Now in July (1945), we are still in the area of Villach. There have been minor adjustments and there may be others but we hope that we have really come to rest at last. The Skins are still in their barracks in Villach; the London Irish are living in houses spread out along the Ossiacher Lake, the Faughs around the Faaker Lake between the Drau (Drava) and the Yugoslav border. Everything is now quiet and peaceful. The Jugs have gone home, where we sincerely hope they will stay. A few itinerant Bosche are still in the hills and being rounded up by slow degrees.
The Levat Scouts are in our Brigade at the moment and their mountain experience has been invaluable in catching Huns in the higher places but unfortunately, they are leaving us soon and we shall have to do the rest of the mountaineering ourselves.
Overland leave has started for home and I hope that in less than a year everyone will have been home for a month.
The country itself is about as perfect as you could want. There are diversions to meet everybody’s taste.
Peace at last.
I had originally intended to finish this story with our arrival in the Villach area but I am tempted to carry it a little further to include one or two incidents which may perhaps round it off more adequately.
On the 5th of June, Field Marshal Alexander visited Brigade Headquarters with General McCreery. Keightley and Arbuthnott – in fact for a short time, the whole chain of command was represented at our modest Headquarters, for the COs were also present. We were scheduled to entertain the company to tea.
We started the ball rolling with the Drums and Pipes of the Brigade playing “Retreat”. After watching this for a short while, everyone retired to tables under the trees, where we had a good old fashioned blow out of sticky cakes and strawberries and cream, while the Pipes and Drums continued their melodies from a nearby field. After tea, the Field Marshal went over to see the musicians at closer quarters and I introduced him to the drum majors and pipe majors of the three battalions. Up till now, everything had gone according to schedule but a heavy storm was blowing up – as it did most afternoons – and as I knew the Field Marshal’s time was up, I made signs for his car to appear. He seemed interested in our house – I had told him that it was a Hitler Youth School – and instead of driving off, he said he would like to have a look around. I led him into the house and the first room I went into was Paddy Bowen-Colthurst’s bedroom. A scene of utter confusion greeted us. It looked rather like a cross between a Quarter Master’s store with a mad storeman and a broken down junk shop. Muskets of all shapes and sizes lay about. Doubtful looking fishing rods, large packing cases of know not what, bottles of half eaten cherries with a great assortment of drink that might be added to them on suitable occasions, pieces of raw leather, which stank to high heaven and a few old dog bones – the dog had been using most parts of the room as a bed too at one time or another! Everyone stood spellbound not knowing quite what to look at first. In the hushed silence that ensued, the Army Commander was heard to remark, “Yes, the Germans did leave a lot behind them didn’t they?!”
After inspecting one or two items of major interest, we all managed to get out of the room again without breaking our necks or spraining our ankles. No further comment was passed by anybody. We saw the embarrassed face of Paddy watching the cortege as it withdrew. The next place I went to was the ante room, off which there is a small bar. Under normal circumstances, those are quite reasonable rooms but I had overlooked the fact that taking all the furniture out into the garden for tea would not have improved matters – to say nothing of bringing it all back in a hurry on account of the storm, which was now raging outside. The ante room was completely bare so I said gaily, “Let’s go and look in the bar.” When I opened the door, we were greeted by a cascade of tables and chairs that I suppose had been hurled in through the window. After surveying this scene of confusion for a moment or two, a mess waiter suddenly bobbed up from underneath the tables. How he got there, Goodness knows!
Withdrawing from this second rather unfortunate incident, I decided to try to the “G” Office upstairs – usually a scene of well ordered activity. On the way upstairs, we were nearly knocked down by a German prisoner coming down the stairs. Who he was or where he had sprung from I had not the least idea but the Corps Commander was taking quite a keen interest in his presence. I was too but did not like to show it. I murmured something vaguely about an interpreter – which was nearer the mark than I realised at the time, as apparently John O’Rourke had enlisted this fellow’s services that very afternoon. Confidently, I opened the door of the “G” Officer and to my horror, found the whole place a mass of fluttering paper, with Cammiade, the G III, sitting in the middle of it all apparently quite oblivious that anything was amiss. The window at the far end had been left open and the storm was blowing in full blast, sending all the A/C bumph flying all round the room. This was not so good either. But I, at any rate, had time to shoo the Austrian interpreter out of the door of the “G” office before anybody had spotted him. Two Teutons in such close proximity might have been too many!
My own room was opposite so I decided to try that next, relying on my batman at any rate to have made my bed since morning. Although I say it myself, it was the only respectable place in the Headquarters that the Field Marshal had seen so far so I decided it would be a good thing to leave it on the only reasonable note that had yet been struck. The Field Marshal, being an Irishman, no doubt, allowed a certain amount of licence to a situation that might well have reminded him of his homeland.
The Army Commander had asked me to dine with him that night in a very pleasant Schloss that he had about half an hour’s drive away where the Field Marshal was also staying. No reference was made during the evening to the apparent reversion to national practice seen at the Irish Brigade Headquarters!
The next time I visited the Army Commander’s Schloss was on a most memorable occasion. During my first visit, I had been the only guest – on the second, I was one of about six hundred.
It was the farewell party which he gave to all Lieutenant Colonels and above in the Eighth Army.
The setting was superb. As the lights faded out of the sky, the rugged mountains all round were lit up by searchlights. Verey lights and fireworks of all kinds were shooting up in the air. The pipe band was playing in the distance. The grounds were illuminated by lanterns displaying the signs of all the formations that had served in the Eighth Army since its early days before Alamein. The food and drink was abundant and excellent.
It was one of the finest shows I have ever seen and one felt that it was a just tribute to the most battle scarred and distinguished Army that had fought in this war.
There was drink to be found anywhere one turned, champagne was flowing at various bars, barrels of beer were mounted on trestles under bushes in the garden and it was not long before a very festive spirit began to take an upper hand amongst the distinguished company that was present. It was a great gathering of the clans. People, who had only met in battles during the last two or three years were swapping stories in various corners about some hectic experience they had been through together. Meanwhile the liquor continued to flow. I remember having a tussle with the end of a beer barrel with Brigadier Dolly de Fanblanque trying to get some beer for my old friend Colonel Newina of the 6th Lwow Brigade. His old General was there too – the Commander of the Polish Kresowa Division. In fact, one saw everybody that one had hoped to see. When I was going away, I noticed a certain distinguished officer, when handing in his ticket at the cloak room tent to retrieve his red hat, taking a header over the table into all the hats and causing indescribable confusion.
Another thing that I want to mention is the departure of the 17th Field Regiment. So far, this is the only complete unit in the Division that has left and it was most unfortunate that it happened to be those trusty friends of ours on whom the lot should fall. They were to change places with 134 Field Regiment from the 10th Indian Division. Rupert Lecky was to remain in command of them but the majority of both their officers and men were not eligible to roam the world with the Indian Division and so there would not be too many of them left in the 17th Field Regiment in the near future.
We held a party for their officers at Brigade Headquarters, which the CRA attended also. We drank their health and wished them all God speed with a deep debt of gratitude for the many times that they had shot us on to our objective and shot the Bosche off his.
Song books came out and we were soon singing the same songs that we had sung for the last two years till about one o’clock in the morning. The CRA was called upon and when he rose to his feet he was greeted with rude shouts of “Where are your petrol coupons?” and similar jibes, which the 17th Feld Regiment could afford to join in as none of their quads had stuck on the Divisional Parade, to which I shall refer shortly. The next day, at the invitation of the CO and the CRA, I went to have a talk with the men of the 17th Field Regiment on their final parade. I told them that it was the wish of all three battalions that I should come and say my farewell, on their behalf, to 10, 13 and 26 Batteries and to the Field Regiment as a whole and to acknowledge that in no small measure had the success of our battalions been due to their magnificent assistance.
It is fitting that I should conclude with an account of the Victory Parade, held on 6th July, by our famous 78th Division. This was a most memorable occasion for it was the last opportunity that the Division would have of coming together before disintegration began to set in.
The idea of holding this parade was entirely General Arbuthnott’s and it was felt by everybody to be outstandingly the best way of paying our tribute to the Division and everyone, who had fought in it, which had made such a wonderful name for itself since it took the field in North Africa.
A very suitable parade ground was found near Spittal, which has since become the Divisional Racecourse. We had a rehearsal on the previous day and everything went pretty well. Brigade and battalion staffs were mounted on horses. The training of these horses remain staunch to music and arms drill had caused some amusing incidents during practice.
The Division was drawn up in line with the 56 Reconnaissance Regiment and Gunners on the right, in their armoured cars and with their guns. All the rest were on foot with the exception of the mounted officers. The words of command were given over a loudspeaker from behind.
When the Army Commander rode on to parade, he was received with a General Salute and he then rode round the whole Division.
After his inspection was completed, the Divisional Commander called for two minutes silence to remember those who had fallen in action with the Division.
The bugles of our Brigade then sounded the Last Post and Reveille. The pipes of the Argylls played “The Flowers of the Forest.”
The Division then marched past.
The march past was done very well but unfortunately a Gunner quad stuck somewhere near the saluting base. Later it was noticed that someone was pouring petrol into the machine. This incident, of course, gave endless scope for leg pulling at the expense of the Royal Regiment, who been the victims of some rather doubtful petrol. In fact, two Gunner quads failed to make the course, but the great thing was that neither of them belonged to the 17th Field, who naturally completed the course in their usual fine style.
As the Faughs were moving off to the saluting base, the Adjutant’s horse elected to lie down and roll, which put such spirit into the Faughs that I have seldom seen them stride out so well. In fact, I could not resist commenting on the fact in loud terms to the CO. We marched past in column of companies and very well all the battalion looked.
When the parade was completed, the Brigade marched through Spittal. The Army Commander, who had been watching the battalions go by, made a point of telling me how smart they had looked. I took the salute at the end of the town just short of the brigade dispersal point. On the few occasions that the Brigade had paraded complete, it had always been an inspiring sight and this was no exception.
As each battalion went past, their battle honours of Africa and Italy went through my mind. It was a moving occasion, for it would be the last time that all these warriors would be together, even if the Irish Brigade survives a little longer. We had reached the other end of that long hard road, which began at Algiers and we had left many stout hearts by the way. At times, it has seemed a dark road with the dawn a long way off.
It is not for me to enlarge on the reputation, which our three battalions and our magnificent supporting arms have acquired as they travelled along that road. I have heard the unsolicited tribute of such a vast variety of people that I am in no doubt. You, too, may have heard the testimonies of others.
On Christmas Day 1939, His Majesty the King, said to the Empire:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be you better than light and safer than a known way.”
And so it had proved to be.