Clamping Down for the Winter

After it became clear that our attack was indefinitely postponed, we decided that enemy nuisance raids and patrolling could be subdued even more if we carried out a few large scale raids ourselves. We had not done this before because it would have compromised the probable lines of advance of our attack in the main battle.

The first of these raids was carried out on the 18th by the Faughs and I give you their account of how it was done and one or two other anecdotes of life at this time.

“We decided that night that it was time to attack Tamagnin as there was no immediate prospect of the higher plot coming off and it was high time that suppressive measures were applied to the Paratroopers. D Coy were to do the job while Ray Titterton ran a diversion at 166. Their plot was to approach Tamagnin and form up in the low ground in the rear while CSM Storey ran a support group with PIATs close in and Bert Parish was responsible for fire suppression on the higher ground overlooking the house. The warriors reached the Start Line down below safely and began the assault with a dozen PIAT bombs, phosphorous grenades and SMGs. The Bosche retaliation was immediate but Bert and his boys shot with great effect inflicting numerous casualties and suppressed most of the fire. Dick Unwin succeeded in capturing and bombing out the first house, but Reg Beaver was pinned down about thirty yards from the second. A second attack was launched and some of them, including Pat Howard and CSM Storey, reached the second building, which was barricaded. The Bosche then started to swarm down from Antrim Ridge to join in the battle, so Pat had then to fight those lads as well as those in the houses, many of whom had shouted that they wanted to surrender. Bert Parish now became the covering force and effectively fought the counter attack to a standstill. The Mortar DFs were called down and fell all over the area. Against a numerous enemy in the open, it can only be assumed that they inflicted heavy damage. They certainly put an end to the counter attack. The wounded were then collected while Bert continued to engage the enemy. He covered the retreat, withdrawing section by section. L/Cpl Prendrey, as usual, performed prodigies in getting the wounded back. By 1am, all were in. The Bosche were then mortaring our line of retreat. Bert came in with the last having put up a magnificent show. He had just started to walk in with the CO (John Horsfall) when a bomb dropped beside them. Bert was killed instantly and CSM Payne and the CO wounded. Bert was an irreparable loss, having shown himself to be one of the very best officers we have ever had. During the raid, he was giving a running commentary over the assault telephone like a Radio Commentator at a Cup Tie. It was the funniest thing we ever heard. Our casualties that night were three officers, two Warrant Officers and nine others wounded.   

Other activities went on on our mountain besides dealing with the crafty Teuton. B Coy’s pigs, for example. Maginess had long had his eye on them and, for nearly a fortnight, Norman Bass had a vehicle and butcher ready against the time of their apprehension. Those animals were, however, definitely pro Nazi and resisted all attempts at capture, keeping to forward slopes by day, only returning at night. In spite of confident predictions of success by Normal Plymen and CSM Davidson, no results were achieved, though twice, they got a rope round one of them. The uproar on each occasion must be recorded in the Intelligence Log of the 3 Para Regiment. Results were not achieved until the idea of peaceful apprehension was discarded in favour of straight forward assassination by bullet, so the Doctor, James Millar, being an expert in these matters, was put in charge of the operation.

The Pioneers during this period had been working hard under Sergeant Cross DCM, mainly on the mule track, which was one of the knee deep variety. One night, however, they did a particularly good job by lifting all the known mines on our front – a good night’s work – another night, they did an offensive sweep most of the way to Tamagnin looking for mines.

We got rum issues frequently during this period and on rum nights, there was usually a rum ceremony at Battalion HQ when the boys came to draw. I think we will remember best CSM Payne’s nightly haggles with the Adjutant, which was always highly entertaining. Some of the patrols had a pretty hard time, particularly those that lay up all night in exposed places. They needed their rum in the morning. Conversation items between Battalion HQ and Brigade were: ‘We still have received no authorisation for rum issue’…’None has been sent.’ …’Tell the Brigadier it’s raining.’…’Do I have to take your word for it that it’s raining.’….’The Cat looked wet when it came in just now.’

We had some new supporters during this time – Captain Arrowsmith and Leonard Cattrel of the Medium Artillery, who were both delightful company and Dickson of the 4.2” Mortars in place of our Shillelagh. He was a bitter man, hardly ever being allowed to fire his infernal machines owing to ammunition shortages. Finally there was John Young, who commanded the attached Vickers Platoon, a great enthusiast, who fired his weapons on any and every possible occasion and provocation. He and Bert Parish had a dispute one night as one of his guns was sited so that it cleared the heads of Bert’s forward posts by what seemed like a few inches – Poor Bert was pinned down in his trench until the evening ‘Schwerpunkt’ was over.”

The raiding party was eminently successful. The sickening thing was the casualties. Bert Parish was a most promising lad and his death was a bad blow. I was very worried about John Horsfall too. It was the second time he had been wounded. I had spoken to him on the telephone after he had been hit and gathered that it wasn’t very serious. He said he would look in the next morning on the way to the ADS. I was surprised when he came hopping up the stairs with the aid of two sticks and it wasn’t long before I realised he was in no shape to do that sort of thing. He was more shaken than he would admit and most people would have been content to arrive on a stretcher. I insisted on his departure by this means. I was very worried, too, at the possibility of losing John as a CO. He had reached a very high peak of excellence in command of the London Irish during their long advance in the summer and was just the sort of person one wanted to keep the Bosche in his place. His enthusiasm in this respect was a great inspiration. I knew perfectly well that I should come up against the business of his trying to get back long before he was fit and warned him accordingly. Murphy Palmer, who had been Adjutant of the Faughs before the war and during the campaign in France in 1940, was fortunately on the spot as Second-in-Command of the London Irish and he, at once, took over command of the Faughs.

We were able to do quite a lot of air strafing as we had a “Rover David” on the divisional front. I described how this organisation was used during the break through from Cassino. The “man in blue” sat on the top of the hill and directed his aircraft with great accuracy at anything we wanted beaten up. The Americans were doing a lot of this kind of thing too, on our left flank. It all helped to keep the Bosche in a state of suspended animation as he thought it was the softening up before some big attack.

Another thing which I have not referred to up till now was our use of searchlights to help night movement. This had been going on ever since we returned from Egypt. Unless there was a mist, they were splendid and removed a lot of the horrors and dangers attendant on night driving on bad, narrow, slushy, mountain roads. They could also be used to aid patrols at night. They were to play an important part in our battle if it had come off.

On 23rd December, the first serious fall of snow occurred and more fell the next night. We were more or less snow covered until about the 26th January and some very low temperatures were recorded at night. The rum issue rule was that if it was either raining or freezing, rum was to be had. We got through quite a lot during this period. Skis, sleighs, and snow shoes were available in small numbers. We didn’t make any tactical use of these, though I was fully expecting the snow shoes to become essential for any cross country movement. We got a certain amount of value out of the skis and the sleighs for tobogganing, on the mountain behind Battalion Headquarters. Generally speaking, the ground was too precipitous to use the normal aids for getting about in snow.

It was decided that Christmas Day would be celebrated by nobody firing a shot unless the enemy fired first, which we guessed he was very unlikely to do, or unless he started any funny games. No fraternisation would be tolerated at any price. The result of this was an entirely quiet Christmas Day throughout the front. It was a lovely bright day with snow on the ground and we amused ourselves as best we could. I visited the Skins and Faughs in the morning and saw all the chaps one could see without walking about under enemy observation. General Mark Clark and General Kirkman, our Corps Commander, sent us Christmas messages. The London Irish were able to do their Christmas in style at San Martino but other battalions had to have a rather abbreviated form pending the time they would go to San Martino themselves for delayed Christmas festivities. Brigade Headquarters never came out of the line so we had our party where we were on the right day. There was a general feast for all the lads at Brigade Headquarters and both the General and I visited them during their dinner. We had a dinner party at Brigade Headquarters in the evening, which was livened up by the Faughs’ pipers, who had been playing on the hill tops during the day and by singing our usual songs of the Irish Brigade.

On the 26th, just before dawn, and to signify the resumption of hostilities, the Skins collected a couple of prisoners from the standing patrol of 3 Para Regiment. Their story was that they belonged to the standing patrol, which later tried to encircle one of our patrols. They alleged that they had lost their way and got taken prisoner. One of them had a blanket with him – whether his intention was to pay us a permanent visit or not was rather hard to say.

On this day, the London Irish came back from San Martino and the Faughs went out. They celebrated their Christmas in good style on the 29th.

In the evening, we picked up an intercept from 2 Para Division indicating that the Bosche intended to fly over our area that night and that their people were to put up white verey lights ever ten minutes in aid of the performance. We spotted some verey lights but the aircraft did not come our way. This sort of thing happened on one or two other occasions but nothing much came from it.

The weather was so cold at this time that even the fast running streams from the mountains were freezing hard on their surfaces. Plenty of rum was required to keep the circulation going. Winter clothing was very useful and quite good. String vests, of all the unlikely things, were found to be most effective in keeping the cold out. I believe they are much patronised by Arctic explorers.

On New Year’s Eve, we somehow drifted into quite a riotous party at Brigade Headquarters. I remember I was rung up after midnight by the General, who, overcome by the thought of many previous Hogmanies, was celebrating in Highland style at Divisional Headquarters. After exchanging the compliments of the season, he invited me to listen to rival music being played down the telephone by a piper of the Argylls. One or two members of the 8th Argylls had drifted into our party, feeling homesick I suppose and feeling that if they could not find a Scottish party, an Irish one was probably the next best thing. As the night went on, the telephone idea caught a hold and I believe that Corps and Army were rung up to be reminded that a New Year had started. At midnight, the Bosche also decided that something was necessary to mark the occasion and he fired off everything he had straight into the air. It was a magnificent display of fireworks and much appreciated by both sides.

Read ‘Casa Tamagnin’.

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