Irish Brigade

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

Barrosa Day

The 5th of March found the Faughs celebrating Barrosa Day in no uncertain manner – in fact, the most fantastic things occurred.

I reproduce their own account:

‘To visualise what happened in the Battalion, the memorable 5th March 1944, take the Braemar Gathering, a Varsity Rag and a football final at Wembley and a mock battle on Salisbury Plain.

Mix and stir well.

We had become Barrosa minded in advance. Company detail boards had exhibited the programme, days ahead. There were reliable reports of the presence of two large vats of wine in the RSM’s tent. It was rumoured that Norman Bass had been doing nothing but count beer bottles for a week – and he is not the sort of man to count empty bottles or the same bottle twice.

The traditional officers’ v sergeants’ football match was also announced. It was just as well that the officers’ team had not been taken off the secret list. Otherwise the sergeants might have been tempted to call off a match against such tough customers as Sam McIlhinney (Dumfries Distillers), Brian Clark (Sorsall and Glasshorse), Ray Titterton (I-zig–a-zumbas) and that formidable cleric, Harry Graydon of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The great day dawned and everyone, even the batmen, was roused by the Pipes and Drums who, led by the Adjutant, Brian Clark, marched round the camp to the tune of ‘Barrosa’.

After Church Parade, for the 5th was a Sunday, strangely garbed figures were seen to be popping in and out of the Italian farmhouse that served as the Battalion HQ officers’ mess. The Pipes and Drums dispersed to various secret rendezvous, nervously clutching their precious instruments about whose fate in the forthcoming turmoil, they obviously entertained some highly justified apprehensions.

The crawl around the football field had its first glimpse of the pageant when two saffron kilted pipers emerged from the olive groves followed by a mounted figure clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful: from a holster at his waist protruded the butt of a verey pistol, in his left hand, he brandished a sword, in his right an umbrella. He looked like the Lion of Judah, only happier – perhaps the Lion of Judah after hearing a particularly good one about the Duce. He was followed by a procession of sergeants looking like a Hollywood impression of a Commando about to go into action. After circling the field, the procession made its way to the centre where the horseman (now identified as CSM Cheyne) was assisted from his mount and enthroned, with raised umbrella, in a chair of state.

Meanwhile three carriers had rumbled to a halt outside the officers’ mess, then had been swamped to the gunwales by oddly clothed officers and set off again in the wake of three pipers. These pipers were joined by the Adjutant making a rather pathetic bid for popularity by wearing pink silk pyjamas and beating the big drum.

Hardly had the carriers discharged their ugly cargo on the field when another mounted figure broke from the cover of the olive groves – Lady Godiva as portrayed by Mae West and censored by the Hays’ Office. On closer inspection, it was found that the long golden tresses encased the deliberately chiselled features of Ken Hanssen.

Photographers clicked their cameras. Alas, noone had yet seen either negative or print of these efforts.

The field was ankle deep in water and the most sagacious players were obviously those who had attired themselves in bathing trunks – a costume to which Basil Kentish had taken the precaution of adding a tin helmet. Neville Chance, whose company lived beside an American camp, appeared in the guise of an enlisted man. Whoever lent him that uniform must have been very sorry afterwards. Brian Clark’s pink pyjamas lasted very well until their owner decided to adopt Rugby Union tactics and fell on the ball. They were a nice pair of pyjamas. However, there were no ladies present.

At half time, reinforcements were called into the battle by both sides. The field was jammed with mud coated officers and sergeants, the majority of whom spent most of their time scooping mud from their eyes, ears and breathing passages. The sergeants guarded their goal with a dannert wire obstacle and a minefield of detonators which Sgt Cross, who must have spent a week laying the wires, was busily letting off under the feet of officers and sergeants indiscriminately. A threatening rush by the sergeants was broken by a DF task brought down by one of our tame gunners, Duggie Evans, firing blanks at point blank range from a 25 pounder. A flight of aircraft bound for the front circled for a moment – obviously searching for a target.

The match was followed by a tug of war contest, which was won by S Company, who had plenty of practice in pulling vehicles out of some of the best Italian mud. Here, the sergeants easily defeated the officers by the common sense expedient of tying their end of the rope to a carrier, which was then driven away at a brisk speed.

After dinner, where the rumours of Norman Bass’s beer bottle counting were amply justified, rival attractions were offered. Some went to an excellent concert produced by our incomparable Field Ambulance. Others watched a rather less polished performance by Brian Clark, Jimmie Clarke, John McNally and Sergeant Phillips, who compelled three pipers to do terrible things with their pipes.

One by one, the weary Fusiliers retired to think things over, while the officers withdrew to a large room in the nearby town to dine and listen to the traditional account of Barrosa Day – given by Ken Hanssen. Hardly had this excellent discourse ended, in fact rather earlier than that, a swarm of WOs and Sergeants broke in and the morning’s football match was resumed. There was a nice concrete floor. Many a head was broken, aye, and many an eye was shut.’

This day made me cast my mind back to the Barrosa Day of 1943.

We were at Bou Arada then, in Tunisia. Nelson Russell was commanding ‘Y’ Division; I was commanding the Brigade and Beauchamp Butler, the Faughs.

How few of that company were here today. James Dunnill and I were nearly the only ones. Hugh Holmes told me that about 3,000 names had passed through the Faughs since November 1942.

We took the Barrosa Cup of 1944 to drink Nelson’s health with him in No 2 General Hospital. He was supposed to be teetotalling, but he was none the worse for the drink. He was pleased to know we were thinking of him.

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