At the end of the month, we were relieved by 36 Brigade.
Brigade Headquarters, the Skins and the Faughs moved back to a first class rest area 4 miles north of Florence. The London Irish remained under command of 11 Brigade and didn’t join us there until 4th February. Whilst with 11 Brigade, they renewed their acquaintance with their old friends, the Salaras and little Spaduro and held this locality without incident. It was much quieter than when they first went there.
Our rest area was admirably chosen. Billets consisted of modern Italian villas situated largely amongst pine trees. The weather remained perfect throughout our stay.
Florence quickly got to know that the Irish Brigade had arrived. Among noteworthy parties, was one given by the officers of the Faughs in rather a quaint basement. All ranks dances were held by the Skins in Florence and the London Irish at their local village. On the more serious side, there was a Divisional Commander’s inspection on February 6th. Both the Faughs and the Skins marched past him, prior to his inspecting billets. The settings for parades were admirably chosen and the Divisional Commander remarked on the smartness of the turnout of battalions and thoroughly enjoyed the Pipes and Drums. On the 7th, he inspected the billets of the London Irish and saw companies carrying out training. General Charles Keightley, Commander of 5 Corps, also paid Brigade Headquarters a visit on this day and he and the Divisional Commander lunched there to the music of the pipes and drums of the London Irish Rifles. His visit was well timed as the Brigade began to move to Forli to come under his command two days later. We were now in the 8th Army again.
Whilst we were reluctant to leave Florence so soon, this move into the Po valley was looked forward to by many of us with interest. We had spent months wondering what the valley would be like and now we could find out.
This new vision of the plains of the Po valley presented an interesting spectacle in those of us, who had spent so long in the mountainous terrain of the Apennines. Even the Liri valley could not be compared with this type of country.
The whole plain was covered in vegetation and dotted with houses. Every field was bounded by rows of vines and tress about six to twelve feet high, affording little observation and restricting any view to a maximum of two hundred yards. Rivers and canals abounded, especially nearer the Adriatic coast, all of them flanked on either side by high dykes as a precaution against flooding.
There was a comprehensive network of roads and tracks, reducing the transport problem to the absolute minimum. The main roads were in excellent condition. What a relief and a joy after the mountain roads where nothing short of a mule track was, more often than not, the lifeline of more than one division. Traffic blocks were unheard of in this part of the world.
Houses, green fields, eggs and fowl were to be found but the green fields were treated with reserve. Stories were liberally circulated about the number of mines that were hidden in them. Maybe those arose from wishful thinking as to the possibility of training being restricted because of this danger but there was certainly a good foundation for them.
The Brigade was again extremely lucky in the location of billets in, or just outside, the town of Forli. They were less lucky as regards the state of the billets themselves. They had been previously occupied by the Italian Army. About three days concentrated shovelling and scraping did wonders. For a few days, training had to take second place but, by the 14th February, all battalions were hard at it, and one heard the usual remarks expressed by people, wishing they were back in the line.
Forli presented a fair amount of entertainment for the chaps and there were quite a number of other sizeable towns well within striking distance. Forli possessed a first class NAAFI called the Dorchester. This magnificent Fascist building provided meals and entertainment for anything up to 10,000 men daily and its scope was terrific. The soldier could do anything there from sending flowers home to his wife, to learning to play the piano.
The dress and bearing of the Brigade when walking out in Forli was of its usual high standard and many were the remarks expressed of praise and surprise by those who lived in this town and had not seen real soldiers for some time.
On February 17th, the massed Pipes and Drums together with the band of the Royal Ulster Rifles beat Retreat in the Prefecture Square, Forli. At the conclusion, the officers of Brigade Headquarters entertained a large number of guests, including the Divisional Commander. The 1st Battalion, London Irish Rifles were also in Forli at the time and the St Patrick’s blue and green hackles were much in evidence.