The Irish Rifles’ assault on Sinagoga

The Irish Rifles task was to seize ‘Pytchley’. Their task would be a bit healthier than the Skins had been, as 11 Brigade was coming up to attack on their right and the Derbyshire Yeomanry were going to move west to the south of the River Piopetto.

They were the only participants in the brigade so I give you their own account:

“The battalion came under heavy fire on the FUPs. Colonel Goff was killed early on, also the CO of the 16/5 Lancers. Geoffrey Phillips was also severely wounded and, in all, some forty five casualties had been inflicted by nightfall including Ken Lovatt, our signals officer. The Second-in-Command arrived up about 3pm and we fixed zero hour for 730pm. We met the Brigadier, who explained the position very clearly and then we got the latest news from Colonel Bala Bredin of the Inniskillings. The difficulty was getting the battle laid on, doing the necessary recces, briefing and so forth, for the shelling was very heavy indeed. At 630pm, however, the battle was postponed until dawn the next day so that it could be combined with the punch by the Lancashire Fusiliers on our right flank and also so that a decent barrage could be laid on.

We had a very fine team for this battle and the names of the various chiefs should be remembered for they gave us very faithful service. There was Paul Lunn Rockliffe, John Lockwood and Bob Carey of the 17th Field. Angus Dubbs and his merry men of B Squadron 16/5 Lancers, Butters and Budd with their 17 pounders. Shilledy, otherwise known as Shillelagh, of 4.2″ mortar fame and Ronnie Backus and his tanks of the 17th/21st, who towed our anti tank guns into action, not to mention Freddie Cullen and his Vickers guns, who somehow always seemed to find their way to the worst spots.

The night was disturbed and noisy, though some chaps got some sleep. At first light, we held a fresh ‘O’ Group in a German 88 position. Here we were reasonably secure and had a decent view of the first part of the forthcoming battle. The brief plot was to attack astride the road to Sinagoga with H Company in the centre, G to the right and E on the left, each with one troop of tanks. Pioneers followed on the centre line to de-mine the road for the reserve tanks and tank guns etc. One of the difficulties was a minefield across our front on the other side of the Pignatoro road, which was covered by Huns at close range and entailed a preliminary operation. We incidentally had a laid on barrage of several hundred guns to help us and the Lancashire Fusiliers on our right.

The battle began at 9am and the barrage came down with a crash that made coherent thinking difficult for some time. The show started off ok, though G and E Coys very early on were heavily involved and temporarily held up by Huns firing from the cellars of the houses. However, the teamwork was very good. Many Germans were trapped in their dugouts by the barrage and our chaps were among them with bayonets before they realised the barrage had passed on. In other places where our infantry was held up, the positions were blasted to bits by HE from the tanks’ 75s. Many of the German gun crews were caught away from their guns by the barrage and were then unable to man them. Others, when they opened fire on the tanks, were shot down by the infantry. The show never really looked like stopping.

(NA 15048) Original wartime caption: German prisoners coming in through the London Irish positions.

One of the main sources of trouble was the left flank across the river, which was entirely open and throughout the battle we were under consistent and heavy fire from this side by MG 34s, 42s, mortars and tanks. The 16/5 Lancers gave, however, more than they got and registered many direct hits on located points and set fire to several AFVs of various types as well as blowing up two ammunition dumps. Many Bosche were seen to fall running from their positions. H Company, under Desmond Woods, eventually broke into the village of Sinagoga, where a ferocious hand to hand fight developed, which lasted for over an hour with the Bosche defending the buildings with grenades, MGs and Schmeissers. There was also an SP 75 behind the one of the houses, which was sniping our leading tanks. Corporal Barnes and his section led an attack on this AFV. Corporal Barnes, himself, went forward alone covered by his Bren gunner in the face of intense fire and killed one of the crew with a grenade before he was killed himself – a most gallant act.

Shortly after this, the garrison of the village started to surrender and, by noon, the whole of the objective was in our hands. G Company, in the meantime, were having the hell of a battle with a local Hun counter attack in between themselves and the Lancashire Fusiliers – No 2 Troop here bagged a Mark IV at a range of fifty yards. After about an hour, this was cleared up and contact with the latter established. E Company, on the left, meanwhile had pushed on well past the objective and gained a group of houses overlooking the river. This proved to be most valuable in neutralising the counter attack that came in from that side in the afternoon.

From zero hour until dark, the battalion was subjected to very heavy shelling and mortaring that very rarely stopped. During the attack too, the German MG fire was more concentrated than anything I had seen previously. Fortunately, the latter was not as well aimed as in the days of old and our companies were highly skilled in the use of ground. By 2pm, Butters and his 17 pounders had arrived somehow and also Ken Daly and Sergeant Ogilvie, with their three inch mortars, were getting busy in the village, and Paul was stonking everything he could see.

During the afternoon, the counter attack from the south developed with all manner of fire going both ways. On our part, we had two of our support Vickers destroyed with their crews and also one of our 17 pounders had a direct hit killing or wounding all the gun crew. On the other hand, we put down an ‘Uncle’ on the appropriate area and the 16/5 and the mortars, also E Company shot up everything they could see. The attack never really progressed though some Bosche got into the corn between us and the river. The area afterwards was full of burning relics and several vehicles were brewed up, at least one tank was destroyed and an observed German mortar took a direct hit from a 75.

During this time, both H and F Companies were patrolling forward towards ‘Fernie’ and, by dark, had disinfested the area to a depth of six hundred yards in front of us. By this time, the counter attack had also fizzled out; all was under control. Our own casualty list in the attack were five officers and sixty ORs, five of the Anti Tank Troop and eleven from the Support Group. The tanks also had a few minor casualties. Mike Clark, who was killed, was a very sad loss and much loved by his platoon as were Sergeant Mayo and CSM Wakefield. The bag included 120 prisoners of varying species, at least a hundred Bosche were buried on the battlefield that had been slain within the positions. No search for others was made by us. Nine tanks or SPs were counted and there were other probables, also mortars, A/Tk guns, vehicles, ammunition dumps, and small arms galore. Patrolling during the early part of the night was very active and a few more prisoners were pulled in.”

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