Seventy years ago, in October 1944, the Irish Brigade were involved in desperate fighting north of Florence in the mountainous area near Monte Spaduro. Amongst those present at Spaduro was a young lieutenant, Desmond Fay, who had been commissioned into the Royal Irish Fusiliers but had joined E Company of the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles in Italy during April 1944.
The article below, written by Kevin Myers, was published by the Irish Times in March 1994.
“Desmond Fay’s father was William Fay, one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre. After William had fallen out with Yeats, he had gone to London to act but theatrical life was to prove so financially unrewarding that young Desmond swore that he would never go on the stage, ‘I saw my father white faced and anxious about how he was to pay the bills. I was always proud that Ireland had had a national theatre thanks to my father and I was always proud to be Irish, but I never wanted to be on the stage.’
Desmond left school at 16 and became a draughtsman and was working with the London, Midland and Scottish Railway when war broke out. His was essential war work and he was specifically forbidden from joining up.
‘I was very anti fascist and I had wanted to join the International Brigade in 1936, but my father didn’t want me to go and so I didn’t and so I missed the dress rehearsal.’
He wangled his way into the British army by deviousness and bluff; by yet further intrigue, he was able to evade service in the railway units of the Royal Engineers – a logical posting – to get into an Irish infantry unit instead. He was initially commissioned into the Royal Irish Fusiliers, but his heart lay with the London Irish, which many of his Irish friends had joined. Yet again, the Fay cunning was employed to good effect and he finally ended up with the regiment of his desire.
Desmond joined the London Irish in Italy in April 1944 when they were positioned near to the front line at Cassino. He was almost immediately in action at Casa Sinagoga on 16th May 1944 where he led his platoon in seizing a German held house under intense machine gun fire; he had then had to run back to prevent advancing British tanks from destroying the position his men had just taken. He was awarded the Military Cross for his part in this decisive action…
His MC citation reads:
“This officer commanded his platoon of E Company during the battalion) attack on Colle Monache. E Company met heavy machine-gun fire from left, front and flank. By his skilful leadership of his Platoon) and personal conduct, Lt Fay stormed these positions and both killed and captured a considerable number of Germans. During the final attack on the objective, Lt Fay was ordered to exploit round and beyond. This he did with great speed and entirely liquidated the crew of a German anti-tank gun and reduced the remainder of the garrison to surrender.
His example throughout was an inspiration to his Platoon”
Shortly afterwards, the Irish Brigade fought and suffered heavy casualties at Trasimene, where Hannibal had met and defeated the Romans. One of those casualties was Desmond Fay, with severe injuries in his arm, which remained host to the shrapnel for more than 60 years, but he was able to rejoin the battalion during July 1944.
Like many a slight man, Desmond was a superb runner. His athleticism enabled him to play a vital play in another victory for the London Irish later in the year. In the middle of October 1944, the London Irish were halted at a defensive line with the Casa di Spinello as its keypoint. He, Sergeant Farthing and two riflemen, McWilliams and Fitzmaurice were ordered to advance to the Casa, grab a prisoner and bring him back.
They had to advance several hundred yards over terrain dominated by the fearsome German Spandau machine guns. ‘It really was a matter of skill rather than bravery. We covered ourselves in mud and we advanced along dead ground, where we could not be seen by the Germans.’
They stopped eighty yards from the house. Was there life there? They saw a cat. The cat loving Germans had shown there was. A hill overlooked the house; no doubt a German Spandau was located there, a gunner gazing down at the no man’s land in front of them. Desmond favoured attacking the house, guns firing. Sergeant Farthing suggested a quiet approach, at the double. Desmond agreed.
Desmond prayed the infantryman’s prayer, ‘Not in the guts or the face, dear Lord’ and the two ran forward, leaving Fitzmaurice and McWilliams covering them. They ran over the rim and out of cover. Beside the Casa, Desmond spotted a German position, Germans resting on it. He fired his sub machine gun into it. One German was bowled over, another ran away, a third lay on the ground terrified. Desmond motioned him up and back towards the London Irish positions. By this time, angry Germans around the Casa had opened fire and the two London Irishmen and their prisoner sprinted across open ground, machine gun fire ripping the ground all round them while Fitzmaurice and McWilliams returned fire from cover.
Then, they had to get their prisoner back 800 yards, under fire, through mud to the Bttn HQ. They were successful. The information extracted from the prisoner enabled the London Irish that night to take the entire German line; and that night, Sergeant Farthing was killed.
Desmond was awarded a bar to the Military Cross for his extraordinary courage and field craft and his second citation reads:
“On 23 Oct ’44, Lt Fay was ordered to take a recce patrol to ascertain the strength and dispositions of the garrison of Spinello Farm on the Monte Spaduro area. This farm was known to have a minefield in front of it. Going out about midday with a Sergeant (Farthing) and two Riflemen he advanced to a point some 80 yds from the farm over extremely difficult country under view from the flank and very precipitous.
He left his two Riflemen under cover and advanced with the Sgt over open grassland to the farm at the front edge of which he found a slit trench which contained three Germans one of whom he shot, the second escaped whilst the third he took prisoner and brought back to Bn HQ. The garrison although over 30 men strong and backed up by a Coy on a nearby feature were completely taken by surprise. This prisoner gave much information which helped greatly in the capture of the farm which took place two or three hours later. Having had to crawl a good proportion of the way Lt Fay was very exhausted by the end of the patrol.
Later in the afternoon, he took part in a daylight attack on the farm and took over command of the company when his Coy Commander was wounded. During the early part of the night, he beat off four attacks with his depleted Company and was a source of encouragement and inspiration to all, organising and improving the consolidation of his position.
The gallantry and enterprise which Lt Fay showed both in his patrol and his defence of the farm was quite out of the ordinary and can seldom have been surpassed.”
Desmond, a slight unobtrusive man and another Lieutenant, Hector Montgomorie from Antrim (who also received an MC with bar), became legendary patrol leaders; both were unconventional men. Monty, being astonishingly reckless, and Desmond, an avowed and vocal socialist.
That socialism in peace brought Desmond back to Ireland and to Father McDyer’s co-op in Glencolmcille where he built houses. He worked until he was into his eighties in Raheny, going out each morning as a metal worker. He was as much ‘an insignificant looking chap’ then, as he was in 1944. But such insignificant looking chaps are one reason why fascism was defeated in Europe and every Irishman, who was killed fighting fascism was a volunteer.”