Blood in the Sangro

Sul mare Luccica

L’ostro d’argento

Placida e l’onda

Prospero il vento

Venite all’agile

Barchetta mia

Santa Lucia !

Santa Lucia !

 

Santa Lucia, an Italian ode dedicated to the city of Naples. 


In the 40 days following Mussolini’s arrest, an opportunity was lost to end the war in Italy.

The price was to be enormous.

In the next 22 months, more than 1 million soldiers and civilians were to be killed and wounded in bitter fighting in Sicily and Italy.

The Badoglio government had indicated through intermediaries that it was prepared to accept a conditional surrender which did not involve the complete loss of all Italy’s colonies. The proposal was viewed positively by the Americans but rejected out of hand by Anthony Eden, then Britain’s Foreign Minister, before there was time to present it to Churchill. Personal factors may have played a role. Eden had been unhappy with the 1938 Munich agreement which had been brokered by Mussolini. And like almost everyone in Britain, Eden was  disgusted when he declared war against the UK after the fall of France.

Hitler, meanwhile, prepared to take control of Italy should the new government formally abandon its alliance with Germany.

On 3 September, the Italian government accepted the Allies’ terms. The armistice was announced to the Italian people on 8 September by General Eisenhower, taking the Italian regime by surprise. A plan for American troops to land at an airport near Rome and seize the capital was cancelled at the last minute. Hitler ordered longstanding plans for the occupation of Italy to be put into effect. With the German army flooding into Italy, King Vittorio Emanuele II fled his capital with Badoglio.

The Italian army, which outnumbered the Germans, was not ordered to fight and started to disarm piecemeal. The new Italian government failed to honour its promise to hand over Mussolini to the Allies. He was freed by German paratroopers on 12 September and immediately set up a new Fascist government in the north of Italy. Although powerless, Mussolini claimed that his was the sole legitimate government of Italy. This ensured Italians continued to fight with the Germans and many continued to express loyalty to Mussolini’s regime. A growing number, however, backed the allies. Thousands took up arms against the German occupiers and their Italian partners. A savage civil war began to erupt in parts of Italy controlled by the German Army and Mussolini’s regime. Meanwhile, Italy’s massive army – lacking leadership or any clear idea of what it should do – disintegrated or was easily disarmed.

On 14 September, the German High Command reported it had captured 700,000 Italian soldiers, many of whom were dispatched to prison camps in the Reich. There was local resistance but this was brutally repressed. About 5,000 Italian soldiers on the occupied Greek island of Cephalonia were massacred after they surrendered, an atrocity recorded in the Booker Prize winning novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It was a terrible beginning to the saddest period in Italian history.

Ted and his Irish Brigade comrades learned that Italy was no longer an enemy, but not yet an ally, while they were preparing for the next phase of the campaign in Sicily.

“We were evidently no longer at war with Italy. No longer enemies, nor Allies apparently but co-belligerents. Soon we would be off once more, this time to the mainland of Italy. More ‘soft underbelly?’ We sang: ‘When this bloody war is over, just how happy we would be. . . . ’ But when? The war seemed to stretch ahead for ever.”

Allied leaders were preparing to deal a decisive blow against the German Army in Italy. Their strategy for capturing Italy called for the British 8th Army, which included the Irish Brigade, to advance up the eastern Adriatic coast. The US led 5th Army was to move up the narrow plain on the west coast of the Italian peninsula to seize Naples and then Rome. The first units of the 8th Army landed on the heel and toe of Italy on 3 September. They encountered practically no resistance from the Italian army. The 5th Army, under General Mark Clark, landed at Salerno south of Naples on 9 September, the day after the Italian government’s decision to change sides had been announced. German resistance there was resolute and the Allied beachhead was almost engulfed. The Germans decided as a result to resist the Allies the whole length of the Italian peninsula instead of retreating to a line in the north. The Irish Brigade was transported on 24 September by sea from Messina to the ancient city of Taranto, a sea port based on an inland lagoon that was connected to the Mediterranean by a short channel. It had been the principal base of the Italian navy. Taranto, an ancient city, had been in ancient times the largest settlement in what was known as Magna Gracae (Large Greece), a vast area extending from the Black Sea to the Straits of Gibraltar where Greek speaking people had set up colonies. After five days’ preparation, it was moved by train to Barletta on the Adriatic. On 5 October, the brigade was on the move again and transported by landing craft to Termoli, further up the coast, in a move designed to evade German lines by getting behind them. It landed a couple of days behind the first wave of commandos and elements of the 36th Brigade which had taken the town. It was expected that German resistance would be light and easily overcome. These expectations were dashed and the Irish Brigade were given their first taste of the determination of their enemies to hold land.

“Although the initial crossing of the Strait of Messina was on 3 September, we were not to cross to Italy until 20 days later. We sailed through the Strait and up to the vast Gulf of Taranto. It was a smooth crossing but getting into the harbour at Taranto seemed to take ages. I was struck by the great numbers of large jellyfish which floated lazily in the sea. We disembarked and were taken to bivouac areas where we waited for about five days. We entrained for the small port of Barletta where we were allowed to enter the town and introduced to vermouth at ridiculously low prices. This was remedied, I understand, the very next day. So far it had been soft. This was amended that same night.”

Termoli is a picturesque, walled medieval town on the Adriatic coast with a small harbour. To the north of the walls, a quay used for fishing boats was identified as the best place for the Irish Brigade to land. Practically all the main features of the town in 1943 are still intact, including the hotel on the quay front that Ted O’Sullivan used as a base.

“The transport had already been left at Taranto to make its own way to our destination by road when it had been cleared of Germans. We embarked into landing craft in battle order and were carried around the Cape formed by Mount Gargano to Termoli. Here, we were dumped on an inhospitable quay with 205mm shells exploding around us. The reception was so warm, the Navy did not bother to unload a medical unit complete with stretchers. They just backed out and left. We ran quickly up the cobbled streets carrying everything. The platoons were hurriedly deployed and we dashed into a large hotel building which was occupied by the remains of a commando troop that had taken the port a few hours before.”

The Irish Brigade had landed during a strong panzer counterattack that came close to driving the 8th Army back into the sea. The London Irish were immediately sent on a mission to capture a hill and cemetery north of the town. After a brief engagement, they settled down for a stay of 12 days. Ted was based in Termoli, while E Company held positions north of the port and prepared to push north. “Our trucks had caught us up. My staff joined me and were delighted with the luxurious accommodation we had in Termoli. As soon as I was given the location of the farm where the company was, I made my way in a TCV with a hot meal inside six gallon containers. I could not go across country but followed the roundabout route by road. On the way, I was shelled and shot at. At the farm, I started to feed the men when we became the target of shellfire from some heavy guns. In a lull, I packed my stuff to return to my cooks and storeman. The return journey was even more fraught and I dashed into the hotel out of harm’s way. I was greeted with: ‘What was it like?’ I replied with a vivid description in violent army language. A gentle voice from the back of the room said chidingly: ‘Rosie.’ It was Father Hayes, our padre. I had served Mass for him on many occasions. I stammered an apology and he never mentioned my verbosity ever.”

“It was still considered to be too dangerous to set up the cooks in the farm so I took prepared food and ammunition the next day. The company were not really interested in the meal and soon I discovered why. The farm had a large flock of turkeys, allegedly 96, as well as an array of other poultry and a few pigs. When E Company left, the only moving creatures were the farmer and his wife who had just returned. The excuse was: ‘Il Tedeschi portari tutto.’ (‘The Germans have taken everything’). I took a killed and dressed turkey back for Jimmy Sadler. Roast pork appeared on our menu for several days. This was ‘looting’, but it would not compare with that perpetrated by those following close behind the front line who never heard a shot fired in anger. I later saw beautiful furniture cut up to make a trailer in which was loaded magnificent silver servers and cutlery from the hotel we were in.”

Looting and other forms of criminality in territory liberated from the Germans were to become a huge issue during the entire Italian campaign. Although brutally cruel in suppressing any form of resistance among the Italian people, the German Army was the nevertheless very effective in discouraging theft by its soldiers. This changed once the Germans were driven out. With most of its army imprisoned and the authority of the previous regime shattered, the Italian people were effectively defenceless. Some within the Allied forces viewed Italy as a conquered country where property was a legitimate spoil of war. It is one reason why Italians of a certain generation will speak of the decency of many of the ordinary German soldiers they encountered. Ted was horrified by the occasional instances of theft and corruption that he witnessed but argues that, in the main, the London Irish and the Irish Brigade were a very honest unit. Italians who live in areas the brigade passed through tend to confirm this view and will recount stories of the brigade’s kindness and decency.

“In my journeys between Termoli and the farm where the company was, I saw many burnt and knocked out German tanks with the gruesome sight of their crews who had been roasted in their vehicles. During the fighting to the north of Termoli, a troop of tanks approached and an officer leaned out and shouted: ‘Any targets, Buddy?’ They were from the Canadian Three Rivers Regiment. E Company Commander John Lofting was very grateful for their assistance in shelling suspect buildings.”

The next target was the village of Petacciato which was sited on high ground on the north side of the River Sinacra and a fine view over the Adriatic to the east. The attack went in following an artillery barrage just after 1am on the morning of 19 October. The town was taken with no casualties.“I followed closely behind. Human excrement littered the street. The Commanding Officer called the Mayor and ordered him to clear it up. It was obvious that the town had received some bombardment and the people were afraid to leave their houses. Not being able to clear their ‘gabinetti’, they just threw the contents out of the door.”

The pattern that was to repeat itself during the Irish Brigade campaign in Italy quickly established itself. North of Petacciato was a wide valley with the shallow River Trigno flowing through it to the sea. Beyond the river was a long stretch of gently rising ground. It was an excellent position and the Germans were ready. The Trigno was about four miles north of Petacciato. It was shallow and no more than five feet at its deepest part. There were patches of exposed ground in midstream. The main bridge across was still intact when the brigade arrived. The brigade sensed that the bridge was loaded with explosives, but the Faughs were ordered forward quickly to take it. As they approached, the explosives were detonated and the bridge was smashed. The Faughs forded the river instead and created a shallow bridgehead on the Trigno’s north side. The foundations of the bridge can still be seen.

“At that time, the Trigno was only about 20 or 30 yards wide and generally less than a foot deep. Its mighty bridge, which catered for a raging torrent, was about 600 yards long but about 50 yards was blown in the middle. E Company was sent to relieve the Faughs at the bridgehead. I followed with a string of about a dozen mules and crossed the Trigno by a ford.”

“The silence was eerie and the darkness complete. At my destination, I entered a dug-out where a Faughs’ officer handed over and explained the position. I was horrified when the outgoing officer lit up a cigarette. The flashing of his cigarette lighter must have been seen for miles. I still do not know whether it was relief or bravado. I sent my mules back to base as soon as we had unloaded them and remained to receive Lofting’s instructions.”

“The muleteers were immaculately accoutred Sikhs. Their mules had been spotless when they had been loaded with supplies for E Company earlier that day under the supervision of a Subadar Major with a great sweeping moustache and a beautiful beard. All wore the Pagre ritual turban. None had steel helmets. On the way back from the company’s lines that night, they stopped in the middle of the Trigno and washed their mules. They were immediately heavily shelled and some were killed. Was it the officer’s cigarette lighter or the noise they made washing the mules that brought down the fire? I waited until it was quiet and walked alone a couple of miles back to the mule point in pitch blackness. I crossed the Trigno ford in which there were now bodies.”

“E Company was to be the sole occupier of the bridgehead until the next phase of operations which were to extend and widen the bridgehead. I was pleased to hear that the Subadar Major had issued orders that mules were not to be cleaned until they had arrived back at their stables. Every night, I crossed the Trigno with my mules and was extremely nervous in the middle. It was so exposed and there was nowhere to dive. The engineers working to repair the bridge throughout the night were often shelled and many were killed. The smell of rotting flesh pervaded the Trigno and I felt I was walking on bones. But were they those of a man or a mule?”

Just over two miles north of the Trigno was the town of San Salvo, which was set on top of a long ridge running east-west parallel to the route of the Trigno in the valley. This was to be the brigade’s next target. The attack went in on the night of 27 October. The Germans were entrenched behind thick wire and dense minefields. The conditions were made worse by heavy rain. The Faughs were repulsed with heavy losses after they were subjected to a strong German counterattack. They lost their commanding officer Colonel Butler and two company commanders in a failed attack.

The London Irish, which were in reserve, nevertheless suffered casualties and its Second-in-Command Major O’Connor, a respected officer, was killed by a shell. The brigade retired to the Trigno bridgehead to lick its wounds.

“On the night before the attack on San Salvo, the nightly Quartermaster column of jeeps was lined up behind Major O’Connor in his vehicle on the south side of the Trigno. Rodney Cockburn, S Company Commander, came up to me in the second jeep and said: ‘Major O’Connor is ill. You’d better lead off.’ I led as directed but was stopped by a roar from O’Connor, who lambasted me for taking over. Of course, had O’Connor really been ill, Rodney should have taken charge.”

“We drove up to the bridge approach and were stopped. O’Connor alighted, approached me and told me to remain until he returned. Eventually, we negotiated the ford and on the other side were guides from each London Irish company. I was given a Tommy gun and ordered to accompany O’Connor and his Batman as bodyguard to BHQ in the bridgehead where I was told to join my company. I’ll never know why I, a Colour Sergeant, was chosen as O’Connor’s personal guard. Perhaps he trusted me more than the others. But that was the last time I saw him. The next morning, we heard that he was returning to the Battalion Mule Point and stopped off to chat with Geoffrey Phillips at the cookhouse dugout of G Company. A rogue shell burst among them. O’Connor was killed and Ted Simmonds, my old cook, and Phillips were badly wounded. O’Connor was a true gentleman who would probably have become Commanding Officer. I could not, however, work out how he ticked. We had fallen out several times over John Lofting’s commandeering of mules. I was upset that he had misunderstood my decision to lead our convoy the night he died. He was unaware that I was only obeying Rodney’s order.”

It poured all the next day and the battalion went on to the defensive in the Trigno bridgehead under persistent German shelling. A fresh attack led by the Skins in concert with 36 Brigade was launched that night after a massive bombardment of German positions in San Salvo. The town was taken. In a pattern that was to be repeated through the Italian campaign, the capture of San Salvo opened the way to yet another German defensive position which occupied a long, east-west ridge that overlooked the River Sangro. This was the ‘Winter Line’, a formidable band of fortifications that stretched from coast to coast and encompassed the Gustav Line around Cassino. It was raining regularly and heavily. The Sangro had burst its banks. About 1,000 yards north of the river was a wooded ridge with three prominent strong points at the villages of Mozzagrogna on the west, Santa Maria Imbaro in the centre and Fossacesia on the east closest to the coast. Ted remembered that the Sangro itself was a formidable obstacle.

“The Sangro was in full spate with great tree trunks and other debris and filled the whole valley’s full width of about three quarters of a mile. The Germans had once again harnessed nature to hold up our advance. Two heavy cruisers, which I saw steaming majestically along the coast, joined the bombardment of the enemy line.”

“The division was billetted south of the Sangro in Cassalbordino and surrounding farms and villages. My task each evening was to take my supplies in a decrepit jeep with a faulty clutch along miles of flooded roads to cross a quagmire near the Sangro. I then followed a road parallel to the river for about 100 yards before reaching a track to the farmhouse where the company was based. My jeep was forever breaking down. One evening, it stopped dead in the quagmire. A friendly Indian driver in a jeep pushed us out at the cost of his own clutch. I was forced to leave him as we dared not stop. The jeep failed again by the side of the flooded river in full view of the enemy and under shellfire. I push-started it and reached the battalion.”

“The Commanding Officer sent for me. ‘You’re ill boy,’ he said. ‘You have got to rest. I order you to go back to B Echelon (the army’s term for the heavy transport depot) and have about three days complete rest.’ I was completely bewildered. I was very tired, not sick, and I did not want to leave the company. I saw E Company Commander John Lofting and I told him what the Colonel had said. E Company’s billet was comfortable and had a bed. I asked if I could stay there while another Sergeant brought up the supplies. Lofting thought this was a good idea since this would allow me to rest and supervise my work at the same time.”

“The next day, I went to BHQ and met RSM Billy Girvin outside. As we were talking, a large staff car drew up. The little General at the back responded to our salutes and called us over. It was Monty again and he handed over a large parcel. ‘Share these among the chaps,’ he said. Billy threw up a cracking salute as Monty drove off. We discovered that the parcel contained 5,000 Gallaher’s Blue Label cigarettes which would give the men in forward positions an extra day’s ration of seven cigarettes. I used to boast: ‘The last time I spoke to Monty, he gave me 5,000 cigarettes.’”

Montgomery’s presence presaged an imminent fresh attack that would involve most of the 8th Army. It called for an initial wave to dismantle the perimeter fences of wires and mines. This would prepare the ground for the main attack. The Irish Brigade supported by tanks were allocated the right section of the ridge and the town of Fossacesia. The 8th Indian Division were to storm the left of the German line. The London Irish were moved up on the night of 20 November. It was raining heavily and the soft ground on the way to the Sangro made it impossible for tanks to cross it. After a delay, the battalion was withdrawn to Cassalbordino to wait for the weather to improve. It moved up again and over the Sangro a few days later.

“The Sangro was still a raging torrent but it was imperative to pass this obstacle as it was giving the Germans time to build up the ‘Winter Line’. A precarious bridgehead was won and a Bailey Bridge built close to the remains of the ruined bridge. On the other side was a river cliff a few hundred yards from the Sangro’s north bank. We crossed the Sangro and sheltered beneath the precipice as the company prepared for the next advance. A hospital was erected in tents with large Red Crosses everywhere. One morning, aircraft flew along the cliff face. At first, we thought they were ours but they dropped bombs and machine gunned the tents and vehicles. I jumped into the nearest slit trench but found it full. I was first in the next one, safe but uncomfortable as about four others lay on top of me. The next day, a shell clipped the cliff-top and exploded not many yards from me. I was shaving at the time and removed part of my moustache as a result. I took the rest off. Nobody noticed its passing.”

The assault on the Winter Line north of the Sangro began with an attack by the 8th Indian Division. When it failed to make the scheduled progress, the Irish Brigade’s attack plan was altered. It would first take Santa Maria and a hill to its right and then sweep along to the east to capture Fossacesia. At dawn on 29 November, the Skins, supported by the City of London Yeomanry, advanced against Santa Maria. It took them all day to capture their objectives. The London Irish advanced from the bridgehead to their starting line about a mile north of the river. Their objective was to take the east-west Santa Maria to Fossacesia road and to destroy German defences up to and including Fossacesia. The front they attacked was almost two miles wide and up to 800 yards deep. There were minefields, booby traps, wire entanglements, hidden machine positions and artillery pieces sunk into the ground. It was like the Western Front in the First World War.The attack began at 9am on 30 November with a massive bombardment that started on the western section of the Winter Line and then moved systematically to the east. As the bombardment on each section lifted, a company of the London Irish supported with tanks attacked. The Germans, demoralised by the shelling, were expecting a frontal assault, not a lateral one. By 1pm, all the objectives had been taken. It was pitiless work. The London Irish discovered a deep dug-out with more than 20 Germans who refused to surrender. The entrances were dynamited. Later, a bulldozer was brought up to block all the exits to the dugouts, which became the Germans’ grave,’ the London Irish official history records.

The battalion moved on to Rocca, a town north of the Winter Line, and then to the River Moro, another natural defensive barrier than ran from the Apennines into the Adriatic. Ted again followed.

“I was not sorry when the company advanced away from our vulnerable position on the Sangro. We advanced and linked up with our tanks. Closely following E Company, I traveled along the road from Mozzagrogna soon after the attack had been completed. I saw the preparation of funeral ghats for the many Indian dead, casualties in the attack. I continued into Fossacesia and arrived just as the company moved a piano into the street. One of the lads was playing it.”

“Surprise had been complete. The battalion had completed its task with few casualties. We advanced to Rocca. Lofting’s luck deserted him and he was wounded. Lieutenant Gentle, who himself was later wounded by shrapnel, nominally took over E Company but Lofting effectively handed command directly to CSM Charnick. The company would be run by Charnick and Sergeants Mayo and McNally until we came out of the line. It was about 3 December when the Canadians of The Three Rivers Regiment caught up with us. We had a celebration and one of them played a guitar.”

The weather had become intolerable and further progress looked impossible. The Allied commanders by then had another target in their sights: Monte Cassino itself. The Irish Brigade was transferred to Campobasso in the centre of the Apennines. There it recuperated and received replacements for the hundreds of dead and wounded suffered at the battles at San Salvo and the Sangro. The brigade had lost much of its original Irish contingent. The replacements from other parts of the British Isles quickly took to the traditions and the spirit of a unit that the Germans sometimes described as “Die Irische SS (The Irish SS)” because of its fighting skills. The challenge for the next two months was to hold the mountain area against German infiltration during the winter. After Christmas, the London Irish and the Faughs were moved further into the Apennines. They were based in the mountain village of Montenero where they were given responsibility for a line about 12 miles long. The riflemen were deployed into defensive positions at about 5,000 feet. There was one encounter with German mountain troops close to the town.

“We said good-bye to our Canadian friends and were taken south beyond Campobasso by TCV to San Marco. It was cold but we were comfortable and billets were allocated to the company. A Battalion Sergeants’ Mess was set up. Because of the attrition caused by constant fighting, the companies were like strangers to each other and the Sergeants even more so. E Company was under the temporary command of Lieutenant Wilson. Colonel Rogers had left the battalion and it was now under the command of Colonel Goff with Major Bredin, a regular from the RUR, as his Second-in-Command. We did little at San Marco except to get to know each other. New officers appeared, including Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley, the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the imprisoned leader of the British Union of Fascists.”

“On the 23 December, we moved into Campobasso itself and E Company were billeted in the cells of a large Franciscan convent. During the evening of Christmas Eve, the monks carried around a harmonium and sang carols at each cell. The Catholics attended midnight Mass, formed a choir and sang the Credo. Our Christmas fare included pork chops. Jim Sadler turned it into a banquet, some of which leaked to the monks.”

“We remained at Campobasso until 27 December when we were moved into the high Apennines to a location close to the headwaters of the Sangro. The journey through the snow-capped mountains was picturesque but very cold. We crossed the Sangro at the town of Castro di Sangro and finally arrived at our new base at Montenero, a small, poverty-stricken town. BHQ was set up and most of the village was commandeered. The companies were pushed out to positions high in the mountains at about 5,000 feet. Their shelters were mainly slit trenches and sangars. There were some small bivouac tents used for sleeping near to the positions held by the men. All the rest of their comforts were carried on their backs. The snow was not yet deep but the area was a white wilderness. I was not sorry when I trudged back daily to the billet allocated to the company in Montenero. The London Irish Rifles had brought 500 men into the town and posted more than 300 in the hills. This meant much of the local population had been displaced. The story was repeated rright across Italy. A populous and overcrowded state had two vast armies that took over nearly all the limited accommodation and were at the same time destroying most of the country’s facilities.”

“Snow descended in blizzard strength. Conditions in the line were appalling. Winter clothing was distributed on an equal basis that did not reflect needs. Even those in billets were given a share. E Company, freezing on a mountain, received its strict ration: one jerkin between six men; one duffel coat between eight; one string vest between two; one pair of boucheron boots for 10 men and white smocks for about half. In the town, there were Officers, Sergeants and Cooks wearing jerkins or duffel coats and sometimes both. I believe the same distribution prevailed even in distant rear areas. The men in the mountains got rest on a strict rotational rest of about three days in the town. During one of E Company’s rests, we acquired a whole sheep. It was roasted in roughly hewn joints over the open fire in the billet and washed down with hot rum toddy. I remember Eddie Mayo sitting on his blankets and gnawing at a leg of lamb with blood running down his chest.”

“Conditions for the company were bad, but mine were often worse. At least once a day, I would go with mules to the forward platoons with extra clothing and other comforts. At first, I would go with just the mules and drivers. But one supply party was taken prisoner by a German patrol and it became customary to take an escort of about four men. The Commanding Officer and Adjutant inspected the forward companies on skis. Sergeant Brown, the Cook sergeant at Headquarters, found that an enormous store of flour was piling up because the companies had no way of using it. He took over the local bakery and cooked bread, savouries and fruit pies. These were taken up into the mountains and distributed among the men. They were a great success.”

On the mountains, the London Irish and the Germans carried out probing patrols in an effort to deny each other control of the area. On the morning of 19 January, a more serious attack was launched against E Company positions. According to 9 Platoon commander Nicholas Mosley in his book Time of War, it began while he was briefing his platoon sergeant and section commanders in his tent. It was heralded by a shell or mortar bomb that landed next to the tent, wounding two or three of the men inside. A detachment of German ski troops swooped towards the platoon out of the trees. Mosley and most of the platoon were taken prisoner, though some only temporarily. Ted was at Montenero, but heard later what happened.

“After another night of blizzards, E Company was stood down as full daylight illuminated the snowy wilderness. Many men had removed both boots and socks and were rubbing life back into their frozen feet. Unseen German mountain troops wearing white smocks swooped over the peaks on skis. They herded most of 9 and 7 Platoon, which was commanded by Nick Mosley, into a group. Eddie Mayo, 8 Platoon sergeant, had seen what had happened. He and Charlie Neat, a bren gunner, shouted a warning to the prisoners and attacked the ski troops with rapid fire, and some of the captured men were rescued, including Mosley. We learned afterwards that some of those captured had to walk barefoot across the mountains to their prison cage. Word of the attack reached Montenero. I was told E Company had been attacked and had suffered heavy casualties. They were cut off by deep snow and I had to rescue them. I was given an escort, a string of mules and about a dozen impressed Italians armed with picks and shovels. We took the usual path up the mountain but soon found it blocked by heavy snowdrifts. I dug down. At one point I was unable to feel the bedrock and, holding my spade above my head, could not reach the top of the drift. At last, we arrived at the company position. They were packed up and ready to leave. The casualties were light. There were some wounded to be evacuated and about a dozen Germans had been taken prisoner. Snow was heaped over the dead, most of them enemy. We trudged back to Montenero.”

E Company had lost five dead, 15 wounded and 29 missing including the ones taken prisoner. The affair was a salutary lesson. There was little point attempting to hold positions that were so difficult for the riflemen and impossible to defend. The London Irish were ordered to evacuate the area on 25-26 January.

“The battalion abandoned Montenero without reluctance. The Germans sent us on our way with a heavy bombardment. With my jeep driver, I was the last man of my company in the town. I took shelter from the shellfire and went to see what damage had been done. The jeep was intact but the rubber tyres we had attached to the German field cooker that had been captured on the Winter Line were in ribbons and the cooker pierced with shrapnel. My Driver said it would be impossible to tow. We abandoned the contraption. It would take months to live down the loss and I missed the old cooker.

The Poles, who were to take over our positions in the mountains, immediately abandoned any idea of a garrisoned stronghold while the weather remained Arctic. They maintained properly equipped ski patrols in the hills while their troops were static in a mobile yet comfortable role as the Germans had been throughout the winter so far.Companies were told to surrender all winter clothing. I collected the pitiful assortment of duffel coats, jerkins, boucheron boots, string vests and dirty winter socks. The quartermaster called the colour sergeants and said that a court of inquiry would be convened to investigate the losses, which amounted to about fifty per cent of what had been issued. I was asked what happened to most of mine. I explained we had losses due to evacuations, casualties, deaths and prisoners.

‘Why did you allow men to go to hospitals wearing winter clothing?,’ I was asked.

I was dumbfounded. It would have meant stripping men already hurt and suffering from shock and stripping the dead before burial. No court of inquiry was ever convened. I noticed that duffel coats were the normal attire of the Quartermaster’s staff.”

In February, the brigade was moved west again and occupied positions behind the Cassino front. Brigadier TPD (Pat) Scott, a Faughs’ officer who had commanded the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish until he had been promoted to head the 12th Brigade in July 1943, was brought back to lead the Irish Brigade. He replaced Brigadier Russell, who was ill with exhaustion and could not continue. Scott was to be the dominant figure in the brigade until the end of the war, becoming one of the most respected commanders in the British Army. Preparations began for the brigade’s involvement in the developing third battle for Cassino. But for more than month, it enjoyed its pleasant country surroundings and the close proximity to Naples, about 10 miles to the south.

“We moved back and then westward where we joined Route 6, the north-south road from Naples to Rome. Here the battalion was allocated space in vast olive groves and each company had a farm building as Headquarters near the village of Santa Maria. Spring was in the air. Our new home, although mainly under the stars or olive trees, was comfortable. We had a large Italian stone oven and plenty of wood. Jim Sadler was delirious with delight.”

“We could see to the west Mount Vesuvius with steam emerging from its cone. Santa Maria was small and out of bounds but we were quite close to Capua and Caserta, the site of Allied Headquarters. The 78th Division, of which we were part, had been transferred out of our original Army Corps which had been renamed the New Zealand Corps under General Freyberg. We heard that the other two divisions in the Corps were engaged at Cassino. The 78th was the reserve division and would be used after the attack went in.”

In December, there had been an important change in E Company with the arrival of a new Officer Commanding.

“We had a new Company Commander: Major Mervyn Davies from the Welch Regiment, with his own Batman.

I had not seen the Company Commander when his Batman came to me and said: ‘Major Davies would like a mug of tea.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Officer’s tea is served at the Officers’ Mess.’

‘That’s what the Corporal told me.’

He left to return a few minutes later.

‘The Company Commander wishes to see you.’

For a change, I was correctly wearing my badges of rank. I marched into the Company Office and saluted this rather severe young man, who stood and towered above me.

‘What’s this about I can’t have a miserable mug of tea?’

‘That is quite right, Sir. Officers’ rations are at the mess. We pride ourselves on being the best fed company in the battalion. We are able to do this only because the rations are used strictly at mealtimes and only as part of the meal.’

‘What about the Cooks and the Sergeant Major?,’ Davies asked.

‘I promised Corporal Sadler that, if he maintained his standard and reputation, all rations would be inviolate.’”

“Davies was not happy with the Cooks and with me. I could tell that he did not think I looked like a soldier, let alone a senior NCO. That evening, Jim excelled himself and produced roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast and boiled potatoes, cabbage and thick brown gravy. This was followed by a slice of baked jam roll with a sweet sauce. Davies watched Jim serving the repast in his usual serious manner. I think he was convinced that his men’s food was equal to, if not better, than that served at the Officers’ Mess.”

“The Officers’ Mess reputation suffered when statistics proved that hepatitis, which filled our hospitals, was most prevalent among officers and least so among front line troops. It was discovered that hygiene must be the cause. Officers’ eating utensils were improperly cleaned and shared. Front-line troops ate with their own utensils or fingers. Drink was discounted as a cause when it was discovered that senior NCOs were almost free of the complaint. As Davies and I became more familiar, we began to respect each other and this turned to us actually becoming friends.”

“Another incident occurred with rations. It was discovered that the compo packs held as emergency rations had been broached and sweets and cigarettes stolen. I followed a trail of wrappings to one man’s bed and discovered evidence that he was the culprit. The Commanding Officer was furious as he knew that our company was well-fed. He remanded the rifleman for Field General Court Martial. I had to go with the sentry, who was with me when I arrested the miscreant, to give evidence in what was a strong case. I did not reckon to have to face a professional barrister as defending lawyer. He told the court that I should have called the Regimental Police. He also stated that I had not given a proper warning and many other points. I left the court feeling lucky that I had escaped punishment myself. The soldier was acquitted and sent back to base. I probably saved his life by charging him. He never returned to the London Irish Rifles and dangerous front-line duties. I thought how unlucky I was at court martials. The absentees I gave evidence in mitigation for received long sentences but criminals had got off.”

“One evening in March, I could see smoke, steam and lava streaming from the crater of Vesuvius. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Vesuvius had been almost quiescent since AD79 when the caldera exploded and completely destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Since then, the new volcano had risen to a height of 2,300 feet, although that was a fraction of its former massive proportions. Its balmy slopes were the sites of convalescent homes for sick and wounded soldiers and these had to be hurriedly evacuated during the night. I thought then, and still do, that both Etna and Vesuvius had become lively after so much use of heavy explosives during the war.”

On 15 March, the New Zealand Corps again attacked at the start of the third battle for Monte Cassino. The brigade was on short-notice to be sent to the front to exploit any breakthrough. Scott convinced 78th Division commander General Leese to allow his men to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in peace.

“We were warned that our time had come again but the brigade had been allowed to celebrate St Patrick’s Day out of the line. I was MC at the Brigade Mass. The celebrant was Father Dan Kelleher, a former amateur boxer who had sponsored boxing in the brigade. He and I became firm friends. Brigadier Scott was present, as were all the officers of the Irish Fusiliers, the Catholic Skins and London Irish officers. That evening we had a party in the Sergeants’ Mess marquee and the Officers were invited. As usual, it developed into rugger scrums and a brawl. Shades of Didlington, I thought, as I went off to bed.”

On 19 March, the brigade was transported closer to Cassino. Two days later, it was moved to the front line on the Rapido opposite the fortified village of San Angelo which occupied a hill on the river’s west bank and commanded the entrance to the Liri Valley. The village had played a central role in the First Battle of Cassino when it was the target of an initial failed attack to break the Gustav Line.

“We were in the line once more, on the banks of the Rapido, where we relieved the New Zealanders. To our right was the Monastery and, towering above, the mighty massif of Monte Cairo. Before the start of the Second Battle for Cassino, General Freyberg had decided that the Germans were using the ancient building as an observation post. He called down saturation bombing on 15 February, during our stay at Santa Maria. I had watched vast armadas of flying fortress bombers on route to drop their loads on Monte Cassino and many hill towns that resembled it. The result was the creation of a strongpoint which was now almost impregnable.”

“From our positions on the Rapido, we could see coloured smoke which identified Allied positions. Every now and again, there would be a lull in the fighting and ambulances with large Red Cross flags slowly drove up the track and back. The Monastery was a complete ruin, stark and forbidding in the sunlight. We had just settled in behind the thick walls of a farmhouse in our positions close to the Rapido when we were treated to a heavy bombardment. The dust had barely settled, when an Italian lady walked through the door, asking ‘Lavare?’ The Italian ladies were so brave and hard working.”

“Probably the most international army in the world formed that year in Italy. There were English, Irish, Scots, Americans, French, Indians, Poles, Canadians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Brazilians, Algerians, Tunisians, Jews, Italians and, even, Japanese-Americans. There were Australian and Rhodesian air force units. Against us was an Army with many members conscripted from occupied Europe. It was a vast international array and a complete waste of humanity and resources.”

The brigade was pulled out of the front line for a day spent at Mignano. It was then moved again, this time to the north of Cassino. On 29-30 March 1944, they relieved French troops on Monte Castellone, a 2,300-foot peak overlooking Monte Cassino which had been captured during the first battle in January. For almost the whole month of April, the brigade had the unpleasant task of monitoring the monastery from uncomfortable and exposed positions on the mountain tops. Supplying food and ammunition was difficult and dangerous. It could only be moved by mule and hand at night across the Rapido valley, which was a no-man’s land, and then up precipitous tracks that were subject to shelling. The starting point for Ted’s daily journey to E Company was San Michele, a village on high land about two miles east of Cassino.

“I was taken with my supplies to San Michele and here I was allocated about 30 mules which I loaded with tools, food and water and some of the men’s kit. Following immediately behind the company in pitch darkness, we climbed down the hill and came to a mysterious cavern which I was told was called the ‘Inferno’. From here, we continued towards the town of Cassino and crossed the Rapido by a stone bridge. When we were in the middle, a salvo of shells landed on the road. At this point, we had difficulty controlling the mules and the drivers.”

“We set off again, slowly following the overladen soldiers. After getting so close to Monte Cassino that we felt we were almost under the Monastery’s walls, we started climbing a precipitous path to Monte Castellone. We had to take particular care as the nervous muleteers were attempting to ditch their loads. I finally arrived at the top with about half a dozen mules. Loads were spread along the track behind us. The whole thing was a tactical mistake. The companies should have moved in first and the mule trains followed after they settled.”

“E Company’s position was the summit of Monte Castellone, and like the Monastery Hill, really a foothill of Monte Cairo. It was located on a salient behind Monte Cassino that had been taken by French and American troops at tremendous cost. Slit trenches could not be dug in the rock, so sangars were built from the vast amount of rubble. The place stank. Holes could not be excavated and excrement was thrown everywhere. Each sangar had a large food tin as a latrine. Major Davies set the men to work to clear up the sordid mess after they had salvaged the abandoned mule loads.”

“I had to leave as dawn was breaking. If I was not back in the village of Caira, the Battalion Headquarters, before sunrise, I would have to walk across the wide valley in full daylight. I made my way from there back to the mule point at San Michele in a jeep. As soon as I arrived, I had to start preparing for the next trip. Daylight disclosed the full panorama of the vast battlefield. The valley of the Rapido was covered in smoke punctured by shell bursts. Monte Cairo dominated the landscape. The next evening’s journey was carried out more efficiently and a small escort accompanied us. Taking a different route, we avoided the stone bridge and the muleteers were not so panic-stricken. We arrived at the summit and discovered that nearly all the earlier loads had been rescued intact.”

“As dawn approached, we seized the opportunity to get some sleep. We had barely settled in our blankets after a hard night’s work when we were heavily bombarded by shells. When the shelling ceased, I went around checking casualties. I sent them to the field hospital. Finally, I went down to where our two officers were still deep in their massive dugout. They enquired: ‘Anyone hurt?’ They were safe, but the truth was that the dugout was too large to offer protection from shell bursts and they were lucky that none had exploded there.”

The London Irish held positions on Monte Castellone from which they monitored developments on Monte Cassino. E Company’s sangars were the most southerly and closest to the monastery, though there was a deep ravine separating them from Monte Cassino. During the day, riflemen were obliged to sit motionless to avoid being spotted and fired upon. There was shelling and mortar fire. Inevitably, men were killed and wounded. Ted’s job involved ferrying supplies and mules from San Michele to the company every night. The brigade was replaced on Monte Castellone on 25 April by the Polish Corps. The Poles were to play an important role in the next battle for Cassino which was being prepared. The London Irish were withdrawn to Formicola, a peaceful village 30 miles behind the front line. It was to be their last period of rest and preparation before the final Cassino onslaught. The brigade was moved to Presenzano, 10 miles south-east of Monte Cassino, on 10 May. Ted was ready for the battle, but illness intervened.

“We had a three-day rest after Monte Castellone. My cousin Danny Hanlon visited us. Before we sent him on his way, he was introduced to Bob Doonan’s speciality: red Italian vino in an unwashed jerrycan. Doonan thrived on it. I had injured my knee during my nightly journeys into the mountains and it had swollen so much that my escort had to carry me to see Major Davies. He ordered me to rest and loaned me a senior NCO to make the daily run to Monte Castellone until I recovered. Soon after, we were relieved by the Poles who were going to use our hill as the start point of their attack on the Monastery. We were not sorry to leave the mountain.”

“The division was taken back to train with their tank support for the impending offensive. I went down with malaria and I was taken back to a General Hospital in Naples where I remained a couple of days. I was then shipped to Bari on the Adriatic. There, the hospitals were being cleared ready for the heavy casualties of the coming battle. Once more, I decided to discharge myself from hospital.”

Read Chapter 9 here.