Irish Brigade

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

Entering Tunis

 CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan recalls the entry of the Irish Brigade into Tunis in early May 1943, and the Victory Parade later in the month.


“The brigade had cleared all the accessible areas in the mountains west of Tunis. They were withdrawn from the line for rest and reinforcement. The 78th Division continued the push towards Tunis. By the evening of 7 May, its armour reached the city’s outskirts.

The Irish Brigade was given the distinction of being the first marching troops into Tunis. The London Irish entered the town in buses through the crossroads at La Mornaghia. A senior officer in immaculate uniform stood beside his jeep. It was the ‘boss’, General Sir Harold Alexander. Debussing at the entrance of the city, the battalion marched in single file along both sides of the road. I remained in my three-tonner, which soon became be-decked with flowers. The men were garlanded, kissed and cheered by the French colons, who were relieved the war was over for them with little damage to their home.

Tunis was a beautiful French colonial city with a native quarter, the kasbah. The latter would remain out of bounds to British soldiers. The London Irish had the task of clearing the docks. When this was finished, E Company assembled at a caravanseri just outside Tunis. Here we bivouacked. The camels had left but their fleas had not. A few cans of AL63 insecticide were shared among the men. Some who were too enthusiastic in their use of it discovered to their cost the effect it had on parts where they perspired. We were soon moved to billets in the suburbs which to us were the height of luxury. One platoon was in a house that was the terminus of the undersea cable to southern France and Italy. As I arrived to issue rations, I was greeted with an explosion from within. A man was brought out covered in blood. The apparatus had been booby-trapped. I immediately took him to hospital where I handed him over to the nuns and left him to their care.

Very close to our billet was a lovely little Catholic Church whose parishioners welcomed ‘Les Irlandais’. Tunis had large Italian and Maltese populations as well as French and Berbers. We subsequently moved into bivouacs outside the town and it was pleasant as the weather was quite warm. The enemy had been cleared from the Cap Bon area and parties of enemy prisoners were seen marching in good order followed by a truck containing a military policeman with a rifle. You could easily distinguish between the Italians and the Germans. The Italians seemed to have their personal possessions in small attache cases.

We spent a few days at Hammamet, a beautiful but deserted seaside village, but had to move because of the shortage of food. The army had a quarter of a million prisoners to feed. Our rations had been reduced and we received just one slice of bread in the morning plus one other. The rest of the ration was meagre. We moved back into the Atlas Mountains to Guelma through which we had passed months before. Here we encamped in proper tents.

In Tunis, a victory parade was held at on Thursday 20 May 1943.

I insisted on joining it as I was one of the few survivors of the company that had landed at Algiers the previous November and was the only colour sergeant on parade. As we approached the saluting stand, we could see Eisenhower, Alexander, Montgomery and the Free French Commander General Giraud. An American film cameraman shouted: ‘Getta load of this!’ as he saw our saffron kilted pipers and the caubeens with their green and blue hackles. The detachment of London Irish wore the only hackles that could be found among the few hundred survivors from the Tunisian campaign.

High above the city of Tunis, and dominating the skyline, were the twin white towers of one of the oldest basilicas of the Catholic Church. Close by were the ruins of a great Roman city. It had been built on the site of Carthage, Hannibal’s capital, which had been destroyed after the 2nd Punic war. The Catholics of the 78th Division marched to a Mass of thanksgiving and remembrance. Leading the division were the pipes and drums of the Skins, the Faughs and the London Irish Rifles. I again was the only colour sergeant from the battalion. To me, these parades were a duty I never avoided. It was both a pleasure and a privilege to march behind the pipes.

My main prayers, apart from thanksgiving for survival, were for the repose of the souls of my many comrades and friends: Denis Griffin and Andy Gardiner, the gentle provost sergeants; George Rock and Ian Brooks; Captain Carrigan; Snootch McDowell, whom I escorted to his death, and Harry McRory. I thought of the hundreds of others from the battalion who had died, were missing or had been wounded. I also remembered those I had helped to bury, without due prayer, both friend and foe. What a waste. I also thought of myself and my constant terror which I had successfully hidden, except once when it showed in my eyes. I was with Doc Samuels, our beloved medical officer, who grasped my wrist and reassured me. My biggest fear was to show that fear to others. I had tried to serve my fellows and to act as their mother: feeding them, clothing them, finding them somewhere to rest, giving them comfort and often listening to their worries and fears for their families. From them, I received affection which was close to love.

I was proud of them and, at times, I think they were proud of me. A company quartermaster’s job was no sinecure, nor was it a safe, secure little number in the stores, somewhere behind the line. It was physically and mentally exhausting. It was dangerous.Often, the company would make an assault and I would have to negotiate the same route and undertake the same hazards for several days. Apart from the perils of being the target for guns, mortars and small arms, it involved sheer hard work, lack of sleep and no form of comfort. When the company rested, my work continued and often increased.”



 

 

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