Guts and tragedy: the London Irish Lofting brothers

John Lofting

Harry Lofting

It’s not unusual for brothers to serve together in time of war but John and Harry Lofting, junior officers in the London Irish Rifles when the Second World War began, were exceptional.

Their father, Henry, was a Londoner who worked for the Eastern Telegraph Company, which owned and operated telegraph links between the UK and the Far East. This took him on travels across the world including to Bombay and Mombasa. In 1915, Henry was working in Cadiz, Eastern Telegraph’s Spanish telegraph hub and, there, he met and married Lucy Anderson.  Their eldest son, John, was born in the city the next year. Henry Lofting was to work for Eastern Telegraph until his premature death in Bombay in 1930. Lucy died in London in early 1943.

John Lofting, a telecommunications engineer, was commissioned into the London Irish Rifles in April 1935 with Harry being commissioned in October 1938. Both had been boarders at Worksop College in Nottingham where John whad been an excellent rugby player and renowned for his outgoing personality.


Officers of the two battalions of the London Irish Rifles at Annual Camp in August 1939 with Harry and John Lofting (cirled) in the Second Row.

The 2nd Battalion was formed in the spring of 1939 and John Lofting immediately became made one of its company commanders. Edmund (Ted) O’Sullivan was one of 96 Londoners conscripted into its ranks in October 1939 and Captain Lofting helped to transform them into an effective fighting force. In the spring of 1940, the battalion was based in St Albans. The then Acting Unpaid Lance Corporal O’Sullivan had just turned 21 and looked younger but, despite that, he was appointed to be become a Regimental Policeman:

We strolled in a policeman-like manner, calling into various establishments like Battalion HQ.,” O’Sullivan wrote in his memoirs in All My Brothers, “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. 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.”

This was to be the first of O’Sullivan’s many encounters with John Lofting.

Harry, meanwhile, was rising up the ranks in the 1st Battalion. Its commanding officer was Lieutenant-Colonel JRJ Macnamara, the Conservative MP for Chelmsford, a glamorous figure and a friend of Winston Churchill.

The 1st Battalion LONDON IRISH RIFLES at Ashdown Forest (H 1194) Copyright: © IWM.

Towards the end of 1939, the 1st Battalion was posted to Ashdown Forest in Sussex, then moved to Kent and at the end of 1940 were transferred into the 56th (London) Division. Harry Lofting was promoted to Captain and appointed Officer Commanding (OC) of B Company in the summer of 1942. The 1st Battalion was the first to be posted overseas, leaving Liverpool at the end of August 1942 for a long sea journey, first to Cape Town, via Freetown, then to Bombay and finally to Basra in southern Iraq where it set off by road to be ready to defend the oil fields around Kirkuk in the country’s far north. They were to be based there in harsh conditions until April 1943.

The 2nd Battalion would sail with the Irish Brigade from Greenock and landed in Algiers on 22 November 1942. From there, it travelled by rail and road to the 1st Army’s front line, south west of Tunis. John was the first of the Lofting brothers to go into action, leading H Company in the attacks on Hills 279 and 286 on 20/21 January 1943. The battalion lost more than 250 men over a period of 24 hours and Lofting was wounded for the first time. He would return to the London Irish in March and was promoted to Major, this time to command E Company, with whom O’Sullivan was now colour sergeant. In April 1943, the battalion suffered further losses during attacks on the village of Heidous which was part of the final drive to Tunis.

TUNIS : SCENES ON THE DAY FOLLOWING OUR ENTRY (NA 2564) Copyright: © IWM.

Eventually, the Axis defences were broken and, on 8 May, Major John Lofting led E Company to a tumultuous welcome through the streets of the city. For the next two months, it rested and trained in Algeria and Tunisia before being transferred into General Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army.

By then, the 1st Battalion had travelled by road from Iraq to Egypt and, now attached to the 50th (Northumbrian) Division, set off from Alexandria to join the Allied invasion of Sicily, disembarking at the port of Syracuse on 13 July 1943. Four days later, the battalion, along with the other two battalions of 168 Brigade, mounted a night-time attack on Italian and German defences around Fosso Botacetto just to the south of Catania airfield. This first attack was repulsed and the battalion suffered over 100 casualties on the night of 17/18 July.

Ten days later, the 2nd Battalion sailed from Tunisia to land south of Syracuse on 28 July. In early August, it formed the left wing of an Irish Brigade attack on the hilltop town of Centuripe. The town was captured and the Salso and Simeto rivers were crossed in the subsequent days and this led to the cutting of the vital supply road around the western slopes of Mount Etna. This forced German forces to withdraw to Messina and start evacuating to the Italian mainland.

While the 1st Battalion fought its way along the coastal plain east of Etna, the Irish Brigade continued to pursue the retreating enemy to its west. On 12 August, John Lofting led E Company in a successful attack, for the fourth time in less than a fortnight during their 30 miles advance, against German positions east of the town of Maletto. At the end of the Sicily campaign, he took temporary command of the 2nd Battalion, while its commanding officer, Lt Col Harry Rogers, went on leave. This was followed by a period of rest and training and it’s quite likely that the Lofting brothers met during this time –  in September, the 1st Battalion was based in the town of Piedimonte Etneo on the north eastern slopes of Mount Etna while the 2nd Battalion rested at Patti, less than 40 miles away on Sicily’s northern coast.

In the autumn of 1943, the Loftings joined the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland. The 1st Battalion would sail from Messina to Naples, this time to join the 5th Army’s advance along the west coast. By this time, the 2nd Battalion had already landed in Taranto with the 8th Army and were advancing along the Adriatic coast. The Irish Brigade was taken by sea from Barletta to Termoli and, over the next two months, fought in three further major battles culminating in the successful assault on the Winter Line, north of the River Sangro. Advancing towards the Moro river on 2 December, John Lofting was wounded for a second time and again evacuated to hospital.

The 1st Battalion, meanwhile, was advancing towards Rome against determined German resistance. In early December 1943, the 56th (London) Division played a leading role in capturing Monte Camino overlooking Highway 6, about 12 miles south of the town of Cassino and the next challenge was the crossing of the Garigliano River, which formed part of the western extension of the Gustav Line. On 17 January, the 1st Battalion joined the bridgehead fighting force and would lose almost 200 men at Castelforte over the next week. Now a Major, Harry Lofting was among the wounded.

Taken out of the line briefly, the battalion was preparing to re-cross the Garigliano when it was ordered to join the Allied force at Anzio, 40 miles to the north, the landings having started there on 21 January. With the rest of 168 Brigade, the 1st Battalion would arrive in the beachhead on 3 February and, almost immediately, was put into the front line around Aprilia, directly on the main north-south road out of Anzio. On the morning of 7 February, a massive German attack was launched to drive the Allies into the sea and the London Irish were right in its path and it fought most tenaciously, suffering further heavy losses over the following days. The battalion was pulled out of the line for rest and reinforcements but returned to the front in mid February to fight off fresh German attacks.

Harry Lofting, who had barely recovered from wounds suffered at the Garigliano, now returned to the battalion. The fighting continued until early March, by which time the 1st Battalion was reduced to two composite companies, one under Lofting’s command. On 11 March, the remnants of the London Irish Rifles were withdrawn from Anzio. In nearly six weeks there, its casualties (in killed, wounded, and missing) were 32 officers and 550 other ranks. By this point, Harry Lofting was one of only half a dozen officers who had sailed 20 months earlier from Liverpool to Iraq.

In February 1944, the 2nd Battalion was transferred to Italy’s west coast to prepare to join the attack on the Gustav Line. John Lofting now returned to front line action and spent time on Monte Castellone in April but was out of the line when the London Irish fought in the successful allied breakthrough in the Liri valley in May. The battalion then joined the advance northwards and fought a bloody battle in June near Lake Trasimene, west of Perugia.

Meanwhile, at the end of March 1944, the 1st Battalion had been dispatched to Egypt to recover. Almost its entire officer cadre had to be replaced and Harry Lofting found himself in a battalion where almost everyone was initially a stranger. The close bonds forged among its band of brothers in the previous five years had been irretrievably smashed. On 12 July, the battalion left Alexandria to sail back to Italy where it was to join the allied advance towards the Gothic Line, south of the River Po.

Major Harry Lofting is commemorated on Panel 11 at Cassino CWGC Cemetery

But tragedy struck during the sea journey as Harry Lofting and was buried at sea. He is memorialised at the Cassino Commonwealth War cemetery.

The 1st Battalion landed in Taranto two days later and, as they were disembarking, met their the 2nd Battalion counterparts, who was being sent for rest and reinforcement. They would spend two months in Egypt before being sent back, like the 1st Battalion, to join the allied assaults on the Gothic Line. Both battalions would again be significantly weakened over the following autumn period of bitter fighting. Winter on the Gothic Line continued to be testing and costly.

John Lofting returned to the 2nd Battalion in January 1945 when it was transferred out of the mountains and he remained with them for the rest of the war. In March, the Irish Brigade moved to man the frontline trenches along the River Senio flood-banks and this is when Lofting was recommended for the Military Cross (MC) for leading a raid on German positions:

‘WHERE THE INFANTRY SPEAKS ONLY IN WHISPERS” (NA 23034) One of our dug-in positions on the River Senio bank. Copyright: © IWM.

“On the Senio river near Cotignola on 22 Mar ’45, Major Lofting’s Company was ordered to carry out a raid, He spared no effort to ensure by meticulous planning and enthusiasm that this venture would be a success. During the operation he stationed himself in a post from where he could best control the operation  but which was also some ten feet from an enemy post which had to be subdued to ensure the success of the raid. A grenade duel started in which Major Lofting took a leading part, at the same time issuing orders and instructions for the success of the raid. The raid was a complete success yielding 5 prisoners, whilst the enemy post near Major Lofting’s position was neutralised and could take no part in hindering the raid. Major Lofting was on the site of the recently captured enemy position organising the consolidation within seconds of the termination of the assault. It was with the greatest difficulty that he was dissuaded from taking part in the assault. This incident is typical of several others that have occurred during Major Lofting’s two years as a Rifle Coy Commander. He has been twice wounded. This officer’s  personal courage, enthusiasm and devotion to duty is quite exceptional and the high fighting spirit of his Company reflects admirably his personality.”

The Allies’ final attack against the German defensive lines in northern Italy began in early April 1945 and, for the first time in the war, the two battalions of the London Irish Rifles fought close together in the decisive breakthrough for the 8th Army that occurred between Argenta and the Adriatic. It was during this period that Major Lofting was recommended for a bar to the MC:

EIGHTH ARMY : FIGHTING OVER THE SANTERNO (NA 24047) : ‘Kangaroos’ carrying infantry into action near the village of Conselice. Copyright: © IWM.

“In the thrust northward from the Santerno to the Conselice Canal by armoured forces and infantry in Kangaroos. Major Lofting’s company was supporting one of the leading tank squadrons. On approaching the Conselice Canal through scattered resistance, it was found that the village of Cavamento on the near bank was strongly held by enemy infantry whilst the bridge was partially blown. Without hesitation Major Lofting decided to make a quick bridgehead, making the fullest use of the protection given by his Kangaroos, supported by the tanks from the near bank, whilst containing the enemy in Cavamento with his reserve platoon. His was a very bold decision. A bridgehead was rapidly achieved much to the surprise of the enemy who were mostly caught off their guard by the speed of the operation. Over 100 enemy were either killed, wounded or captured, whilst two anti-tank guns and several carts full of enemy equipment were captured as the enemy were trying to evacuate them. On two other occasions during the advance to the River Po, Major Lofting’s company has by its dash and swiftness into action achieved great success against the enemy. These successes are all in very large part due to the drive, gallantry and fighting spirit of Major Lofting who after 2 years as a rifle company commander is still an enthusiastic and inspiring example to his company.”   

The war in Italy ended on 2 May and in Western Europe six days later. The 1st Battalion carried out occupation duties around Trieste in an area claimed by Yugoslavia but eventually awarded to Italy, while the 2nd Battalion was based in Carinthia in southern Austria until it was disbanded in March 1946. John Lofting transferred to the Royal Ulster Rifles and would sit as part of the court that tried German concentration guards in Klagenfurt in 1947.

It was during this period that he met Edna Gotobed, whom he married in Italy in 1947. Major Lofting subsequently transferred to the Royal Malay Regiment and served in what is now Malaysia until he was finally demobilised. John and Edna had two children and returned to the UK to live in Pinner, Middlesex. John Lofting retired from the London Irish Rifles in 1959 but remained a familiar figure at the Regiment’s Duke of York’s Headquarters in Chelsea.

John Lofting (right) at the Duke of York’s in 1968

He died well before his time in January 1971 and Edna would pre-decease him by just over a month.

The obituary in The Emerald, the regimental journal, is a ringing tribute to his service:

“John Lofting unquestionably was one of the most valiant and distinguished London Irishmen of his time.”

We can now clearly see that the contribution made by the two Lofting brothers was rarely matched at any time during the London Irish Rifles’ entire history.


 

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