Irish Brigade

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

From Argenta to Austria

 “We had trained with a tank brigade and were introduced to the ‘Kangaroo’, a tank with the lid removed to allow two infantry sections to be carried into battle, sheltered and speedily. The colour sergeant (me), in contrast, followed in his open-topped jeep. After all, he and his driver had steel helmets.

The 56th Division with the 1st Battalion of the London Irish started the assault in the east (on the night of 5 April). Our attack over the Senio began with massive air and artillery attacks. This was followed by flame tanks called wasps. Bridges across the floodbanks of the Senio were made by driving Churchill tanks with bridge attachments into the ditches. A massive column of about 100 heavily-armoured vehicles stormed across. There were Churchill flamethrowers, Sherman flail tanks for mine clearance, Sherman Arcs, Sherman Bulldozers, tracked artillery pieces and the Kangaroos.

The speed of the advance was phenomenal and casualties were light. Having reached our objective, the Conselice Canal, the battalion dug in for the night. I followed in a jeep, laden with a cooked meal, in the tracks left by the armour. It was comparatively peaceful as I crossed the Senio, now Bailey-bridged, on my way north behind the battalion and saw the double-banked Churchills of the early crossings. I served the meal for the company. As I finished, a corporal from a troop of recovery tanks approached. ‘Any overs left for my chaps, Dickie?,’ he asked. It was McVeigh from the Corpus Christi Football team.

Each day, the battalion fought and advanced rapidly while I had to return for cooked meals, haversack rations and, of course, the hot cakes. This meant I seldom had time for sleep. We crossed the canal and went on to the rivers Santerno and the Reno. At each obstacle, we would halt and stay overnight. This would give me the opportunity to catch up on a little sleep.

At almost the last halt, I was held up by a column of traffic. Directly behind me were trucks carrying reinforcements. I went back to speak to them, as some were returned wounded. I vaguely recognised one and asked him about his company. He claimed to have been with another company and was returning from hospital. Then I remembered. He was the young soldier so shaken by shellfire near Piedimonte the previous May that he had run away the same evening. I later learned he had spent the time since in prison. He had been afraid. So had we all. I was terrified, but had a greater fear: to be seen to be frightened. I was Rosie. It meant baring my teeth in a smile, regardless.

We had arrived at the Po. During the last days of the offensive, we had passed a most distressing sight. Beautiful draught horses had been shot dead and lay bloated and stinking. The Germans had killed them rather than let them live and remain for us. Most had been commandeered from the unfortunate Italians. They had lost so much. Their beautiful country had been destroyed from Sicily to the Po and occupied by aliens from all over the world.

The south bank of the Po was an extraordinary scene. The Germans, trapped by the river, had abandoned everything. Many had even tried to swim the Po to escape and many died as a result. The carnage of war continued relentlessly as if it were now on a form of autopilot.

The company rested by the side of Po while the Royal Engineers set about bridging its mile width. I arranged a campfire and ‘drunk’ using Canadian beer and hot rum toddy. Corporal Howarth was, as usual, master of ceremonies. When directed, each person had to sing. We had yet another new company commander to replace Major Davies who had been wounded and transferred. The replacement was Bill Hood who had been second-in-command of G Company and a friend. Nick Mosley was second-in-command, having returned after being wounded in the autumn. The war was virtually over on our front and the Germans were suing for a separate peace in Italy. The Po bridge was completed. It was a magnificent structure with, at its entrance, the numbers of the engineer regiments and squadrons that had built it. Below that were listed the subcontractors. They included the London Irish Rifles who had contributed labour to the project.

Leaving the Po behind, we moved swiftly north in TCVs and passed through Udine. E and H Companies were pushed up on to the Yugoslavian border at Caporetto and Plezzo. Here, with some tanks, we hoped to persuade partisans from Tito’s Yugoslav partisan army, who had crossed into Italy, to go back.

I managed to get to Mass on the Sunday. Although it was Italy, the Mass was in Serbian. We moved the next day back into Italy proper and passed into Austria by the Tarvisio Pass. It was Monday 7th May and the war in North-West Europe was in its final day. It was said that the Irish Brigade would be allowed to claim the European Star as well as the Italian Star which had already been awarded. In the event, we didn’t get it.”



 

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