Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

Crossing the Sangro River

 CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan remembers meeting with Monty in November 1943, presaging 78 Division’s assault on the German Winter Line at the Sangro River. He recalls entering the town of Fossacesia, soon after 2 LIR’s successful assault there, and then joined the battalion’s subsequent advance north to Rocca.


“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 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.

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 travelled along the road from Mozzagronia 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 3rd December when the Canadians of The Three Rivers Regiment caught up with us. We had a celebration and one of them played a guitar.”



 

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