Irish Brigade

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

The Liri Valley

 After leaving the Cassino massif, the London Irish Rifles, along with the rest of the Irish Brigade withdrew for some rest and training just to the north of Caserta before joining the assualt on the German Gustav Line defensive positions across the Liri Valley.

CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan describes this period of forward movement by the whole of the 8th Army and recalls a number of tragic moments during the push northwards towards Rome.


“….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 and 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.

On the morning of 13 May, I was up and dressed and reported to the doctor. I asked for tablets so I could rejoin my unit. The doctor said I should be evacuated to Tripoli. But, as I was a senior NCO, he would allow me to find my own way back to the front. He recognised my anxiety for my lads and let me go. I walked out of the gates of the hospital, a mansion on the outskirts of Bari, with just my small kit.

Two GIs in a jeep pulled up and said: ‘Wanna lift, buddy?’ I asked where they were going. Upon hearing their destination was Naples, my heart jumped with joy. It was over 100 miles in the right direction and they would take me across the Appenine Mountains. I jumped in and told them that I wanted to rejoin my company which could already be involved in the battle at Cassino. Conversation was difficult because the jeep was open and they proceeded at maximum speed. At Naples, they took me up to Highway 6 and dropped me at a convenient crossroads. I had not been waiting long when a three-ton truck with the insignia of the 78th Division approached. I frantically signalled and it stopped. I told the driver I wanted to rejoin my regiment somewhere near Cassino. Glad of the company, he invited me to join him at the front of the truck. He said he thought he could find the London Irish.

I arrived at rear echelon where people were clearing up after the battalion had left. A truck going to battalion close to the Gari gave me a lift. As we approached the river, there were the noises of battle, particularly of artillery. I found E Company, where I was greeted with hugs from George Charnick and Jock McNally and with a kiss from Eddie Mayo. They were apprehensive about going into battle without my support. The amazing thing had been that due to the co-operation of so many people — doctors, Yanks and transport drivers — I was able to join my friends in one of the greatest epics of World War II. But would I live to regret my efforts?

It was about 5pm on 14 May when we moved towards the river and crossed a partly-submerged Bailey bridge, which was heavily smoked, and passed into the bridgehead. The company went into reserve positions (immediately behind the front-line units) and I left them there in the middle of the night. The next day, I busied myself preparing for my evening task. I was close to the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS – the first point where wounded men were treated in battle) and a troop carrier used as an ambulance trundled in.

I went over and found the battalion’s commander, Colonel Goff, seriously wounded and in agony. I helped unload him. With him was what looked like a midget who was obviously dead. It took me some time to recognise the body as Goff’s driver who was more than 6ft tall. He had lost both legs. Goff had been on reconnaissance and a shell caught him and his O Group. Father Dan Kelleher called me over and asked if I would help him with some burials. The first was the badly mutilated driver. I held back the blanket while Father Dan anointed the stumps. That evening, I went up to the company in a 15cwt truck driven by Benny Goodman. I found that the attack due for the morning had been postponed while the new battalion commander John Horsfall, who was second in command, took over. Goodman crashed the vehicle and I had to walk the rest of the way. On the evening of 15 May, I rejoined E Company and stayed until dawn in a slit trench with my mate Eddie Mayo….

….Following the breaking of the German defensive lines, we advanced almost to Highway 6, where we were right beneath the ever threatening Monte Cairo and the town of Piedimonte. Pat Giles, the company second-in-command, turned up and immediately organised showers, which I thought madness. A draft of reinforcements of about ten men had appeared. In my capacity as acting CSM, I questioned them and found one man very interesting. He was fine-looking soldier who had served in the Household Cavalry and was a driver as well. I marched him into the farm building we were using. As I reached the door, a salvo of shells burst on the company and the soldier became a cowering heap. Later that day, he would run away, to be picked up, it transpired, in the rear areas.

The consequences of Pat Giles’ concern about the cleanliness of the men were far reaching. At least three were killed in the shelling, including the recently promoted and decorated Sergeant Keegan. And the real German observation point for this great battlefield was at last revealed. It was not the ill-starred monastery but three caves near the summit of the 5,000 foot Monte Cairo which commanded the whole area south of Cassino. Artillery very neatly dropped shells in the mouths of the caves. But our reinforcements had been cancelled out by the bombardment.

We continued advancing. We were cut off from advancing into Rome by the Americans finally coming out of Anzio and being the first troops into Rome… We were forced to rest at Ripi. On our last day there, a jeep ran over a booby-trapped mine killing all four of its occupants. I had used that track several times daily during our stay.”



 

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