“It was early summer 1942 and we were on our way again. The Irish Brigade had been chosen as the lorry-borne infantry in the 6th Armoured Division, a new type of formation created from the cream of the army, so we were told. Our new home was in the grounds of yet another titled potentate. Our host this time was the Marquess of Bute who gave over part of his vast demesne at Auchinlech in Ayrshire to the 6th Division.
A divisional display was conducted in a beautiful Scottish glen amidst the rolling hills of Ayrshire. I was one of the representatives of the London Irish. Our new divisional badge was a white clenched fist on a black square background. In turn, the units did their piece starting with the Royal Horse Artillery, the oldest regiment in the army. ‘We always gallop into battle,’ said the colonel. They did. Three trucks drawing 25 pound artillery pieces and limbers sped into the arena across the rolling landscape. Up went the first 25 pounder and rolled over. We were to have been treated to the spectacle of some rapid fire. Fortunately, this idea was abandoned.
Then came 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Beaufort anti-aircraft weapons. The Royal Engineers followed with a collection of vehicles, including a bulldozer. The Royal Corps of Signals were next with vehicles bristling with antennae. Next were representatives of the division’s three cavalry units, the 16/5th Lancers, the 17/21st Lancers and the Lothian & Border Horse. A Valentine tank came trundling in, followed by a Matilda at under 10mph. These were followed by a Crusader, which bounced along at about 30mph. I was impressed at the speed but the tank did look flimsy. Next came several types of armoured car. Following these, came the battalion of motorised infantry in their jeeps, carriers, armoured cars and trucks. Then came the Rifle Brigade. The Irish Brigade was represented by one TCV containing a platoon of the 6th Inniskillings in full battle order with the platoon bicycle on the back.
The support regiment was next and it gave a demonstration of three-inch mortar fire. So the mortar bursts could be seen, incendiary bombs were used which accidentally ignited sheep grazing on the hill. Medics, dentists, the RASC and a RAOC bath unit brought the display to a close. The climax was a battle bomber and a fighter which flew over to end the occasion. It was impressive, but would it have frightened the Germans? It frightened me, some of the gunners and the sheep who were never the same.
We suffered the loss of Colonel Starkey at the end of June. He was obliged to leave, as he had completed three years as commanding officer. We always presumed that Starkey would lead us in the battle we knew was coming. He was snapped up as commanding officer of a reconnaissance regiment. Starkey’s achievement was to bring a second line territorial regiment to the top of the British Army. His successor was Lieutenant Colonel Jeffreys, a regular from the 1st Battalion of the RUR.
We were engaged on very large and often long exercises over days. On one of these, because of my ability in map-reading, I was number two in the sector control team which managed the traffic of a divisional exercise. The largest and longest exercise was Dryshod. It involved all the troops in south Scotland. It was the dry run for an invasion. But where?
The nights were getting longer and we spent a couple of them out on the high moors. One was the coldest in my life. The hospitality of the Scottish housewives was incredible. While in TCVs and in convoy, we were plied with tea and I believe they lost many cups as a result. After a bleak and cold night, I knocked on the door of a cottage where I was able to wash myself and was given a hot breakfast.
As well as exercises, we took part in 100 mile marches and five day marches. One in which I led my platoon took us from Auchinlech, through Ayr, Irvine, Ardrossan and Largs and in a great circle through Strathaven and back. When we arrived at Strathaven, the company commander discovered that we had already completed the 100 miles and transport conveyed us back. We concluded this was preparation not training. We believed we were to be the assault troops for the second front in Europe.
I was sent off on another 14-day course based on commando type training which was held at Irvine. It was designed to test NCOs to the limit. Ninety per cent of sergeants and corporals had never taken a course in anything, yet I was embarking on my second within six months after a distinction on my first. Was someone still trying to get me, I wondered?
We went through the usual nonsense of crossing slippery board bridges over fast-flowing streams and jumping off cliffs through smoke and flame. Assault courses with ever increasing hazards were tackled. My philosophy was: ‘They can’t or won’t want to kill or injure us, so just go for it.’ The timid and tremulous were bullied and cajoled. I cut fear out of my mind and carried on. The last day was at the commando depot and involved negotiating the most heinous assault course that man could devise. Live bullets were fired over and around us and we were pelted with plastic but very explosive grenades. The finale was to wade in the River Irvine against the current up to our chests in cold water, avoiding at the same time the many obstacles left for us. I awaited with trepidation the results of the course and possible failure and demotion.
After about three days, I was summoned once more to the commanding officer. I was marched in. Captain Grant stood beside the seated Jeffreys. Both smiled as I stood to attention. Jeffreys said: ‘Stand at ease.’ He then told me that my report from the battle school was excellent and what a credit I had been to the battalion. He actually stood up and shook my hand. My London Irish companion on the course was marched in, given a thorough dressing down and sent back to the regiment’s Ballymena depot. He was no fool. He had probably saved his own life as the future would show.
There had been many changes in the family. My sister Nellie was seriously ill. During the Blitz, she had spent many nights in air raid shelters. This experience, coupled with a weakness caused by pneumonia and pleurisy during her late teens, had developed into tuberculosis, then a killer. As a result, she was in a sanatorium at Milford. On leave, I visited her in the bleak ward that was open to the cold air and meant to be beneficial. My brother Tom, an armourer in the RAF, had been moved around Britain like me. Billy and his friend Denis Webb, Pat Webb’s younger brother, had together volunteered for the Royal Navy where they both qualified for training as wireless operators. Denis contracted a minor ailment and, as a consequence, they were separated.
My youngest brother Bernard had left Horsham, where he had been billeted as an evacuee with Father Cassidy. He was a pupil at the Rotherhithe Nautical School, which was now located in Newquay, in west Wales. My sister Lily, also an evacuee, did not remain in Horsham for long after Bernard’s transfer and returned home. Danny was feeling out of it, being the only one of his brethren remaining in civvies in his reserved occupation in radar. He enlisted in the RAF for flying duties. Because the training would be brief, he opted to be a wireless operator and air gunner.
The personnel of the battalion were always being changed, although we kept climbing the efficiency ladder. While we were at Didlington and already in the Irish brigade, a draft of about 200 NCOs and men were taken for posting to a Highland division. The commanding officer insisted that only the best should go. We were topped up with a draft from the London Irish depot in Ballymena and from the 70th Brigade. We also received a large draft of fusiliers. Those in charge, even when they knew we were headed overseas, sent trained men away. The largest intake of all came at the start of the autumn 1942. They comprised about 250 men and NCOs from the Liverpool Irish. The teams and co-ordinated sections of the battalion that had been painstakingly created in three years of training were to be broken up time and time again.
Before the big draft of new recruits arrived, I was finally promoted to paid full sergeant. At the same time, Ian Brooks and Hammy Hamilton were made company quartermaster sergeants and transferred to R Company which existed only as a cadre. When the draft with their red hackles and caubeens marched in, I was attached to R Company to assist the company’s colour sergeants. I had to instruct the two in the intricacies of a quartermaster sergeant’s job and then return to my platoon. I set about my task. Ian, a product of Marjons, was quick and attentive and I thought would be proficient. Hammy, on the other hand, was not interested and semi-literate.
After about three weeks, I spoke to Rodney and told him that I wished to be returned to my platoon as I would shortly be leading them into battle and did not know many of them. R Company commander Rodney Cockburn went to see the commanding officer. I started to pack. He came back and said ‘Stay. Look at part II tomorrow.’ The next morning I was promoted to colour sergeant and transferred to R Company. Before leaving G Company for the last time, I shared my bell tent with the recently transferred provost sergeant Denis Griffin, who had been acting as an unofficial regimental policeman. He represented the battalion as a light heavyweight and occasionally heavyweight boxer and had been champion in both weights in every command the battalion served with. He was Anglo-Irish, something over six feet in height and, despite his years as an amateur pugilist, completely unmarked. Paradoxically, he was quiet and unassuming and a very good friend. His place as police sergeant had been filled by my old friend Corporal Anderson, who had, as a rifleman, helped to carry me and my section to our orienteering victory at Haverfordwest in 1940. I was lucky in having such wonderful friends. When I went to R Company, Griffin took over my platoon. A subaltern was in command but it was the sergeant that was the real platoon leader if he was any good.
The battalion moved out of the tented camp and the companies were spread around in billets in the mainly mining villages and towns of Ayrshire, close to Auchinlech. R Company was placed a distance from the other companies in Muirkirk, a small mining town. We were the first troops stationed there since World War I and the local people welcomed us with open arms and tables. They put on ceilidh dances for us and seemed to be trying to prove that Scottish meanness was a myth. But I already was aware of this after about six months of enjoying their generosity. I became friendly with the young assistant manager of the local colliery. He conducted me around the mine and underground up to the coal face itself.
After about a month, R Company was moved back to Auchinlech but this time into the big house itself. I was to stay as the Marquess of Bute’s guest for only a short period. On 10 November 1942, a signal arrived from battalion which tersely announced that Colour Sergeant O’Sullivan, E was transferred to E Company where I would report before 1200 hours. I said goodbye to my new friends and, particularly, to Ian Brooks. He had had a dispiriting premonition. About a month earlier, we were talking about palmistry and I rubbished it. He on the other hand appeared to believe what he saw in his palm which suggested the future did not look good.
My truck dumped me and my kit in New Cumnock. I reported to Major Gibbs, E Company Commander who shook me by the hand. ‘You are my colour sergeant at last,’ he said. ‘Don’t unpack as we will be off this evening.’ Of all the company quartermaster sergeants, I was the only one unable to put comforts in the company transport before it had been dispatched a week before. I, therefore, had to dump some of my belongings because I was restricted to what I could pack in my kitbag. I met the other sergeants, most of whom I was acquainted with. The sergeant major was the massive Billy Allen, the drill sergeant who trained us with Danny Long. I had exchanged many words with him about the size of his ration in the mess.
It was dark when I paraded in the street with my new company wearing full marching order and carrying my rifle. All I had in my pack were a change of socks and underwear, a greatcoat, a spare shirt, a groundsheet, my missal and a book of poems called Multum in Parva (Much in Little). An anti-gas cape, a respirator and a steel helmet were strapped on my pack. The rest was in my kit bag, which originally had written upon it, in white capitals: Rifleman. O’Sullivan, E. The initials spelt ‘ROSE’.
We marched to the station and then boarded a train and steamed into the night.
The big question was ‘Where to?’”
Ted was about to embark an extraordinary and dangerous journey that was to last two-and-a-half years.
He was 23 years eight months old.