The Road to Sinagoga
The cornfields wave toward the sky.
And from above the clouds reply
With smiles of gentle sleepiness.
Below, the summer sun’s caress
Lies softly on the silent plains.
And deep within the sunken lanes,
The trailing thorns hang down to dream
And slowly in the silver stream,
The leaves of weary willows drift
And sway to lazy winds that lift
The heavy heads of drooping trees
With tenderness of silken breeze
But Stranger, Stranger, don’t you see?
Behind each crimson-tinted tree,
Within those hollow, haunted walls
And torn upon each thorn that falls
So gently, gently, groping down
Beside the silent fields that crown
The sleepy summer’s brittle glare
With ripples in the sun-swept air?
Stranger, don’t you see that there
The devil’s terror-laden breath
Suffuses all with taint of death?
That here one summer long ago
The silent lanes did slowly flow
With drops of dying hearts that bled,
And drained the dying to the dead?
That here, vain tears of frozen grief
Once trembled on each withered leaf
And hung from every tearing thorn;
And out amongst the golden corn,
Blind eyes did strain in vain to see
The light that mocked their agony.
This poem – named Lacrimae Liri (Tears of the Liri) – was written by Nicholas Mosley, MC, platoon commander in E Company of the London Irish Rifles, when he was in hospital after being wounded on the morning of 16 May 1944 just before the London Irish Rifles’ attack on the German Gustav Line around the hamlet of Sinagoga. It was inspired by news of the heavy casualties the battalion had suffered that day.
With death all around and eternity beckoning, two young Londoners spent the night of 15th May 1944 in a front-line trench at the shell-shattered entrance to the Liri valley 80 miles south of Rome.
The countryside was full of flowers and ripening wheat. But there was no peace and little sleep. Rifle shots and the chatter of machine guns were interrupted by explosions and shouts. Tracer bullets flashed through the darkness. The fragrances of the season were obliterated by the reek of high explosives, rotting flesh and the waste of unwashed soldiers. For some, this was to be a restless last night. Both men were sergeants, but experience showed wearing stripes made them targets for snipers and artillery.
Colour Sergeant Edmund O’Sullivan, a peace-time tailor’s salesman known as ‘Rosie’ to his comrades, was E Company quartermaster in the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles. He was responsible for supplying more than 100 men that were to form the left-flank of an attack, due next morning, against the German lines less than a mile away.
Platoon Sergeant Edward Mayo, a car worker before the war, had proven himself to be a nerveless leader in more than a dozen battles in North Africa, Sicily and south Italy. Wounded three times, he had won the Military Medal (MM) for valour. Mayo’s job was to lead his men towards the German defences when the signal came. After 18 months fighting, the two sergeants were among the most experienced non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in the British Army. O’Sullivan was 25. Mayo was just 24.
The original plan had been for the attack to begin that evening, but it had been postponed until first light. O’Sullivan had brought up supplies and decided to provide Mayo company during the anxious hours before sunrise. It was the end of the fourth day of the biggest Allied assault against the Gustav Line, the toughest defensive barrier of the Second World War. It ran from the Tyrrhenian Sea south of Gaeta and along the Garigliano river which guards the foot of the Aurunci mountains. From there, the line extended to the Garigliano’s confluence with the River Liri which flowed down from the direction of Rome. It then followed the east bank of the Gari River, a tributary of the Garigliano, and then the Rapido as it flowed through the town of Cassino into the Abruzzi Mountains and from there to the Adriatic coast.
The line’s dominant feature was Monte Cassino, a 1,700-foot mountain where St Benedict had built one of Christianity’s first monasteries at the start of the 6th century. Monastery mount was a natural strong point that commanded the road to Rome and the entire Cassino battlefield. The Allies had tried, and failed, to capture it twice before. In February, the monastery had been destroyed in a bombing raid that wrecked one of Italy’s finest historic buildings and blasted hill tops for miles around. On 15 May, its ruins were still held by German paratroopers.
The Gustav Line from Cassino to the coast had been pounded by artillery and bomber for four months. But only infantry could decisively break it. On the section of the front where the London Irish were that May night, this required foot soldiers supported by tanks breaking through minefields and wire, fording the fast-flowing Gari river and advancing across more than 1,000 yards of open land cleared for machine guns. The map co-ordinates of roads and buildings had been registered for heavy artillery and mortars. German infantry supported by hidden tanks were protected from bombs and shells in concrete strong points.
They were ready to emerge to mow down advancing troops. Spotters in the mountains followed every day-time move. At night, flares illuminated no-man’s land. Snipers patiently waited for targets to show themselves in a fatal careless moment. Along the Liri front, the Gustav Line was almost 1 mile deep. Some believed it was unbreakable. Behind it, was another band of fortified strong points called the Hitler Line. The lessons of defeat in 1918 had been thoroughly studied by Germany’s Second World War commanders. Most had served on the Western Front in the Great War.The Allies had also learned terrible lessons since their initial attack on the Gustav Line in January. The first breakthrough attempt made by American, British and Free French divisions had been spread too thin.
Close to where the London Irish were waiting, American units had been decimated before even getting to the Gari (known to the Americans as the Rapido). The weather during the January offensive had been appalling. On the Cassino massif, attackers froze to death. Most fighting units had at least 20 per cent casualties. Some were wiped out. When the attack was eventually called off in early February, the Garigliano to the west of the Liri had been crossed, but progress was minimal.
The piecemeal Allied strategy was echoed in an amphibious landing at Anzio north of the Gustav Line on 22 January involving several divisions later joined by the London Irish’s 1st Battalion. It was initially largely unopposed, but there was no energetic attempt to capitalise on the surprise the landing had delivered. The Germans counterattacked and almost forced the Allies into the sea. The Anzio beachhead settled into a stalemate that lasted for four months.
The second assault on the Gustav Line centred on the town of Cassino and the mountain behind. It began on 15 February with the bombing of the monastery. British, Indian and New Zealand divisions were thrown in. The line held and Allied casualties were, again enormous. On Monastery mount, the Indian army hurled itself against German machine guns, many dying as they ran through webs of wire booby-traps. An entire division was decimated.
After a short interlude, the Allies tried for the third time. British, Indian and New Zealand troops were ordered into Cassino and up the mountain. There was vicious hand-to-hand fighting in the ruined town. Again, the attackers were bloodily repulsed. The third offensive was finally called off on 23 March.
By the start of May 1944, Cassino had become a symbol of German stubbornness and Allied persistence. Tens of thousands on both sides had been killed, wounded or broken in a stalemate similar to the holocaust battles of Verdun, the Somme and Ypres of the 1st World War. A strip of land miles wide stretching from the sea into the Abruzzi had been turned into a stinking cemetery. Only rats and flies flourished as Italy’s cold, wet winter gave way to spring. The defenders were exhausted and depleted. But the Gustav Line was still largely intact.
The Allies decided on a fourth, massive attack. It would involve about 200,000 fighting troops supported by tanks, bombers and what would be the greatest artillery bombardment of the war so far. There would be coordinated attacks along the Liri valley front involving successive waves of infantry and tanks that would leapfrog each other through the minefields, wire and machine guns until open ground was reached and the road to Rome cleared. The 8th Army, of which the 2nd London Irish was a part, was to play a key role in the fourth assault. It had been transferred to the Gustav Line during the third battle from the Adriatic coast where it had fought since landing in Italy in September.
On the sound of the first pip broadcast by the BBC for 11pm on 11 May, more than 1,000 guns exploded into life to signal the start of the fourth battle for Cassino. The 5th Army, which comprised US, Free French and British troops under General Mark Clark, smashed through German defences in the Aurunci Mountains to the west. In the east, the Polish Corps was given the task of taking Monte Cassino. But the critical struggle would be in the centre at the mouth of the Liri river valley.
The job was given to the 8th Army, which had defeated General Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein in October 1942, but now comprising entirely different units, Two of the 8th Army’s divisions — the 4th British and the 8th Indian — formed the first wave. Their mission was to cross the Gari and secure a deep beachhead on the west bank. They would build seven bridges over the river to allow the next wave through. The 78th Division, including the London Irish, were to complete the breakthrough and open the way to Rome, victory in Italy and the defeat of Germany and its remaining allies.
The 8th Army’s attack started to misfire almost from the beginning. The first wave of attackers got lost in mist and smoke. Boats used to cross the Gari were swept away and sunk. Soldiers fell into the river and drowned. Those that got across were pinned down by German machine guns, mortars and shells. By the dawn of 12 May, only a fraction of the planned progress had been made. None of seven bridges over the Gari had been completed. This meant there was no tank support for the men on the west bank who were effectively cut off. Instead of being able to complete three bridges in their section of the Gari, the engineers of the 4th Division were told to concentrate on Amazon, and later completed a second one, Congo. These two bridges were to be the initial route ahead for the 78th Division. Working under fire throughout the night, the engineers completed Amazon at quarter to five in the morning of 13 May. More than 80 out of a total workforce of 200 were killed or wounded. But by the end of that day, the 4th Division were at last in force on the west bank of the Gari. It was time to throw in the 78th, and they were to cross the river by Congo bridge.
Its cutting edge was the 38th (Irish) Brigade, a unit that had been in action in the Mediterranean theatre since November 1942. It had three battalions comprising about 1,000 men each: the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 6th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles.
The Inniskillings originated as the 27th Foot of the British Army. It was first formed in 1688 to fight the army of Catholic James II who had fled London earlier that year and been replaced by William III (William of Orange), a Protestant married to James’s eldest daughter Mary. The 27th Foot fought on William’s side at the battle of the Boyne in July 1690 and at the decisive victory over James’ forces at Aughrim in the west of Ireland in 1691. The regiment was based in Enniskillen in County Tyrone, an Ulster county that remained part of the UK after Ireland was partitioned in 1922. It had served the Crown across the world including America during the Seven-Year’s War against France (1756-63), in the Spanish Peninsula during the Napoleonic wars, at the centre of the British line at Waterloo in 1815, in the 1st and 2nd Boer Wars and in several theatres in the 1st World War. In between the wars, the regiment was used in garrison duties, often in India. They were known as the ‘Skins’, a reference to the moment during the Napoleonic Wars when the regiment was surprised bathing and fought the French naked.
The Royal Irish Fusiliers was formed in 1793 and originally named the 87th of Foot. It was given a name rather than a number in 1881 and served as the county regiment of Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan, three of the nine counties of the province of Ulster. Following the creation of the Irish Free State, only Armagh remained in the UK, but the regiment continued to recruit from both sides of the border. Its battle honours included the Spanish Peninsula campaign during the Napoleonic wars and both Boer wars. The regiment was expanded to 14 battalions in the 1914-18 war and they saw action on the Western Front, Gallipoli, the Balkans, Egypt and Palestine. In May 1940, its 1st Battalion formed the rearguard protecting the withdrawal of British and French troops from Dunkirk. The regiment’s nickname was the ‘Faughs’ (pronounced fogs), based on their motto: Faugh a Ballagh, Irish for ‘Clear the Way’.
The British Army was restructured following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, when five of its Irish regiments were dissolved. The Royal Irish Rifles was renamed the Royal Ulster Rifles, and the Skins and Faughs survived.
The London Irish Rifles was a territorial regiment founded as a volunteer force in London in 1859 during one of the periodic scares about war with France. Its initial recruits included Lord Palmerston (Henry Temple), a Protestant Irishman of English descent with estates in Sligo who had earlier that year become Britain’s first Liberal Party prime minister. The regiment provided men to other units that fought against the Boers during 1899 to 1902, and became part of the Territorial Army on its creation in 1908. During the First World War, the 1st Battalion fought on the Western Front at Loos, where it went over the top kicking footballs, on the Somme front, at Ypres and at Cambrai and played a part in the final attack on the German lines during the summer of 1918. Its 2nd Battalion was formed in 1914 and served at Vimy Ridge on the Western Front before being posted to Salonika during the Balkan campaign and again in Egypt and Palestine. It was part of the British, Commonwealth and Imperial Army that captured Jerusalem in December 1917. The 2nd Battalion was disbanded in the summer of 1918 to provide troops for other parts of the British Army.
After the First World War, the London Irish returned to territorial activities. Its status was lifted by the involvement in the 1930s of Jack Macnamara, a Conservative MP representing the English constituency of Chelmsford. He was an opponent of the appeasement policy pursued by the British government of the time headed by Neville Chamberlain. A friend of Winston Churchill, Macnamara promoted the role of the territorials. In 1937, the London Irish became the territorial battalion of the Corps of the Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR), a regular regiment recruiting from Antrim and Down, which were both Ulster provinces that remained British after partition.
Macnamara was made commanding officer of the London Irish in 1938 as the fear of war grew. The regiment was one of the first territorial units to reach full strength and form a 2nd Battalion. the London Irish Rifles had been based at the Duke of York’s headquarters on Chelsea’s King’s Road since the early part of the century, and this was close to London’s West End, which probably explains why they attracted actors and theatre workers. One platoon was almost entirely made up of dustmen who worked in the Chelsea area. There was a close affinity among the regiment’s original colourful core who had trained in the pre-war years out of commitment and pleasure in each other’s company.
On 1 September 1939, call-up papers were issued to the members of the two battalions. The 1st Battalion was given the task of supporting L Division of the Metropolitan Police at its headquarters at Brixton Police Station in the south London Borough of Lambeth. One Sunday soon after the war began on 3 September, the Catholics of the London Irish paraded to Mass at Corpus Christi Church on Brixton Hill. As a rifle regiment, it had been trained to march at 140 paces a minute compared with the 90 paces a minute for conventional infantry regiments, and using a technique developed when the first rifle regiments were formed to fight in North America in the 18th century, the London Irish carried their rifles at the trail when on parade. This entailed holding a 10 pound rifle at its balance point between butt and muzzle. Riflemen, as a result, were extremely fit.
O’Sullivan, then 20, was preparing to serve Mass at Corpus Christi, his local Catholic Church, when he heard the London Irish marching outside. Looking out the window of the sacristy, he saw the London Irish’s distinctive caubeen, Irish for “baggy hat”. It is an oversized beret with green feathers (hackles) held in place by a silver harp cap badge. The officers wore green caubeens with feathers in St Patrick’s blue. The battalion’s band, comprising Irish bagpipers, drummers and flautists, thundered out the Garry Owen, the regiment’s rousing marching anthem (also the marching tune of the New York City Police and the US 7th Cavalry which was wiped out at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876). They were brought to a halt and filed briskly into the church. London Irish chaplain Father McKenna entered the sacristy. He was well known to O’Sullivan and his family. “Hallo Father McKenna, are you in the London Irish?,” he asked. “Yes,” McKenna replied. “Why don’t you join us? You could be my batman, a nice cushy number.”
“No, thank you, Father,” said O’Sullivan “I am going to the signals as a dispatch rider.”
He also thought the way the London Irish marched was far too much like running. At the start of October, O’Sullivan received his call-up papers. “Not the signals but the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles,” he recalled in his memoirs written 47 years later. “Despite the assurance of the former director of music of the Royal Horse Guards who I had served at my tailors, I was not to be a dashing dispatch rider but a foot-slogging rifleman.”
The two London Irish battalions were separated as events in France turned for the worse in May 1940 and they were to serve together only briefly in the final weeks of the war. For more than two years, they were deployed on home defence duties. This meant the riflemen were often safer than their friends and families who lived through the London Blitz. They were prepared for combat in increasingly intense training exercises in different parts of the UK. The 2nd Battalion spent part of 1940 based at Haverfordwest in south-west Wales, a place that O’Sullivan was to return to in quite different circumstances more than 20 years later.
Initially, the 2nd Battalion was part of the 47th (London) Division. In January 1942, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the creation of the 38th Brigade and for it to be named the 38th (Irish) Brigade. The initiative was reluctantly accepted by the exclusively-Protestant government of Northern Ireland. Irish brigades had been formed by exiled and migrant Irish soldiers fighting in the armies of France in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thomas Meagher’s Irish Brigade fought for the Union during the American Civil War of 1861-65.
Hundreds of thousands of Irishmen had served in the British Army since it was first formed as a permanent force in the mid-17th century. But the term Irish Brigade had only been rarely used in the British Army and the first occasion was during the 2nd Boer War. Before partition, Irish nationalism was considered to be potentially subversive by the British establishment. The British Army had fought Irish republican guerillas during the Irish independence war of 1919-21. But following partition, the army decided to emphasise the connections with Ireland, which remained a source of regular army recruits. It approved the adoption of Irish symbols by the remaining Irish regiments. In the London Irish, this included saffron kilts for the bagpipers and the caubeen, which some believe had been worn by Irish soldiers since the start of the 17th century.
Britain also wanted to maximise its appeal to potential Irish recruits from the UK and elsewhere. Associations with Ireland in the new war with Germany would serve a useful propaganda purpose in neutral Ireland and in the United States, which was not to become Britain’s ally for more than two years after the conflict started.
The Irish Brigade was a throw-back to the time just 20 years before when the whole of Ireland was part of the UK. Many of its officers were descended from the Protestant ruling class that controlled much of its land since large-scale English and Scottish colonisation began at the start of the 17th century. They revelled in the symbols of old Ireland and the legends of great Irish soldiers but were nevertheless uncomfortable with the rituals of Irish Catholicism, which appeared alien and superstitious. These mixed emotions were complicated by the sectarian divisions within the six Ulster counties that were retained within the UK by the 1921 partition treaty that ended the Irish independence war and from where the London Irish, the Faughs and Skins drew recruits.
Nevertheless, the religious divide was treated lightly. In the London Irish sergeants’ mess, Catholics would ironically sing the anti-Catholic ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ to appreciative Northern Irish Protestants. The religious division was even constructively institutionalised. In the London Irish band, the kilt-wearing bagpipers were invariably Catholic. Flautists, many trained in Orange Order Bands that celebrated the Boyne and other Irish Protestant victories, were uniformly not. A sense of Irish unity was inculcated within the brigade. However riven their motherland may have been, the men of the Irish Brigade were to be a single family with no divided loyalties. This was proved again and again in its record in the 2nd World War.
Protestant Irish leadership extended across the British Army. General Bernard Montgomery, victor of El Alamein, was the son of an Anglican bishop who ran a Church of Ireland diocese on the banks of Lough Foyle in Donegal, part of the Irish Free State in 1939. General Harold Alexander, supreme Allied Commander in Tunisia and Italy in 1942-45, was also of Donegal Irish descent. He had served in the Irish Guards in the First World War, when he became the youngest colonel in British Army history.
The Duke of Wellington. Britain’s greatest general, was born Arthur Wellesley in County Meath in what is now the Irish Republic. It is estimated that at least 25 per cent of British foot soldiers at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815 were Irish or of Irish descent.
It was upon this tradition that the Irish Brigade was constructed in the spring of 1942. Its first commander was The O’Donovan, chief of the O’Donovan clan and a First World War veteran who had won the Military Cross (MC) for bravery. The O’Donovan was succeeded by Nelson Russell, previously commander of the 6th Faughs who had been born in Lisburn in Northern Ireland. Russell had been awarded an MC during the 1st World War and capped for playing cricket for Ireland in the 1920s. On its creation, the Irish Brigade was allocated to the 6th Armoured Division, which was conceived as an elite unit. The division was then preparing for the Allied invasion of French North Africa where American and British troops were to fight together for the first time since the US joined the war in December 1941.
In June 1942, the Irish Brigade and the 6th Armoured Division were moved to Auchinlech, 40 miles south of Glasgow. Training was stepped up with week-long exercises in the glens and mountains of Ayrshire. On 12 November, the brigade, now part of the British 1st Army, enshipped at Greenock on the river Clyde west of Glasgow to join Operation Torch which had started four days earlier with Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria. On 19 November, it started to disembark in Algiers. A week later, it moved east by train to Bougie and from there was transported by truck into Tunisia where it was put into the front line 100 miles south-west of Tunis in mid-December.
The first serious fighting involving the Irish Brigade took place north of Bou Arada in January 1943. Over the period from 19 to 21 January, the London Irish suffered grievously during an attack on German positions on Hill 286, to the east of the road from Goubellat to Bou Arada. More heavy casualties were inflicted when the battalion was hit by a Panzer counterattack at the end of February. The brigade was withdrawn from the line to lick its wounds but was soon back in action and participated in the final battles around Tunis in April and May 1943. Tunis fell on 7 May and the Irish Brigade joined the victory parade into the city at the end of the month. It was the second enemy-held capital to be captured by the Allies.
The Irish Brigade was transferred into the 8th Army for the invasion of Sicily, which was completed on 17 August 1943. There was a break in the fighting of almost three weeks before the war resumed with the invasion of southern Italy on 3 September. The Irish Brigade was transported by ship to Taranto on 24 September, travelled by train to Barletta and moved by landing craft to Termoli further up the Adriatic coast. It was involved in two bloody further engagements at San Salvo and the River Sangro. With winter closing in, the brigade was moved to the high Apennines in the centre of Italy where the London Irish stayed until February 1944. In mid-March, it was shifted to the Cassino front and, from the end of the month, held positions in the mountains east of the monastery. In mid-April, the brigade was pulled out of the line for rest and preparation for the fourth Cassino assault.
On 10 May, the Irish Brigade moved forward to the forming-up area at Presenzano east of the main road to Rome via Cassino. The Cassino battle plan was revealed to its senior officers. Asked about how the brigade would deal with the challenge, its commander Brigadier Thomas Patrick David (TPD) Scott declared they would “fart and fly hard”. The artillery barrage the following night signaled the start of the assault. The brigade was on one hour’s notice to move, but this was extended to four soon after the first waves went in. It was a sign that the attack was not proceeding to schedule. Another day passed and, on 13 May, the brigade diverted itself with football matches played against the background roar of the guns. The order to advance to the front was finally issued late that night. After not much more than one hour’s sleep, the brigade set off for its start positions at 2am on the morning of 14 May.
The concentration area was behind Monte Trocchio, a hill east of Cassino which acted as a screen against German observation and shelling. The brigade started arriving after 4am. It waited behind Monte Trocchio. Exploding German shells sent splinters hissing dangerously in all directions. It was impossible to talk. In mid-afternoon, the brigade moved forward, using the abandoned railway line to Cassino as a road part of the way until breaking off to the west along a track to the Gari river. By 4pm, they were over the river into a bridgehead no more than 400 yards deep. By this time, bullets were falling among them from German rifles and machine guns. They dug in and waited.
As the sun rose on the morning of 15 May, the brigade surveyed the destruction caused by three days of intense fighting at the mouth of the Liri valley. The view ahead was obscured by huge fruit orchards and bushes. There was a maze of small hills and gullies, often with bogs at their base. A road from Cassino ran across the front from the right to the town of Pignataro to the left. Cutting through the route of the brigade’s advance was a stream called the Piopetto which flowed diagonally from the left to join the Rapido south of Cassino town. It was soon realised this would prevent the easy use of tanks. The stream would have to be bridged. The only advantage the attackers had was a constant veil of smoke which made aimed firing difficult. Apart from that, it was perfect defensive territory.
The brigade was to be sent forward to continue the assault against the Gustav Line which had cost the 4th Division so much. The Skins were given the lead role. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey Edgar Nicholas (Bala) Bredin, however, opposed the idea of a night assault. He wanted the attack to begin the next morning but was overruled by divisional headquarters. The Skins went in at about 3am and made quick progress.
German resistance began to mount. Bredin called a temporary halt but the advance resumed at 8am when the tanks arrived over a bridge hastily constructed across the Piopetto. By midday, the Skins were in serious trouble. Half their supporting tanks had been knocked out. They were stuck in a minefield ringed by German anti-tanks guns and had already suffered more than 70 casualties. But the Skins had reached their objectives. The goal now was to hold on until they were relieved by the London Irish who were given the task of breaking through the final sections of the Gustav.
The London Irish were scheduled to attack on the afternoon of 15 May in parallel with the Lancashire Fusiliers of the 11th Brigade to their right. But just before the scheduled time of the attack, a barrage of shells fell on the battalion’s headquarters, killing London Irish commander Ion Goff and the commanding officer of the supporting tank unit. Other officers were killed and wounded. Major John Coldwell-Horsfall, who had been appointed second in command of the London Irish in March, took over leadership of the battalion. The attack was delayed until 730pm.
It had been another bitter day for the 8th Army. Many young men had died. They included Michael Blair Wallace, son of the English writer Edgar Wallace who was then aged 28 and a lieutenant in the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. It had been in action as part of the 4th Division since 12 May on the right of where the London Irish were waiting for the order to advance that evening.
The line of the attack from the London Irish trenches was north-west towards the village of Sinagoga, which occupied a hill around a mile to the front. Three of the London Irish’s four fighting companies were to lead the attack: E on the left was to head to Sinagoga Wood, G on the right with H in the lead in the centre. F Company would move up behind the three lead companies. A dozen tanks from the 16th/5th Lancers would follow the advance line. The other elements of the attack would be the mortar platoon, machine gun units and the battalion’s mobile six-pound anti-tank guns. There were some vehicle carriers and a battery from the 17th Field Regiment to provide short-range artillery cover.
With the minutes ticking past, Horsfall got a call from brigade headquarters back on the Gari. The attack was to be postponed until first light to give the Lancashire Fusiliers more time to get into position. Word was spread to the rifle companies. The London Irish settled in for the evening.
Mayo and O’Sullivan dealt with the change calmly. But they knew that the attack was inevitable and they would both have crucial roles in it. Mayo’s was to galvanise his men into rising from their trenches and advancing through exploding shells and mortars and lethal machine gun fire. O’Sullivan would follow close behind bringing trucks with supplies in plain sight of the enemy’s guns. Having seen so many die, they knew their chances of emerging unharmed were small. Fantasies of returning home as be-medalled heroes had long gone. But new recruits to the London Irish facing their first battle drew comfort from the two young veterans who had survived so much. They were called the immortals.
Neither of them should have been there. Two days earlier, O’Sullivan had discharged himself from a hospital in Bari where he had been sent after a recurrence of malaria contracted in Sicily. Mayo had been nominated for officer training but had refused to leave E Company. It was an uneasy evening full of foreboding about the coming dawn.
“You know what I’m going to do after this lot,” said Mayo, fingering a Luger pistol he had taken from a German officer. “Use this to make a living.”
O’Sullivan thought he was only partly joking.
There had already been a bad omen. The third London Irish immortal, E Company Sergeant Major (CSM) George Charnick, who had been with the battalion since Tunisia, was hit in the arm by shrapnel earlier that day and hospitalised. At dawn, O’Sullivan warily returned towards the Gari. Mayo roused his men who crawled with their mess tins to get their breakfast stew. As it was being served, 9 Platoon commander 2nd Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley was wounded. There was nothing to do but crouch in the trenches and wait.
The machine gun fire from the German lines had increased but the morning was lovely. The sky was clear and brilliant sunshine illuminated an undulating landscape. Olive trees swayed in the breeze. Riflemen checked their weapons, wrote home and hoped they would outlive the day.
At 9am, 72 British heavy artillery pieces delivered an avalanche of shells on the German lines. The guns of the 17th Field Regiment opened up from behind the brigade. The horizon was transformed as the explosions from hundreds of high explosive shells coalesced into a wall of black cloud pierced by orange flashes. The sky and sun were swiftly blotted out. The gunners adjusted the range, pushing the barrage forward 100 yards every minute. This was E Company’s signal to move.
Company Commander Major Mervyn Davies climbed from his trench followed by his batman and a signaler with the company’s short-range radio. For a moment, the three lone figures walked across no-man’s land towards the inferno. Two of the three platoons were still in their trenches. Mayo rose from the ground and turned to his men. “8 Platoon, follow me,” he shouted. They climbed out of their trenches. The rest of the company joined the advance.
The dash towards the German lines was terrifying. Shells and mortars exploded. Men fell, but the casualties were scattered. Some were hit by shrapnel from shells fired by British tanks advancing behind the riflemen. The shattering din was split by the screech from Nebelwerfers, deadly German six-barreled mortars.
In minutes, E Company reached the German lines. The trenches were largely abandoned, but there were some German dead and wounded. Survivors threw their hands up in surrender. But their comrades in the ruined buildings of Sinagoga were still holding out. The tanks advanced and, at close range, systematically destroyed each strong point. Their machine guns scythed down those who ran. All three attacking companies were now fully engaged with the enemy. Hidden German 88-millimetre artillery guns opened up, knocking out most of the tanks supporting the London Irish in Sinagoga. Jimmie Barnes, a 20-year-old London Irish corporal from county Monaghan, led his section in a wild bayonet charge towards the guns. They were machine-gunned before they reached their goal. Barnes lobbed a grenade at the guns and was killed as he did so. He was unsuccessfully recommended by his company commander for the Victoria Cross.
In the chaos, Horsfall rose from the turret of the tank he used as battalion headquarters and aimed his pistol at a German charging towards him. Suddenly, the rifle was knocked from the German’s hands by a bullet or shrapnel. He collapsed to the ground and immediately surrendered. More emerged from cornfields around the village and were shot down. The firing subsided. The day’s first objective had been taken. It was 1pm. The London Irish had been fighting for four hours.
The lull was temporary. The land on the left across the Piopetto was still in German hands. Panzer grenadiers supported by tanks were spotted advancing towards Sinagoga as a fresh counterattack began. From the village’s shattered buildings, the London Irish countered with machine gun and rifle fire. British tanks moved out into the open ground. There was mayhem as soldiers from both sides fought and died in the wheat. German tanks joined the attack and were knocked out by hidden British Shermans. The London Irish pushed forward another half mile amid more carnage. As the sun set, the firing died down. Finally, both sides collapsed in exhaustion.
With darkness descending, O’Sullivan loaded up the company’s trucks with the evening’s meal including boxes of cakes, hot sausage rolls and cheese pastries. The road to Sinagoga ran through the areas of the most intense fighting. Fires in burning buildings and destroyed tanks acted as torches in the gloom. At the London Irish advanced headquarters, O’Sullivan was given the map reference for E Company by riflemen who were to guide him. The boxes of food were unloaded and O’Sullivan set off with his team in the direction indicated.
Suddenly, his elbow was gripped by an invisible hand. “Where are you going?,” said a voice.
“To E Company with food,” he replied.
“The house you can see on the right is held by Germans. We are the battle patrol platoon and we have it under observation.”
O’Sullivan nervously retraced his tracks. Another few steps and he could have been shot or taken prisoner. The riflemen who sent him the wrong way mumbled their excuses. O’Sullivan soon found E Company.
The Irish Brigade had taken a lead role in decisively fracturing the Gustav Line. The following night, Commander-in-Chief of all German forces in Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, ordered the line to be abandoned. On the morning of 18 May, a white flag was hoisted over the monastery on the peak of Monte Cassino. Lieutenant Kazimierz Gubriel of the Polish 12th Podolski Lancers approached the ruins and found 17 wounded paratroopers, the remnants of the Monte Cassino garrison. More than 1,000 of his comrades had been killed and wounded while trying to take it and the land where they fell above the monastery is now a huge Polish war cemetery.
The battle for Cassino was over. But the campaign continued. The 78th Division chased the German rearguard north towards Rome until it was pulled out of the line for rest and reinforcement at the end of June. The 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles were to be in the line almost constantly thereafter with a single six-week break until the war’s last day in Italy in early May 1945. But the attack on the Gustav Line was one of its finest moments.
The cost of victory on 16 May 1944 was, however, almost unbearably high. The battalion had lost nearly one quarter of its fighting strength: more than 100 killed and wounded including nine officers and many experienced NCOs.
There was a sombre mood that night among the battalion’s survivors. Major Davies, his voice breaking with emotion, described the morning’s events. E Company had reached its objective to the left of Sinagoga. Mayo ordered his men to dig in to prepare for German retaliation. After making his own slit trench, Mayo urged his riflemen to dig faster. He returned to his meagre redoubt with Corporal O’Reilly, the son of an Irish family from Cavan who had also been awarded the Military Medal. There was the sudden scream of Nebelwerfer mortars. One howled towards Mayo’s trench and exploded. He and O’Reilly were instantly killed.
“I was going to recommend Mayo for the Distinguished Conduct Medal,” Davies said.
Riflemen in the sergeant’s platoon were quietly weeping in the darkness. Lance-Corporal Gerard Keegan, a Lancashire Irishman aged 21 who had been made acting sergeant in Mayo’s place, was carving tender words on a cross for their leader’s grave.
“Sergeant Eddie Mayo MM. The greatest Sergeant in the world.”
Lance Corporal Keegan was himself killed by German shells six days later.
This has been an account of a single day, and the events that led up to it, at a turning point in the world’s bloodiest conflict. It describes the role of the men who played unscripted parts as leaders and heroes in a drama that echoes in our own times. Two of them, bound together in comradeship and respect, saw its dawn. One fought and died before dusk. The other lived to see peace, raise a large family, educate thousands of young people and tell his moving story.
All Our Brothers is based on what Colour Sergeant O’Sullivan, the survivor, saw before, during and after these watershed moments in the Liri valley. It describes extraordinary developments during the Second World War that transformed his life and ended that of so many others.
This book is also about O’Sullivan’s family and friends in the first half of the 20th century. But the climax is the day he lost his closest war-time friend, the hero Eddie Mayo.
O’Sullivan was a member of a talented family with a remarkable record of service during the 2nd World War. As he and the London Irish prepared to assault the Gustav Line in May 1944, O’Sullivan’s father, also called Edmund but known by everyone as Mick, was working to ensure the railway system operated smoothly during the Allied invasion of Europe which began 20 days later on 6 June 1944. His elder brother Daniel, then 27, was a gunner in Bomber Command in the Far East. His younger brother Thomas, 23 and a Royal Air Force (RAF) armourer, was preparing to join the Allied invasion of France after D-Day. Another brother, William, two months short of 21 and a Royal Navy telegraphist, was on a mission in the Mediterranean. The fifth and youngest O’Sullivan brother Bernard, then just 14, was training to be an officer in the Merchant Navy. There were two sisters: Ellen (Nellie), 26 and seriously ill with tuberculosis, and Lilian, aged 16, who was working as a messenger at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in Whitehall. Their mother Elizabeth (Lizzie) had endured the Blitz and was about to face the greater terror of flying bombs that started falling on London in June 1944.
It is almost impossible to imagine the terrible anxiety Lizzie experienced every day that summer knowing four of her sons were in peril on four war fronts, a fifth was being trained to join the conflict, a daughter was close to death while German bombs and missiles threatened her own home. What is remarkable about Lizzie’s wartime experiences is that they were not unusual. Practically every woman in Britain had loved ones in danger as the Second World War reached its appalling crescendo.
All My Brothers is also an account of the Irish people of London whose labour and dreams have over many generations helped make Britain’s capital the vibrant city it is. Theirs is an unrecorded history that is remembered mainly in the stories still heard and repeated by hundreds of thousands of Londoners and their families. Overcoming economic disadvantage and racial and religious discrimination, they raised their families, nurtured lively communities and fought for their country.
There were villains as well as heroes. But at their best, they were rarely bettered.
No group of immigrants has done more for London than they.
None more richly deserves a proper memorial.
This is a small repayment in words permanently inscribed of the overdue debt London and every Londoner owe them all.
The road to Sinagoga that Ted O’Sullivan took in May 1944 was a long and eventful one. Its story will be told in the following pages.
It starts in Ireland itself.