Return To The Road To Sinagoga

On a starry night in Sinagoga at the entrance to the Liri valley 80 miles south of Rome, two brothers raised their glasses on 19 July 2009 to toast the memory of those who had suffered and sacrificed so much in this place in the final days of the Battle of Cassino 65 years earlier.

Gerard and Richard O’Sullivan were at the home of Franco Sinagoga, his wife Clara and their children Alessandra and Antonio. Much has changed in the Liri valley since the battle ended. But the road to Sinagoga is much as it was when their father Ted O’Sullivan and his comrades from the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles broke the German line that ran through the village on 16 May 1944.

A gently-undulating valley about five miles wide between the mountains rising in the east and the Auruncci Hills to the west is cut by streams and dotted by villages and hamlets that were then formidable defensive strongpoints. The numbers living in the area has dramatically increased and a road used to test cars made at a nearby Fiat factory runs north-west along a line that follows the route of the British Army’s advance in the final days of the Casino battle. But practically all the landmarks that would have been recognised by the London Irish still exist. In the hamlet of Sinagoga itself, German barbed wire has been gathered and spooled and hangs on the wall of a roofless building below which a German bunker was dug. British army ammunition boxes and other debris of war can still be found. Just beyond the hamlet and across a bridge over the road to Rome, a ruined farmhouse still bears the scars of the intense fighting that took place at this spot on 16 May 1944.

All My Sons & Daughters: a London Irish Family at Peace, the second volume of Ted O’Sullivan’s memoirs, describes the events and achievements of his life after the 2nd World War. But the mind is drawn inexorably back to Sinagoga and Cassino; a turning point in Ted’s existence and in the history of the world’s bloodiest conflict. The battle for Sinagoga was the pivotal moment in All My Brothers: A London Irish Family at War, the first volume of Ted’s memoirs which were published in 2007 and provide an account of his life until his marriage to Patricia Webb in October 1946.

Edmund (Ted) O’Sullivan was born in Peckham in south-east London on 28 February 1919. He was the third child and second son of Edmund (Mick) O’Sullivan and his wife Elizabeth. Ted’s father, then a shunter on the Great Western Railways (GWR), had been born in the Rotherhithe region of the London Docklands in 1892. He was the second son of Daniel O’Sullivan, himself the second son of a London Irishman named Daniel, who arrived from Limerick in Britain’s capital in the late 1840s or early 1850s. Daniel the elder had been forced to leave Ireland for uncertain reasons: one family account is that he was a dissident who had been convicted of an unspecified crime and imprisoned on a prison hulk on the River Thames in London. Another says he was an economic migrant. He is recorded in 1854 to have worked as an arsenal labourer, perhaps in the munitions factory at Woolwich in east London, and then as a docker in 1860. He was involved in the Great Dockers’ Strike of 1889 and received, for services rendered during the dispute, the walking stick of the then head of the Catholic Church in England Cardinal Manning who helped mediate a settlement5.

His son Daniel the younger, born in Southwark in 1860, married Frances Wayte when he was still a teenager in September 1879. New research by Richard O’Sullivan has discovered that Frances Wayte was the daughter of Henry Wayte, a decorated Royal Navy Veteran of the Crimean War who was born in Norfolk but was probably living in East London when Daniel and Frances were married at St Jude’s in Bethnal Green in 1879. Soon after their wedding, Daniel and Frances moved to a house on the Rotherhithe Road close to what is now the site of Millwall Football Club. In the 1911 census, Frances and Daniel are recorded to have had 13 children, but only four, all boys, survived into maturity6. The high rate of mortality among Frances’ children is said to have been a problem due to her blood grouping, and is more precisely identified with the fact that her family passed on the rhessus negative blood group, which can cause complications for newly born babies.

The O’Sullivan family was living in Cronin Road in Peckham when their second son Mick O’Sullivan started work, aged 14, for the GWR in 1906. His two younger brothers were later to join him on the railways. Mick met Elizabeth (Lizzie) Hanlon, a member of a large London Irish family living in Camberwell, on a Catholic outing in 1913. They married in May 1914, less than three months before the start of the 1st World War. A socialist and trade union militant, Mick nevertheless volunteered to join the British Army, but was turned down because he was in a reserved occupation. His three brothers served in the army during the war and survived. Three of Lizzie’s brothers also served in the conflict.

When their son Ted was born in 1919, Lizzie and Mick were living, like Mick’s parents, in Cronin Road, Peckham. He was two months premature and a twin. His sibling was still-born. In 1925, the O’Sullivan family, by then comprising five children, moved to Shakespeare Road in Herne Hill. Ted, who was nicknamed Dickie by his family, went, until the move to Herne Hill, to St Francis’ Roman Catholic Primary School in Peckham and then to Corpus Christi Primary School in Brixton. He won a scholarship aged 11 to the Brompton Oratory Central School in west London where he followed in the footsteps of his talented elder brother Daniel.

Patricia (Pat) Webb was born in Brixton on 28 July 1919. She was the first child of William Webb, who had served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front for the whole of the 1st World War, and his wife Lily Ann (nee Halligan). Pat won a place at the Brompton Oratory Girl’s School. Forced at the age of 14 to leave school due to financial pressure on her family in the spring of 1934, Pat worked initially in a tailoring firm in central London. She subsequently secured a job in the GWR where she was a secretary until volunteering to serve in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during the war. Pat later worked as a telegraphist at the War Office in Whitehall but initially served in the Southern Command at Wilton House Salisbury. This is about 10 miles from where her father had trained on Salisbury Plain in 1914 and early 1915 before going serve for three and a half years on the Western Front.

Ted left school in the autumn 1934 and started work at Gieves & Hawkes, the Savile Row tailor. He rose to the position of salesman and was secretary of the Corpus Christi youth club in his spare time. On 18 October 1939, Ted was conscripted into the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles, a territorial regiment that mainly recruited from the Irish community of London. He did basic training in Wimbledon in south-west London. The 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles was assigned to duties in St Alban’s, Sandy in Bedfordshire, at Lowestoft on the Suffolk coast during the invasion crisis of June 1940 and then to Knutsford in Cheshire. Further Home Front assignments took the London Irish to the West Midlands, Haverfordwest in Wales, Malvern in the West Midlands and West Sussex in the summer of 1941. In early 1942, the London Irish Rifles were attached to the 38th (Irish) Brigade, a new unit that also comprised the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers (The Faughs) and the 6th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (The Skins). The brigade was moved to Diddlington in Norfolk where it trained for almost six months. In June 1942, the Irish Brigade was transported to Scotland and began intensive preparation for active duties.

On 11 November, the brigade sailed from Greenock on the Clyde to join Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. Before embarking, Ted was promoted to be Colour Sergeant in E Company of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles. His job involved feeding and equipping a fighting unit of more than 100 men and it was a position he was to hold until the end of the war.

The Irish Brigade, then part of the 6th Armoured Division, arrived in Algiers on Thursday 22 November 1942, and travelled by train to Bejaia (Bougie), a port town in eastern Algeria. From there, the brigade was transported by truck across the border into Tunisia and was put into the front-line west of Tunis at the end of November. The London Irish held the Allied line between Medjez el-Bab and Bou Arada until the end of March 1943. In this time, it was involved in many skirmishes with the German army and two bloody battles. One was for Point 286 on 20-21 January 1943 in which the battalion lost about one-quarter of its fighting strength. The second involved repulsing a Panzer attack on 26-27 February. After a period for rest and reinforcement, the battalion was put back into the line in April 1943 and participated in the final attack against German and Italian defences north of Medjez el-Bab. Ted and the London Irish marched in the victory parade through Tunis on 20 May 1943.

The London Irish and the Irish Brigade landed in Syracuse in Sicily on 26 July 1942 and were involved in battles at Centuripe7, the River Simeto and around the foothills of Mount Etna. After the German army withdrew from Sicily on 17 August, the battalion spent five weeks on the island’s north coast preparing for the invasion of Italy. Ted contracted malaria on the Simeto and was to suffer from recurrences of the disease for the rest of the war.

The Irish Brigade landed in Taranto8 in south Italy on 24 September. After travelling by truck to Bari, it was transported by landing craft to Termoli9 where it participated in a battle to secure the town. The brigade was subsequently involved in major Allied offensives against German lines on the River Sinacra, the River Trigno and the River Sangro. At the start of December 1943, the brigade was withdrawn from the line for rest before returning to positions opposite the German army in the Apennine Mountains around the area near Castel Di Sangro, with the London Irish Rifles based in the village of Montenero10. The London Irish were pulled out of the line at the end of January 1944.

In early February, the Irish Brigade was moved to Italy’s west coast close to the Gustav Line which stretched from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic. Its strongpoint was Monte Cassino. The brigade initially joined the New Zealand Corps and held in reserve for possible exploitation of any breakthrough into the Liri Valley. After the failure of the third attack on the Gustav Line, it was put into the front line at the entrance to the River Liri valley close to Cassino in March and then shifted to Monte Castellone overlooking Monte Cassino at the end of the month. It was then taken out of the line to prepare for the fourth battle of Cassino. The attack, involving more than 200,000 Allied troops, started at 11pm on 11 May. On the morning of 14 May, the Irish Brigade was moved up to lead the advance. It went into action early the next morning. After the Skins had advanced out of the bridgehead east of the Rapido, the London Irish carried the attack forward to the fortified hamlet of Sinagoga on 16 May. It took its objectives, but suffered more than 100 casualties. Ted’s close comrade Sergeant Eddie Mayo, Military Medal (MM), was killed by nebelwerfer mortars during the morning of 16 May11.

After helping break the Hitler Line behind the Gustav Line, the Irish Brigade advanced to the north of Rome. On 12 June, Ted and a group of about 30 London Irish comrades visited Rome and were received in the Vatican by Pope Pius XII. He rejoined the battalion later that day and participated in the battle of Trasimeno between 20-26 June 1944 as part of the Allied attack on the Gothic Line. The Irish Brigade and the London Irish again suffered heavy casualties.

At the end of July, the Irish Brigade was transported to Alexandria in Egypt. Ted contracted pneumonia after swimming in Stanley Bay and was too ill to rejoin the London Irish when it returned to Italy at the end of August. After leaving hospital, Ted, travelling independently, returned to Italy. After grappling with army bureaucracy, he rejoined the London Irish which were then in the line around Monte Grande in the north Apennines on Boxing Day 1944. The Irish Brigade experienced an uncomfortable winter in the mountains and was finally transferred to Forli close to the River Senio in the Po Valley at the end of January 1945. After holding the Allied lines for three months, the London Irish participated in the advance against the German defensive lines in the Po Valley on 5-22 April 194513. They subsequently crossed the Po and advanced north, reaching the border with Yugoslavia in early May.

On 7 May, the last day of the war in Europe, the London Irish crossed into Austria and later in the month took up occupation duties in the Ossiachersee region of Carinthia. They were to remain in this area until the battalion was demobilised in early 1946. Ted was promoted to sergeant major as Warrant Officer II and honoured with a Mentioned in Dispatches for meritorious service. Ted was released on leave to London and saw his family for the first time in two-and-a-half years at the end of May 1945. After suffering a further recurrence of malaria that put him in hospital for two weeks, Ted returned to Austria in June 1945. During his leave, he fell in love with Pat Webb. They decided to marry and Ted left the army on the dissolution of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles on 29 March 1946.

His references were glowing. Colonel John Horsfall, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion in 1945/46, said Ted was “an exemplary soldier”. Ted returned to his old job in Hawkes. On 19 October 1946, he married Pat Webb at Corpus Christi Church, Brixton. For five months they lived in the Brixton home of Ted’s parents Lizzie and Mick. In early 1947, Ted received a job offer that was to change his life.

This is an account of what happened next.