The start of July 1944 saw the Irish Brigade return to the Rome area where they spent several days of relaxation which included a further audience with the Pope – this time the full complement was in attendance along with the brigade’s massed Pipes and Drums. Following a pleasant couple of weeks, the brigade en-shipped for Egypt and looked forward to some much deserved rest, although they were soon requested to return to the Italian battle theatre.
CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan was again present at the Vatican, but this time missed the chance to serve at Mass in St Peter’s as he had been assigned the task of helping the preparation of meals for the men. The journey south to Taranto allowed Edmund the chance to reflect on the recent extended battle period when a number of good friends had been killed. On arrival at the port, he was surprised to encounter men of the 1 London Irish Rifles who were coming back from Egypt after three months at rest. Edmund didn’t know then that, due to health problems, he himself wouldn’t return to Italy for nearly six months.
“We withdrew from the line to near Tivoli for what we thought would be a rest. There were all sorts of rumours about where we would go next: the second front, southern France or back up the line. The battalion transport was surrendered and I said farewell to my trusted vehicles, most painted by its driver with my name. The three Tonner was The O’Sullivan. The 1,500cwt was Little Rosie. A new CSM, Steve Kelly DCM, appeared and a complete set of new sergeants.
I had a few days in Rome where most of my stores had been liquidated and my only responsibilities were food and pay. Ivan Yates, the Motor Transport Officer, decided to get rid of the two large diesel lorries which were enemy loot. He sold them to an enterprising Italian and took the money proudly to Colonel Horsfall for the PRI fund. Horsfall was horrified and made him recover the lorries and return the cash. The lorries were surrendered but were probably flogged and the money put into the pockets of the of the vendor.
There was a parade for all Catholics in the 78th Division in Saint Peter’s Square. Several thousand went up to the audience chamber above the porch of Saint Peter’s. The Pope was borne in his Sedis Gestatoria. We paraded outside to go into Mass and once more I was to be master of ceremonies.
The RSM, an Orangeman, came to Charlie Jones of F Company and me and said: ‘You will go to the Franciscan convent and help prepare dinner for the men.’ My disappointment was allayed somewhat when we joined the fatigue parties of the Skins and Faughs and found it comprised two RSMs. All four of us sat down with the nuns, peeled potatoes and opened tins. My distress at not serving on the High Altar at St. Peter’s and missing Mass on a Sunday in Rome was allayed by the charming company of these young Irish nuns.
‘What part of Ireland do you come from Mr O‘Sullivan?’ I was asked.
‘County Brixton,’ I would reply mischievously. This elicited a puzzled reply.
‘County Brixton! Is that North or South?’
My humour was seldom appreciated.
When the men returned from Mass, about 300 sat down to the finest meal they had had in years: fluffy boiled potatoes, corned beef and hunks of bread washed down with lashings of tea. The leftovers would feed the nuns for weeks. They had not fared well during their enforced incarceration within the Vatican during the German occupation. The dinner became a party with songs and solos from those with the nerve to sing alone.
After the two weeks rest we entrained and proceeded south. We passed the shattered town of Cassino and the forbidding ruins of the monastery, so needlessly destroyed. Here the train stopped and the Last Post was sounded on a bugle. About 40 years later, I visited the British Cemetery and counted the graves of 66 London Irishmen including Colonel Goff. On the memorial were the names of 68 without known graves. Our destination in July 1944 was the Middle East. We detrained at Taranto and had a few days to wait for our ship. The navy were welcoming and made us honorary members of the chiefs and petty officers’ mess. The E Company party soon made friends and were introduced, not unwillingly, to Asti Spumante. After one heavy night at the mess, I challenged a large bearded chief to swim the harbour. I allowed myself to be restrained, which was just as well since I had nearly drowned at Patti in Sicily.
Finally, we were lined up to board our ship when down the gangway came soldiers in caubeens and hackles. It was the 1st Battalion of the London Irish who had been resting in Egypt after their Anzio ordeal. The officer on the gangway could not believe his eyes when he saw what appeared to be the same people reboarding his ship. He muttered something like: ‘The bloody army doesn’t know what they’re doing!’ I told him: ‘Same regiment, different battalions!’
The rotation of the two battalions of the London Irish and their deployment in Europe, Africa and the Middle East since 1940 was how a London territorial regiment won more battle honours than any other regiment, except one, in the Second World War. At least one battalion, in the same theatre but often in different armies, was to be in action from the end of 1942 until the end of the war.
We disembarked at Port Said and were taken by carrier, truck and jeep to Qassassin near the Suez Canal. The transport was driven by Gurkhas and I was fortunate to be seated in the front of my vehicle. We passed through the outskirts of Cairo but missed seeing any sights of import.”