On 4 February 1943, a Sergeant in the 6th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (the Skins) was sent to Bone (now Annaba in Algeria) to collect three deserters caught trying to get a boat back to Britain. They had managed to make the 150-mile journey from the Irish Brigade’s positions in Tunisia undetected. It suggests they were highly-motivated. You can understand why.
They were running away from hell.
Less than three months earlier, the Skins had landed in Algiers on 22 November 1942 as part of the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa which began on 11 November. After bivouacking in deteriorating weather until 1 December, they were transported by sea 250 miles further east to Bone. On 3 and 4 December, the port was heavily bombed.
At 11pm on 7 December, the battalion started a 120-mile night-time road journey to the front. To avoid the attention of Axis bombers, no lights were allowed The road was unsurfaced and narrow. Its route through the east Atlas range rose to 2,500 feet above sea level.
In the darkness, a troop carrier vehicle drove off the road and fell 50 feet down a mountainside. Twelve passengers were injured. One – Sergeant Rowland Farthing – later died. He was the first Irish Brigade fatality of the North African campaign.
After eight-and-a-half hours, the Skins reached their destination in a downpour and entered an environment that no training could prepare them for. Nights were ominously dark and silent. Daylight brought dive-bomber attacks. The Irish Brigade was responsible for a huge area with no clear front line. Enemy patrolling was aggressive. Roads and paths were often mined.
Rain fell regularly and turned the ground into quicksand. And there was little fresh food. The brigade relied on canned pre-cooked meals. Bread wasn’t seen for months. French migrant farmers were welcoming but the indigenous Berber people caught between two armies were suspicious and fearful.
Men started breaking down within days of reaching Tunisia. On 13 December, a Skins’ corporal was tried before a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) for drunkenness. There were incidents of self-inflicted wounds right across the brigade.
Contact with the enemy increased after the Skins moved out of billets into the field. On 19 December, in the battalion’s first battle, 7 Platoon was shelled and attacked by infantry. The following day, the Skins’ Commanding Officer, Terence Maccartney–Filgate, was strafed by a Messerschmitt and seriously wounded.
On 1 January 1943, the Skins’ war diary recorded FGCM cases involving two Fusiliers who disobeyed an order. They each got 56 days field punishment. By mid-January, the Skins had already lost 100 men killed, wounded, missing and sick. It was going to get much worse.
Early on 11 January, they were transported to the front on the north-south Bou Arada to Goubellat road and dug in. Before dawn on 13 January, after a stormy night in trenches, the Skins set off to capture Two Tree Hill, about two miles to the east. The attack lasted all day. By the time it was called off, they had lost almost 90 killed, wounded or missing.
After two nights in billets, the Skins returned to the front on Grandstand Hill on 15 January. Three days later, Grandstand was hit by shelling. Tanks and infantry were beaten off by evening, but the Skins lost another 40 men. The pressure on all battalions of the brigade increased. On 20 January, the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles (2 LIR) lost around 250 men in an attack on Hill 286 south of Grandstand. All the battalions were subjected to regular Stuka and artillery attacks.
The Skins’ diaries recorded five cases of shell-shock in early February. One was considered non-genuine and the Fusilier returned to duties. These are the conditions which drove the three well-trained and plucky young men to try and get home. They were among the first of dozens in the Irish Brigade who may have deserted in Tunisia and Italy.
Colour Sergeant Ted O’Sullivan, with E Company 2 LIR, recorded his role in a Court Martial following the end of the Tunisian campaign in May 1943.
“Close to headquarters was a camp enclosed by barbed wire. It held men who were awaiting trial…It included those who had been wounded and returned too quickly. Others had been brave and good leaders and had just cracked. One Liverpool Irishman had been wounded in the head at Point 286, hospitalised and sent back as ‘cured’. All he did was to try to report sick because no one had taken any notice of his headache. I gave evidence in his favour at his subsequent court martial but he still was sentenced to a year in a detention barracks.”
Desertion was to be a persistent problem across the British Army in Tunisia, Sicily and, most particularly, in northern Italy in the autumn and winter of 1944. The British Army Adjutant General, Ronald Adam, visited Italy at that time and told the Army Council that it was reaching crisis proportions and wrote: “The main point raised was that of desertion, which obsessed most commanders’ minds.”
Between 1 January 1944 and 10 January 1945, the 8th Army convicted 2,237 men for ‘Desertion’ and 840 for ‘Absence Without Leave’. But this certainly understates the true figure. Most who were caught or refused orders were never prosecuted. Others absconded and disappeared entirely.
In the autumn of 1944, Ted O’Sullivan passed through a training depot in southern Italy where hundreds of men were being drilled near the Allied headquarters at Caserta. He wrote in his memoir All My Brothers.: “I saw a squad of sergeants from many famous regiments being chivvied on parade by an ungentlemanly sergeant major. They endured this as the alternative was to be posted up the line.”
The scale of desertion in Italy led to calls for the restoration of the death penalty and this was reluctantly supported by Field Marshal Harold Alexander. The British government rejected the idea.
In January 1945, the Irish Brigade was taken out of the line in the mountains south of the Po valley and spent time in Florence.
Numerous cases of desertion continued to be tried. Lieutenant Colin Gunner of the Royal Irish Fusiliers was appointed defence counsel and wrote about it in his memoir, ‘Front of the Line’: “(One on trial) was the youngest soldier in B Company (of the Faughs), a fair-haired, nervous boy who should have been pedaling a bike around the streets of Belfast with a meat basket on the handlebars, not sitting frightened to death on the verge of tears in this macaroni Dartmoor.”
The Fusilier said that he had injured his foot and had taken the wrong turn when he left the Dressing Station. Gunner argued it was all a terrible mistake. The accused agreed to return to the Faughs. It seems that this was Gunner’s sole success in the ten days that he acted as Court Martial defence counsel.
In the last week of the fighting in Italy in April 1945, reinforcements for the London Irish Rifles arrived including one man whom Ted O’Sullivan recognised. Eleven months earlier, he had been among replacements for the battalion’s heavy losses in the attack along the Liri valley.
“He was fine-looking soldier who had served in the Household Cavalry and was a driver as well,” O’Sullivan wrote in his memoir about their first encounter. “I marched him into the farm building we were using. As I reached the door, a salvo of shells burst on the company and the soldier became a cowering heap. Later that day, he would run away, to be picked up, it transpired, in the rear areas.”
The deserter was tried, convicted and spent time in prison but had been returned to the London Irish, perhaps to seek redemption. Some might say that there was little in common between the colour sergeant, veteran of more than a dozen Irish Brigade battles, and the convicted deserter.
But O’Sullivan knew this was untrue.
“He had been afraid. So had we all,” he wrote.
“I was terrified, but had a greater fear: to be seen to be frightened.”