothes at Aldershot. I discovered that the grey, single-breasted suit I wore put a vast number of ex-soldiers into another sort of uniform.”
“I immediately set about getting a Savile Row suit for as little as possible. I obtained a length of a brown stripe worsted cloth and Jimmie Collie and Cochrane made a suit for me. The beautifully-cut suit I had made for me in 1939 had been given away to Ernie Rizley who had been killed by a bomb on Vining Street during the Blitz.”
“Pat, after a short leave, went back to South Lambeth depot where she worked as a GWR clerk. Her wages had been topped up by the railway during her service. Like me, she was amazed at the low pay on offer. Friends and relatives who were returning service personnel were appalled by the abysmal salaries in what, before the war, were considered first-class positions in banks, insurance companies and railway offices. Army wages had been poor, but housing was provided and you were paid for skills and for rising in the ranks. Pat and I and come out of the army too late, yet too soon, together with the majority who had served the most.”
“Pat and I were now engaged and I spent about £40 on a gold ring with three diamonds. We obtained it through a relative and hoped that it was good value. We started to make arrangements for a wedding later in the year. After a short holiday, I reported to Hawkes which was overrun with staff. Their busy days had been when we were away. The army was shrinking. I was back running the ready-to-wear department. Provided one could get over the shortage of clothing coupons, sales were easily effected.”
“A fly in the ointment was Jimmy Spencer who had been made a kind of shop manager. He treated me and every returned serviceman abominably. Several of us had been senior NCOs and were unused to such behaviour. I never spoke to my soldiers in such a fashion. Civilian discipline, I discovered, was far worse than that in the army. I had two £1 a week increases in pay. I liked my work but I was dissatisfied. Many of my old officers called in to buy clothes and to inquire about my welfare. Several suggested that I should have a better job. Mr Campbell, the all-England agent for William Hird, the woollen manufacturer, took Tom and me out to lunch and suggested we should start our own business. We had little capital but proposed joining Danny in his building business. He turned us down as we were not skilled craftsmen.”
“Pat and I were courting seriously but kept our old friendships. One of them was with Pat Newbery. Father Kelly asked him to be the church organist and we would spend evenings manually pumping the old organ while he converted his skills as a pianist for the instrument.”
“Pat and I were married at Corpus Christi Church in a nuptial Mass on Saturday, 19 October 1946, a day over seven years after I joined the London Irish. Pat Newbery played the organ. Danny led the choir and sang a solo: Ave Maria. At a reception at 31 Arodene Road, about 40 people sat down to a magnificent meal despite the post-war shortages. This was mainly thanks to my mother, a wonderful cook and incredible organiser, who was helped by members of the Phipps family. The evening was a great success. Pat Newbery played the piano and there was a repertoire of operatic arias from Charlie Phipps and other choir members. Uninvited guests joined the party, including Gerry Teague, the former London Irish G Company sergeant.”
 

Pat and Ted’s wedding was a new beginning. They were both only 27, but had lived a lifetime in the previous seven years.
Corpus Christi Church - 19th October 1946
You can see the day more than 60 years ago in black-and-white photographs from the family album. The bride and groom and their closest family members gathered for the cameraman beside Corpus Christi church in Brixton. Ted wears an immaculate Hawkes jacket and trousers. Pat, looking stunningly lovely in a flowing gown she hired for the day, holds a magnificent bouquet. To Ted’s far right is his Best Man and brother Danny, the gunner from Bomber Command.
The three glow with more than happiness in the pale sunshine of an autumn afternoon in London’s first full year of peace.
It is pride you can see.
They had been put to the test and passed.
They had won.
On Ted’s right are his father Mick and his mother Lizzie. To Pat’s left are her mother Lily Ann and her uncle Richard Halligan wearing the uniform of the US armed forces to which he was attached during the war. Ted’s sister Lilian, a pretty 19-year-old, has flowers in her hair. All had lived through the worst of the Blitz and the final terror of the V-bombs.
They too have a victor’s smile.
You have to imagine the others there on that day. They included Ted’s brother Tom and sister Nellie, recovered from tuberculosis, with her husband Laurie. There was Ted’s cousin Frank O’Sullivan, the air force spotter. Mick’s father Daniel and his three brothers and their families were among the guests. Some of the Hanlon clan had come.
And you can conjure up the O’Sullivan brothers that were not there: William in the Royal Navy and Bernard at sea with the merchant fleet. But look harder with your mind’s eye and you can see more faces. There are Mick and Lizzie’s many lost brothers and sisters and Lizzie’s parents, John and Mary. And there is Daniel O’Sullivan who fled the Irish famine almost 100 years earlier to found a London Irish family.
Then more and more appear: dockers, union organisers, cab drivers, teachers, priests, nuns, soldiers, policemen, fire fighters, nurses, clerks, and shopkeepers.
Perhaps you can see the Republicans, the Fenians, the starving refugees of the great famine, the Young Ireland campaigners, the followers of Daniel O’Connell, the pikemen of 1798, the convicts sent to Botany Bay and Tasmania, the scattered fighters of the Wild Geese, the doomed defenders of Drogheda and Wexford, the desperate marching O’Sullivans, the lost clan chiefs and the monks, the missionaries who converted large parts of Europe to Christianity, the fiddlers, the harpists, the dancers, the singers and the poets of old Ireland. They have come from many places and times.
For they have won as well, at last.
Suddenly, hundreds more join the celebrations. There is Ian Brooks, George Rock, Denis Griffin, Andy Gardiner, Harry McRory and all the men left in the mountains and wadis of Tunisia.
There is Colonel Ion Goff, Major Arthur O’Connor, Sergeant Gerald Keegan, Corporal Edward O’Reilly, Rifleman Swift and the others who rest eternally in Sicily and Italy. Ted had cared for them, fed them and loved them.
This is their day too.
They had paid for it with their lives.
A tall young man works his way to the front of the crowd. He stands behind the groom and places an affectionate, brotherly hand on Ted’s shoulder. He leans forward and whispers:
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
It is Eddie Mayo.
Yes, he is there.
They are all there.
They will always be there.
 
Find out what happened next in All My Sons & Daughters: A London Irish Family at Peace, 1946-2009
 

Cast of All My Brothers

Daniel O’Sullivan (1818-1891). Born in Limerick, Daniel O’Sullivan arrived in London sometime before 1851 and eventually became a dock labourer in Southwark. Daniel had three children by Dinah Pearson, who he may not have married.
Daniel O’Sullivan (Daniel II 1860-1952). Son of Daniel I and born in Southwark on 20 September 1860, Daniel married Frances Kezia Wayte in 1879 aged 18. They had 14 children, but only four sons lived to maturity. Daniel worked initially as a clerk but became a hansom cab driver. He died in 1952.
Edmund (Mick or Ted) O’Sullivan (1892-1979). Born in Rotherhithe in the London Docklands in March 1892, Mick worked for the Great Western Railways (GWR), rising to become an inspector. He married Elizabeth (Lizzie) O’Hanlon in May 1914. They had seven children. Mick died aged 86 in January 1979. Lizzie died in 1987.
Edmund (Dickie, Ted or Rosie) O’Sullivan. Born in Peckham on 28 February 1919, Ted was educated at Corpus Christi primary school in Brixton and the Brompton Oratory Central Catholic School before working at Gieves & Hawkes, the Savile Row tailors. He was conscripted into the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish in October 1939, served as colour sergeant in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily and Italy and was Mentioned in Despatches. He was demobbed as Warrant Officer II from the army in 1946 and married Patricia May Webb in October 1946. He had six children and worked as a newsagent manager in Farnham Common in south Buckinghamshire and in Slough until 1965. In 1969, he completed a three-year teachers’ training couse at St Mary’s Teachers Training College Twickenham. Until his retirement in 1984, Ted taught at St Anthony’s Roman Catholic Primary School, Farnham Royal. In 1974, he was awarded a bachelor's degree from the Open University. In his retirement, Ted travelled the world, including to Tunisia and Italy, scenes of his wartime experiences. Ted died on 24 May 2009 and is buried at Slough Cemetery.
Patricia May O’Sullivan (nee Webb). Daughter of First World War veteran William Webb and his wife Lily Ann, Pat was born in London on 28 July 1919. After Corpus Christi primary school and the Brompton Oratory, she started work at 14, eventually becoming a secretary at the South Lambeth depot of the GWR where Mick O’Sullivan was a shunter. Pat volunteered for the British Army and finished the war as a teleprinter operator in the War Office. Her brother Denis volunteered for the Royal Navy and served in the Mediterranean and Atlantic during the war. After raising six children, Pat returned to work full-time in the 1960s and retired in 1980. With Ted, she travelled the world during her retirement and now lives in Farnham Royal, Buckinghamshire.
Daniel O’Sullivan. Ted’s eldest brother and the first of Mick and Lizzie’s children born in 1915, Danny was educated at Corpus Christi and the Brompton Oratory. After working in the building industry, he volunteered for the RAF and served as a gunner on bombers in the Far East. He married Kathleen Stamp and had three children: Anthony, Christina and Geraldine. Danny died in January 1997. Kathleen died in 2002.
Ellen O’Sullivan. Ted’s eldest sister and the second of Mick and Lizzie’s children born in August 1917, Ellen (Nellie) married Laurie Eacott in 1941 and had one daughter Terese. Nellie and Laurie died in 1999.
Thomas O’Sullivan. Ted’s younger brother and the fourth child of Mick and Lizzie was born in 1921. After working at Gieves & Hawkes, Tom was called up and joined the RAF. He saw service in Europe during the Allied campaign in France, the Netherlands and Germany. Tom worked for the Post Office after the war. He has five children: Ann, Elizabeth, Jane, Thomas and Peter. His wife Agnes died in 2006. Tom died in December 2010.
William O’Sullivan. Born in 1923, Bill was Mick and Lizzie’s sixth child. He volunteered for the Royal Navy and served in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean during the war. After, he worked for GCHQ based in Malta. He married Betty and they had three children. Bill died in 1988.
Lilian O’Sullivan. Ted’s younger sister and the sixth child of Mick and Lizzie born in 1927, Lilian married Henry Bruce and had three daughters: Irene, Margaret and Marian. Henry, also known as Arfer to family members, died in 1997. Lilian now lives with her daughter Margaret and her husband Doug in Vancouver.
Bernard O’Sullivan. Seventh child and fifth son of Mick and Lizzie born in 1929, Bernard trained at the Rotherhithe Nautical School and served in the Merchant Navy after the war, memorably once meeting his elder brother Bill in Athens during the Greek civil war. Bernard worked with P&O Passenger Liners and secured his captain’s ticket. He married Pam and settled in Sydney where he worked as harbourmaster. Bernard and Pam have three daughters and lived for many yearss in Shelley Beach, near Wyong, in New South Wales. Pam died in May 2009.
Edward Mayo (1920-44). A car worker in the Ford factory in Dagenham east London, Mayo was conscripted with Ted O’Sullivan in October 1939. He was wounded three times and awarded the Military Medal for valour. Mayo was killed during the attack on the Gustav Line on 16 May 1944.
Nicholas Mosley. Educated at Eton College and Oxford, Mosley was the eldest son of Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. He joined the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles in December 1943 as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was a platoon commander in E Company and was wounded while serving up stew delivered by E Company Colour Sergeant Edmund O’Sullivan on the morning of 16 May before the London Irish attack on the Gustav Line at the climax of the battle of Cassino. Mosley returned to the battalion at the start of June 1944 and remained with it until the end of the war. He was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for leading an attack during the battle for Monte Spaduro in October 1944. Mosley served with the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish until it was dissolved. After the war, he became a professional writer and poet. His works include a dozen novels and the screenplay for The Assassination of Trotsky, a film directed by Joseph Losey.
Mervyn Davies. Davies joined the 2nd Battlion of the London Irish Rifles from the Welch Regiment as a major and was commander of E Company from March 1944. He led the company in the breakthrough attack on the Gustav Line on 16 May 1944. Davies was wounded in the arm and leg leading E Company during the battle for Monte Spaduro and was awarded the MC. He was wounded again in the battle of the Argenta gap in April/May 1945. After the war, Davies became a barrister, a High Court judge and was knighted.
Humphrey Edgar Nicholas (Bala) Bredin (1916-2005). Commander of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles from July 1944 until May 1945, Bredin was the son of a regular army colonel born in Peshawar on the north-west frontier in 1916. After school at King’s College Canterbury, he went to Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) in 1936. Bredin was awarded an MC with bar during the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1938. A third-party account of his role in the campaign against the revolt can be found in One Palestine Complete, by Tom Segev, published in 2000 (page 431 of the paperback edition). The RUR was involved in the Belgian and French campaign of May and June 1940 and was part of the rearguard evacuated from Dunkirk. Bredin was second-incommand of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Inniskillings Fusiliers and then the London Irish before taking command of the Inniskillings in the spring of 1944. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for leading the battalion against the Hitler Line in May 1944. After recovering from wounds received in that attack, Bredin was appointed to command the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish. A second bar to his DSO was awarded for his conduct during the London Irish assault on the Argenta Gap in April 1945. In May 1945, Bredin was appointed assistant adjutant with the 78th Division. This was followed by duties in Palestine until the British evacuation in May 1948 and command of the Eastern Arab Corps in the Sudan Defence Force from 1949-53. After 1953, Bredin commanded the 2nd Parachute Regiment in Cyprus, where he was awarded a third DSO. Further duties followed in Malaya and Borneo and in Germany. Bredin retired in 1971 but continued as colonel of the Royal Irish Rangers until 1984. He died aged 88 in March 2005
John Coldwell-Horsfall (1916-2007). Horsfall was a regular officer in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. He participated in the battle for France and the Dunkirk evacuation in May and June 1940 and was awarded an MC for valour. During the fighting in North Tunisia, Horsfall was awarded a bar to his MC. He was appointed second-in-command of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish and took over leadership of the battalion following the death of Lieutenant Colonel Ion Goff on 15 May 1944. Horsfall was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his conduct during the battle. After Cassino, he was appointed commander of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and was wounded on Monte Grande in December 1944. After convalescence, Horsfall was commander of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles from the end of the war until it was dissolved in March 1946. He returned to his family business and eventually moved to live in Scotland. He died aged 91 in January 2007.
Brigadier Thomas Patrick David (TPD) Scott (1905-76). Born in the Punjab in British India and commissioned into the the Royal Irish Rifles (The Faughs) in 1924, Scott was appointed commander of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish in the spring of 1943 after the battalion was involved in battles around Bou Arada in January and February. After heading the 12th Brigade, Scott returned to the Irish Brigade and was its commanding officer from March 1944 until the end of the war. He received the DSO for his conduct in the war and subsequently became a Commander of the British Empire and a Commander of the Order of the Bath. He died in 1976. Scott's Wikipedia entry can be found here.
 


 

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