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’.
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 Apennine 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 the Second World War. 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 actually 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 had been 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 strong point 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 Piumarola. 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 Piedimonte, 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 Piumarola 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 Piedimonte 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 Piedimonte. 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 36 Brigade had been repulsed the previous day. There they waited for further orders. Piedimonte 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. My own view was that if 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 12 June, it was announced that thirty 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 carpeted 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.”
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 ‘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 Trasimene 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 Trasimene 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 Trasimene 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 Trasimene 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 Trasimene.
“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.
“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.”
“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 Corps. 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 numerous London Irishmen including Colonel Goff. On the Memorial were the names of many others 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 1942 was how a London Territorial Regiment won more battle honours than any other regiment, except one, during the Second 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 Qassassin 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 Apennines. We had endured the dangers of the campaign from Cassino to Trasimene 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 was 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 Amariya 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 thirty 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 twenty often commanded by a Corporal. All the men with me now 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 in early September. 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, part of one of the last mountain lines in the central Apennines 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, who was wounded on the morning of 16 May and out of action at the time of the battle at Lake Trasimene, was awarded the Military Cross for valour. When London Irish were taken out of the line on 25 October, F Company was temporarily disbanded as the result of its losses. Monte Spaduro 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 Spaduro 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. The 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 First World War 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 Bolsena 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 in December. 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 Trasimene.”
The Irish Brigade now held positions on the south bank of the River Senio which ran north-east out of the Apennines 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 belatedly 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, now 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 Santerno quickly reached. On 13 April, the Irish Brigade with other units advanced out of the Santerno 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, which included 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 Piedimonte 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 transferred. The replacement was Bill Hood who had been Second-in-Command of G Company and a friend. Nick Mosley was now 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.”