The story of the Irish Brigade : 1942 - 1947

38 (Irish) Infantry Brigade was created at the instigation of UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was inspired by earlier fighting units with the same name : Irish brigades had been formed by exiled Irish soldiers fighting in the armies of France in the 17th and 18th centuries, and another participated in the American Civil War (1861-65). This was created by Thomas Meagher, who was convicted for his role in the failed Young Ireland rising of July 1848 and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania, escaped to the US and organised the Irish Brigade within the Union Army.

The creation of the Irish Brigade within the British Army was also a reminder of the time before the partition of the island of Ireland in 1922 when eight famous Irish regiments were mainly recruited from the young men of Ireland. Following partition, five of these regiments were dissolved. The survivors were the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (The Skins), the Royal Irish Fusiliers (The Faughs) and the Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR).

The newly formed Irish Brigade comprised three battalions: the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers; the 6th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles, the territorial army counterpart of the Royal Ulster Rifles. The first commander of the brigade was The O'Donovan, chief of the O'Donovan clan and a 1st World War veteran who had won a Military Cross (MC) for bravery. The O'Donovan was succeeded in July 1942 by Nelson Russell, previously commander of the 6th Royal Irish Rifles and a Faugh, who had been born in Lisburn in Northern Ireland. Brigadier Russell had been awarded the MC during the First World War and had also been capped for playing cricket for Ireland in the 1920s.

On its creation, the Irish Brigade was allocated to the 6th Armoured Division, which was preparing to participate in the Allied invasion of French North Africa when American and British troops were to fight together for the first time since the US joined the war against Germany and its allies.

After initial training at Didlington in Norfolk, the Irish Brigade was moved to Auchinleck, 40 miles south of Glasgow, for intensive preparation for their part in the North African landings : Operation Torch. On 12th November 1942, most of the brigade, now part of the British 1st Army, enshipped at Greenock on the River Clyde west of Glasgow to join the operation which had begun four days earlier with Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria. Both countries were then under the control of France's Vichy government which had been created after France signed an armistice with Germany on 22nd June 1940.

The Irish Brigade started to disembark on 22nd November in Algiers and was immediately subjected to its first experience of Luftwaffe bomb attacks. A week later, the brigade was moved by train to Bougie from where it was transported by truck over the border into Tunisia, and then put into the front line about 100 miles south-west of Tunis.

The first serious fighting involving the Irish Brigade took place north of Bou Arada in January, with the first battalion-scale attack taking place on 13th January 1943 against German positions on Two Tree Hill, a highpoint which dominated the flat land around Goubellat Plain in the north and Bou Arada Plain in the south. The attack was carried out by the Skins and was unsuccessful, and the battalion lost 28 dead on the day and sustained almost 100 casualties in total.

All three battalions were subsequently involved in battles around Bou Arada in January and February 1943 and then played a critical role, after being transferred to the 78th Infantry Division, in the final battles in the mountains west of Tunis in April. The city fell to the Allies on 7th May and the Irish Brigade was given the distinction of being the first marching troops into the Tunisian capital. Caught between Allied armies advancing from the west and General Bernard Montgomery's 8th Army advancing from the east, hundreds of thousands of Germany and Italian soldiers were taken prisoner. The Irish Brigade joined the subsequent victory parade through Tunis on 20th May 1943.

The UK and the US had by then decided that Allied forces in Tunisia should be used to capture Sicily which dominated the sea lanes between the western and eastern parts of the Mediterranean Sea. The invasion of Sicily started on the night of 8th July 1943 and the Irish Brigade, now part of Montgomery's 8th Army but initially held in reserve, set out for Sicily from Sousse landing in Syracuse on 26th July.

Italy's defeats at the hands of the British Army in Abyssinia, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and the loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in fighting in the Mediterranean and the Soviet Union had undermined support for Benito Mussolini. The invasion of Sicily was the last straw. The Allies bombed Rome on 19th July, and five days later, the Fascist Grand Council passed by a majoriy a vote of no confidence in Mussolini, who was then arrested the next day. Marshall Pietro Badoglio was appointed head of a military government and before the later Allied landings on the Italian mainland in September 1943 announced Italy was changing sides and joining the Allies as a co-belligerent.

The Allied plan in Sicily called for the 8th Army to break through German lines that extended from the east coast of the island. The Irish Brigade was transported towards Catenanuova in the centre of Sicily, and from there, the brigade advanced by foot. It was given the task of capturing Centuripe, a small town high on a ridge in the Sicilian mountains, west of Mount Etna, and which was at the centre of the Axis defensive line. The attack by the Irish Brigade on Centuripe began on the night of 3th August and the hill top town was taken before dawn the following day. The brigade, pursuing the enemy, crossed the shallow River Salso and then the River Simeto. On 11th August, and after five days rest, the brigade attacked a further defensive line that extended north-west from the foothills of Mount Etna. With the both American forces and the 8th Army converging on Messina, the Germans were forced to withdrew and evacuated Sicily entirely on 17 August.

Encouraged by the comparatively easy capture of Sicily, the Allies decided to invade the Italian mainland. The Italian government finally accepted the Allies' terms and surrendered on 3rd September 1943, but in response the German Army immediately took control of the country, disarming and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Italian soldier, and accelerated work on formidable defensive lines to be built across Italy.

The Allied invasion of the Italian mainland began with the 8th Army landing on the heel of Italy. The 5th Army under US general Mark Clark landed at Salerno south of Naples on 9th September. German resistance there was determined and the Allied beachhead was almost overwhelmed, but with the aid of naval gunfire was able to stablise the front and the 5th Army was able to advance and capture Naples on 1st October.

The Irish Brigade was transported by ship from Messina to Taranto where it disembarked on 24th September. From there, it was moved by train to Barletta on Italy's Adriatic coast, and on 5th October, the brigade was moved by landing craft to Termoli, further up the coast, where an 8th Army amphibious attack had begun two days earlier. All three battalions were involved in fighting around Termoli and eventually repulsed determined German counterattacks. This was followed up by an attack on the town of Pettaciato north of Termoli before the River Trigno was crossed. On the night of 27th October, the brigade tried to break the German line around San Salvo, north of the Trigno. Although iniitally unsuccessful, the town was taken by the whole of the 78th Dvision in a subsequent attack.

The next obstacle was the Winter Line, a formidable band of fortifications that stretched from the Adriatic coast, across the Appenines to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The weather had changed and it rained continually, and the Sangro river had burst its banks. The Irish Brigade participated in the successful attack on German positions on a ridge about 1,000 metres north of the river which was completed in early December. The 8th Army assault against German positions north of the Sangro continued, but the brigade was withdrawn from the line and transferred to occupy winter positions close to the German lines in the central Appenine mountains near to Castel di Sangro. The Irish Brigade held these positions until 25th January 1944.

T P D Scott, a Faughs officer, replaced Nelson Russell in February 1944. After a short period of rest and recuperation out of the front line, the brigade was readied to capitalise on any breakthrough that might result from the third Allied attempt to break the Gustav Line around Monte Cassino. The allies were repulsed and the brigade was then deployed for a few days on the front line on the south side of the River Gari opposite the village of San Angelo. From there, it was transferred to positions on Monte Castellone, which overlooked the abbey of Monte Cassino, and in turn was replaced there on 25th April by the Polish Corps, with the brigade being withdrawn for rest and training in preparation for the 4th battle of Cassino.

The final and largest assault on the Gustav line began on 11th May 1944. The 78th Division was given the task of continuing the Allied breakthrough into the Liri Valley, and the Irish Brigade crossed the Gari in preparation for their part in the battle on 14th May. The Skins took the lead on 15th May, and at 9am on the following day, the London Irish Rifles carried forward the assault by capturing the fortified hamlet of Sinagoga, with the Faughs joining the battle on the 17th May.  Monte Cassino was evetually captured by the Polish Corps on 18th May. The battle for Cassino was over but the campaign continued, and the 78th Division chased the German rearguard north towards Rome and then further north of the city until they reached a fresh German defensive position, the Albert Line, which ran east and west of Lake Trasimeno in Umbria.

All three battalions were involved in the attack on the line on a ridge around the town of Sanfatucchio which began on 21st June. Most of the brigade's objectives were taken by 25th June and it was pulled out of the line for rest and reinforcement in Egypt, where it stayed for six weeks. In August 1944, the 6th battalion of the Skins was disbanded and the brigade was brought up to strength by replacing it with the 2nd battalion of the Skins, who transferred from the 5th Infantry Division.

The Irish Brigade returned to Italy in September 1944 and participated in the rolling Allied attack during the autumn against the Gothic Line in the Appenine Mountains north of Florence. At this stage, the brigade temporarily joined the 5th Army and participated in battles around Monte Spadura which began on 19th October. The Allies failed to break the Gothic Line and suspended the assault as the weather deteriorated.

At the end of January 1945, the brigade, having returned to 8th Army, was transferred to the eastern end of the Gothic line and prepared for the final assault on the Germany army in Italy, which began with an attack across Lake Commacchio on the night of 5th April 1945. The Irish Brigade advanced with the 8th Army through the Argenta Gap and reached the River Po on 22nd April. After this comprehensive defeat, German resistance disintegrated entirely and the brigade advanced quickly through northern Italy, and later crossed into Austria on 7th May. The German Army in Italy had already surrendered on 2nd May and the Second World War in Europe finally ended on 8th May 1945.

The brigade then took up occupation duties in Carinthia in southern Austria, and was eventually formally dissolved in April 1947.



 

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